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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Over the last week, I finally transitioned to a new computer. I had been putting it off because I knew I had some old software that might not work on the new machine. Plus changing computers is hard, even when Apple does their best to make it easy.
Well, it was NOT easy and that’s how things got charged. Yet what could have been a miserable experience turned out ok, because I decided to let the charging cable just be a charging cable. Let me explain.
When I opened the box, I immediately realized that none of the cables I owned would fit in this machine. Not. One. Single. Cable. That would have been handy to know during the purchase process. Score a -1 for Apple.
Then the one cord they did send seemed to be half a cord. The charging cable itself was missing the extension I count on to get to the plug across my office. At first glance, I was thinking my office would have to be rearranged, or I would have to get an extension cord. Quickly I realized that I could use the one I already have. Score a 0 for Apple.
I got on the phone with Apple and figured out which adapters to order (done in 5 minutes) and get some help making the transition. That’s when I learned that the operating system on the brand-new computer in the box was already outdated, and that my old computer was more up to date. It was just a TWO HOUR install. Score a -1 for Apple. (And that’s factoring in superb service on the phone.)
After hanging up with the Apple support guy, I could feel myself getting more and more worked up over this nonsense. Looking at the installation bar on the computer that said “1.5 hours left” didn’t help!
It was during the interminable install that I had my moment of truth. I was getting very charged up about all of this being a royal PITA. Little things were starting to snowball into big things -- in my mind.
\I went from “I’m getting a new computer – yay!” to “I’m getting the worst computer ever made, this is a disaster, what the hell was I thinking, who needs this s#$t – crap!”
Now remember, all this “mind-craziness” was mostly over a charging cable problem that had been solved hours ago. Every problem I was facing was easily solvable. The question for me was “Am I going to frame this thing as a freak out or something else?” In that state of mind, transitioning to the new computer felt like an insurmountable task. In that state of mind, I had a miserable weekend in store for me. Who needs that?
So I pivoted. I chose to think about it differently: “It is what it is. What will it take to make it work?”
I thought through the steps and it really wasn’t that bad. Yes, I had to dedicate some time and focus. No, freaking out was not going to help,
So I just started doing the steps. No freak out. No more bitching. Just working methodically, I did step A, then B, then C. Before I knew it, I was on the new computer. The old software I thought would never work? Easily updated. My Outlook file I feared would get lost? Handled in a matter of minutes. In the end, it was No. Big. Deal.
It makes me wonder how many times I’ve let my mind make me miserable over something that was No. Big. Deal. And how cool is it that I can CHOOSE to see something differently and it actually, really becomes different?
Where are you framing something as a freak out? Where are you making things harder than they have to be? How much of your life experience is dictated by getting charged up over something that is already solved? How can you pivot your thinking to frame it differently?
As always, I love to hear from you. Please comment – and if this helped you, share it with your friends!
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Missing an appointment with an IBM Selectric Typewriter most likely changed the whole trajectory of my life. It’s truly mind-boggling to realize that such a small thing made such a huge difference.
I was in high school, and my teacher had signed up me and several other students for a typing contest in a town a couple of hours away. Thanks to the vintage Royal typewriter at my grandparent’s house growing up, followed by my very own typewriter when I was about 8 years old, I came into the class already proficient on the classic QWERTY keyboard.
Quickly I became one of the fastest typists in the school – and accuracy counted in those days. We did not have a “back” button on the typewriter, nor were we allowed to use Liquid Paper. My teacher was quite sure that I would have won the typing contest that day – I was really good.
On the morning of the contest, I slept through the alarm clock. For the first time ever in my life. My mom came rushing into my room about the time the bus was due to leave the parking lot of the school 20 minutes away, prepared to whisk me out of bed and to doors of what might have been the gateway to heaven--or hell. (From today’s vantage point, I pretty sure it would have been hell.)
We had no cell phones at the time and I decided to miss the bus, rather than go into the OMG-we-gotta-get-out-of-here rush. It seemed like an unmitigated disaster at the time. My parents were so upset with me for being irresponsible, and I was puzzled myself. It wasn’t like me to sleep through the clock – in fact, I have always been a pretty early riser.
Yet I am quite sure that my life would have gone in a much WORSE direction had I made it to the school bus that morning.
See, my serious typing skills had me looking for careers that needed fast, accurate typists. In the mid-70’s, guidance counselors were still offering young women traditional women’s roles. We called them “pink collar” jobs back then.
All roads were pointing towards “legal assistant”, something I embraced because – I don’t remember why. It just sounded good because I was a screaming fast typist. Of course I would want to leverage that skill.
Then on the day of the contest, I slept through the clock and did not make the bus. It was an event soon forgotten as just one of those tiny disappointments in a normal life. Until I had a reason to remember it 30 years later.
Someone asked me why I started my career in accounting. I had all these reasons, like being good with numbers, understanding basic bookkeeping and so forth. But then I remembered my screaming fast fingers. The 10-key adding machine was the gateway. I was as fast at adding a column of numbers as I was typing a document.
When I didn’t go win the typing contest, I started winning in adding up numbers. My career choices started leaning towards accounting because my flying fingers were also good at the adding machine. What a way to choose a career, right?
A seemingly innocuous disappointment pivoted my career from a “pink collar” job in a typing pool to a “white collar” role in the backbone of business. Who knows where I would be today had I gone down the other path. While I have long been a recovering accountant, that career laid a strong foundation for the leadership work I do today.
Disappointment can be like that. And it’s so much deeper than “one door closes, another opens”. The paths we don’t take, for whatever reason, shape us as much as the ones we do. I am always trying to sort the difference between a test and a signal. Sometimes, disappointments test our resolve. Sometimes disappointments signal our lack of commitment. They show us that the path we think we want will actually leave us flat.
Knowing the difference between a test and a signal is priceless.
In my typing story, I made two choices, mostly unconscious, that revealed typing to be the flat road. I decided not to try to make it to the bus that morning when my alarm failed, and more importantly, I never pursued another chance at winning a typing contest. No commitment there. I heeded the signal and moved on.
It other situations, disappointment has led me to double down on my efforts. I spent the better part of year paralyzed with writer’s block a few years ago. The easy answer would have been to quit writing. Clearly in my paralyzed mind, I had nothing to say. If there was something in there worth saying, it would be coming out already.
Writer’s block tested my resolve. It made me realize that artistic expression was something worth fighting for. I had to dig deep to restore the flow and face the debilitating fears under the frozen fingers on the keyboard. It was painful, illuminating, ravaging and freeing all at the same time.
Disappointment paved the path, as it has for so many of the pivotal moments of my life.
As our community was building a charter school, I watched the people rally around the idea, only to be disappointed by a variety of setbacks and challenges. More than once, these setbacks could have been seen as a signal but instead were seen as a test of resolve. I called this resolve “Grit” in a post by the same name. Many, many children in our community are benefiting because the founders of the school saw tests instead of signals.
Where do your disappointments test your resolve? What signals are you getting that what you think you want will not give you what you really want? How do you know the difference?
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It started at dinner with eight of us discussing stories of fixing a starter relay, or how we always make sure we have an extra impeller in the boathouse, or sharing challenges we have had trailering our boats. Eight WOMEN talking about the normal things that happen when water skiing is your addiction. It’s Women’s Week at Coble Ski School, and a total of 13 of us are here for the seventh year in a row, encouraging each other to push our limits, overcome fear and yes, feed our addiction.
After the first morning, we already have some sore muscles, at least one broken blister, and a few breakthroughs. Connections are being made with each other, with new concepts, and between life and water skiing. Yes, we are talking about skiing. We are also talking about next chapters in life – what does one do when you lose a son to a tragic accident? What is possible after you sell your business? And the big question that skiers always come back to:
Where can one live a good life - near a ski lake?
Whether we voice it or not, we are also aware that how we do anything is how we do everything. When we talk about fear of going over the wake, we are also talking about that dread of starting a new chapter in life. We recognize that fear is the very thing that makes things bumpy. When we talk about our discouragement over not skiing as well as we know we can, we are also reflecting on life’s disappointments. When we call on our strength to finally run that full pass, it comes from the same deep well that has shaped us through birthing babies, supporting families, starting businesses, taking care of parents, and somehow claiming our right to capture joy on the water. Most importantly, we are carving out deep and lasting friendships made from inspiration, deep conversations and light hearted silliness. We as thrilled for a friend’s new personal best as we are for our own.
It’s early in the week and so much is yet to come. One thing is for sure.
The ski addicts will hit the water tomorrow!
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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 email@example.com.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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