Tag Archives: creativity

Blame the amygdala, but then lean into uncertainty

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” – Voltaire

Maximize Your PotentialI’m a big fan of 99u, Behance’s website and rich content offerings that help empower creatives to make our ideas happen. I just finished the second book, Maximize Your Potential, in their three-part series on making ideas happen. I was again impressed with the quality of writing and advice in this book of essays. The book is organized into four sections:

  • Creating opportunities
  • Building expertise
  • Cultivating relationships
  • Taking risks

Today I want to focus on taking risks. I’ve never been shy to take risks and embrace failure; my career and personal life are full of those examples, and I’ve even left roles where I was not allowed to be an active change agent. I’ve been struggling with a subset of taking risks: uncertainty. Ever since my employer announced a major acquisition (the largest in tech history), I’ve been quite uncomfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity such an endeavor creates. This has manifested itself as fear: fear that my team’s work won’t live on in the new organization, fear that my role (which I love) will change or be eliminated, fear that I won’t make the right decisions for my career and family during this intense period of flux.

I’ve been in high-tech marketing and sales for 20 years, so why, after so many years of living with constant uncertainty and ambiguity, am I filled with such anxiety now? While this is a “go big or go home” type of uncertainty, it’s really not that different from other scenarios I’ve successfully lived through. I have felt the same three fears I describe above many times in my career, so why am I not used to it by now?

Maximize Your Potential and the much-needed respite provided by the holidays have helped me figure this out. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson call this anxious state “impact bias”:

“…people consistently overestimate the negative impact of such events. And since we expect such failures to be more painful and drawn out than they actually are, we fear them more than we should.”

In the past, this has turned out to be true. Acquisitions, mergers, and reorgs were not as painful or drawn out as they were feared to be in the beginning. Essayist Michael Schwalbe affirms that humans underestimate our resilience and ability to find silver linings, rationalize actions, and find meaning in setbacks. We also find it hard to imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and other daily activities when we are in the throes of fear.

Essayist Jonathan Fields confirms I’m not alone. He says that most people are wired to have a low tolerance for uncertainty, and he describes what happens to us physically: We experience it as pain, fear, anxiety, and doubt. The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up when we are faced with the need to coexist or act in the face of great uncertainty, sending chemicals through our body that make us physically and emotionally uncomfortable and fatigued. Yup, that pretty much describes me.

What does Maximize Your Potential advise? Lean into the uncertainty. It’s the only way to keep creating great work. Anxiety and inertia are the enemies of creation.

  1. Understand the psychology of the process so you can be more mindful. There are powerful chemicals at work and knowing this can help you move from inertia to action at a pace right for you.
  2. Reframe uncertainty as possibility. Fields writes, “Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done. In which case, you’re no longer creating, you’re replicating. And that’s not why we’re here.”
  3. There is no formula that tells you how to move along the uncertainty curve. What’s more important, Fields says, is that you clearly define the resources and constraints; cultivate the mindset, workflow, environment, and lifestyle needed to fuel action; then act, and elevate learning as a core metric.

My anxiety has greatly lessened as I recall and appreciate how quickly I adapted in the past to these types of situations and how I have the power to make the outcome of any decisions a success. How have you dealt with the anxiety, fear, and doubt that organizational uncertainty and ambiguity can cause? I would love to hear from you in the comments.



Unlocking the mysteries of motivation

Many of us are counting down the hours to winter break, and I’m sure many of us will use the downtime to think about our goals for the new year and the vision for our life in 2016. I’m excited to share with you a guest post I wrote for UT’s Human Dimensions of Organizations blog In the Loop. In “Unlocking the mysteries of motivation,” I talk about how the latest UT HDO seminar helped me get unstuck in my creative life.

I hope you enjoy reading it and that you have a wonderful holiday season. Thank you for reading my blog!

How to create a manifesto for your solution

Do you remember the 1996 film in which Tom Cruise’s character Jerry Maguire has an epiphany about his job and industry and decides to express a new, contrarian view in a mission statement? Blogs didn’t exist yet, so he proceeds to Kinko’s to have the mission statement printed and bound with a “Catcher in the Rye”-like cover.  The Kinko’s employee hands him the completed piece, titled “The Things We Do Not Say: The Future of our Business,” and tells him, “That’s how you become great, man.” Jerry delivers the manuscript to every employee in the firm and eventually gets fired for the views he expresses. He is forced to put his manifesto to the test and triumphs in the end.

Jerry’s manifesto was both a personal and an organizational one. Personal and corporate manifestos are groovy, and there are a lot of blogs dedicated to how to write these. In today’s post, I want to focus on why a marketer should create a manifesto for their solution. I recently completed such a document to rally my executives and colleagues around improvements to our current solutions story and to inspire the creative team to build compelling copy and deliverables.

A manifesto in this context is a concise yet passionate document that states what you believe about your solution. It is the POV or value proposition expressed creatively to promote internal alignment and commitment around a message. I have found a manifesto to be helpful when selling a new or evolving message, when trying to push the organization to reject current safe, “vanilla” messages that are getting lost in competitive noise, and when briefing a creative team or ad agency.

Because manifestos are emotional documents and are not a common component of the marketing bill of materials, there can be some resistance to creating and sharing them for fear they are too “touchy-feely”.  But a great story, creatively told, can move people and markets in ways traditional methods can’t. Here are the four steps that have worked for me:

  1. Complete the foundation marketing work before you create the marketing manifesto. You need a POV (point of view) or positioning statement, and your messaging framework and story line should be solid and accepted. This foundation work is important because a manifesto shouldn’t blindside colleagues and executives. Its purpose is exactly the opposite: It should declare the message in a way that inspires and fosters further alignment. Jerry Maguire failed to inspire his organization because his mission statement was the first time he had expressed his views. Change doesn’t happen from sudden knee-jerk movements; it happens through thoughtful management, inspiration, and leadership.
  2. Create the manifesto in PowerPoint. In our current 140-character-limit world, flooded inboxes, and short attention spans, I recommend that the manifesto be a short PowerPoint document with striking visuals and carefully chosen headlines or sentences for each slide. The end deliverable looks somewhat like a storyboard when viewed in slide sorter mode. Colleagues have referred to mine as a “teaser” and a “look book“.
  3. Build your manifesto by boldly expressing the key thoughts from your story line and tying those succinct messages to powerful imagery.
    • Start with customer pains and wishes. Always start with the customer’s point of view and express their struggles, wishes, and what if’s in their language and imagery, not yours.
    • Lay down your principles. Express your solution’s motives and intentions in bold, active voice language. This should not be a list of features and functions or speeds and feeds; instead, it should boldly express WHY your solution was created.
    • Explain why the customer should choose you. Using descriptive and powerful language, describe the tangible and emotional reasons your customer should choose you. This is probably the hardest part, so spend the most time here to ensure your differentiation is defensible and rings true.
    • Describe the customer experience and outcome. Describe what the experience of working with your company and solution feels like and what success looks like for the customer.
  4. Pitch it. Gather your team and most friendly stakeholders first and present your look book with the confidence of Don Draper from Mad Men. (Clarification: Don Draper of the Carousel pitch, not of the Hershey’s pitch. OK, maybe that makes you uncomfortable, but you know what I mean.) This should be a pitch that inspires everyone to connect with the customer’s pain and believe your solution is the only one that can best solve that pain. Take feedback, but avoid making changes that take you back to the safe zone. This document is meant to strengthen the overall message and inspire better downstream deliverables for your solution, so be careful where you compromise.

A solutions manifesto will likely never be seen outside the organization. It is a document that is used to inspire and gain further internal alignment on the overall story and tone, and, most importantly, on the “why” of your solution. Be brave. If you only do what has always been done, you and your solution won’t stand out. Believe in the power of emotions as much as you believe in rational arguments and you’ll end up with a manifesto that inspires the marketers and creatives around you.

Have you ever published a marketing manifesto for your solution or brand? How was it received?

Great work must happen before everything else

In my last post, I described what I learned in an offsite with myself on Memorial Day weekend after reading the wonderful book “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind,” a compilation of essays designed to help us find a centered space for creativity by getting out of the reactionary workflow we battle each day. I’ve been following four pieces of advice I outlined in that post and wanted to report on progress and insights.

Great work must happen before everything else. I blocked my calendar from 8:30-11:30 AM to focus on my most strategic work and was able to utilize that block as intended about 80% of the time. Colleagues respected that my calendar looked blocked and didn’t try to schedule meetings during these times, and I experienced real breakthroughs and higher productivity. I completed a press and analyst presentation and briefing book five days before the deadline (a key executive stakeholder thanked me profusely for my efficiency and quality of work); I compiled all the information I needed to complete a thought-leadership blog post series; I prioritized the messaging projects I need to finalize before the end of the month; and I was fully prepared for the meetings I had to lead each day and for a business trip I took the second week.

There were a couple of meetings I couldn’t decline during this blocked morning period: I have a global role, and two conference calls with Europe were scheduled during my blocked time. Those were easy to accommodate because the time difference really doesn’t allow much flexibility. I also had a customer call that was scheduled, and customers always come first.

This is the hardest of the four practices to implement because there are so many excuses to avoid it, but I proved to myself it can be done and am on a path to make it routine. The concept of blocking the morning to do the most important work led me to discover another book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

Benjamin Franklin's ideal daily routine, from his autobiography (credit: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey

Benjamin Franklin’s ideal daily routine, from his autobiography (credit: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey)

It examines the daily routines of almost 200 artists – from Beethoven, to Picasso, to Agatha Christie, to Charles Darwin, to Woody Allen – to uncover whether a routine fosters sustained creative work. Most of the artists profiled were committed to getting their daily work done but employed different routines and were never entirely confident about their progress.  Another aspect I found interesting is that “back in the olden days,” most of the artists received mail and visitors in the afternoon, so they would spend their mornings working and their afternoons replying to letters and receiving guests. It seems not much has changed – our “mail” is now electronic and our “visitors” are now meetings.

Which takes us to the next best practice: in order to focus in the morning, I had to silence my phone and turn off apps, email and other technology unrelated to the work I was doing. This was also easier than I thought it would be. I think the reason is that once you focus, you enter a state of flow and the time flies. The itch to check email was certainly there, but I found that two 90-minute periods of focus really curbed the desire. Afterwards, I would quickly scan email and make sure there was nothing urgent waiting for me. I would answer anything that couldn’t wait, and then I would take a break close to noon for lunch. Afternoons became devoted to meetings and email. So far so good.

The third piece of advice I decided to follow was breathe. This comes naturally to most people, but I do have a tendency to hold my breath while in front of a computer screen. I have been catching myself doing this multiple times a day, so I’m becoming more and more aware that I need to stop and breathe. Many of the artists profiled in Daily Rituals were also mindful of the need for breaks and exercise and set aside time to take long walks in the afternoon.

And, finally, the fourth best practice: practice (un)necessary creation. Because of my new routine, I found that I have more energy to work on my art of oil painting, and I made substantial progress on my study of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ. Being back at the easel is a joy.

I am surprised at how easy it has been to implement these practices. There are many different practices advised in the book – these are just the top four I chose to try to implement faithfully. The first one – great work must happen before everything else – was critical to changing my mindset that I don’t have to react to everything all the time or constantly accommodate to my surroundings. It feels like if you can get over that hump, some powerful habits can begin to form. I’ll continue to update you on progress and please let me know if you’ve picked up the book or if you have any advice you want to share.

Four things I learned in an offsite with myself

I’m so glad that May is over. It was a month in which I lost control of my schedule and time to an unprecedented extent. I felt stuck in a “create-on-demand” twilight zone, reacting and responding to almost hourly urgent-but-not-important requests and attending last-minute meetings that hijacked my thinking and real work time. I had to work late nights on the project that really mattered, leaving me drained and resentful. Another month passed with no progress on a painting I had begun, a study of Rouault’s “Head of Christ”, a painting that is so full of passion and so moving that it requires the student be in that frame of mind also.

The constant heavy rain in Austin meant the Memorial Day holiday weekend would be spent indoors, so I had an offsite with myself to pause, take stock, and figure out how to make some improvements. I sought answers online and in conversations with friends. My questions were met with agreement and empathy, but everyone seemed resigned to feeling this is just the way life is now. Technology seemed to get most of the blame. Dissatisfied with the acceptance of the status quo, I kept searching and finally stumbled upon a website that claims to provide the “missing curriculum” for making ideas happen: 99u.com.  99u says they don’t want to give you more ideas – they want to empower you to make good on the ones you’ve got. I was intrigued: I have lots of ideas, but lately I haven’t been able to make them a reality, particularly in my art of oil painting, but also at work. I enjoyed reading the articles and watching the videos on the site, but the real breakthrough came when I downloaded Volume One of their three-part book series “Managing Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind.”

Manage Your Day-to-Day from 99u

I devoured the book on my Kindle app in just a few hours on Memorial Day, highlighting key passages and taking notes and making significant changes based on what I learned. The book is divided into four chapters and is comprised of essays from various creatives and thought leaders. I love this approach because it’s not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It’s a playbook of best practices for producing great work and focusing on the things that are important to you.

The preface summarizes the dilemma so perfectly that I felt the 99u editor-in-chief Jocelyn K. Glei had been observing me: “Creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around them, and we now have to contend with a constant stream of chirps, pings, and alerts at all hours of the day. As these urgent demands tug us this way and that, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a centered space for creativity.” She goes on to explain the organization of the book into four key skill sets that must be mastered to succeed in this new world:

  • Building a rock-solid routine
  • Finding focus in a distracted world
  • Taming your tools
  • Sharpening your creative mind

I highly recommend this book and cannot do it justice with a review, but I do want to share the advice that resonated with me and that I am trying to put into practice so that you may be inspired to pick it up, order it, or download it this week. I’ve chosen to highlight one key practice from each chapter listed above.

First and foremost, great work must happen before everything else. I continue to do morning pages very early in the morning to observe habits and thought processes. This five-year habit wasn’t affected by the May Madness – that’s how ingrained it has become. The big change is that I’ve blocked my calendar from 8:30-11:30 AM each day to get my most meaningful and important work done, leaving the reactive work (email, anyone?) and meetings for later. I hope I am able to respond to requests for meetings during those blocked times with a sincere, polite, and firm “I’m sorry, I’m booked at that time, but I could meet after 11:30.”

Second, turn off phone, apps, email, and other technology unrelated to the project or task. The only way to respect the first habit is to ensure that the distractions of the modern world don’t sabotage the time I’ve set aside to get real work done. It’s so much easier to answer an email or look at Twitter than it is to create something, so resisting the distractions by turning them off is something that I think will work for me. I admit that I might feel anxious if I don’t look at email for three hours, but I figure someone will call me if it is truly important.

Third, breathe. I learned a new term from one of the essayists in the book: screen apnea. I’m a long-time sufferer. I hold my breath or breathe shallowly while sitting in front of a screen, no matter the size of the screen. The writer described how unhealthy this is: The body becomes acidic and inflamed and there’s a tendency to over-consume in this state as we become less aware of when we’re hungry or sated. Breathing decreases stress and helps you make better decisions, the author says. It sounds very strange to say “I’m going to try breathing”, but I guess I’m not alone in having trouble with this basic human function.

Finally, practice unnecessary creation. This is the art of using personal creative projects to explore new obsessions, skills, or ways of working without the pressure of the real-world work environment. For work, this means keeping a notebook to record questions I have, ideas I want to pursue, or demonstration projects that I’d like to try. For my art of oil painting, it means setting aside the time to paint, to write about the creative process here, and to explore.

This new day-to-day starts today, and I will report back on the progress here. The frequency with which I post will certainly be an indicator. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the passages by Todd Henry that is as inspiring as it is scary: “Consider the opportunity cost of spending your life only on pragmatics. You dedicate your time to pleasing everyone else and delivering on their expectations, but you never get around to discovering your deeper aptitudes and creative capacities. Nothing is worth that.”

Have you been feeling like your day-to-day has drifted to accommodate your surroundings rather than meet your preferences and goals? I’d love to hear about your frustrations and changes you’ve made to your routine, how you tame distractions, tools and technology, and how you sharpen your creativity. Thanks for reading!

Dusting off the paintbrushes

It’s been four months since my last post. Thank you for standing by, dear readers. My last post was about caregiving, and when I wrote it, I felt confident I could return to painting while my mom lived with me and fought pancreatic cancer. That wasn’t to be the case, as the roller coaster of this blasted disease continued until the end of the year, and it was enough I could do to maintain my work ethic at my day job (which I love) and raise my now teenage daughter (oy!), while being there for my mom. The canvases continued to sit idle as did my participation in social media. It was worth it. Our family has been truly blessed. My mom finally did recover from the surgery known as the “Whipple”, one of the most complex surgeries there is, and she now is undergoing chemotherapy with only one side effect – fatigue. We are filled with hope that the scan after her treatment will show she’s beaten this disease. It’s been a miraculous process.

My parents found a terrific rental in my neighborhood last month and have settled in nicely. It’s wonderful to have them so close, and I know everyone is grateful to have their own space again. I’ve recovered from the stress and exhaustion, and I reverted the room they occupied in my home back into an art studio. It is time to dust off the paintbrushes and get to work on the six large blank canvases that are sitting there waiting for me to bring them to life.

This is HARD. I haven’t held a paintbrush in seven months, and my art instructor Michael Schliefke moved away to Kansas City. I’m on my own. I know I can do this, but getting started is harder than I thought it would be. I’ve started planning three paintings and have been thinking about the subjects, the palette I’m going to use, and the technique I’m going to use. I have simplified my environment, decluttering and removing possessions and activities that don’t spark joy to leave the space and the time for the those that do. (For more on this, I recommend a powerful book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. This is not your typical organizational self-help book; it is about changing your relationship with your stuff.)

My environment is ready. I’m ready. But I haven’t actually begun creating anything yet. So I find myself here, writing to you, to put the motivation and accountability in place to get moving. My goal is to complete six paintings by the end of November and host an event in my home to show them in early December. There. Now that I have stated this goal out loud to others, I feel motivated and accountable to follow through and complete six paintings in nine months.

To remind myself what it felt like to be motivated in my art and to reawaken the determination to create, I wanted to share the last painting I completed right before my mother’s diagnosis.  It’s a study of Ben Fenske’s “Johanna Fixing her Skirt.” I enjoyed painting this very much and created it on my own with no instruction from Michael.

Have you ever had to proclaim a goal and ask for accountability in order to get motivated to start or follow through on your goal?

Johanna Fixing her Skirt, oil on canvas, 8" x 10"

Johanna Fixing her Skirt, oil on canvas, 8″ x 10″

Strengths, flow, effective thinking, and the pursuit of happiness

I recently attended my second professional seminar in the University of Texas at Austin’s new program Human Dimensions of Organizations.  The seminar, titled Flourishing in the Workplace, took place on April 25 and was the second seminar in the Smarter Thinking certification series.  I blogged about the first seminar late last year and am excited to have been invited back by UT to guest blog about my experience in this latest seminar.

Please visit HDO’s blog In the Loop to read my guest post, and feel free to comment there or here at Where’s my Paintbrush.  Thank you for reading!