Over the last two decades of sitting with leaders in Corporate America, I’ve noticed a hunger for creativity equally balanced with a belief that sounds something like this: “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” Or sometimes “I can’t draw a straight line.”
What do I then hear, especially after they have been working with me for a while? “I started taking guitar lessons.” “I am setting up an art studio in my house.” “I found the perfect place for me to practice dance.” These clients are starting to experience unobstructed self-expression.
By the way, I love these words strung together: unobstructed self-expression. I’m borrowing it from Josh Waitzkin, the author of The Art of Learning and the chess prodigy featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
We are born creative beings. If you doubt it, just watch children – the younger the better. After a few years in school, they start conforming and following the rules and for many, pretty soon, there is no self-expression. In his classic book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordan MacKenzie tells a story of visiting elementary schools and asking the children “Who here is an artist?” In first grade, almost all the hands raise. By sixth grade, only a few dare to slightly lift their hands.
Like a water hose that gets holes in it or bent in half, soon there is no flow and before long we forget we ever had that kind of freedom to be.
Until something triggers the memory, the long forgotten sensation of possibility, the joy of making something.
When I was a kid, my parents took us to visit my aunt in another town. Just after we arrived, my mom presented my sister and me with some felt tip pens and a blank notebook – with no lines! As a parent looking back on this moment, I’m pretty sure my mom was grasping for something, anything that would keep us contained and being good little girls.
For me though, I will always remember the velvet feeling of the felt tip on the page and the delight involved in making this the most beautiful sketchbook ever. For at least an hour, I rode the wave of elation.
And then I crashed.
The drawings on the page looked like nothing in my head. The thought “I’ve ruined it!” bounced around in my head like a pinball that would never drain. Soon the pen and journal were lost or forgotten and I’m pretty sure I became the pain in the ass my mom was trying desperately to contain.
Fast forward 25 years later and I’m a banker wearing “man-suits”, using black pens and enforcing policies when I walk into a training program to teach me to be a trainer. On the table were colored markers. As I guiltily opened them, I snuck glances at the door waiting for someone to burst in to confiscate them.
I seriously felt like a subversive revolutionary. Especially when I realized that I liked colored markers that smelled like orange and grape and blueberry! Surely this kind of joy was not allowed in the halls of Corporate America.
That tiny earthquake set me off on a creative journey that has lasted the next 25 years. As I write this, I’m drinking from a mug made with my own hands. I’m sitting under one of my paintings filled with joyful hues of orange, purple and blue. The Lynn of 25 years ago could not have dreamed that a little thing like colored felt tip markers could be the key that unlocked my creative obstructions.
I should actually say the key unlocked the first tiny door of my creative obstructions.
Flow was not restored in that momentary flash of possibility. It was more like a squirt. I certainly could not see the many obstructions I would come to face. Perhaps if I had known, I would have silently slid back into the prison of my mind and I would still be a banker with a lot of money and no joy.
Because it is a war that continues to this day. Unobstructed self-expression requires letting go of precious resources designed to keep me safe but not whole.
What happened that day back in nineteen sixty something when I crashed after my creative high? I unconsciously made a choice to keep me safe. I said to myself quietly and outside of my conscious awareness: “You are not an artist. Don’t even try.” And with that decision, I cut off a part of myself.
What happened when I opened those colored markers back in nineteen ninety something? It touched a hunger deep inside of me to express myself – my true self – and it began to whisper “You can do this.” The hunger was greater than the fear of being judged. Most days.
To my great fortune, I soon had a chance to take the HBDI Thinking Styles Assessment. My profile showed that under pressure, I was decidedly analytical, quantitative and black and white. Yet I could also see my creative possibilities right there on the page. AND – insert the sound of the hallelujah chorus here -the assessment also included exercises to develop my creativity!
The core message is simple. I have a whole brain. Learning to use it takes practice, patience and determination.
Those nonsense voices that say “Don’t even try” can be coaxed into becoming cheerleaders for a mission of developing unobstructed self-expression.
What are your obstructions to self-expression? What beliefs have you constructed to keep yourself safe? How can you cultivate your hunger for self-expression? What form does your creativity take?
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By: Jennifer Maneely
I recently started embarking on this journey of finding that creative outlet that motivates and inspires me to work on this thing called Mastery. I make jokes with people all the time about how I am a jack of all trades but a master of none. I can do a little bit of everything, but I master none of it.
Here is the thing I am acutely aware of, I have all this talent welling up inside of me and I don’t know where the outlet is.
This idea has gotten me thinking more about the things I wish I could do, or the person I wish I could be. I have found myself circling AROUND the person I wish I could be. I try to take characteristics of other people I admire and wish I could be more like and attempt to live like them. And it fails miserably because these characteristics are not the things I’m good at. Do you ever do that? Look at someone with envy and wish you could do that too? Then try to be like them, only to realize you are nothing like them and it looks awful on you.
My biggest envy are those people who seem to be incredibly empowered and handle conflict so eloquently and grounded. They say things in the heat of the moment that are so powerful and well-said that makes me want to stand up and cheer right there. They ask all the right questions and when continued to get backed into a corner, they get themselves out so gracefully and walk out of the room with a little mic dropping action.
That is not at all how me handling conflict looks like and when backed into a corner, there is no mic dropping. It looks a lot like a confused chicken with the head cut off running around in circles. And the more I try to be like the person I wish I could be instead of more like me, the uglier it gets.
I had this friend that made me think of myself differently. She was such an oddball and really could care less what anyone else thought of her. She would say things just to make people uncomfortable and watch their awkwardness. She would dance in the middle of the street, and pushed people out of their shells or sent people running for the hills. Initially, I thought I wanted to be more like her, free and stuff.
But then I had this realization, there was no way I could ever be more like her. She was so far away from the person I want to be, which got me thinking about this idea of maybe I don’t want to be more like her. But I do want to be more of myself. My true self. Not the parts that are covered up with insecurity and jealousy. Not the parts where I hold myself back because I’m afraid to show anyone my true self for fear of judgment. And not the parts where I feel like I am not good enough so I don’t even try.
When it comes to finding my creative outlet, what I have to remember is that someone else’s creative outlet will not work for me. I can’t be like anyone else. That is their outlet. That is their ways. The only way I am going to find what I need is to continue to uncover who Jen is and uncover what Jen can do.
I started this book called “Core Transformation” by Connirae and Tamara Andreas. This book was given as a suggestion to help uncover who Jen is and clear out some of those voices that get in the way.
To be clear, I am very stubborn and resented picking up this book because even though I know I need help, I resist it. I resist it just for the sake of resisting it. I resist it because I am different and it won’t help me. Nothing can help me. No one can help me. I am hopeless. Ok Ok enough dramatics Jen.
I was supposed to start reading this book a week ago. But in my usual stubborn-self ways, I said F***It and F***you I ain’t doing it. I hired a personal coach by the way, to help me with this stuff and this is her assignment. I knew I couldn’t do this self-awareness crap by myself and yet I resist the people that are trying to help me. WHAT IS THAT ABOUT???
But I knew I needed to get on my assignment because I am supposed to be letting her know I am working on this stuff and what I’m doing. I haven’t done S**t since she gave it to me.
When I was finally able to step out of my own stubbornness and pick the stupid book up, first chapter was like singing hallelujah to me.
I’ll sum it up. When someone tells you about a good restaurant and suggests you go eat there but you don’t know where it is, you get directions to the restaurant.
Many people and self-awareness guides may take you through the process of trying to figure out why you are a bad cook and maybe you should visualize the restaurant and discover why you want to go to the restaurant in the first place. Before you go to the restaurant maybe you should spend months pondering and visualizing the restaurant and see what made you a bad cook.
OMG Shut the front door. My whole life I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m a bad cook and not getting directions to the restaurant.
I haven’t gotten to the directions part of the book. Just knowing I’m going to get directions to getting out of my own way, and maybe someday I might not even be a stubborn resistor to the people I AM ASKING TO GET HELP FROM has given me a new sense of freedom and hope that I can uncover my creative outlet and be more like me.
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In my banking days, one our most closely held values was flawless execution. It may not have been printed up in an official list of values – but I can tell you this: it was a very real expectation. In reality, flawless execution is corporate-speak for perfectionism. For many years, I was a good “soldier’ and bought in to this ridiculousness. Mind you, I did not have responsibility to print accurate bank statements. Perfection is a good thing in keeping track of people’s money! However, it was insane to make flawless execution an expectation for a group that had a strategic imperative to create new things. If something must be perfect the first time, then you better do the same thing you’ve always done – actually, you better do it slightly smaller– to guarantee it goes flawlessly. There is a saying that perfection is the enemy of good. I will take it several steps further:
Perfection is the enemy of creativity, innovation and business survival.
It was in that group that I first tested the waters of experimentation. We were charged with taking a year long training program down to 10 weeks. That’s an 80% reduction in time devoted to learning. Oh, and the trainees were expected to be as competent in 10 weeks as they had been in the 50 week program from before. Innovation was definitely needed here! It was a tall order and gave me an opening to set different expectations around flawless execution. It wasn’t easy, but our team decided to test and risk mistakes instead of trying to be perfect. We set expectations for the first program to be at 50% of what was possible. We would take the best aspects forward so that by the third program, we would have created a program that was 5 times more potent than the old program. Yikes! With a lot of courage, conflict and discussion, our team was able to set aside the culture of perfection. There were a LOT of less than perfect moments, and yet we succeeded. We developed a significantly better program that was not flawlessly executed the first time – in fact was never perfect. It just kept getting better. We made learning the number one priority, and everything else was done at par. (See Distinction and When to Say No for more on discerning what types of work can be done to “satisfice” vs higher standards.)
You would have thought that I took that lesson with me, especially when I started learning to become an artist. Nope. I am a very slow learner. At first, I would look at the blank paper (I was painting in watercolor at that time), and decide to create a masterpiece. At the first mistake, I would get so frustrated, I often walked away. I really believed that every blank sheet of paper had to become a masterpiece. If not, I didn’t deserve to get another blank piece of paper. Then one day, I remembered my lesson from the bank about testing instead of perfecting. Seen through that lens, I decided it was just paint and paper. So what if it had to go in the trash can? (I tell more about this story in The Secret to Better.) The most important thing I learned in painting has been this: You have to get through the “bad” paintings to get to the great paintings. The same is true of almost any endeavor where you are creating something new.
The question is this: Are you willing to go through the “bad stuff” (phases of performing below your standards) to get to the “good stuff” (really great performance)?
I tested this question again when I decided to learn pottery. My early attempts were truly awful. Yet I kept going back to the wheel, slowly learning and frequently using the “F” word. I must have made 500 mugs before I had one that earned its way into my kitchen cabinet. Making mugs is notoriously difficult, because newbie potters like me leave too much clay in the bottom, making for a heavy mug. Few people want to drink out of a heavy mug. Many, many of the mugs I gave away in those early days became pencil holders.
Had I started pottery with the attitude of flawless execution, I would still be making teeny, tiny pinch pots, because that was the only thing I was competent to do at the beginning. Gratefully, art is slowly curing me of my perfectionist streak. It’s unleashing the freedom to test and experiment. And that freedom shows up in every domain, from work, to writing, to skiing and to friendships.
Where do you seek perfection? In what ways does wanting to flawlessly execute paralyze you? Where is one place you could experiment with doing something a little poorly now for the sake of being better tomorrow?
Perfectionism will still sometimes reach out and grab me by the throat. Anytime I find myself stuck or paralyzed, I look for those fingers on my throat and gently pry them away. My wish for you is to unleash your creativity and allow yourself the freedom to make it (whatever it is) better!
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Note: I've been thinking a lot about creativity recently. Today, I'm republishing a blog from my art site Creative Spirits Unleashed, because sometimes, you just have to start.
Originally published February 2015.
Recently I drove by a Michael’s craft store that I visited only once. It brought back memories that made me smile and helped me remember that a creative journey starts with baby steps.
It was on one of my first trips to our newly acquired lake house, (more like a fishing shack) and the longing to be an artist was just germinating. The problem was that I had no idea what to do. I kinda, sorta wanted to paint. But to paint what? With what?
So into Michaels I went in search of inspiration. At this stage of my creative journey, just being in the store with the intention to “create” was daunting. Eventually I landed in the scrapbooking section because I liked the pretty papers. And it didn’t involve buying paint, paper, and who knew what else. Easy seemed like a good idea at this point.
On the paper aisle, an idea dawned. I could take those blank cards over there and glue that pretty scrapbook paper on the front in different shapes. Scissors and glue sticks seemed accessible in the face of my unadulterated intimidation.
How could such a simple desire as wanting to be an artist cause my heart to feel like it was going to beat out of my chest?
Since that weekend when I cut up a storm and glued paper like crazy so much has transpired. Eventually I took a watercolor class. Then another. During one particularly difficult class, a great weight was lifted when I realized it was just paint and paper. So what if it wasn’t good? That’s what trashcans are for. So I kept painting and with time, I’ve been happy with what has landed on the paper.
Then came the clay studio. Once again I entered a foreign land and went through the agony and joy of being a beginner. Nothing worked right at first, yet over time, what seemed un-learnable has become second nature.
No one comes out of the gate a creative genius. As Ira Glass said in this NPR clip, we all have to go through some pretty bad stuff to get to the good stuff. That’s the journey. That’s the joy and yes, agony. Yet how else is a work of creation to speak to us if it doesn’t hold all of the emotions, including those we deem “bad?”
What are you waiting for? So what if you can’t do it well? Just start.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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