How Your Pain Can Improve Your Creativity

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
— James Baldwin

My Earliest Memory of Pain

The sun hissed from the concrete, creaking in pain from the dry, Utah heat that sucks the moisture out of the air and leaves your elbows the color of ash.

I wandered outside of my apartment, edging towards the gravel parking lot in the center of the complex. There was little grass or open areas to play in, so local kids made due with what they had -- turning rocks into coveted instruments, and runt sized twigs fallen from trees into action figures. All of these items would morph into inventive, and sometimes dangerous, games we all wanted to play.

Twenty feet away from my apartment door I spotted a group of girls I recognized, all around the age of 5, same age as me. They were fixated on a razor-thin white rope, stretched as taut as a balancing act between two wooden stakes in the ground. The rope spanned a grassy island on the edge of the lot, and was a marking left over from construction work done earlier in the day. Each girl took turns walking up to the rope, which was thigh high on their little bodies, hopping over it to see who could clear it without taking a tumble. I wanted a part of this new game.

I walked up to the leader of the group and asked if I could try. She nodded and stepped to one side of the rope and another girl stood on the other side. I backed up slightly, nervous to get enough momentum to clear it totally. As I strode forward I hiked my knees up to my chest in a hop, feeling like a mini Olympian. No one could touch me!

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the leader girl snatch the rope in her hands, and the girl across from her followed, snapping it higher into the air. My stomach sank as I knew my jump was too short. My feet caught the rope, leaving the lower half of my body behind as I crashed into the gravel on the other side of the grass. I laid in a heap knowing that I did something bad to my knee as the pain was immediate and sharp. I glanced down at my right knee and saw what black people like to call the white meat springing open from my brown skin, like the fleshy meat of a lobster tail, with cocktail colored red blood spurting from the wound. The white meat should never show so I knew I was in trouble, and my first reaction was to start bawling uncontrollably. The girls quickly stopped their laughter at the trick they had pulled when they saw it wasn't just a little scratch.

This was one of my earliest memories of pain, a permanent reminder left with a  keloid wrinkled scar on my right knee.


Pain is something we take large precautions to avoid. The psychical pain of accidents, ill health, and pushing our bodies to our limits. The mental pain of stress, fear, betrayal, and turmoil.  

In this past week, I can’t tell you the number of times I heard friends talk about our social and political issues without deep sadness and anguish. From Nazis, white nationalist rallies, protestor deaths, and incompetent leaders, to the imminent tension of racism and unaddressed social wounds this country has, there’s a lot of generational pain coming to the surface. Social media gives us a window into this pain with a 24/7 cycle of information.

Although pain feels awful, it can also be channeled into productive outcomes for creators. Adversity is the birthplace of creativity, forcing individuals to determine solutions because they have no other choice. Studies show constraints can actually be helpful in inducing creativity and finding solutions to problems because it gives you a starting point and parameters to work with.  

Pain is complex, at times it’s unavoidable, seeping into your bones and mind from the actions of others. We cannot control how pain occurs, but we can control how we react to it.  

The Pain Framework

The next time you’re confronted with unpleasant emotions from a problem in your personal life or in the world, take a beat to reflect and do some TLC -- we all need self care under an initial onslaught.

Once the initial brunt has passed go through the the following steps;

  1. Find the Source -- What problem is feeding the pain you’re experiencing? Ask yourself “What does the problem look, feel, sound like? How does it function or is manifested?” For instance, the resurgence of Nazi’s in the public sphere is an extension of bigotry and racism. You cannot solve a problem without identifying what it is. You have to find and diagnose the cancer before you can release the chemo (hypothetically of course).

  2. Identify Your Constraints -- You’re one person with a dollar (maybe more) and a dream. You can’t solve all the problems in the world on your own, but you can determine what limitations you face and what resources you have at your disposal. Your resources could be as simple as your wit, knowledge, point of point of view, ability to motivate others, your ability to build things with your hands -- the list goes on. Once you know what you can and cannot do, you’ll have the building blocks for starting something. And every movement and creation begins with a small start. 

  3. Craft Your Secret Sauce (a.k.a theory of change) -- Your secret sauce is the beliefs and tactics that are a solution for the problem you’re facing. Doing research to back up your ideas is imperative, so it’s grounded in reality. Once you have that baseline, combining that knowledge with your unique circumstances, constraints, and resources, can help you determine what you believe is a solution to your problem. For instance, media shapes perceptions of groups for better and for worse. I believe by exposing people to positive, helpful stories that include people of color within universal topics, we can begin to combat the negative perceptions of people of color in the media -- one of the reasons why I created The New Quo and share the stories that I do! Your solution may not be a silver bullet to the problem you’re facing, but it’s a start to productively combatting and chipping away at it.

Pain is a conundrum that’s terrible to face, but a great motivator when our back’s are against the wall. Keep the pain framework in mind next time pain is on the line.