The excitement of being lost

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When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something.

-Pema Chodron

We’ve all felt the frustration of working on a project and reaching a point where you don’t know where to go next. Whether the world has provided a difficulty or it comes from inside your own head, you are unable to move forward. You are creatively lost.

What if instead of reacting with frustration, we could react with excitement? That irritating feeling that you don’t know where to go next means you are in a new area of the map. You’ve entered into a place you’ve never been before, no wonder you feel frustrated.

It’s as if you had made an anniversary reservation at your favorite restaurant and arrived to find it closed because their plumbing broke. You could cancel your whole evening at this point. Give up angry and complain to all your friends about the injustice of it all. Or, you could try that new restaurant down the street. It’s so new there aren’t even any Yelp reviews yet. It’s a style of food that you’ve never tried, and it might be terrible, but it will be an adventure.

What if our blocks and creative frustrations mean we are in new territory? Should we turn around and try to make our way back to familiar ground or should we start to add to our map and expand the area where we feel comfortable?

Getting lost is scary and frustrating, but it also means we’re someplace we’ve never been before. And isn’t that what creativity is?

 

 

Take on a new persona: creativty tip

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 6.00.14 AMWhen The Beatles were at their most popular they were under incredible pressure to equal their previous successes. Being in a band had stopped being as much fun as it used to be and they’d lost some of the freedom they had when they were unknowns. So, Paul McCartney suggested that they make up a fictional band and write the music that band would write. That’s how we ended up with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

David Bowie would change his whole persona from era to era. Stephen King used a pen name, Richard Bachman, to release novels.

What if you made up a new persona for yourself? An alternate you with different taste and working habits. It could lead to you creating work that you might not make yourself. It might break down self-imposed limitations and filters you have set up. Looking at the world from a new, imagined, pair of eyes can help you see new things and the same things in new ways.

I’m not saying you have to get new clothes and walk around using a different name, although that might be fun, but when you sit down at the keyboard or walk out on stage or even go into a meeting at work, ask yourself what this other persona would do in that situation.

Is this person a more carefree version of you? Are they angry? Are they impervious to criticism? Obsessed with gnomes? Do they secretly think that all hummingbirds are their mother? Are they an orphan? Do they have ten brothers? Do they try to work crabs into conversation as much as they possibly can?

Put as much or as little detail into the persona as you want.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is Myrna Tellingheusen. I don’t know who writes it, but they do an excellent job of filtering the world through the eyes of a retiree living in a gated community in Southern California. When she tweeted, “When I need fresh air, I go to the Hallmark store,” it seemed a perfect mix of poetry, humor, and empathy that would never have existed without a deep understanding of Myrna’s environment.

Allowing another person’s worldview to temporarily eclipse your own unlocks your creativity. Even if that worldview is more limited than your own, the new boundary frees you up to create something new.

As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Let one of that multitude take control for a while and see what they produce.

Maybe your new persona is even more talented than you are and when they’re done, you can take all the credit for their work!

Do what you want: creativity tip

Do what you want.

If it’s terrible, never show anybody. If it reveals too much about you, save it to a folder called “inventory” so no one will ever look at it. Just don’t waste time worrying about what other people think when you’re alone.

If there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, the stakes for experimentation are very low.

Do what you want.

Don’t try and please your family and your friends. Don’t imagine a person who wouldn’t like what you’re doing. Please yourself. Make the thing that makes you happy.

There’s no law that says you have to show anyone your first draft or your second draft or any draft. You decide that.

If you never had to show anyone your work, what would you do?

Read about the theory of obscurity here.

Bigger is funny, smaller is cute

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In the novelty industry, there’s a rule that you can always make a bigger or smaller version of something to create a new product.

I actually think this rule is a good one to apply whenever you’re creatively stuck. Would it make sense if I made the idea bigger or smaller? Sometimes even a simple distinction like that can create something twice as interesting as your original idea.

Would your song sound better with an orchestra playing it or just a single violin? Should you amp up the tension in your story or pull it back.

As the old school novelty guys say, “Bigger is funny, smaller is cute.”  Which is not true for everything, but is definitely true for underpants.

Making useful mistakes: creativity tip

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Having your thoughts organized is usually a good thing, but sometimes to get creative you need to shake things up. If everything is where it’s supposed to be it’s hard to actually see anything. Sometimes, logic doesn’t work when you’re trying to come up with something new. In fact, a lot of inventions and scientific discoveries are mistakes.

How do you wake your brain up to the potential of the world around you? Can you make useful mistakes on purpose?

There’s an improvisational exercise I’ve found helpful. As quickly as you can, go around the room and point at ten objects. Then, give each object an incorrect name. If you point at a lamp, call it a slow cooker. If you point at a chair, call it a knife.  Don’t sit in your chair and look at things, actually get up and move around the room and physically point at objects. Look at them closely as you name them.

The first time you do it, it will probably take you a while to come up with wrong answers. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get.

This process actually helps to break down predetermined categories in your brain and forces you to see things again for the first time.

I find that if I do the exercise quickly enough the world actually seems brighter and I notice details in things that I’ve never seen before. The effects also last for hours.

If you want to follow the exercise even further down the road, apply your logical brain to one of your incorrect answers.

Why did I call the lamp a slow cooker? Is there a connection? The light bulb does produce heat, could it cook? An Easy-Bake oven was just a light bulb in a plastic box and it cooked very slowly. Could you use the heat from the lighting in your house to cook? What if ovens were all boxes with giant light bulbs and you had to wear protective goggles to cook so you didn’t go blind?

Try the exercise and see if it works for you. Imagine how useful it would be to have a tool to help you wake up and pay attention whenever you wanted to.

A story is better than a statistic (four out of five storytellers agree)

hqdefault (2)One of the rules of writing advertising copy is that a story is always better than a statistic.

Statistics have their place in copywriting (four out of five dentists recommend this gum), but only when they’re backed up with a story illustrating the statistics. One picture of a starving child motivates more people to give money than a sentence saying there are millions of starving children in the world.

Why not challenge yourself to take a statistic you use all the time and turn it into a story?

Especially if your story goes against the grain of the statistic.

One of my favorite things to do on Yelp is to find the exceptional (4.9 stars!) restaurants and businesses and read the one-star reviews. They often tell the story of why they’re such a successful business. They eject someone loudly talking on their cell phone during a meal or a reviewer didn’t like that the person taking the order didn’t speak perfect English and they had to repeat themselves. 

Look at a statistic somewhere and think about it from both sides. Tell a story that grows from just looking at the numbers. Put the empathy and emotion back into the statistics that were drawn out of them when they were turned into a graphic for a CNN story.

Who is the dentist that won’t recommend sugar-free gum? Why would someone vote for a candidate that doesn’t represent their interests? Who doesn’t want to move out of a neighborhood when the real estate prices are so high they would triple their money? 

Every statistic is really just a boring package wrapped in brown paper filled with interesting stories just waiting for you to unpack them.

This ClickHole article is a perfect example of the subtext of most one-star reviews.

Are you an idea hoarder?

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We’ve all faced an overwhelming to-do list and felt like we don’t even know where to start. Are you that way with ideas?  

At my work, we divide our ideas into an A, B, and C list. A-list items are the things we must do, B-list are things we’ll probably do and C-list are concepts that we want to talk about again but aren’t quite there yet.

One thing that we’ve noticed with our B-level ideas is that even if we feel strongly about them when we write them down, some seem to lose their energy over time. Sometimes, you can’t even remember why you wrote an idea down in the first place. Instead of being this exciting future project, we all forget we were even going to do it and it becomes a lodestone on things we should be doing.

So, we’ve come to use the B-list as a place to park ideas to see if they gather passion and connected ideas or fade away into nothing. Also, sometimes we figure out that the idea, or a version of it, has been done before.

Do you need to look at your personal B-list and see if it’s time to let go of ideas that seemed good at one point but now just hang there as a burden? Is there any future project that you should let go of?

Clean house! You can cross an idea off your list by deciding that it’s not worth doing. 

We’ve always done it this way

3952a3a5-5e1e-4d1e-88c7-e5c991eee139-1414-000002bd777c82bcHumans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer programming. In 1952, she developed a compiler that allowed people to program in English and then convert it into code. Besides being brilliant, she had an ability to get amazing things done in tightly controlled, risk-averse situations.

Her advice for being creative was to look for questions that people answered with “we’ve always done it this way” and see if there was another way to do it. Always be looking for a better way. Challenge yourself not to settle into a groove without some experimentation to make sure you’re doing it the best possible way.

She believed in this so strongly that she made the following promise which you are welcome to apply to yourself.

For the rest of your life, every time you say, “We’ve always done it that way,” my ghost will appear and haunt you for twenty-four hours.

Who wants to be haunted by a ghost shaming you for your complacency? If someone asked you why you were doing things the way you’re doing them, would you have an answer?

Do your very worst work: Laurie Anderson on getting past a creative block

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I often tell young artist who are like, “How can I get past these things?” I’m just like, “For one thing, try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.” Nobody going, “That’s not good.” Somebody was going, “Just make it bad. Just make it really bad.” You know, so pure and bad. I have tried that. That works well. Sometimes I clutch on that, too. I think, “No, that’s so bad it’s good.” Go on and on and get yourself twisted up into a language!

Laurie Anderson, The Creative Independent

I love the idea of purposely doing your worst work to get past a creative block.

As Laurie Anderson says in the quote, you are forced to define what “bad work” is when you do that. What rules are you breaking? Are they your rules or the rules of some objective source?

When doing your worst work, there is no judgment. (Or is it all judgment?) In fact, the criticism in your head fuels what you’re working on. That voice in your head that tells you what you’re doing is bad is suddenly empowered. Instead of shooting down your ideas, it’s coming up with ideas to make it worse!

Of course, good and bad are just tricks of language. Maybe what you do will be too obvious or too obscure, and it will turn out that that is exactly what your work needed. Sometimes our rules are not about producing what is best, but something in our comfort zone.

Doing putrid work relieves you of responsibility for the final work and pushes you over the boundaries of what you’d usually try.

Try doing your absolute worst, definitely no good, all-time stinkeroo, very bad work!

 

Don’t ask for permission: creativity tip

stamp-2114882_960_720Should I do it? Should I start this long project? Am I being selfish? Does it make sense?

It’s almost like a tic with some people. Instead of following their instincts, they have to check out their next move with all the people around them. They ask their best friend, barista, significant other, strangers on Facebook or whatever other person crosses their path that day.

But, they really don’t care about the opinions of the other people. They want someone, or everyone, to say “yes.” Yes, you should do that. What a great idea!

This works well if you have a supportive friend who trusts your instincts more than you do. They’ll say yes no matter what because they know that if you’re asking them, it’s something you’ve thought about.

But, in most situations, revealing your half-formed idea to the world will cause it to wither and shrink. You’ll get an array of opinions, some valid and some crazy.

If you want to take a sculpting course at the community college down the street, don’t ask other people whether you should. Remember that C- you got in art class in High School? You can’t even arrange flowers, and you want to sculpt clay? Look at you, thinking you’re all fancy. You’re probably trying to get out of buying Christmas gifts next year, and we’ll all get “sculptures” from your class.

That’s when asking other people turns into justifying all your self-doubts and inertia about starting new things. You can say to yourself, I wanted to do it, but everyone else made fun of me so, I didn’t. For the rest of your life, you can think about what could have been.

Should I write a novel about a journalist who gives up her job at a newspaper to make artisanal ice cream called, One More Scoop? Who cares what anyone else thinks? Do it!

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