The Sisyphus Fallacy

In the current edition of COMMUNICATION ARTS, the advertising editor, Ernie Schenck, talks about the

trying too hard effect that many creatives tend to encounter.

Sisyphus (or Sisyphos) is a figure from Greek mythology who, as king of Corinth, became infamous for his general trickery and twice cheating death. He ultimately got his comeuppance when Zeus dealt him the eternal punishment of forever rolling a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades, which, once he reaches his goal, he missteps and the boulder rolls all the way back to the bottom for him to move once again. Founder of the Isthmian Games and grandfather of Bellerophon, he is nowadays best remembered as a poignant symbol of the folly of those who seek to trifle with the natural order of things and avoid humanity’s sad but inescapable lot of mortality. The adjective Sisyphean denotes a task which can never be completed.

The primary thesis of the editor’s essay is that we humans, and creatives more specifically, tend to over-think our work, causing all sorts of delays and frustration. When we feel compelled to hurry or rush through things, we inevitably cause problems that make our work a chore to complete, or to work on at all. And then we find we haven’t functioned at our peak skill level, making rookie mistakes or overlooking basic errors that, had one taken more time and given more focus, would have caught. It could mean the difference between a merely good creative and a great creative.

Get out of your own way

In her book Badass Habits, Jen Sincero calls this surrendering, Schenk writes. Instead of struggling with a problem, it’s better if we simply surrender to it. “If we’re not careful, we can often become obsessed with thoughts that it’s taking too long or it’s not working,” she says. “Once you surrender, however, you unhook yourself from all that negative energy, you’re no longer held captive by desperation, doubt and disappointment, and a whole new world opens to you.”

Perhaps not so strangely, it happens to nearly everyone at some point in their life. It can show up as writer’s block, creative frustration or fatigue, a feeling of stagnation or falling into a slump. We may feel our work is lackluster, or lacks real creative ingenuity, or is boring. This sometimes results in a lack of faith in one’s self, feeling like an imposter, or worse. Many labels have been placed on this phenomena over the centuries.

Not allowing yourself to stumble over your own excessive thinking is one way to avoid the pitfall of creative fatigue and burnout.