Tag Archives: creativity

Big Questions

…or The 10 Things You Need to Know About Creativity

I’m exposed to a fair amount of social writings on creativity. From LinkedIn group digests to Fast Company articles, this results in a pretty constant stream of attention-grabbing (and comfortably quantified) leads, such as “The 5 Things Creative People Do Before Breakfast,” “Eight Rules for Fool-Proof Innovation,” and “How This One Dumb Trick Can Melt Your Creative Inhibitions.”

While I don’t begrudge the authors for angling for my attention this way — after all I’ve probably done it myself  — I am struck by the certitude of the statements. Ironic, because creativity is fueled by questions. It’s in asking the right question in the right way at the right time that gives us creative traction.

Big Questions in Creativity 2013This is one reason I’m proud to have a chapter in the recently published Big Questions in Creativity 2013: A Volume of First Works, Vol. 1. The book, a collection of ten graduate research papers, is published by the ICSC Press, the imprint of the International Center for Studies in Creativity, my alma mater. I’m also proud to be among peers exploring such diverse questions as “What is Creative Economy?,” “How Might Creative Problem Solving Combat Bullying?” and “What is the Role of Creativity in Talent Development?” To be sure, we do more than ask questions — we synthesize information, arrive at conclusions and make recommendations. But it all begins with a Big Question.

So if your appetite for writings on creativity extends beyond pithy headline reporting and into what editors Cynthia Burnett and Paul Reali call a “vibrant and often messy ‘multilogue'” designed to spur “new, provocative questions about the field of creativity,” then here’s The 1 Thing You Need To Do: buy this book.

(My chapter for those who are interested is “What are the Natural Relationships Between Creativity and Leadership,” a topic I’ve blogged on before.)


Feeling the Power

Originally posted at Innovation Bound.

How do you feel when you’re being creative?

Oh, it can be all over the map! Engaged, stumped, frustrated, blissed out, in a state of flow, driven, ferocious, unsparing, enchanted, oblivious to the world, unstoppable, like a vessel to the universe, a scribe to the muse, a slave to the drawing board.

Yep. All over the map.

But I bet, at least some of the time, being creative comes with a pronounced sense of “rightness” to it. Something just feels right. And if you pause and take the time to look inside, perhaps you feel, like I do, that you’re connecting with a part of yourself which feels solid, energized, authentic, and – no matter what your creative process might be yielding in that moment – in an important way, empowered.

What’s that about?

What is it about engaging in a process which by its very nature is a movement toward the unknown that can – though, albeit, not always – leave us feeling empowered?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a few months now.

Empowerment, I think, alludes to a movement from a position of less power, to one of greater power. Some would say it’s a restitution of the natural power we all have. And typically this greater power bears the hallmark of personal authenticity or relevancy: it’s rooted in you, in your very nature. It’s a return of something missing, or it’s the removal of an unnatural obstruction. To be empowered is, in my mind, a return to a natural state of personal power.

Creativity is a natural state as well. It, too, is rooted in our very nature. Often, accessing and strengthening our creativity is a process of restoring ourselves to a state of being creative, or of removing those obstacles which are blocking this natural capacity.

So creativity and empowerment have some things in common, at least in how they represent integral parts of who we are. But what’s the nature of the connection between them? How do they work together? Do they work together?

As I said, I’ve recently become curious about this. I’ve been asking around. One of my creativity colleagues offered that using affirmative judgment (a creative thinking skill) feeds the feeling of being empowered.

Another added that learning deliberate creativity practices like Creative Problem Solving gives you confidence-building tools for creativity, and this is empowering. I thought these were great answers.

A client offered: “To be creative but completely un-empowered would be useless. To be empowered and completely uncreative would be dogmatic.” I thought that was awesome.

Another said: “Being creative with a purpose equals empowerment.”

Lots of interesting responses, but I feel like there’s more in here to discover. What would you say? How do you think creativity and empowerment are related?

Photo courtesy of David Desilva – http://www.lightpaintsapicture.com/

Burn-out & Renewal

(originally posted at Innovation Bound)

It’s summer. The season of vacation. Time for time off.

I know it’s summer because the days are longer, if not really hotter in Seattle where I live. But would I know it’s summer because I actually took some time off? Took some vacation? Stopped working for awhile?

What a novel idea.

So this summer, I did. Two whole weeks. Wow! Unusual for me. Ok – Ten days. Well, really it was nine. You get the point. It’s so easy, and often feels so necessary, to just keep working. In the fight for personal time, I often lose the battle, struggling with feelings of trying to do too much, and yet not doing nearly enough. The recipe for burn-out.

For my vacation, I went to my home state of Colorado. It was on fire.

Talk about burning out.

My family lives in Ft. Collins – the urban center closest to the High Park Fire, which briefly held status as the most destructive fire in the history of the state.

Image of Burn Zone - High Park Fire

Hot, dry weather, winds, and stands of beetle-kill ponderosa pine had fed the firefor weeks by the time I arrived. Ft. Collins itself was ok – and when I was there, the winds had died and the smokiness abated. By the time I left, the fire was 100% contained.

Except in my imagination. I had seen the effects of the burning, but not the fire itself. What must it have been like to see the hillsides ablaze? All that heat and energy.

It got me thinking: like a forest fire, creativity runs hot. Creativity is energy-intensive. Creativity can be all consuming.

And it also demands renewal. We renew ourselves when we let go. When we accept the fact that we don’t have the answer, even though we needed it yesterday. We renew ourselves when we stop trying so hard to be creative, when we trust that, in letting go, we permit our creative thinking to descend down past our conscious awareness and control, where, in an underground world, new insights are seeded. If we can’t let go, we can’t renew. If we can’t stop working – even working “creatively” – we burn out.

Mulling this over as I was, two books came to mind. In the Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron recommends two regular practices for staying connected to your creativity: writing three pages of stream of consciousness journaling every morning; and taking yourself out on an “Artist’s Date” once a week to do something which inspires you. Regular creative practices such as these, done for their own sake, and not for any specific outcome, keep our creativity moist and replenished.

The second book is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (may he rest in peace). The 7th Habit: Sharpening the Saw – Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal includes giving attention to ourselves physically, socially/emotionally and spiritually, as well as mentally. Covey is clear: if we don’t renew in these ways, nothing else – no great problem-solving, breakthrough thinking, innovative insight, or deft leadership – is possible, at least not over time, not in a sustained or sustainable fashion.

As a creativity professional, I’ve known these things for years. Yet how often do I follow my own best advice? Not that often. And how much am I willing to risk by not letting go? Acres and acres of my own personal ponderosa pine. Compulsive determination becomes it’s own version of beetle-kill, draining the juice out of ideas and possibilities, leaving them dried out and exposed, endangering the creative ecosystem.

On my last day in Colorado, I took a short drive through the outskirts of the burn zone. Thinking back on the images of both burned and living trees, and the mountain homes saved through heroism and chance, I offer the following creative conservation measures:

  1. Recognize the signs of impending burn-out. Does your creative thinking feel all dried out? Or pliant, flexible and alive?
  2. At the first sign of fire, sound the alarm. Don’t wait.
  3. Draw a line: be willing to sacrifice this much, but no more. Protect what you can.
  4. Be ready to evacuate: if the fire is that close, leave. Get some down time.
  5. Ask for help. Who’s on your Volunteer Fire Department? Your creativity is a natural community resource, and we’re all the worse off if it goes up in smoke.
  6. Acknowledge the loss. House burn down in this one? For god’s sake, don’t pretend that’s no big deal! Talking about your experience honors the loss and motivates the rest of us to take preventative measures.

And here are some tips for a healthy creative forest, with some inspiration from Julia Cameron and Steven Covey:

  1. Diversify yourself – take Artist’s Dates (Cameron); be engaged socially, read, write and study (Covey). A diverse forest is less susceptible to disease.
  2. Manage your resources – get exercise, manage stress, meditate (Covey).
  3. Know your own inner ecosystem – journal, free-associate (Cameron); visualize, clarify your personal values, and connect synergistically with others (Covey). The better you understand yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for your unique biodiversity.
  4. Practice good forest husbandry – keep your saws sharpened (Covey); hone your daily practices, such as Morning Pages (Cameron); be willing to clear out the deadwood inessentials (Covey).

And finally, remember that renewal is not only necessary for our sanity, but a natural process that follows even the worst of burn-outs. As destructive as the High Park Fire was, even before I left Colorado I heard report that, deep in the stands of charred ponderosa, oak seedlings are already peeking forth.



Creating a Business

Last fall I gave a short workshop on small business development for my local SCORE chapter — a wonderful community resource for entrepreneurs and small business owners. The content was focused on using the creative process deliberately as a tool for business development. It came to me as a result of my recent Master’s work in applied creativity and innovation, and as a sort of “stumbled-upon” process which I discovered I had intuitively fallen into in the course of my own entrepreneurial marching-forth.

When I set out to form a consulting business based on theatre practices, I had a wish to bring to organizations some of the things I’d learned from years being an actor. It took me awhile — talking to people, taking classes, partnering with others, etc. — before I realized I wanted to target leadership and organizational development, and creativity. Once I knew this, I was in the course of playing around with ideas on programs to offer, how to describe my work, how to improve my skills, etc. — when I went back to school and got my Master’s. Strengthened by the teachings, and able to incorporate the content directly into my programs, I then set forth planning how I would continue to move my work out into the world.

What I just described took about 4 years. It also followed, more or less and through no deliberate intention of my own, the classic model of Creative Problem Solving: from Exploring a Goal, Wish or Challenge, through Generating Ideas and Planning for Action, plus it’s six internal process steps — with some looping back and forth for good measure. Had I known the process model at the beginning of my journey, would it have gone by any more quickly or efficiently? Quite possibly.

But that’s not so much the point I want to make here, as much as to draw attention to the natural sequence of entrepreneurial efforts, and how well they match to CPS. This was the topic of my presentation. My audience was a room full of SCORE counselors, who donate their time to helping small businesses come into the world and flourish. They appreciated the connection between a deliberate process of creative thinking, and the sequence of steps a small business goes through in its various stages from conception to execution. At a time when job creation and healthy business development is so sought after, it makes sense to channel the natural entrepreneurial instincts through a tried-and-true model of deliberate creativity. From actresses-turning-consultants, to the next best gizmo, to the new coffee shop down the street, small business development benefits from Creative Problem Solving.

image by Gilles Chiroleu

Creativity and Empowerment

Both our sense of empowerment and our sense of our creativity arise from a connection with the self — and both have a forward-facing aspect as well, as we experience the many ways in which the world responds to us, our initiatives and our creative ideas. 

When we engage our creativity, we connect to something important inside of ourselves. As we cultivate that connection, we increase our sense of personal power.

And in parallel, our sense of empowerment can help us tough it out in our creative endeavors, especially when we need to go against the grain in the realization of our visions.

We have a very personal relationship with both creativity and empowerment — which is not to say that we do both of them well, all the time. But they certainly cut to the heart of who we are. There’s also a sense of initiative, or agency, embedded in both: in acting on them, we change our environment.

Perhaps the height of empowerment is what Abraham Maslow famously called “self-actualization,” the human drive to develop ourselves into our full selves, and live life from that perspective, as much as possible. Maslow saw a connection between creativity and empowerment. During a time when creativity was often studied in the lives of great artists and scientists, Maslow became interested in what he called “self-actualizing creativity,” which he considered to be “synonymous with…essential humanness.” According to this view, whether making a poem or a soup, a creative life becomes an empowered one.

references: Maslow, A. H. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being.
photo credit: Lincolian (Brian)


European Conference on Creativity and Innovation

I will be traveling to Brussels at the end of October to present a workshop at the 11th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation.

It’s a great opportunity to get to know some people in the creativity field in Europe, and also to connect with some friends and colleagues.

The conference theme is “Make it Happen.” Very often the attention in creativity goes to how we generate new ideas (“ideation”). At this conference, they are making a real effort to focus on the next step: implementation.

I will be delivering a workshop called “Riding the Arc of the Story: Harnessing Literary and Dramatic Techniques for Effective Implementation.” The idea is this: when we start to implement an idea, put it into action, very often we will hit a roadblock. So, what does it mean to us when that happens? How do we interpret it?

I propose that by looking at roadblocks and obstacles through a different set of glasses, we might learn to interpret them in a new way. That new set of glasses is the structure of narrative arts. So we’ll be looking at things that storytellers (actors and writers) do, on a structural level, that can shine some light on the perils and promises of implementation.

A few days later, I will be teaming up with Marcel van der Pol, who does wonderful work with storytelling (he’s also a presenter at the conference). In the morning, he will offer a workshop on The Story of the Hero. I follow up in the afternoon with Powerful Personal Presence, a workshop on how to deliver material (or tell stories…) with confidence and authenticity. Information on that day of programs is here.

And, over the weekend, I hope to reprise the workshop on Embodying Sustainability, which I first developed for the International Organization Development Association conference a few years ago.

My good friend Cyriel Kortleven at New Shoes Today in Belgium is the connector behind these additional events… His work is exciting, and worth knowing about. Find him here. (He will also be one of the MC’s for the ECCI conference.)

All in all, I’m sure there will be much fun and interesting connections. Look to further blogs for news on how it’s all unfolding.

Riding the Arc of the Story: Inciting Obstacles

All of a sudden, you have it: a beautiful idea! It comes to you full blown and shimmery. Perhaps something brand new you’ve never before conceived, or perhaps the result of pondering long and hard. Regardless, there it is: exciting, and full of energy. Your idea can do no wrong. The world is its oyster. It is your helium balloon.

Ideation. What a great place to be.

You, and perhaps a happy gang of fellow-ideators, begin to bring this effervescent, brilliant idea into being. Plans are drawn, schemes concocted, url’s purchased and celebrations forseen. It’s all a giddy whirl.

Until the obstacles start to arrive. Perhaps not with the first obstacle, or the second, or the third. But eventually it happens: something comes up and you don’t know if you can get around it. As sure as ideas are born, obstacles come in their wake. It is like a natural law.

In the move from ideation to implementation or execution, the emergence of obstacles can tell us many things. It can be a reality check, or a good moment for redirection. A serious obstacle has the power to derail the entire scheme. Most people, I think, realize that when ideas hit the real world, they are reshaped, and sometimes with difficulty.

But how do we respond when it happens? Think especially of group endeavors. How do different personalities react to the emergence of a serious obstacle to implementation? Can you think of a time when someone has thrown up their hands and said: “At last! Now the real story has begun!”

That’s what the narrative arts have to show us. If we look at the implementation phase through the lens of narrative structure, we can see how stories don’t really get started until the first big whammy. There’s even a term for it: the inciting event. Anything before the inciting event (also sometimes known as the first plot point), is merely background, setting the stage. The action does not really begin to elucidate meaning within the framework of the story, until something unexpected shows up.

The arrival of obstacles which appear to thwart our plans does not necessarily mean that the idea wasn’t solid or real enough for the real world. In fact, it might be just the opposite. The natural pairing of idea and obstacle, story and inciting event, can give us energy for the next phase: the rising action.

I’ll be exploring other narrative structural elements in later posts. I’ll also be giving a workshop on the use of the narrative arts in effective implementation for the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation, in Brussels in late October. And, as befits the theme, I’ve been noticing that since I had the idea for the workshop…well, let’s just say that I’ve been keeping good company with some of my favorite obstacles. But more on that to come…

Fear of the Pink Tutu

Over the past several months, I’ve been part of a team developing an experiential program on creativity and innovation for business audiences.

We are now stepping up our marketing efforts for the program, and in the course of this I contacted my network, asking permission to send info on “a creativity and innovation program.” One person replied with the question:

Are we talking about professional creativity, or artistic creativity?

I understood the question, and the concern which I think it implied: does this program impart business value?

But I was also struck by the terms which he used to frame the question: “professional” or “artistic.”

I trust that he is savvy enough to understand that many, many artists produce their work at a professional level; and I also know him to be a person enough in tune to the human dynamic in business settings to appreciate the artistry often evident in management and leadership. So I don’t think he really intended to imply that the two values are in opposition.

But I do think his language points to something important, something deeper—an unease with the particular type of human expression (for this discussion, we’ll label it “artistic”) which often seems, from the outside, to operate on a weird, irrational level.

A friend and I (she is a businesswoman and artist like myself) have coined a phrase for this: Fear of the Pink Tutu.

This is the fear that: (a) if a particular type of artsy-creativity is allowed to infiltrate the corridors of industry, any number of serious-minded professionals will be seduced into abandoning their business objectives and throwing themselves into pantomimes of Swan Lake; or (b) that—in a somewhat less threatening but nonetheless similarly uncomfortable display—said serious-minded professionals will be forced to endure a demonstration of the same by an erstwhile team of artsy “consultants.”

I wonder about the Pink Tutu phenomenon. To be quite frank, I do believe, from years of experience, that there often is something mysterious about the “artistic/creative” process. And yes, that this is part of its power—for both the artist and the audience.

And, I’m also learning that there is enough stuff and nonsense out there about “creativity” in the business world, that the serious-minded professional is wise to be selective.

Still, the the idea that the sometimes mysterious, irrational process of “artistic creativity” might actually have business value needn’t be a risky proposition. Studies show that students who engage in music and drama classes score higher than their peers, not only in language arts, which we might expect, but also in math and science. Expressive arts enhance emotional literacy, compassion, and self-knowledge, at all ages.

It is, ultimately, that which is within us that drives us. But can we always name it? Or is it, too, something of a mystery? The degree to which we can experience the mysterious and seemingly irrational (or non-rational) components in ourselves is the degree to which we can fully inhabit our lives, professional and otherwise. It brings wholeness, which brings wisdom—which is a very friendly condition for professional success.

So, what color is your tutu?

Primary and Elemental

Two books in my current stack, having a conversation with each other:

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by educator par excellence, Sir Ken Robinson, PhD; and poet David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.

Robinson advocates for finding your Element: that place where your natural talent and passion lie. Whyte’s sea is the metaphorical setting for the voyage we take through our working lives.

I have been reading Robinson cover to cover, as research for a creativity and innovation program I’ve helped to develop. For Whyte’s poetic meditation, I tend to page through here and there, dipping my toes in the water as it were.

I love it when books begin to have a conversation with each other. Here’s how it went yesterday:

Robinson: “When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being.”

Whyte: “We need, at every stage in our journey through work, to be in conversation with our desire for something suited to us and our individual natures.”

Robinson: these issues “are of fundamental importance in our lives and in the lives of our children, our students, and the people we work with.”

Whyte: “The human soul thrives on and finds courage from the difficult intimacies of belonging.”

Robinson: “Being in your element often means being connected with other people who share the same passions and have a common sense of commitment.”

Community, commitment, passion, our true natures. Sure makes sense. Sounds good. But now listen to Whyte:

“…but it is almost as if, afraid of those primary intimacies, we have unconsciously created a work world so secondary, so complex, and so busy and bullied by surface forces that, embroiled in those surface difficulties, we have the perfect busy excuse not to wrestle with the more essential difficulties of existence, the difficulties of finding a work and a life suited to our individual natures…”

Woa. If finding the Element is so elemental to our well being, and if the soul thrives in the intimacies of belonging, but that primacy is covered over with secondary busyiness in the working worlds we’ve created…how are we going to pull it off?

Let me bring in a third voice here, someone I ran across in my coursework. Good old A.H. Maslow:

“…out of this deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play—to enjoy, to fantasy, to laugh, to loaf, to be spontaneous—and, what’s most important for us here, creativity, a kind of intellectual play, which is a kind of permission to be ourselves.”

I’m going to build the next link here and say that I don’t think we can really attain the sort of Element-supporting intimacy with others that Whyte asks of us (and Robinson implies), if we’re not being ourselves. If that’s the case, let’s suppose in the service of the primary and the elemental, that it is play (especially play at work) which is our missing ingredient.

Or, to spin the words primary and elementary just a bit, maybe it’s time for recess.

Janus and the Big Tent

Janus is the Roman god with the two faces, one looking forward and one back (or: in opposition). In the 1970’s, psychiatrist Albert Rothenburg coined the term “Janusian Thinking” to describe the oppositional energies that are often present in creativity.

An image of Janus hangs on the wall outside the creative studies library at Buffalo State College. (It’s fitting that he hangs at the threshold, as Janus was also the god of doorways and passages…)

Head of Janus. Butler Library, Buffalo State College

Head of Janus. Butler Library, Buffalo State College

I just returned from my first two weeks as a student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State. I learned many wonderful things, among which was this concept of Janusian Thinking. I’m holding onto it, in fact, because in order to embark on this education (which will lead to a Master of Science degree), I’ve needed to expose my personal understanding of how creativity has manifested in my life (from the artistic point of view), to challenges and probably also to changes. A dear friend, upon hearing my intention to begin the program, asked: “Aren’t you afraid it will destroy the magic?”

Yeah, sometimes I have been.

But my first two weeks in the program showed me something else that I find just as important as theories of contradiction and paradox: diversity. My cohort is made up of professionals in painting, photography, food science, consulting, communications, academia, government, etc. As we came to know each other over the course of the two weeks, it became abundantly clear that “creativity” is a Big Tent kind of place. There’s lots of room here—for the science, and the art.

As I think about it now, perhaps the role of Janus as presider-over of doorways (hence, beginnings) is just as significant to creativity as his role of embodying paradox. Perhaps it’s in developing comfort with polarities (art/science; inspiration/measurement; sensing/thinking, etc, etc) that we really come to appreciate being lifted over the threshold, and into the tent.