Rules, Discipline, and the Paradox of Creativity

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.