Destroying Old Ideas to Make Room for New Ones

Whether it’s my body of work as a photographer, my work as editor of Design Instruct, or the other manifestations of my creative mind, I came to a realization that sometimes I’ll hold onto my Frankenstein creations not because they are particularly good (they are not), but rather only because they are mine. Is this good for my career or is it just a vain attempt at keeping the inevitable from happening: complete creative rediscovery?

Destruction is Good

Often, when we look upon our creations, we get a sharp feeling of pride; of contentment, as we marvel at what we’ve been able to achieve (as much as we try to deny it). Any attempt at criticism, threat of destruction, or just plain disagreement over its marvelousness is seen as a personal attack and you immediately stand to defend your work even if your work warrants such critiques.

This is a natural reaction. After all, the work we do as creative professionals is rather personal and we’re the only ones who can really experience the process and the ups and downs of our journey. We’re the only ones who really understand it. And that connection to our work is what makes it ours.

However, what I came to realize rather harshly in a quiet moment by myself is that, the destruction of what we’ve built, while painful and grievous, will ultimately (and necessarily) lead to something better.

That is nature.

A tree that took hundreds of years to grow falls in the forest and while it is a sad thing to see, the tree ultimately becomes nutrition for a new generation of healthy trees that may grow in its place. The tree likely fell because it was sick and decaying.

Ancient Rome, a once great city, was reduced to rubble time and time again, and its ruins were continually used as the foundations of every new city built on top of it. This happened over and over throughout the last 2000 years. Rome falls and something is built on top of it.

Progress does not stop and neither should your creativity. Embrace the destruction of your old ideas. Or at the very least, try not to resist it. As long as no one gets hurt, welcome it.

Broken Ideas Lead to Better Work

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the old adage. I say: “If it ain’t broke, break it and start over.”

The reason I say this is because nothing new ever comes from old ideas. And while I’m aware that new doesn’t always mean better, as creative professionals with no new ideas, you will ultimately fall behind even if your once-great ideas were truly great.

I spent this weekend poring over the 30,000+ photos that I’ve taken over the last 2 years. And while there was a distinct improvement from when I first started to where I am today, I also noticed where my work stopped improving. I knew it had happened. I knew that I wasn’t getting any better. And yet I didn’t really do anything about it. In fact, I boasted about it. In fact, I accepted all praise with no reservations. In fact, I was proud. When really, I had no new directions to take with the work I do. I had no answer for the question: “what’s next?”

I guess that’s really what led me to this realization. I don’t like the fact that I have no answer for that question.

The only answer I could come up with at this time is to start over and apply what I’ve learned so far. The difference between now and when I first started is that now, my foundations are much stronger.

When I first started taking photos, I was just seeing where I could take it. I bought an old used camera and I just started shooting. Then I got better; slowly building my knowledge about what I do. I studied what has come before me and I came up with ideas that I felt were original. And yes, I did reach an apex with these ideas. However, the fact is my old ideas, while they might have been worthy of praise and respect, are just that: old.

Someone better will come along. Someone who might have seen my work will build upon it as I have built upon what I’ve seen before me. That’s how truly great creative minds work. I’m sure you’ve heard of this phrase, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

This phrase is not about intellectual property or copyrights or some other nonsense. This is about looking at someone’s work (or even your work) and “stealing” or internalizing all that is good about it and then doing something else that’s great.

The complete destruction/dis-assembly of your work will always yield something good. The question now is are you willing to leave it behind and do something even better?

Parting Words

I think this is something we all deal with in every discipline in the creative arts. Whether you’re a blogger, a photographer, a designer, an illustrator, etc., we all reach a certain point in our creative careers where we can’t really take our established ideas any further and we are thus forced to make a choice to either fall behind because we’re fighting a losing battle or let our ideas be part of the past and set our sights on what’s next.

If you accept the latter, the inevitability of reinventing ourselves becomes a distinctly painful prospect. However, I think that you’ll agree that through pain, we learn our most valuable lessons and we become better for it.

Now the question becomes, is the avoidance of pain the only reason you don’t want to take the next step? This is a tough question to answer and is dependent on many variables.

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

  • Definitely a great tip. It might be even helpful to write down the old idea, or save its work files, and archive them and just look back every now and then on all old ideas for inspiration.

  • Holman

    Is a very interesting reflection and i would like to add something..

    before you decide to give the step forward, think about the advantages and disadvantages of your actual situation, think about what you want and what definitely you don’t want about yourself, your work and the outcomes that you’re earning… perhaps, that will encourage you to make the best choice!!

    Greetings from Colombia!!!

  • The article is indeed inspiring and makes one think. Revise. Learn. Get back to basics. Take another perspective.
    Thanks for a reminder.

  • Isaac, this is so informative, creative and inspirative post. Sometimes we designers need a refresh to our mind. Thanks for tips.

  • Isaac, this is so informative, creative and inspirative post. Sometimes we designers need a refresh to our mind. Thanks for tips.

  • You force me to be real with myself. While I am proud of what I have done, I am proud not so much for the item, I am proud for what I learned from it. Know what I mean? The screw-ups and bad outcomes are the reason I have advanced at all. If I thought them good, I would not have improved, I guess.

    You mention ‘stealing’. I, too, have seen an idea and have tried it. It never turns out the same, but, it is the process that helps me define what it is I like and whether I want to pursue it.

    Yes, the possibilities of failing are painful, but, this is something I have learned in my life. If it hurts, it must be worthwhile. LOL The most painful experiences are the ones I can celebrate now. Wouldn’t it be a dull world if we always thought our work/experience is perfect?

    Thank you!! I got a little carried away, but, you inspired me to think. I hope you don’t mind my drivel!

    Su

  • Not drivel at all Su.

    The article really came from my own frustrations about my work. I noticed that I became somewhat protective over what I’ve produced and realized that the angst and the fear I felt was really just a fear of change. I know what I’m good at. I know what makes my work, my work. Therefore, if I made a conscious choice to make changes in what makes me good at what I do, I’d be going into uncharted territory… and who really wants to do that? Who wants to start over?

    It then dawned on me that creativity (creating things) isn’t about knowing what works and then sticking with it. It’s about knowing what works and then applying that to something completely new so that every iteration; every manifestation of your creativity is better than the last. Otherwise, you’re not really being creative anymore. You’re just producing for the sake of producing. That’s really what I wanted to avoid. When someone asks me, “What’s next?” I want to have an answer. That was the thought I was working with.

    Thanks Su. We hope you stay tuned.

    Thanks Su.

  • I read two times this post and printed it on paper.
    I amazed when I realized that I feel a better designer now after reading this post. Some of great tips you have given us freely that I’m sure are useful for every designer in all level and stage.

    –sarah