Creating Tension

As a graduate student in design, I was unsure of the path I would take to finish the program. Even though there was a set curriculum, we were pretty much on our own. We weren’t being offered help voluntarily by our instructors. We needed to reach out for help if/when we needed it. Our instructors were there to guide/nudge us in the right direction, but that was all they did. There was no spoon-feeding.

For me, there was always this nagging feeling of uncertainty in terms of where I was in the program, if I was doing okay, and where I was headed. There was this tension of not quite knowing where we were in the process, not being sure of the curriculum, and an overall lack of certainty of what would happen during the process. It took me some time to be comfortable with the ambiguity that came with lack of direct instruction because, for the first time, we didn’t have an outcome in mind for our projects. We were following (and trusting) a creative process and allowing that to determine the outcome of our projects.

I learned about the value of creating tension from Seth Godin a while back even though I experience it every day in my work. By “tension”, he didn’t mean emotional/mental stress that we typically associate the word “tension” with. It means we do things without thinking (or not knowing fully) whether it will work or not and doing it anyway. That means we take on projects not knowing if we will be able to do them. It could also mean watching a film or reading a book without reading their reviews and being okay with it.

Creating tension might also mean asking this question: if I do this thing, will I like who I end up becoming? In order to be the person I want to be, I need to give up the person I am now. That requires crossing the chasm mentally first. For instance, we might not apply to the best schools thinking that applying is pointless as we won’t get in. We do this to protect ourselves from rejection. In other words, we free ourselves from tension when we should be embracing it. Not only that, but what if we applied and got accepted? Then, we would have no excuse but to go through the tension required to complete the program. That is anything but comfortable.

Making any kind of meaningful change in our lives requires us to create tension. It is impossible to make the change required without tension. For instance, runners run (to create tension) so they get tired. Running takes them out of their comfort zone. Writers write to create tension. They do the heavy lifting mental work of thinking about things and crystallizing those thoughts into something tangible that makes sense to others.

Our job is to create tension and fear in the same way a runner’s job is to get tired. We can also think of this in terms of, “I hate ‘running/writing’ (insert your challenging work), but I hate ‘not running/writing’ more”.

Creating tension happens not only when we are doing difficult, fulfilling work, but also when we willingly experience tension from doing things such as watching a great game of tennis, a thrilling film, or even attending a great concert.

We should be creating tension instead of running away from it. Kids are good at creating tension because they have no fear. They don’t know fear. Doing any kind of creative work requires tension. Writers show up every day to write on a blank page. The fact that there is tension indicates that it is the way through, not running away from it.

Creating tension comes from doing important work and making a big promise. When I committed to putting out a piece every week for this weblog, I created tension within myself. I had a broad idea of what I would be writing about, but I never knew the specifics. Even so, I didn’t let that deter me from putting out one draft every week. All I had to do was show up every day and do the work. That was difficult in terms of discipline required, but certainly achievable.

Now, when I set out to write a draft for a new piece, I have no idea what I’m going to be writing about. But, I can’t let that deter me from doing the work — I can’t wait to be inspired in order to do work. When I face the blank document, I create tension within myself. Even when writing the draft, I am not sure if what I’m writing will resonate with others. In the end, I write about things that I want to learn more about, and if there are others who also want to learn about the same things, then that’s great. All I know is that real artists ship, and I have to ship every week. That’s it.

Seth Godin says that effective teachers have the courage to create tension. As adults, we need to constantly seek out this tension. That is the only way to cross the chasm and truly stay on the edge.

In the face of doing important work, we have two options — we can either succumb to the tension, or we can embrace it. When facing a looming deadline, we can either use it to our benefit by actively engaging with it, or we can let our fears define our performance. We can either see the tension and dive in eagerly, or we can mistake that tension for fear and back away, falsely promising ourselves that we’ll do it later.

We have to go through the path of tension to make art that matters. Whether it will work or not is an entirely different story. I am reminded of this sentiment, which I paraphrase: action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action. That is what tension is all about. Our job as artists is to create (and embrace) tension with our work. All important things happen outside our comfort zone — don’t run away from it.

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