‘Creativity is Intelligence Having Fun’: The Value of Low-Stakes Creativity

When starting in any discipline, you work with low expectations and even lower stakes—the beginner’s blessing. As you improve, your standards naturally keep pace with your skill and ambition. But success often comes bundled with a newfound audience, and that’s something most people aren’t prepared to handle.

An audience creates expectations. With their support and patronage comes a responsibility that didn’t previously exist. Suddenly, the safe, sheltered sandbox you used to play in has attracted people who you’ll let down if you fail to deliver. This realization can manifest in problematic ways. Weighty expectations, real or perceived, tend to negatively influence our work.

If you’ve ever gone from a relative nobody to gaining even a modicum of traction with a project or business venture, you know the feeling. One moment you’re singing in the shower to a non-judgemental audience of one (you), and the next, you’re singing on stage with the weight of the world on your shoulders. At least, that’s what it feels like once you’ve arrived.

Turning a hobby into a full-time job is sometimes discouraged for this reason. In doing so, you could potentially lose a carefree form of expression. But we also know that pressing onward into uncharted territory can expose us to new and equally fulfilling opportunities. What would this project look like on a grander scale? What could we accomplish as a bigger team? What impact could we have if we reached more people?

When considering these long-term goals, you cannot shy away from the possibility you might burn yourself out. If you plan on going the distance, you need to think hard about how to avoid running your enthusiasm ragged as you toil away against external roadblocks and self-doubt.

One of the few ways I’ve found to address this problem is to reacquaint myself with the feeling of being a beginner. I do this by finding new creative outlets where I can be a complete newbie again—where the stakes are low, where hardly anyone is watching, and where mistakes aren’t punishable and expensive, but encouraged.

Whether this new outlet develops as a hobby or a side project, the important thing is that it allows you to trip over your own feet while nobody is looking. As an added benefit, the rookie mindset that resurfaces when engaging in new side projects can benefit your current career. When you’re not familiar with the status quo, you’re more likely to question it. When you don’t know about best practices, you’re more inclined to try something completely out of left field. You are the fresh eyes you covet when working in your main role.

As a collector of hobbies and side projects, I consider myself fairly well-suited to examine their benefits. Here are the three perks that matter most to me.

They help you relax and recover. Hobbies and side projects generally require you to extend some level of effort. But because they’re unencumbered by the stress of obligation, they can be just as relaxing a release as low-effort lounging. As a form of play, hobbies are, by definition, a “want to do” and not a “have to do.”

They complement your “real” work. As my former colleague Beenish Khan has previously shared, innovative people have a penchant for cross-pollinating their hobbies and day jobs. In freely embracing the urge to explore random interests, hobbyists are more likely to make connections other people—too steeped in a singular field—are prone to miss.

They maintain your self-esteem. When your main role feels like the one and only “thing you’re good at,” every working day becomes a single point of failure. Anyone with respectable standards will come up short from time to time, so entrusting your self-esteem to one outlet is downright dangerous. Hobbies, with their lack of a scorecard or judges, offer you another place to succeed when your primary job has hit a wall.

Of course, you shouldn’t let any of the above discourage you from doing what’s necessary to grow to where you need to be. For every downside of performing on a bigger stage, there is an equal upside. You have to find what level of growth is right for you.

Rather, it’s healthy to step back and realize you can become over-invested and potentially burn out when something you’ve created takes off and bestows the burdens of responsibility. To prevent yourself from becoming yet another contributor to the “what could have been” junk pile, learn to recover by rediscovering the freedom of being a beginner again.