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How To Be More Creative Part 2 – Good Confusion

confusionIn part 1 of How To Be More Creative, we discussed problems with sameness, distractions, and the creative perils of being a passive spectator too often.

Today I want to talk briefly about the best friend my own creativity has ever had: confusion.

But first:

The negative meaning(s) of confusion

Confusion is rarely a pleasant experience, at least not by most definitions. Have you ever taken a wrong turn and become lost and frustrated as you tried to make your way back?

Not a good feeling. We only need to look at a few of the antonyms of confusion to see that it’s normally not considered a good thing:

  • clarity
  • order
  • organization
  • composure
  • comfort

Who wants a lack of those things?

The positive side of confusion

How to be good at being confused. My favorite definitions of confusion have always come from Encyclopedias of law. Here is my paraphrased version of several of them:

A mixture of two things

That’s it.

I like it. It feels right to me. I like it because I like associations. The more associations I am capable of making, the more creative I feel.

Have you ever had a moment of clarity where it all just came together and suddenly the idea was there? When I have those moments, it is generally because I have been willing to spend some time being confused.

I picture my own confusion like this: the inside of my head is full of snippets, fragments, and contradictory thoughts that are all bouncing around. Sometimes they run into each other and are mutually repellent. But sometimes they collide and stick together.

A new idea is formed. A new line of thought. A positive change of course that might never have occurred without confusion.

Fusion is the creation of a union. The prefix “con” means “with,” or “together.” Add it to fusion and what do you get? Ta da! Confusion!

No, I did not make that up. Someone much smarter than me told it to me in a high school government class, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Avoiding confusion

There are two times I can think of when I am never confused, meaning that there is no movement (positive or negative)  in my head:

1. When I am being a passive spectator and my brain shuts off.

(I should say that there I believe there is a lot of productivity that can occur subconsciously while being passive, but I’m thinking more in terms of aimless web surfing or watching a stupid sitcom that I don’t even think is funny)

2. Directly after a creative breakthrough

This is when I’m experiencing the relief of earning the idea. I was willing to be engaged and confused, the right ideas and associations met each other, and the new course was defined, although it could shift again very soon.

When I am not feeling creative, it is usually because I am refusing to focus on problems that I want to solve. This is typically because I am avoiding the potential discomforts of confusion, deflecting it with mindless activities that get me nowhere.

My greatest ideas seem to come out of nowhere, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it’s the result of enough focused curiosity and engagement with confusion to earn the resulting insight.

What say you? Maybe this post just shows that I’m more confused than I thought and it’s all bad confusion:)


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  • jean sampson July 9, 2010, 7:04 am

    Josh, you are SO right on! I write poetry and paint and confusion is a big part of both of those processes. The main lession I teach my students is to stay with it, even write or paint the confusion, stick with it and eventually a thread will appear that you can pull on. It will give you a clue as to what direction you might explore. Even dead ends are valuable because they are important in the clearing process and each path in gives you more images, words, possible relationships, structure, clarity, etc. It is not a process that can be rushed and you CAN learn to tolerate, if not enjoy, it. I think your tolerance and ability to trust and enjoy the process builds every time you come thorugh the confusion, make order from chaos (or discover the order within the chaos) and emerge with a poem or a painting or whatever. I tell my students that the first thing I want them to do is create a big mess on their canvasses, get that part over with so they can begin to paint. Sometimes it takes them (and me) a long time to get through the “prissy” stage of painting or writing where you don’t want to “mess anything up”. And, then they learn that you can go through that stage a lot of times. But we have a lifetime to explore all this stuff, so —–don’t forget your machete, you are gonna be chopping a path in the jungle and, meanwhile, behind you, it is all growing back with a fury! Happy creating!

  • Daniel O'Connor July 9, 2010, 7:09 am


    I never thought of it in terms of confusion, but you are right.

    I am usually happiest creating something when I don’t know exactly what I am doing. I think finding your way through the confusion is what makes it so satisfying.

  • Heather July 9, 2010, 8:38 am

    No, it’s not all bad confusion. Sometimes when you need a little break from the confusion, that’s when ideas pop in. I find this is where a nice little nap helps, or a walk. Don’t watch unfunny sitcoms, Josh. That’s time you’ll never get back.

  • Larissa July 9, 2010, 11:54 am

    This is one area of my creative mind that I usually don’t like/appreciate. I can get confused and overwhelmed very quickly when it comes to making choices with creative mediums. For example: when I go to LA to buy fabric, I always get a stomach ache, always. The colors, textures and smells that surround all the fabric and notions, literally makes my head spin. But somewhere in all that confusion, I get inspired. So I start picking up fabrics and putting them together, and it’s amazing.
    As much as I hate the feeling of confusion, it is most definitely a must in the creative process. 🙂

  • Shane Arthur July 9, 2010, 1:20 pm

    Josh, I think the same hold true for writer’s block. Writing something creative from scratch (or emmersed in passive seclusion) frequently results in failure. Give writers a prompt to “focus their curiosity and engagement” with random, seemingly unrelated, words and they’re off to the races.

    AI don’t think there’s anything wrong with passive observation either. I would say it’s like baking a cake. To bake a cake you need active mixing of various ingredients, but when that’s all done, it needs quite time alone to simply hang out and bake everything together.


    ps. Click on my name and give one of our challenges a try, Josh. If you don’t find it an outstanding creative exercise, I’ll bake you a cake.

  • cinderkeys July 10, 2010, 12:22 am

    I’ve often thought of songwriting as a means of making sense out of my world. So yeah, there’s less need for it if the world already makes sense. Hmm.

  • Juan Martinez July 10, 2010, 6:15 am

    (Maybe you’ve heard this already.): When Somerset Maugham was asked by a journalist whether he wrote only whenever he was inspired, or whether he used a schedule, Maugham replied that he only wrote when inspired. “But,” he added, “luckily for me, inspiration hits every morning at 9 AM, sharp!”


    • mark mitchell July 3, 2011, 10:05 pm

      Yeah, so true but no all people have the same ‘inspiration time’ 🙂

  • Asatar Bair July 14, 2010, 9:12 am

    Confusion just means your logic hasn’t yet caught up with your passion; you need both to create, but they don’t always arrive together. Great post!

  • mark mitchell July 3, 2011, 10:04 pm

    Honestly, I like your written thoughts. I think I am thinking the same way you think because I don’t like to talk about the same thing. Instead, I like to do the ‘engagement’. But my problem is that I don’t know how to put my thoughts into words and be consistent with it. I think you can help me with this. 🙂 thanks.