Creativity and Getting Unstuck

I want to share a few thoughts here on a recent project I’ve been doing, and maybe provoke some thoughts about creativity, discipline, and the importance of a structured practice.

Most of you reading this probably won’t be trying to write music, like I am, but you can apply these principles to many other disciplines. I do think there’s something special, and maybe even profound, about the act of creation, but these ideas might also help you clean the house, design a profitable investment program, or maybe even just stop wasting so much time on Instagram!

My music

As some of you are already aware, in addition my trading work, I am also a classical musician. My formal training is in composition, and I play piano, pipe organ, and harpsichord. I’ve spent much of a lifetime diving deeply into music, and I don’t think it’s overstating much to say there’s real power here–and maybe even power to save our world. After about a decade working professionally as a musician, I found myself drawn in different directions. As much as anything I wanted to focus more heavily on financial markets and trading.

I took an extended time away from music, and, for about 12 years, I think I played an instrument maybe 3 or 4 times! I really had no idea what the future would bring–whether my time away was permanent or just a sabbatical, but I found myself drawn back. A few years ago, I decided to return to playing piano seriously, and went through a very difficult period of completely rebuilding my technique at the keyboard. (That’s maybe a story for another day.)

One evening, sitting on our deck and sharing a pizza with Tom, and made a split second decision that had probably been brewing for a decade–I decided I wanted to compose music again. After some surprising initial success, I found myself up against a wall.

Getting stuck

Though I wanted, and planned, to write much more music, something interesting happened: I just couldn’t write anything else. It wasn’t so much that what I wrote wasn’t good, it was just extremely difficult to discipline myself and to force myself to sit down and do the work. So, for about a year, I’ve languished with good intentions, but no results. Good intentions, alone, don’t get you very far.

I really wanted to write lots of cool music and have it performed all over the world. I had plans! I had great ideas and little snippets of pieces were swirling around in my head. I even made some sketches and lists of things I would do, but, month after month, nothing ever materialized. I was completely and fully stuck.

Getting unstuck

The key to getting anything done is, mostly, just doing it. Creative work is no different.

In January of this year, I committed to doing regular work for 100 days, and labeled it a “100 Days of Composition Challenge”. I created some public accountability by telling people I was doing it, and by writing a post here, which I’m updating daily. (Scroll down to see my daily update.)

After two weeks, I have some observations that might help some of you. In no particular order, let me share them:

  • Creating is as much about what you don’t do as what you do. It’s also an act of destruction. Most of your ideas will be bad ideas, but the key is to keep the ideas going, even while you throw one after another into the fire.
  • There is a cost to creating something. At an absolue, bare minimum, it will cost your time. Time is the one resource we never get back. Every breath draws us closer to death. Think carefully about how you wish to spend your time.
  • In keeping with those two points, once you decide to do something, think about that word decide. It comes from a Latin word meaning “to cut”. If you really, truly decide to do something, you’ve cut off other possibilities. This is what it means to decide.
  • If action doesn’t follow, then you haven’t made a decision–instead, you’ve formed an opinion. An opinion isn’t worth much. If you are going to follow that decision with action, the rhythm of the work becomes important. Just sitting down, each day, and knowing you are going to work gets you pretty far along the path to success.
  • You won’t want to do this. You’ll come up with interesting and creative excuses. If you give into them, your decision becomes a wishy-washy opinion.
  • When doing anything creative, there’s a clear difference between the “creating” and “evaluating” mindset. You need both, but the problem is that the evaluating mindset is a bitter, cynical critic. It’s the voice in your head that has you cringe months later when you remember something stupid you said to another person, or some social blunder you made at a party. You need both voices in your head, but you need to find a way to make them coexist comfortably. If you don’t the cynic will shut down the creative part completely.
  • This is all hard work, so most people don’t do it. Most people have dreams of what they could make, invent, or accomplish. Dreaming about it is fun; it’s like dreaming about what you would do if you won the lottery. But doing the actual work is painful drudgery. Doing the actual work has a cost—the obvious cost is time, but it’s also painful. If you want to do something important, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices and accommodations.
  • There are very few things in life that are as rewarding as creating something. While the barriers to entry are high and the “barriers to continuation” might seem to be all-but-insurmountable, the rewards make it all worthwhile. This, of course, raises the possibility of virtuous cycles and self-sustaining motivation—if you can preserver long enough to get there!
  • The excuses you will make to avoid doing the work are truly impressive. Cultivate the self-awareness to see what’s going on, and then return to principle #1: if you’re going to create something, you’ve got to sit down and do the work.

Further thoughts

There’s much more to be said on the topic, and I do have some concrete insights that I’ll be sharing in the future.

For now, here’s the first thing I can share with you from my 100 Days challenge: a sparkling, virtuosic piano piece I finished in about a week. This was fun to write, but also a reminder of the importance of sitting down every day to do the work. Whatever you’re trying to do–whatever you’ve decided to do–figure out how to follow it up with action, and see what you can accomplish.


Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.