Posts Tagged ‘motivation’

Ideas are the Easy Part

ideasI can’t believe I’ve only written 5 blog posts in a year here. Truth is, I do wake up every morning saying to myself  ‘I should write a blog post today‘. The closest I get most days is simply jotting down more ideas for posts. This is the thing—for many of us ideas are the easy part. They come unbidden; most often not the result of concentrated effort–spontaneously rather–usually when in the midst of some random, otherwise-engaged activity. So they pile up–countless ideas spoken into my iphone ‘notes to self’ while out on a stroll, driving, or jotted down after a shower. When I know I’ve had a particularly good idea, this gives me a sense of accomplishment—a sense of ‘siempre adelante’ as a colleague of mine here signs off on his emails: ‘always forward’. Love that. And so it goes….days, weeks, months pass. Although It’s very exciting and gratifying to have this sense of ever-evolving ideas and the sense of aliveness therein; actually acting on those ideas– making stuff happen, requires tremendous focus and discipline which seems to elude me much of the time.

What I’ve learned is that it’s all about balance, and understanding that only time, and a certain amount of intention, can allow us the fresh perspectives we need to move forward in the best possible way. It’s not always about pushing and productivity. Sometimes it’s more about allowing, stepping back, letting go, trusting the process and paying attention to the unexpected gifts given. That’s when the really good ideas present; ideas that foster change and positive growth—the ones we really need. Then, and most importantly, it’s about creating structure and routine around acting on those ideas with enough consistency to rewire around whatever evolution is taking place. Pariyatti cautions: ‘Beware the ill-directed mind’…..such a road-blocker. This takes no small amount of discipline and conscious effort.

I love how the formula for creative productivity can mirror the best way to approach living our lives on a day-to-day basis, especially when managing change. If you’re really tuned in you realize you are being guided; the trick is to have no expectations as to outcome–tricky stuff. That’s where the magic happens if you allow it…recognizing (re-cognizing) where the real opportunity is, and being comfortable with all the uncertainty therein; trusting the process. In my experience, this is where the best art comes from, and the best quality of life as well.

The ‘Good Eye’

goodeye_2Like many who have built a career around being a photographer, I’ve often been told I have a ‘good eye’. It’s more or less a necessary job skill. A question that has come up throughout my career  is whether or not having a ‘good eye’ is something that can be learned, or is it some innate ability? ‘Good’ here doesn’t mean good as we usually use the word, as in good or bad. For sure, some are gifted with a ‘good eye’ —a natural sense of the visually correct and beautiful. In my experience, some of the people with the best ‘eyes’ have not necessarily made it their life’s work to do anything with their innate ability. Democratizing social media platforms such as Instagram now offer an outlet for those amazing ‘eyes’—they abound—and humble me.

The Good Eye can be learned. On the one hand it’s very much about educating our process of Seeing— becoming more discerning observers. My eye was, and still is, honed by looking at great art-constantly, and asking myself: why does this work? We can break down and study the components of visual discernment— color, form, shape and proportion, light and shadow, contrast, texture, line, angles and curves, composition—and become more acute visual thinkers.  This is about the practice of seeing–deliberately. It’s a kind of sophisticated attentional training. By tuning in to the components of sophisticated imagery we wire our visual sense to the Good. Like anything else, the more you focus (pun intended) on a skill, the more automatic it becomes.

The second and equally important part of developing a Good Eye is the opposite of the analytical aspect above. Good here means that our mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open. It’s more about a letting go—of thinking, of preconceived notions, of labeling what we see. It’s about seeing clearly without filters and biases, it’s about allowing ourselves to be completely present and open to the moment, to feel the image—to re-present reality through the lens of our unique and pure perception. It’s an internal, intuitive, fearless kind of seeing. It’s a form of self-forgetting; it feels like flow. Photography approached in this way borders on spiritual practice, and images created in this space are the ones that resonate most with the viewer.

The Good Eye is a muscle we can build like any other. The fact that we have the camera now always in our pocket is an advantage if used rightly—to tune in rather than tune out—as a practice it is incredibly enlivening.

Reclaiming Beauty

bwverttulips_blogI recently came across a tagline for an interior design business which captures an idea I’ve been pondering for some time now. It read, simply, Creating beauty, Changing lives. Of course the reference to the very commercial enterprise of marketing home furnishings is blatant, but it also speaks to the idea that the presence of Beauty, in it’s purest sense, can add deep and immeasurable value in our lives—beyond the surface appearance of things. The Creation of Beauty in one sense has been a central theme in my professional life as a commercial photographer charged with beautifying everything from sanitary napkins to pet food. Then of course there was all the more obvious beauty when I had a choice of subject matter. Did I feel I was changing lives? Hardly. But the pursuit and creation of beauty as an ongoing theme in my life has been hugely enriching, something I’ve often taken for granted. Now with a little distance from the commercial aspect of it, and as I dive deeper into the study of the nature of it, I see the call to Beauty as an essential core value in all of our lives moving forward—as a way of being, as a philosophy, as a grounding principle. I’ve touched on this in previous posts here.

Huge trade-offs have been made in the unprecedented advance of technology, efficiency and productivity due to lack of attention to Beauty. With what-it-means-to-be-human being reinvented at an ever accelerating pace, we are looking for new frameworks for living our best lives, being our best selves. Our ways of approaching the world need to be informed by different values. How can Beauty be reclaimed, as per the Greeks, who held it equal to truth and goodness? How to separate and articulate the term from so many current shallow associations—where we are suffering from a poverty of discernment, where the media generates relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness, enshrining it as the norm, and where many of our built environments lack grace and spirit? The wonderful contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton speaks to this often and states: “One way evil reaches us is through ugliness”— something to ponder.

How can we apprentice ourselves to beauty?

Beauty is not a luxury. Real Beauty is not glamour per se; rather an invitation to order, coherence and unity…available to everyone in any situation. And whereas Beauty indeed is in the eyes of the beholder, there are centuries’ old standards informed and shared by cultures all over the world. We can only be enriched by integrating a certain amount of discipline around reconnecting with those standards, in large and small ways, internally and externally, daily. When we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.

Flip the To-Do list

actions_intentionsAre your day-to-day actions in line with your intentions? Intent is a form of directed attention. If the quality of life is, in fact, a function of what we pay attention to, then it is more critical (and challenging) than ever to be mindful of how we spend our days. For those of us who don’t have structured work lives, or anyone looking to evolve, create and/or accomplish anything significant, I find this a useful question to be checking in with. It’s easy to lose sight of our priorities in the efficiency/productivity-obsessed culture we live in.

One useful way of staying on track is to Flip the To-Do list. Most of us put the simplest, most immediate and mundane-yet-necessary tasks  at the top of the list; i.e. have something fixed, email someone, shop for this or that: react and respond. We move through the first half of the list feeling we’ve been productive and had a full day; we feel good about ourselves. Item #1: check. Item #2: check. Then we rewrite the list for the next day, replacing the top half of the items. Repeat.

The fact is, the most important, creative, and nourishing tasks—create something, start a business, learn something new, add value/be significant somehow—grow—are at the bottom of the list and simply get carried over each day, staring us in the face for days, weeks, months, years, unaddressed. Sound familiar?

Part of the reason for this is the complexity of the ‘doing’ of these things: the discipline and clarity of focus required. Most of your bottom items require their own separate list of actionable steps. Try bringing at least one of the bottom items to the top of the list and leave it there. Break it down into doable-on-a-daily basis tasks. Then bring another and approach it the same way. See if you can create a shift in how you fill your days. In the end everything still gets done, and your energy-releasing ideas can start fueling a more joy-filled existence. This is where real accomplishment lies.

Routine Creativity

zenstonesblogOne of the most important aspects of Creative productivity is striking a balance between disciplined daily routine and remaining open to new experiences and perspectives—flexible and adaptable—so that we can keep our eyes fresh and energy high. Too much routine can be mind numbing, uninspiring and vortex (tunnel vision) inducing; too little routine reduces the chance of flow and any significant productive creative output. While we can find evidence of creative genius unfettered by routine—the Basquiats and Jimi Hendrixes of the world—there is an unsustainable, crash-and-burn quality to those sagas. Even Toulouse Lautrec showed up everyday for his work in a very routine fashion after his nights of debauchery at the Moulin-Rouge.

I was pleased to come across a recent NY Times op-ed article where David Brooks, celebrating President Obama’s recent UN speech, links routine and hard work to Creativity and…world order. He holds up the habits of writers and artists as inspirational and exemplary, citing Mason Curry’s wonderful book on the daily rituals of artists mentioned previously here.  Brooks writes  “Order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring. Building and maintaining order—whether artistic, political or global—seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard”. Indeed.

Henry Miller declared “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life”. How do we find this balance? As Creatives we need to ground ourselves in a daily routine–we need to find what time of day we are most productive and build our schedules around that. We need to show up for a few hours every day, no matter what, and simply put in the time at our chosen craft. It has been my experience time and time again that the rewards come, the muses show up, and everything flows from there. It is in the routine that we find the freedom, the inspiration, and most importantly—the staying power to honor the best we have to give—every day.


Creativity is a Habit

Mason CurryWelcome to the new look of this blog. I always feel September to be the start of a new year; a time of renewed focus and, especially today, a time for reflection. Though hardly idle, (I really wish I was better at that); I did allow myself to drift a bit for the month of August. In addition to the redesign here and re-launching my photography website (more as a visual resume than anything else), I spent some time reconnecting with my original vision for this work around facilitating creativity. One challenge of being a solo-preneur is that we’re often operating in a vacuum—pushing our agendas in isolation, showing up each day and doing the work we think we’re supposed to be doing outside of any structure or system of validation. There are therefore days where we question the rightness of our efforts, which leads to questioning the questions—is this Resistance? Fear? Procrastination?—all those things we’re supposed to push past, daily. And yet….

Any creative effort is ever-evolving and organic with a life of its own. Unpredictability and uncertainty are essential components. Whether starting a new business, writing a book, a blog—pursuing any personal project—the trick is allowing for the evolution of the thing and adjust as we go along. What is true one day may not be true the next. The challenge is to see clearly every step of the way, pay attention to our motivations—Are they still valid?—and keep our energy up. Jonathan Fields has a great post which speaks to this, with some good questions to ask ourselves periodically about any pursuit we’re invested in.

And…once we’re clear….it’s about getting back to work. Creative productivity is a discipline. Countless books have been written on the routines of creative people. One of the best and most recent I’ve read is this one by Mason Curry. He documents the work habits of 161 people—from Benjamin Franklin to Woody Allen (the shower thing!) to Twyla Tharpe. It’s a great read for all the quirky anecdotes (headstand to clear the brain) and commonalities as well—massive amounts of coffee and long walks among the most common. The one thing that was common to almost every single subject was simply showing up everyday, for a period of time, no matter what. All the varieties of methods for summoning the muse were just that–methods based on knowing what worked for them, and that was all that mattered. They knew what they had-to-do and how-to-do-it, day in and day out, whether the muse was whispering to them or not. They knew how to be prepared…just in case. They knew how to get lucky.

Tip#5: How to have Lots of Ideas

©Maria Ferrari

©Maria Ferrari

The last ‘Tips’ post spoke to the importance of having lots of ideas whenever we’re trying to solve a problem or move our lives forward in some unprecedented way, as our first ideas are most likely perpetuating old ways of thinking. There are numerous tactics floating around out there. Some are more specific than others, and have been popularized by creativity experts such as Michael Michalko, Edward De Bono and Eric Maisel. All are about shifting perception, fostering a spirit of discovery and encouraging free flowing connections. Here is a distillation, with my own take, by way of explanation.

Sharpen the focus. The more specifically you define the problem at hand, the more infinite, original, (and appropriate) the possibilities. Contrary to what many think, creativity flows more freely from constraints and parameters. This is why some artists (Jasper Johns with his flag series) limit their subject matter and concentrate on creative process: how many variations are possible here? It becomes less about the what and the why and more about the how. Begin your brainstorming with questions to laser-tune the focus as much as possible. The likelihood of ‘Flow’ is much greater here as well.

Saturate yourself with inspirationYou need what I refer to as ‘fresh eyes’. Scan the universe for information and ideas related to your issue; fill your head with relevant facts, perspectives, ideas. Be joyful and curious in your approach. Be open to ideas coming from seemingly unexpected sources; seek them out, push beyond your comfort zone (it’s called that for a reason!). It’s all about connecting things in new and different ways. You will surprise yourself.

Set an ‘idea quota’. The popular version of the idea quota, often used in brainstorming sessions in business settings, is the ‘Paperclip’ model: come up with 20 uses for a (paperclip) in 10 minutes—no editing or judging of ideas. The time pressure takes thinking and judging off the table, and can produce some wonderful fresh ideas. The next essential step for this approach to be effective requires an editing phase, or the ‘verification’ as I refer to it in the formula. Which ideas are viable and useful? The best ideas then can be pushed and further developed through mind-mapping, below. This tactic is actually the least interesting to me personally, yet one of the most popular in business settings.

Engage with the Formula.  Another approach integrates the formula for creativity I’ve put forth in previous posts here, allowing right/left brain interplay to occur. Once the problem is defined, saturate (above) then let it go . Set an idea quota, but give it time to allow for the subconscious connections to occur— maybe  5 ideas a day for 5 days in a row. The first 5 might be the hardest, because you’ll be ‘thinking’ too hard, but then ideas will start to flow more freely. Chances are they’ll come in the form of ‘mindpops’ when you’re in a relaxed or distracted mode. I could write a book (hoping to) around this one approach. You could also call this one ‘summoning the muse’.

Work Visually. A much used tool in business brainstorming and strategy sessions is mind-mapping.  Countless software versions have been developed as a result, which I find relatively useless because the real power of mind-mapping comes from the free flowing physical aspect of charting and diagramming thoughts and ideas by hand, with big juicy markers, on a huge piece of paper on a wall, table, or floor . The mind-map breaks us away from a linear way of thinking, which I find often jams my brain because there should be some logic: A precedes B precedes C—too much thinking involved. When you work with ‘idea pods’—continually breaking the thinking down, jumping to other pods, capturing ideas as they pop into consciousness. There is no editing involved, to the contrary, this is hugely stimulating, and sometimes even emotional because it connects us more with what we’re feeling. The mind-map also lets you see all your thoughts and ideas–it’s like a crazy picture of the mish-mosh of your brain. When you can visualize all the seemingly unrelated and undeveloped thoughts, patterns emerge, new connections are made and you have the benefit of this hugely therapeutic mind-dump. I use this approach for my weekly to-do lists as a way of organizing and prioritizing my thinking.

Enough for now. It’s about developing a mindset for more creative thinking and being. Back to the CS mantra: “Change is an art form and creative productivity is a muscle we can build.” Would love to hear any tricks you all may have up your sleeve. I’d be happy to feature them here with credit given 🙂

And for some fun…..A great list of very specific tools for creating ideas can be found at

What is Your Ikigai?

cherryblossomsI first came across this term a couple years ago in a TED talk by Dan Buettner on “Blue Zones”—communities (there are 4 in the world) whose elders live with vim and vigor to record setting ages. Okinawa is one of them. Ikigai proved to be one of the core factors contributing to life expectancy. It’s one of those words, often found in other languages, that sum up an idea requiring much explanation in our own. Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”. Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s Ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life—Passion, Purpose, and Fulfillment. It could be as simple as caring for a grandchild. It’s what makes us get out of bed each day.  Here in this country seems everyone’s looking for  their Ikigai. People are in search of themselves—their ‘Mojo’—unlike any previous point in history. Where did it go? Those that know their Ikigai don’t miss a beat when asked what it is—who wouldn’t want that feeling?!  Here’s the good news:  Creativity leads us there by tolerating uncertainty, opening to wonder and joy, becoming fully present, letting go, trusting the process, tuning in to intuition, allowing for the new and unexpected and opening to grace. Have you lost your Ikigai? Do you know where to find it?

Happy People Embrace Uncertainty

visualsmileThere’s a theory that true creative genius stems from a certain amount of unhappiness. Certainly there is ample evidence in the lives of many tortured artist-souls to support this. Without a doubt some unhappiness fuels the intense self-solving, searching, questioning, and re-interpreting of reality at the root of some of our great art, and certainly some of our greatest art has been produced by those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Two of my favorites, Mark Rothko and Virginia Woolf come to mind.

The link between creativity and happiness doesn’t end there however. With the relatively recent explosion of research into what makes people happy, given that globally it is ranked as the highest personal goal, new studies have shown that happiness boosts creativity, and vice-versa. Creativity as I refer to it here is not necessarily about producing works of art, rather, the ‘art’ of creating our life each day.

In the upcoming August issue of Psychology Today, well-being experts Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener (known as The Indiana Jones of positive psychology), speak to this and turn some conventional thinking on its’ head. In an article entitled ‘What Happy People Do Differently’ the authors state: “Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counter-intuitive habits that seem well, downright unhappy. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser….it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain or even upsetting, whether that means speaking in front of an audience, starting a blog, or engaging in a new sport. The happiest people opt for both activities that are comfortable and familiar as well as those that push them to evolve in new ways.”

How can you push your comfort zone? It’s about finding that sweet spot—just the right amount of challenge that you can build on to expand your possibilities.

Tip# 3: Power Your Creative Thinking with a Walk

walking“If you can’t think, walk. If you’re thinking too much, walk. If you are thinking bad thoughts, keep walking.”  —Pierre Helaine, founder of Arche shoes.

One of the biggest impediments to creative productivity is the mental block, or rut—sometimes brief, sometimes prolonged.  A great and easily-accessible-to-all way to jump-start your thinking and shift your mindset is to get out and go for a walk.  At the very least it’s a mood booster, at best it’s a creative strategy. I generally get my best ideas while walking…I build it in to my day as a tool to fuel my thinking. I now use the voice memo feature on my iphone to record these thoughts, lest they disappear (very important!). I used to have a pen and an index card in my pocket. I also have a ‘two-loop’ practice: I use the first half of the walk to de-clutter, breathe and relax my mind, and the second to forward-focus my thinking around what I want to manifest that day.

There is science to support this. Repetitive physical movements involving major muscle groups (such as walking, swimming, biking, playing tennis, etc.) influence our overall state of mind. Some claim different forms of physical activity suit different sorts of problem solving: you’ve got your ‘walking problems’ and you’ve got your ‘golf problems’. In addition to the endorphin, serotonin, and oxygenation (happy-makers) boosting effect of these activities, they plug in to the framework of creative thinking I’ve referred to here: the interplay between right and left brain activities.

Darwin constructed a sand-covered path , known as the sandwalk, at Down House, where he wrote Origin of the Species and Descent of Man. He called it his ‘thinking path’. Mozart asserted his best ideas came while walking, Einstein loved to sail regularly, scribbling notes the whole time. Many therapists, recognizing the link between exercise and shifted mindsets, are holding their sessions while walking with their clients, and business innovator Nilofer Merchant recently delivered a TED talk sharing her penchant for holding all her meetings while walking–to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week!

So the very good news here is that getting away from our cluttered desks, our monkey-minds and being physically active is one of the most productive and creative things we can do.





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