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Respond vs. React to Keep Your Creative Spark

Creativity is a tricky thing. There’s no consistent recipe for it. You can’t throw a bunch of creative “ingredients” together, push a button, and instantly get a creative spark every time. No, it’s much more nuanced and temperamental than that. In fact, there are many things that can affect your creativity that you’ve maybe never even thought of before. For example, your ability to respond vs. react can help keep your creative spark ignited. 

What it means to respond vs. react

The words “respond” and “react” are often used interchangeably. Usually, that’s not a big deal. But there is a subtle distinction between the two that can sometimes be very important.

When you are introduced to a stimulus (think: hearing a song, watching the news, getting feedback from your boss, etc.), you are spurred into action, or the stimulus provokes a thought or feeling. But this can happen in a couple different ways: you can react, or you can respond.

If you react to the stimulus, you allow your automatic reaction to prevail. Whatever action, thought, or feeling comes up first is the one that drives you.

If you respond to the stimulus, you take a more thoughtful approach, giving yourself time to think about what you want and deliberately working to make that happen. 

Think about a young, untrained puppy going for a walk. Every stimulus provokes a reaction: cars, other people, sprinklers, trees, noises, and so on. They want to chase everything and see everything up close. When they are introduced to a stimulus, they go after it, automatically. They react.

Now think about an older, well-trained dog. This dog responds, rather than reacts, to their environment. This dog is able to stay focused on the walk itself, rather than on all the distractions around them. They can see another dog or hear an airplane fly by without overreacting. In other words, they are able to see what is going on, but instead of letting it affect them automatically, they choose whether or not to be affected.

In short, responding instead of reacting allows you to stay in control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor Frankl

How responding vs. reacting can help you keep your creative spark

So what does that have to do with creativity, exactly? Well, when you are trying to keep your creativity alive, everything helps. Here’s why this particular asset—knowing how to respond instead of react—can work so well.

It keeps your brain online.

When you react to something, you are letting your automatic instincts take over. We have all had those moments when it feels like we do or say something without thinking (and let’s face it—most of the time, we regret it later). When this happens you aren’t in control. You aren’t thinking clearly. In fact, you’re not thinking at all!

If you can learn to respond instead of react, however, you can keep your creative spark as you move forward deliberately and purposefully. You stay in control, and you can make sure that what you do next moves you in the right direction.

It leaves room for productive curiosity.

An untrained puppy is curious, but because they jump from one thing to the next so easily, their curiosity isn’t productive.

When your brain is online, however, you can channel your curiosity so that it actually serves you and your creative purposes. 

Plus, when we react to something, it is usually with a “WTF?” mindset. Rather than try to understand, we automatically judge. That rarely turns out well, and it excludes you from exploring something further. Responding allows you to ask “WHY?” in a thoughtful way so you can more deeply understand what’s going on. That understanding can fuel your creative spark more than snap judgements can. (Learn more about WHY vs. WTF in this story of two watches.)

It puts you in touch with your emotions.

Emotions power creativity. And they are better at doing that when they are identified and understood. 

When you react, you give yourself no time to process your emotions. You just…let out whatever comes up. Emotions, essentially, run out of control. And after the emotion fades, you’re left wondering what exactly you felt, and why. 

Responding, on the other hand, allows you to take a moment to identify the emotions you are experiencing. This gives you a better understanding of your emotions (and what triggers you) in both the short and long term. 

When you understand your emotions, you can tap into them to help fuel your creativity.

How to respond, not react

Choosing to respond instead of react is very important for creatives (and everyone, really). Learning how to do it can help keep you from getting derailed when you’re faced with difficult situations or troubling circumstances. 

If you want to respond, not react, to keep your creative spark, it’s basically a five-step process.

1. Pause.

First, give yourself a moment. Don’t allow an automatic reaction to take hold. Breathe deeply. Count to 10. Recite a mantra. Close your eyes for a moment. Do whatever you need to in order to create space for a thoughtful response. 

2. Identify the emotion.

What are you feeling? Start with a basic emotion (e.g. happy or sad) and then try to get more specific (e.g. excited, hopeful, rejected, discouraged). Getting specific about your emotions will help you navigate the nuances of the situation so you can get a better handle on things. This will allow you to respond, not react.

3. Question the emotion.

Why do you feel this way? What is your feeling based on? Is it insecurity? Fear? Relentless optimism? What is causing this particular emotion to come up inside you?

And also: is the feeling serving you? Is this how you want to feel about this particular situation? Will it help you get to where you’re trying to go? Will it help you create what you’re trying to create?

4. Think of your desired outcome.

If your automatic reaction is not serving you, or is simply not what you want to feel, then you need to imagine how you do want to feel. 

This can be tricky, because you need to choose an outcome that is realistic and that will help you feel better about the situation.

For example, let’s say you hit yet another roadblock on a creative project you’ve been working on for a while. Your immediate reaction is to feel angry, discouraged, and disappointed in yourself. When you are thinking of your desired outcome, it might be too much of a stretch to say that you want to feel excited and proud of yourself. If you try to convince yourself of that, it will feel disingenuous, and it won’t work. But could you tell yourself that you want to feel hopeful for the future, determined to continue, or grateful that you found something else that didn’t work?

Reframing the problem in a positive yet realistic way is a huge step toward crafting a response that will actually serve your creative purposes. 

5. Act accordingly.

Now that you know how you want to feel, what do you have to do to feel that way, and to perpetuate that feeling? 

It may be as simple as turning on a song that lifts your spirits. It may be as elaborate as taking a weekend getaway to clear your head and recenter yourself. No matter what it is, move forward with intention, knowing that you are responding to your circumstance in a healthy, thoughtful, and productive way. 

When you can respond, not react, to your life, it will help you keep your creative spark. It will help you experience more control, more optimism, more of the life that you actually want to live. It will help you “create happy” for yourself. And there’s nothing more important than that. 

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