Why the best creative strategies are backwards

Do less to achieve more
Why the best creative strategies are backwards
Jake McNeill
May 25, 2021
5 min read
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Do less to achieve more

In 1954, Roger Bannister was the first person in history to run a mile under 4 minutes. Athletes had been trying to break the record for 68 years.

Scientists said the human anatomy was not built to withstand the punishing physicality required for such a task.

Roger had marginally failed a couple of times missing the 4 minute goal by a second or two. He decided to change his training routine.

Rather than training hard right up until the record attempt as he had in previous attempts, he decided to stop training and spent the final 2 weeks hiking with his brother.

Compared to the obsessive training before previous attempts, Roger was well rested. He was well trained, focused but relaxed. He didn’t even want to run the race that day as the weather conditions were bad and had to be convinced into competing by his coach.

But run it he did. And 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds was his time.

Roger Bannister broke the record by using training and resting as part of his overall strategy. His record only lasted 46 days and over 1,500 athletes have since broken the 4 minute mile.

We need some stress to perform at our best. But we also need rest. If we are too stressed and uptight we miss opportunities.

The analogy commonly used is going to the gym. We stress our bodies, break down the tiny fibres of muscles but it is when we are resting that our muscles grow.

Creativity is the same. We need to push ourselves but we also need rest to be fully charged and perform at our best.

Backwards Law

Alan Watts was a hugely respected modern philosopher. One of his most famous speeches surrounds backwards law. It highlights the counterintuitive aspects of the human experience.

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the backwards law. When you try and stay on the surface of the water, you sink; when you try and sink, you float….insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.” — Alan Watts

The more pressure you apply to make something right the more it will go wrong. When we try too hard to impress someone. We don’t attract them, we repel them.

Obsessing about being happier only reinforces the reasons why we are unhappy. Conversely by accepting a negative is actually a positive.

Being grateful for what you have instead of yearning for what you don’t, for example.

Naturally, when we have physical and material goals, we can’t just sit back and wait for our goals to magically materialise. Hard work and action are required to make shit happen, but many aspects of our lives are counterintuitive and fall into the backwards law.

Many struggle with this concept especially ambitious types. I know I did.

But then I realised that backwards law applies to everything including our goals. We’ve just been looking at them all wrong.

We must run towards and not away from the negative. We must face the negative in order to achieve the positive. We must endure the pain in the gym to achieve physical health.

We must dance with our fears to cultivate our creativity. We must face failure in order to create success.

One of the things I coach clients on is they can’t be comfortable and creative. It’s one or another.

To be creative means dealing with our fears and insecurities. It means confronting our feelings of not being good enough.

This is not comfortable but it is necessary to embrace this in order to be creative. So the only way to achieve the positive (creativity) is to embrace the negative (fears and insecurities)

The problem for many and the source of their suffering is they want to avoid the negative. When they are inevitably faced with the negative they suffer as they have only fantasised about the positive.

The more we avoid the negative the bigger it becomes. The bigger it becomes the more insurmountable it feels.

It’s important to dream big. Most successful creatives I know are a bit deluded.

I would include myself in this. I dreamt of managing artists who had number 1 records and sold-out arenas. I did just that. But it took me over a decade of failing first.

I faced years and years of negatives to get to the positive.

Dreaming big is essential but being realistic is equally important. We need to prepare ourselves. We need to callous our minds in preparation of the Herculean effort it will take to achieve creative success.

We need the courage to create. But we also need mental toughness to stand toe to toe with our self-doubt and carry on regardless.

Chase failure and not success

There’s no such thing as an overnight success. The only way to succeed in oversaturated creative industries is to fail. And fail often. And as quickly as you possibly can.

Artistic and business growth only comes from failing time after time.

Don’t try and avoid failure, move towards it, embrace it and keep on failing until you eventually succeed.

The myth of multi-tasking

If we’re not busy then we feel guilty. You know what I mean, right? Being busy and stressed are our badges of honour.

People even lie about their levels of “busyness” as they feel others will somehow think lesser of them.

We are trying to get more done in less time. We are multi-taskers and productivity hackers.

Studies have shown only 2% of people can actually multi-task.

Multi-tasking is inefficient. One Michigan University study found that multitasking makes us up to 40% less productive.

The key to doing more is focusing on less.

What you try and control ends up controlling you

Many creatives have high functioning anxiety. I had it for decades.

I never delegated anything. “If you want a job done properly; do it yourself” was my mantra.

I got pissed off when my artist’s tracks didn’t get play-listed or their follow up records failed to capture the public’s imagination.

None of this was in my control so why the anger? It was holding me back.

People try and control everything to protect themselves from anxiety.

Being a control freak doesn’t control anxiety…it creates it. When we try and control things that are out of our areas of control we create our own suffering.

We can only control our effort, our attitude and our reactions. Everything else is out of our control.

If you do your best to influence the outcomes and accept the results that are out of your control, most of your anxiety will disappear overnight.

Energy management system

Everybody thinks productivity lies within time management. And it is certainly a large factor. But it’s not the most important one.

When we burnout we have all the time but no energy or motivation to execute.

Elite athletes know this. Jim Loehr a world-renowned performance psychologist introduced deliberate relaxation as a peak performance tool for tennis players in-between shots.

Jim discovered that regulating the player’s heartbeats and relaxing their minds, gave players a competitive advantage.

By taking mental breaks in-between shots they saved a tiny bit of energy.

When players reached the final set their additional energy reserves were more often than not the competitive edge needed to win the game.

Energy management is a key peak performance tool. Players who had incrementally conserved enough energy to allow them a competitive advantage over players who hadn’t.

It’s also the finest of margins between success and failure in creativity.

Forget about time and focus on energy management.


Procrastination drives people crazy. It is fear based. And when we procrastinate our self-talk beats us up.

The problem is we lack motivation so we don’t take action. However, the key to beating procrastination is to take action. Taking action gives you motivation.

Take action, feel motivated and complete the task.

Then feel good about yourself.

And finally….

Remember: you can’t be comfortable and creative. You must choose one or another, you can’t be both.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and run towards the negative in order to get to the positive.

No blog next week. I’m taking the week off with my family.

Have a great Easter.

Peace out


A bit about me

I help maverick artists and creatives hack into their true creative genius, crush the creative blocks that hold them back, and create their best work.

Every creative rebel’s worst enemy?

Creative mediocrity: Being bland. Staying in our lane. Creating in our comfort zone and following the crowds.

The Goal? To create authentic work that matters. Take creative risks, avoid creative burnout, and making a racket in saturated markets.

I’m a former multi-platinum artist manager who got burnt out and became a creative blogger, coach, and consultant.

I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 5 down, 45 to go.

Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

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