Radiolab founder and co-host Jad Abumrad uses only two words to summarize the crux of the creative process: gut churn. He shared his insights on this unpleasant state with an enthusiastic audience during a multimedia lecture at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on September 30.
What is Gut Churn?
The presentation was inspired by a conversation between Abumrad and a WNYC colleague, who described the early days of Radiolab as: “Gut churn. Years and years of being sick to my stomach… Because someday somebody was going to ask us what was going on, what our plan was for this… and it was a longtime before we were able to answer those questions. That big in-between space was where a lot of gut churn took place.”
In other words, gut churn is that horrible, sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re trying to create something new, but there’s no clear path ahead.
Recognizing that this feeling wasn’t unique to Radiolab, but rather, a regular part of the process for anyone endeavoring to create something new, Abumrad set out to explore this nausea-inducing phenomenon: Is gut churn useful? What is its role in the creative process? Does it hinder or help? How can we best cope with it?
In typical Radiolab style, the multimedia presentation – which lasted just under 90 minutes and included performances by cellist Zoë Keating – highlighted a variety of perspectives on the topic, including Abumrad’s own experience. In an evening full of memorable takeaways, here are three of Abumrad’s best:
Mind the Gap
One method of fighting gut churn: create constantly. During his lecture, Abumrad shared a YouTube clip featuring fellow NPR host Ira Glass, in which Glass explains that all those who do creative work must deal with something he calls “the gap:” that agonizing space between having an idea and actually creating work that lives up to one’s ambition. This gap, explained Abumrad, is where most gut churn takes place. Watch an animation of Glass’ statement below:
The gist: When you find yourself in the gap, push forward. In order to survive the gut churning process of finding your unique creative voice, you must relentlessly create, even with the knowledge that much of what you create is not up to snuff.
Follow the Odds
Gut churn is often accompanied by a great deal of uncertainty, usually involving the fear of failure. After all, any time you embark on a creative project, you must absorb a certain amount of personal or professional risk – often a terrifying prospect. Taking his cue from the world of professional poker, Abumrad explored how understanding the odds can ease gut churn.
For example: people often embark on a creative project with one story idea in mind. However, if you need to deliver a single story, but only chase down a single lead, you need 100% odds to succeed. No poker player in their right mind would take these odds. However, if you only need one story, but instead chase down four leads, you only need a 25% success rate. Suddenly, your chance of winning has much better odds.
The gist: You can psychologically work your way through gut churn by acknowledging that only a certain percentage of your ideas will come to fruition. Playing the odds can ease the fear of uncertainty and moderate it with an element of measured risk.
Navigate the Dark Forest
For Abumrad, experiencing gut churn is akin to being lost in a dark forest. There is a point in many creative projects, he explained, when failure looms like a dark shadow, you can’t see a clear path to your goal, the voices in your head preach the fear of failure, and your mind (and sometimes body) slips into an adrenalin-fueled fight-or-flight mode.
Most people who do creative work have experienced this – it is the low point in any project. The bad news: you often can’t avoid it. Many projects will, at some point, find their way into the forest. According to Abumrad, it is how you perceive the forest that makes the difference. After emerging from a harrowing journey into the forest when producing his 2004 Radiolab episode about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, he saw that the dark forest – the heart of the gut churn – was also a place of transcendence. It acted as a crucible though which his ideas must pass in order transform into exceptional work. He now views the forest not as a place dominated by fear, but as a creative tool (albeit, a frightening one).
The gist: Gut churn may be an unavoidable part of creative work. But rather than fear it, we need to embrace the churn. By recognizing its transformative power, we can stop viewing it as a roadblock and instead see it as a crucial part of the creative process.