Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Rules, Discipline, and the Paradox of Creativity

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For an artist, rules are tricky. In creative work, they can be your best friend or worst enemy. They keep us safe from going off the “deep end” but can also restrict our passions.

So how do we use these regulations for good?

Paradox of Creativity and Discipline

Photo credit: Jeff Goins

My whole life, I’ve struggled with rules. To be disciplined without becoming legalistic. To be focused without giving in to stagnancy. To have structure without being ruled by it.

In the end, I’ve learned that rules have a place in our lives, and without discipline, our best work never gets done. So here are four lessons I’ve learned about this paradox of creativity:

  1. Discipline is an artist’s ally. The War of Art and just about every writer’s memoir I’ve ever read teaches us a lesson: creativity must be harnessed. But discipline devoid of passion is just rote rule-keeping.
  2. Following the rules is not the same as discipline. Rules are an means to discipline. They are a tool for creation.
  3. Rules aren’t necessarily bad. They’re guidelines that help us achieve a specific end. In some cases, they keep us from doing really stupid things. But rules cease to serve their purpose when the end is self-preservation. When you find yourself keeping the rules for the sake of compliance, you’re on a slippery slope towards unproductive, uncreative behavior.
  4. There comes a point when the rules must be broken. When you find yourself getting comfortable, you must disrupt routine and violate the status quo that you’ve created.

At some point in every artist’s life, you see how rules must be broken and the system bucked in order for the art to be preserved.

  • You see this in Picasso’s career when he moves from realism to cubism.
  • You see it with the emergence of jazz in the 20th century, proceeded by more and more musicians feeling discontented with the limitations of popular music.
  • And you see it with writers like Faulkner who intentionally break the rules of syntax to make a point.

This is the paradox of any creative discipline. The rules that form the framework for expression can become the very prison from which you must escape.

You cannot do this unintentionally or take it lightly. But if you are going to make meaningful work, at some point you MUST break the rules. Nobody ever left a legacy by maintaining the status quo.

And at the same time, you need structure in your life — a frame for your painting, a deadline for your manuscript. Otherwise, the only thing you’ll ever do is dream.

Here’s I’m trying to say: Ultimately, the art trumps the discipline. Rules may guide you and structure may steer you, but don’t be surprised if the creation process is still an awful, bloody mess. That’s often what it’s like when you’re giving birth: painful and hard and a little confusing.

But when you’re done, you’ll have something beautiful and alive. And you will hopefully be able to say, “It was worth it.”

How do you use discipline to create — without becoming a slave to the rules? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. Check out my new book, The In-Between. To get exclusive updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://twitter.com/Jenily_Silva Jenily Silva

    OMG!!! You couldn’t express better how I feel …”I’ve struggled with rules my whole life: to be disciplined without being legalistic, to be focused without being uncreative, to embrace grace without abusing it, and to have structure in my life without being ruled by it.” I’m a big fan of your work ;)

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Jenily!

  • http://beingministry.com Paul

    In my Jazz Improv class, we were taught to discipline our creative ideas to limit ourselves. Often, when taught so many things in such a short time, we were overwhelmed to the point of trying to do everything all at once. That would be disastrous. What I learned was that creativity is learning to self-limit.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Creativity is self-limiting. I love that.

      • Shannon

        I’m writing this down! I’m feeling very overwhelmed with creative possibilities, and as a result I’m getting absolutely nothing done. I’m even behind in laundry and other mother-of-four stuff that’s usually routine for me. I want to learn more about jazz improv self-limiting….

  • http://twitter.com/TerryRamoneSmit Terry Smith

    I have to be disciplined. I have to sit down, cut off every other electronic device and focus if I’m going to write. I don’t break the rules much because I’m afraid I might break the wrong rule and lose readership.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      That’s terrible for your creativity Terry

      • Terry Smith

        Yeah, and considering I don’t have much readership, perhaps breaking some rules would increase my readership. I don’t know. I just know I don’t want to bash people. I know that’s what I DON’T want my blog to be about. And right now (post leaving a ministry job), bashing people would be so easy.

        • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

          Yeah that’s not what I meant. Breaking the rules is about defying the status quo and challenging others to follow, not about hating on people. Think to yourself: “What is something I have always wanted to do but always lacked the guts to do?” consider doing that thing.

        • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

          Yeah that’s not what I meant. Breaking the rules is about defying the status quo and challenging others to follow, not about hating on people. Think to yourself: “What is something I have always wanted to do but always lacked the guts to do?” consider doing that thing.

  • Anonymous

    I have found that discipline really helps me to be creative. If I just wait until I’m inspired to write, it’s months before I get around to it. But when I am disciplined enough to write every weekday, I’m finding inspiration in places I never noticed before. It’s helped me be more creative in everything I do.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Where are you finding inspiration?

    • Guest

      Couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have found that without discipline I don’t find the opportunity to be creative. I wish I had discovered this (or believed it when others told me) when I was younger, but I’m finally coming around. With 3 kids, a full time job, and lots of shiny things, if I don’t purposely shift my attention to the creative, my attention doesn’t get shifted. Creativity can be tamed. And – for me, at least – it needs to be scheduled. Younger Me would scoff at that unromantic notion. Now Me appreciates the anticipation.

      Wait…what were we talking about?

      • Derek Rempfer-Writer

        Sorry…I accidentally broke the rules by not signing in correctly when I made the above post.

  • http://twitter.com/bsarich Brennan Sarich

    I totally agree! Rules keep us from going off the deep-end and never returning! =)

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Yep

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Yep

  • http://www.tonyjalicea.com Tony Alicea

    The best discipline I learned was to write. Just put it down. That’s my only rule. I HAVE to write. Even if I’m not feeling inspired. Even if I’m tired. Even if I’m busy. Just…write. Put something down on the page. Almost always, once I start, something comes.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      I have that rule too.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      I have that rule too.

    • MichaelDPerkins

      That sounds a lot like Pressfield in the War of Art.

    • MichaelDPerkins

      That sounds a lot like Pressfield in the War of Art.

  • MichaelDPerkins

    I use discipline by commiting to coming up with something new every day. It may or may not get published, but the act of sitting down and writing, drawing, or typing something out really helps.

    I started breaking rules when I started venturing out to do things that I don’t normally do. It started with handwritten posts and then moved to pictures. It’s about allowing myself the freedom to do what needs to be done.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      I love those posts. Some of the best work you do. It’s freeing to do what you’ve always wanted huh?

      • MichaelDPerkins

        It really is freeing man. It’s so much more satisfying not to be trapped by what others think you should do and doing what you makes you feel whole.

      • MichaelDPerkins

        It really is freeing man. It’s so much more satisfying not to be trapped by what others think you should do and doing what you makes you feel whole.

        • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

          Amen.

        • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

          Amen.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      I love those posts. Some of the best work you do. It’s freeing to do what you’ve always wanted huh?

  • MandyThompson

    I’ve found that discipline is a great tool to creativity–and I use whatever “rules” I need in order to find the muse… Most of them fall into one of three categories:
    1) focus – chrome’s “Concentrate” extension, Pomodoro time management, to-do list, etc.
    2) process – determine the main thought of the song, build a word bank that supports that message, look for thought & melody patterns that support as well.
    3) inspiration – coffee, a walk, nap, study other songs, read, nap, watch a movie, etc…

    I don’t always employ all of these rules. I just use them as a means to an end. If I’m in the flow, they aren’t necessary.

  • MandyThompson

    I’ve found that discipline is a great tool to creativity–and I use whatever “rules” I need in order to find the muse… Most of them fall into one of three categories:
    1) focus – chrome’s “Concentrate” extension, Pomodoro time management, to-do list, etc.
    2) process – determine the main thought of the song, build a word bank that supports that message, look for thought & melody patterns that support as well.
    3) inspiration – coffee, a walk, nap, study other songs, read, nap, watch a movie, etc…

    I don’t always employ all of these rules. I just use them as a means to an end. If I’m in the flow, they aren’t necessary.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Great fluid process Mandy. I like how your rules are pretty flexible.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Great fluid process Mandy. I like how your rules are pretty flexible.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com Larry Carter

    I just try to write something every day. It may be 200 words or it may be 1000. I just try to write.

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    Rules? What rules?

    But seriously, I understand your post completely. As a songwriter I’ve always struggled with formula. There are basic rules in regard to writing popular songs. But after one has written hundreds of songs, the process can become dull. So the key is to know the rules thoroughly and then you understand when, how, and where you can break them.

  • Racquel Narciso

    I have always known myself as a person who needed structure. And yet I would feel guilty, wondering if that made me less creative. Without structure, I go off on a million tangents and sometimes that is destructive. I find that having a semblance of structure helps keep me disciplined, reels me in when I get a little too lost, and keeps me focused on my vision.

  • Derek Rempfer-Writer

    Couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have found that without discipline I don’t find the opportunity to be creative. I wish I had discovered this (or believed it when others told me) when I was younger, but I’m finally coming around. With 3 kids, a full time job, and lots of shiny things, if I don’t purposely shift my attention to the creative, my attention doesn’t get shifted. Creativity can be tamed. And – for me, at least – it needs to be scheduled. Younger Me would scoff at that unromantic notion. Now Me appreciates the anticipation.

    Wait…what were we talking about?

  • http://www.CateNoble.com KatZap

    Discipline is warm up. It brings me to the page, gets me started. And if I stay put and blow on the embers, the fire of creation/passion roars to life. Great post, Jeff!

  • http://www.twitter.com/erikjfisher/ Erik Fisher

    I’ve tried to simplify it in my head: The structure of rules are for support, not for restriction.

  • http://www.ricardobueno.com/ Ricardo Bueno

    Discipline is certainly what allows me to create. Some times things come out easily, other times, not so much. But I try to create a little each and every day, even if I’m not hitting the publish button. And I haven’t been lately (publishing I mean) until just this week – and it feels good.

  • Kwin Peterson

    There is also a discipline to breaking the rules. You can most effectively break the rules only if you know what the rules are. Also, it is important to be intentional and selective about breaking rules — sometimes there is a great temptation to break too many of them at once.

  • Katherine Harms

    I need a lot more discipline, because I am still trying to figure out how to use the rules. I have learned that I need a rule in order to make me think about what I am doing. The rule is a teacher, not a prison guard. The rule is firm, flat ground, not that thin, rocky ledge where I want to stand so I can see farther.
    Martin Luther spoke of God’s law as a teacher that drives us to grace, and that concept parallels nicely with the rule that poises us to break it creatively. I think of how Jesus spoke of Sabbath. To the Pharisees it was a rule, a firm and unbreakable rule, so they crafted all sorts of ways to comply with it in behavior while doing all sorts of things that completely trashed the idea of Sabbath. To Jesus, Sabbath was a gift, a time apart for worship and service, a day to do good and show love for God and man. The Pharisees obeyed rules, but Jesus had self-discipline.
    When a creative breaks some rule and produces a work of art, I think of it as transcending the rule, using the rule to break the rule, wringing the last drop of value out of the rule and producing art as a consequence

  • Liz Doig

    I think the tighter the parameters, the more creative you can be.

  • http://zechariahnewman.com/ Zech Newman

    Great post Jeff. Discipline is needed. I have found that I’m much more disciplined and creative when my day is scheduled. If I have a completely blank slate for the day I get nothing done. It is about is annoying as a blank screen when I go to write:) thanks Jeff.

  • http://donnielaw.com/ Donnie Law

    I’ve heard a lot of people say to just forget about being a perfectionist when writing or creating. I have a flawed mindset that I need to become a good writer before I start writing. Obviously with that approach nothing will ever happen.

    • http://www.eileenknowles.com Eileen

      I can relate to this Donnie. I feared writing my thoughts down for 15 years because I knew I would have to come face to face with my imperfections. Finally choosing to write anyways has got to be one of the best decisions of my life. And you are right, nothing happens if we don’t face the risk of failure and try.

  • http://www.davebratcher.com/ Dave Bratcher

    My favorite line, “Nobody ever left a legacy by maintaining the status quo!” This was very timely for me as I try to balance what I want to do with what I need to do. Discipline provides structure, as do rules. They do not provide vision.

  • http://homesanctuary.com/ Rachel Anne Ridge

    Hi Jeff! I read everything you write about creativity and apply it to my work as an artist, AS WELL AS a writer. I’ve heard it said that you’ve got to learn the design rules before you can break them, and by the same token, you’ve got to learn the writing rules before you can break them. Good design, good writing, takes structure…and I find it takes discipline to learn the structure of grammar, storytelling, compelling vocabulary…and color theory, layout, and focal points. You are so right! This is why artists like Picasso are great. He didn’t just wake up and decide to draw stick figures. He disciplined himself to learn the craft of art…THEN broke the rules.

    Also, deadlines are good.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      That’s right. Knowing the boundaries are essential to testing them.

  • LadyJevonnahEllison

    Hi Jeff! I’ve found it helps me when I write to just “get it out” The editor in me wants to stop behind every paragraph and fix stuff. I’ll never forget something Ray Edwards said when Michael Hyatt interviewed him. “Let my writing age”. After I’ve done the first draft, I’ll put it away for a week and then come back to it. When I see it with fresh eyes, improvements leap off the page. So having the discipline to just write while “following the rules” can come in all forms.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Ooh, that’s good. So great to meet you, Jevonnah! Keep up the great work.

  • Sue Neal

    For much of my life, my creativity has been suppressed by too much concern over the ‘rules’, fear of making a mess, failing, getting things wrong…. Having said that, I agree with others who’ve spoken about rules having the potential to provide a supportive framework. It depends which rules you’re talking about – and how you apply them.

  • jay_em

    These “rules” were the reason why I couldn’t express myself on paper. I was so afraid of the word,until I stumble upon your blog,Jeff. For decades I know I wanted to be a writer but for lack of encouragement from my inner circle and fear of literary rules, it remains a dream for me.

  • kathunsworth

    Right on the money today Jeff I feel my mess is evolving into something wonderful. I just have to keep going.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Love that, Kath. Beautiful things often begin as messes.

  • http://proeditingservices.ca/ Rhonda Kronyk

    “When you find yourself getting comfortable, you must disrupt routine and violate the status quo that YOU’VE created.”

    I frequently feel that I ‘have’ to do something a particular way. But, when I really sit down and think about it, I realize that I’m the one that made the rule. The fact is, I’m 45 and can bloody well do whatever I want as long as I’m not breaking laws or intentionally hurting people.

    But, as others have noted, not all rules are restrictive. My most important rule (one I break far too often!) is to work on one project at a time. I have so many ideas floating around my head at any one time, that my natural tendency is to try to do everything at once – and I get nothing done. When I focus on one thing, my creativity increases.

  • http://bobholmes.blogspot.com/ Bob Holmes

    Man, you’re good! What balance Jeff! I wrote about it this week from a little different angle: http://bobholmes.blogspot.com/2013/09/happy-chutzpah.html Religious people are the worst. :-) I love the handle you’ve got on rules and discipline. You’ve come a long way! Be encouraged.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Bob. :)

  • Christopher Willson

    I often find the most difficult discipline is just to sit down and write. Particularly with all the distractions. I find having an incentive helps.

  • Brian Snyder

    I wonder if worrying about the rules is a way to avoid publishing, or painting, or creating (Seth Godin would call this shipping, right?). Jeff, you hit the nail on the head. Discipline and rules are not the same. You think Jackson Pollack, or Andy Warhol, or Ernest Hemmingway worried about rules? No. Disciplined? My goodness yes.

  • Muhammed Elasse

    I totally agree! Rules keep us from going off the deep-end and never returning

  • Kara Gott Warner

    As an editor, I write and create content for a living, so there are days when I feel it and days when I just don’t. Because I deal with tight deadlines, just waiting until inspiration hits is not always an option, so here’s what I do: I keep a journal in Evernote, and I continually dump ideas as they surface. Usually, I’m gushing with ideas right after an amazing workout, so I try to capture those on my phone. I don’t worry too much at that point about grammar. I just spew forth whatever is in my brain so I can come back to it later and make some sense of it. Then, when I’m ready to write, I apply a little “butt glue” and get busy organizing my content. This process is so much nicer than staring a a stark-white blank page :)

    • Victor Sotomayor

      I like your style, Kara. I also do the same when I’m walking and I have nowhere to write. I send myself an email with an idea or two and explore them later. It has happened that I end up stopping my workout to simply right, it’s not good for the workout but great for I have material to work on. Currently I have too many ideas so I gotta use my butt glue and put my ideas to good use

  • http://www.pauljolicoeur.com/ Paul Jolicoeur

    I find that discipline greatly increases my ability to create. Yes I always find creative juices flowing at any time of the day. But I also find that when I schedule time to create the juices can flow just as well and even greater when that discipline becomes a regular process.

    I find that the rules and the discipline are the track for my creativity to run on.

  • Derek Thompson

    A neat post, Jeff. I guess you could say that some rules are based upon convention and some are based upon principles. The main principle of writing is that writers write. That’s it. The muse takes us where she takes us and if we’re lucky we keep up with her and end up somewhere interesting!

  • http://www.mikejwilliams.com/ Mike Williams

    Great post. I would never create anything with the discipline and rules. But, I love what happens when I decide to break a rule. My bandmates and I have to remind each other that it is art and there are no rules to the art, just to the process and the environment we are playing in.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Interesting. No rules at all?

      • http://www.mikejwilliams.com/ Mike Williams

        Just noticed this reply. I meant to say I would never create anything “without” discipline. Oops. I meant no rules during the creative process. Try new ideas and see where it goes. Sometimes it works and sounds great and interesting. Some times not so much.

  • Writer’s Edit

    Great post! There’s been a lot of talk lately about creativity vs. education, and how arguably, our education (which essentially provides us with a curriculum of rules) discourages or stifles our creativity. However, as you briefly touched on, rules can be broken. We’re of the opinion that you need to know these rules before you break them, that breaking them has to be an informed decision for a particular purpose. For example, Cormac McCarthy broke the conventional narrative rules in The Road and the Border Trilogy by leaving the dialogue between his characters unpunctuated. But it worked, a) because he’s Cormac McCarthy and b) because he disregarded these traditional conventions for reasons that suited his narrative and style in each work.

    You might want to check out our post today about Creative Writing Graduates & Lessons Learnt here: http://writersedit.com/articles/lessons-creative-writing/

  • http://www.theredcabbage.com/ Jonathan Wilson

    I think of it a bit differently. When starting out, rules help you to know where the corners are, so to speak. In the beginning, you have to know where the “normal” boundaries are for your art. Those boundaries get you going in the approximately the right direction. As you progress, you begin to understand the art more deeply, and you also understand the rules more deeply. You begin to understand why the rules exist in the first place. Once they are understood, you will start to know where to bend them, and where to break them. Its in the breaking that the breakthroughs happen.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I like that, Jonathan. I’m inclined to agree. Well said! “It’s in the breaking that the breakthroughs happen.” So good.

    • Kerry

      This is so true. Rules (and laws) are there to help us learn what is good (best, acceptable, prudent). They protect us as we grow, mature, and learn. And they offer appropriate education and consequences when we violate them. But their role is to bring us to maturity and mastery. Once mature, these rules can hinder us from mastery. And mastery demands freedom. In a sense mastery is the intersection of maturity with freedom.

  • Stu102

    Very well put Jeff. Moderation is obviously key. Two much freedom and artists go off the deep end. Yet we must remember that the artist is the voice of change, progress and justice! It is all about balancing the scale. That is what makes all art such a challenge. Writers today have a lot to live up to. Some of our heroes were real geniuses of language and thought. I think your post puts it into perspective for new authors who are struggling to break into their respective genres. The internet allows a lot of unrestricted self publishing so if one wants to, one can ignore all the rules and no one can sensor us. But the truth is being outrageous rarely goes viral achieving instant fame and fortune as planned. I have always felt you need to know the rules before you break them. Sure, no one should ever expect artists, especially writers to contain themselves. Art after all is about expressing yourself. Almost all art rules are meant as guides for teaching and classifying the work. Art rules are not really established to box a creative mind in. Therefore all art rules are meant to be challenged and allowed to be broken. Man’s mind is a vast and complicated thing. In writing, just when we think we have found a new law of literature some hot shot scribe always pops up to show us how little we really know and how much further there is to go. http://www.anewtale.com/blog.html

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  • Caroline Starr Rose

    The most freeing writing advice this rule follower ever got was “learn to write *this* book.” It’s allowed me to approach my work without forcing some sort of system that might have worked in the past but isn’t best for a current story. It’s allowed me to grow and change and be okay with the ever-evolving creative process.

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