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The Maker's High

by Clint Watson

This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.

A few days ago, I saw one of those home improvement shows on television. [1]  The crew planned to remodel a room, so the host started by drawing a sketch of what the room would look like after the job was completed.  Part of the redesign included adding a skylight.  As the construction started, the workers cut a square hole in the roof and lowered the new skylight into place.  And, as it slipped into place, the host went absolutely crazy with glee.  For a second, I wondered, "why is he getting so excited?"  After all, he knew they were going to add the skylight, so it wasn't a surprise to him.  But, after a moment, I realized what was going on.  It had taken me a moment to realize that I often feel the same way.  I just didn't immediately recognized the reaction because I don't, personally, get too excited about construction.  But I do know why he was excited.

He was experiencing what I'm going to call The Maker's High.

By "maker" I'm referring to people like artists, writers, hackers [2], and musicians. And I think they all probably experience the Maker's High.  

Makers all have in common that they envision something in their mind's eye.  Something that, once envisioned, they then turn into a reality by working in some "medium".  They turn an idea into a real-world "thing."  

Now, when I say it like that, it all sounds so neat and organized.  I made it sound like you create things in a step by step fashion.  But in reality it's a lot more messy.....and fun.  You may start with a rough vision of the end, and then start working with the medium, which gives you some new ideas, so the vision changes a little, and then you discover something you can do with the medium that you never realized before, so the vision changes a bit more. And so it continues.  So in reality, it's actually both a process of bringing a vision to life and a process of discovery.  It's exhilarating and frustrating all at the same time.

Of course, this is just a hypothesis at this point.  I haven't actually talked to other artists about it, but I suspect that all makers experience a sort of "high" by seeing their creations "come to life."  It's this "coming to life" part that's the important bit.  After all, I don't think that I get an intrinsic high by typing things such as,"while (!$rs->EOF) {updateRecord($i); $i++; $rs->movenext();}" Those characters are just the medium.  But, when I flip over to the output screen of such code and actually see it do something I get a bit of a rush.  That rush can only be described as a "high."  Perhaps I'm an addict, because that rush pushes me to write some more code and experience that feeling again.  I can't help but think that painters must get the same "high" [3]

We humans must just be wired to experience the "maker's high."  In fact, deep down, I suspect that everyone has a creative drive.  In some it may be long-suppressed and dormant.  But, if you dig long enough and deep enough - it's there.  I seriously don't think I've ever met anyone who had absolutely no creative drive at all.  It's one of the things that sets us apart from animals.  Humans create great things.  Animals don't.  Chimpanzees don't create The David.  Animals are creatures, humans are creators.  

There's something very soul-satisfying, even spiritual about creating.  It actually doesn't matter what you believe spiritually for this to remain true.  It could be that humans simply evolved to be creators because that was how we were able to survive and thrive an inhospitable Darwinian environment.  Or, it could be that we really are created in the Creator's image.  After all, if HE gets a high and derives pleasure from His creation, it only makes sense that we would get a similar high from ours.

Artist Hazel Dooney recently wrote on her blog, "I've tried every drug except heroin. Every experience was a waste of time and energy." That makes sense to me.  She's an artist - so the high that drugs provide must seem but a cheap imitation of the "real" maker's high.  Being an artist, Hazel must experience the "maker's high" on a regular basis - what could a drug possibly offer one after experiencing the real thing?  [4][5]

Saying that a drug could provide the same high as the maker's high would be like saying porn is the same thing as love.

The maker's high is expensive.  It's hard to explain unless you've actually experienced it.  The act of creation is both draining and exhilarating simultaneously.  I'm never so exhausted as I am after a day of coding.  It's as if I poured part of my soul right into the computer.  But the high keeps me going.  We've all heard of hackers who've coded for 48 hours straight.  I understand how that happens.  Personally I've even done as much as 36 hours.  When true inspiration strikes artists should drop everything and follow it.  But what if the inspiration doesn't stop but just flows continuously?  When that happens you end up creating for hours and hours on end until it stops or until you finally stop from exhaustion, whichever happens first.  I'm very curious:  does this same phenomenon happen to painters?  Are there painters who sometimes paint for 36 hours straight?  

Hugh MacLeod calls this phenomenon the Hunger.  He says, "The Hunger will give you everything. And it will take from you, everything. It will cost you your life, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it."  

I don't think I can ever say it better than that.

Now, go change the world,

Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic



[1]  I generally don't watch television anymore, not because of some moral stand against TV, but because there's rarely anything I find interesting on.  The only time I usually watch is while working out and it seems like the only programs that are on at that time besides ridiculous reality shows are home improvement shows.

[2] I use the term "Hackers" to mean someone who uses programming as a medium to create cool things, like interesting web applications. In other words, a "maker."  Not all programmers are "makers."  Your average Java programmer in a corporate setting who is creating functions to someone else's specs is not a "maker" in the sense of this article.  Such a programmer might be a maker on his/her own time, but not in the setting of implementing Java functions.  Incidently, the word "hacker" does not mean "someone who breaks into computers."  I use the word in the same sense that Paul Graham does.

[3] And I don't mean from the turpentine. 

[4] I guess a drug could offer something: perhaps a form of escape.  After a long, exhausting (but exhilarating) week of creating, I admit that I enjoy a nice wine buzz as much as the next guy.  The "high" that I get from wine is nothing compared to the maker's high.  But, in moderation, it does help me relax and recharge.  Everyone needs to recharge themselves in some way.  Even God rested on the seventh day.

[5]  I certainly don't want to put any words into Hazel's mouth here.  I'm giving you the reasons I suspect that drugs might not be of interest to a true maker.  She may have other reasons as to why drugs were a waste of time for her.

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