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Big Ideas

Is An Inner Argument Holding Back Your Productivity?

Do you have a chorus of voices chiming in whenever you have to make a big decision? How to get your inner selves to work together.

Have you ever received the opportunity of your dreams and sabotaged it by not responding? Maybe you got an email about a possible book deal, or an invitation to play an incredible gig, or an inquiry from a mega-client. The dream invitation came – and to your own surprise, you ignored it. Why do we behave in such a clearly counter-productive manner?

I would argue that we often do this because we’ve brought the wrong part of ourselves to the table. As creatives governing our own careers, we have to bring many different skillsets — many different selves, even — to the diverse activities we do on a daily basis. When we bring the wrong self to the table, we can get paralyzed.

That’s what happened to me. After I’d been blogging for a couple of years, literary agents began contacting me to ask, “Was I interested in a book project?” I certainly was.

We’d meet for tea, and they’d ask me a series of questions: “Who is the target customer for this book? How would you say you differ from say, a Martha Beck, or a Deepak Chopra? Are you doing any major corporate speaking?”

When we bring the wrong self to the table, we can get paralyzed.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but what happened next was this: I ignored their follow-up emails. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, thinking “Seriously, what kind of writer who wants to do a book doesn’t respond to a literary agent’s enthusiastic note?” I wasn’t sure why I was stuck.

Months later, I saw the problem: My inner artist had gotten spooked. Thinking these meetings were about my writing, I brought my writer-self, my super-sensitive inner artist, to the meetings. And guess what? My inner artist is terrified and paralyzed by conversations about how to market her work.

That’s when I realized that there were other selves, other advocates, that I could bring to the table.

There are three voices within every creator:

  • The Inner Artist
  • The Inner Editor
  • The Inner Agent

To have a successful career, we must all learn how to deploy each of them at particular times, and keep them from stepping on each other’s toes.

I would argue that most of the problems in our creative lives stem from bringing the wrong part of ourselves to the task at hand. Most of us under-utilize at least one of the three roles and over-use one of the other roles. A thriving creative career requires consciously shifting between the three voices, utilizing each at the right time.

In the early stage of the creative process, we need the inner artist. The artist’s domain is drafting, receiving ideas and inspiration, fleshing them out. The artist thrives in an atmosphere of curiosity, safety, and play. She needs shelter from others’ opinions and respite from even thinking about what the judgments of others might be.

In the second stage of the creative process, the inner editor leads. The editor’s domain is revising, trimming, structuring. Whereas the artist must forget about what other people might think, the editor brings the audience back into the process, ensuring that the work effectively communicates the artist’s intent.

Then the inner agent takes the baton. The agent’s domain is developing marketing messages for the work, communicating about the work to external stakeholders, and finding distribution. The agent is thick-skinned, brave, and wise about the market.

Most of the problems in our creative lives stem from bringing the wrong part of ourselves to the task at hand.

Of course, the process is not entirely linear. A late-stage problem that requires a highly creative solution might require the inner artist, for example.

Each inner archetype has a wholly different way of being. The artist explores what he doesn’t know. The editor brings to bear what he does know. The agent advocates for what he wants.

If the inner agent shows up in the early stage of idea conception or fleshing out a first draft? Disaster. The agent will impoverish the artist’s ideas by worrying too early on about what will sell. She’ll unknowingly push the work in a conformist direction. She’ll mute the muse.

The inner editor can also disrupt the work of the inner artist — evaluating the work or creating structure prematurely.

Bring the sensitive inner artist into the agent’s domain — into, for example, a business meeting about how to market a piece of creative work? She can become so turned off that she’ll run for the hills, resulting in months of creative stagnation.

To find more ease and productivity in your creative process, I suggest taking these steps:

1. Take a look at what’s been happening in your creative life by answering these questions:

  • Which of these roles is my default/comfort zone?
  • When do I fall into this role even though it’s really not the best fit for the task at hand?
  • Which role is underutilized? Which role or roles do I avoid stepping into?
  • Where do I have “trust issues” between the three roles? Does the inner artist trust the agent to bring her work to market without selling out? Does the inner agent think that the artist is never going to produce anything with commercial appeal? Notice what resentments, conflicts or issues of trust are happening between the three parts of you. Just observing and naming the issues will reduce their intensity.

2. Get to know your three inner creative roles.

Write down a list of words or phrases you associate with each. Give each one a theme song. Identify a color that expresses the personality of each one.

3. Next, look over your calendar for the coming week.

Notice which part of you is best suited for the various tasks, meetings, and work periods you have ahead.

4. As you move through the week, consciously shift into the appropriate mode as you do the work.

Thinking of the color or song you identified can help you quickly access that part of yourself.  Notice when your default role shows up where it’s not helpful, and mindfully move into the mode that’s best suited for the task.

What’s Your Creative Identity?

What have you learned about your different internal personalities? Has your creative work suffered because you brought the wrong self to your creative work?

Comments (106)
  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Thanks Lincoln! I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • Christian Burne

    Wonderful writing, thank you. Distills it down into three easily identifiable and curated characters; forces some tough introspection and love the cunning use of the quick win NLP techniques. Despite the high rises of self-sabotaging coaching content available out there, this has proved to be by the far most enlightening. Bravo.

  • Sam

    Good extrapolation of the game theory and beautifully postulated from child, adult, parent in to Designer;s context…The tips for segregating roles n thoughts with colors, phrases is also quite innovative n practical..relates to thought process of a designer.
    all in all…excellent article…cheers

  • Marc Joly

    Not only true for professionals. Should be taught to any student, too. Reading this 12 years sooner could have saved me from disaster and a lot of real pain.
    It took me too long to learn this by experience. It’s very good to see you managed to put it into a few words.

  • Mitesh

    Gr8 article! It’s true for any Inventor or innovator who is an artist in science and technology!

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Better late than never!! 🙂

  • Tara Sophia Mohr

    Thanks Christian!

  • Labeed Assidmi

    This seriously an amazing read. I can clealy see all these types and when do I use them. Its one of those moments you realize you have been doing something and someone puts in a very simple process. I am going to design a poster with three hats and write what you mentioned. I can’t thank you enough and everything you said is so true

  • Mariana Madeira

    Genius and sooo helpful ! Thank you !

  • priscilla

    This was so helpful, thank you

  • George Frederick Nash

    I love this article! I have been struggle with this very thing. Thanks for your help. I have some theme songs and colors. It is on now!

  • Sara Wiggins

    Excellent article. The part about getting to know our different identities/roles was particularly helpful — I always wanted to have a theme song and now I’ll have at least three!

  • Louise Chrystal

    Very insightful. Great article. Share, share, share!

  • Paul N

    I really needed to read this article, so thank you for this. Good insight and I can’t wait to try the exercises. The creative power is within all of us! The key is believing in yourself.

  • Kristina Antic Celin

    Amazing perspective! I completely agree. All three hats are essential in any creative business: one part talent, one part critic, one part communicator… if you are freelance, that is. And if you play your parts right, in the future you can maybe hire whole people to take on these roles for you… meaning you can focus on doing the one part you love most 😉 Thank you for the very inspiring article!

  • Marcio Lima

    Super hot.

  • Paul Hebron

    Well stated.

    I had a similar thing happen years ago when I pitched a few storylines to Paramount. They wanted a few tweaks and invited me back. I froze and never went back. They called me a few times and… Well, the rest is history.

    Thanks for the exercise. I see I still need work to do.

  • pinocchio

    Very, very good – thank you for this enlightening article!!!

  • Laurel Kashinn

    Thanks! Great way to visualize and overcome resistance.

  • Jamal Nichols

    Don’t have anything insightful to add to this; just wanted to say that this was a wonderful article,

  • Swa

    Hi Tara Sophia,
    I found this blog very pragmatic and useful. In fact, I have never felt motivated enough to actually apply a tip from a blog immediately, like I did with this very fun idea in your blog: Here are my results…

    Inner Artist
    keywords: deep, creative, passionate, global, adventurous
    Color: Deep purple
    Theme song: deep dark, meaningful like Purple Rain

    Inner Editor
    Key Words: Terse, meticulous, but also ‘put- together’ not detailed and boring, humorous, clever
    Color: Sunny Yellow
    Theme Song: beaty pop like Enrique Iglesias Tonight I’m loving you.

    Inner Agent
    Keywords: Confident, gifted, easy-going, not pushy.
    Color: Neutral Mauve/ Beige/ Teal
    Theme Song: Classy and stylish like Michael Buble’s Just haven’t met you yet.

    I must say, you’ve put the zing back in advertising for me today! Cheers!

    Creative Services, Ogilvy

  • Brittanie

    Wow, this describes so many situations I’ve been in perfectly. It seems so obvious that this is happening after reading about it, but until now, I hadn’t really thought of it like this. Thank you for this article, I think it will help me immensely…

  • Meggin McIntosh

    Brilliant and fabulous and it explains SO MUCH! Thank you for writing this and clarifying our “inner” folks – so we get the right one to the table!

  • Angelina

    It’s so much easier when you give your “friends” names that way you call them when ever you like. Great article!!!

  • Demetrius Fuller

    This is so true! Thank you for clearly describing something that I battle with in an abstract, unmanageable way.

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