Artist, Are You Overplanning, Waiting or Creating?

Among artists and creative teams working on complex projects, there is a misguided notion that a slow, cautious approach in creating meticulous plans will help avoid a major crisis -- or gasp, even failure -- down the line. Have you ever been a part of discouraged creative team because there was so much planning, no one ever made a decision?

And/or... are you an artist overcome with overplanning procrastination?

Overplanning is the serious face of diligence working really hard to mask the fear of failure.

Overplanning kills ideas. It limits learning. Demoralizes team members. Overplanning can lead to paralysis and too much introspection will stall execution. Waiting for perfect conditions to create your next series of paintings or shooting a film or writing your next book may cause tomorrow to look like today, which didn't change much from yesterday. Or the day before.

Some day is no day. Overplanning stifles creativity and leads to launch misfires.

Waiting on your dreams only wears you down.

Let's be clear: There are many cases where failure is not an option. I want an airline pilot to be a meticulous "overplanner" when it comes to weather, fuel supply and safety checks. You want your surgeon to know what side of your body he's operating on. Airbags, traffic signals, and pacemakers need a zero failure rate.

In his excellent book, Creativity, Inc. - Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation, writes about the unseen forces of overplanning, fear of failure and timely execution. As a student of creativity, people, and ideas, I'm devouring this book, which is why I think you'll find Catmull's ideas helpful as you assess how you plan, learn, and create your work.

One of the hallmarks of the Pixar culture is learning to be "wrong as fast as they can." Catmull writes that "rejecting failure and avoiding mistakes seems like high-minded goals, but they are fundamentally misguided." Making mistakes and experiencing failure is never fatal if a creative organization values learning from failure by baking failure into the creative process.

Addressing the paralyzing practice of overplanning, Catmull says,

There is an alternative approach to being wrong as fast as you can. It is the notion that if you carefully think everything through, if you are meticulous and plan well and consider all possible outcomes, you are more likely to create a lasting product. But I should caution that if you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them -- if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line -- well, you're deluding yourself. For one thing, it's easier to plan derivative work -- things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems...
There's a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.

To be sure, Catmull is not anti-planning. Creativity, Inc. makes clear that planning is not the enemy, but overplanning. Pixar's fourteen bestselling films didn't just appear like a genie out of a bottle.

And so, as artists, creatives and dreamers, we all have something to learn as we consider our bent towards planning, creating and execution.

Like Carl Fredrickson, the 78-year old balloon salesman in Up, we can dream and plan all we want about traveling to South America, but until we fill our balloons with helium, we ain't going nowhere.

As Carl knew so well, life is short.

What are you waiting for?

Question: With your art, what are your thoughts on planning, overplanning or fear of failure?

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