The 5 Muscles of Creative Energy (and how to stretch them)
Posted on 6th June 2022 at 19:53
When our powers of creativity decline, our perspective on the world contracts. To feel truly alive, creative energy needs as much investment as the physical. Life coach and creative mentor, Sophie Neilan, explores how we can tone our creative muscles.
We were each born with a ready supply of creative energy. Look at any two-year-old and you will see it in abundance. They believe that anything is possible, even the most ordinary things are a source of fascination.
As the years go by, our challenge is to maintain that sense of wonder, complementing it with the wisdom of age and experience. One way to do that is to ensure our creative energy muscles are sufficiently flexed and toned.
I have led creative teams for the past three decades and one thing I know is that creative success relies heavily on the creative process. Noticing what works and what does not work has helped me define the key components of creative energy - and come up with some ideas on how to keep them healthy.
If we return to toddlers for a minute, you can see how hungry they are to explore and understand the world around them. Everything is intriguing, exciting and often hilarious! As we get older and things grow more familiar, the light of wonder grows dimmer and there seems to be little left that we don’t already know.
A conscious effort to stay curious (asking questions, looking beyond the expected, being interested in what’s going on outside our immediate domain) will add freshness to our outlook on the world and revive our natural creativity.
Exercise: Mark some time out in your calendar and commit to doing something different. Take yourself for a walk and go somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. Visit somewhere you haven’t been. Be aware of what you’re noticing.
The art of creation depends on having a clear vision. What does success look like? Not only in the act of creation itself, but also about its impact - on you, on those around you and maybe on the wider world.
Exercise: Think of something that is really important to you that you would like to change for the better (something that you can control the outcome of). Imagine the outcome EXACTLY as you would like it to be at some defined point in the future. Now either write a diary entry (dated at that future time, describing the situation in detail in the present tense, as if it had actually happened) or collect images that represent that outcome and create a vision board. Don’t let “being realistic” hold back whilst creating your vision! You can work out the details later.
3. Stress and Recovery
Stress: too much of it is a killer, too little leads to creative atrophy. A managed state of tension gets the imaginative juices flowing. As a designer and creative director, I recognise the power of a well-defined brief and a deadline. Boundaries are a great way to corral creativity, give it something to question, push against and even break down when necessary.
However, stress and challenge need to happen in short bursts interspersed with periods of recovery to be truly effective. Ongoing stress puts you into a state of fight or flight: energetically draining and creatively suffocating.
Think of how many great ideas you’ve had at your desk versus those that occurred elsewhere while thinking about something else. Creative power exists between the expense and recovery of your energy.
Exercise: Experiment with ways to take breaks throughout your working day and find a rhythm between focus and recovery that works for you. We don’t all have the luxury of a private office with a comfortable daybed to recline on so here’s an opportunity to get creative. Make a conscious decision to get away from your desk and think about something other than work at least four times each day (even if it's only for ten minutes).
Creativity is a journey: sometimes cruising along the superhighway, other times hitting bumps on the road or being taken on diversion. Success involves the ability to go with the flow, remaining open to alternatives and willing to adapt when necessary.
Some of our best ideas are born of sudden flashes of insight or intuition, not the result of linear thinking. They’re unpredictable. That’s why it is so important to stay open to new possibilities and be prepared to adapt or change course when necessary.
Linear thinking may lead you to some decent ideas but, as the uber-creative illustrator Christophe Niemann says: “Great work is not really planable.”
Exercise: Think of a challenge you need to solve. Now frame it in a way that takes the emotion out of it. For example, you lead a team and you don’t feel there is anyone you can trust to delegate key tasks to. Instead of naming the challenge, “I have no one I can trust!!”, call it: “Delegating Tasks”. Explore the topic from your current perspective (you don’t trust anyone and you’re stuck doing all the work yourself) and then ask yourself “What if …” and look at the topic from a number of different perspectives (e.g. “What if I just let them run with it?” “What if I got them more training?” “What if I asked for help?” “What if I made them accountable?”) At the end, look through the ideas that came up in each of the different perspectives. Chances are you will have a wide range of possibilities in front of you.
Research by Harvard University* found that a common factor tends to get in the way of our ability to generate truly creative ideas: we undervalue the power of persistence. In a series of research challenges, participants significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate. After each study, a separate group of people were asked to rate the creativity of the ideas. It was found that, on average, the ideas that came out later after some persistence were rated higher than those generated initially.
Solving a creative challenge can take time and will take energy. Persistence is crucial to seeing it through and getting the best results.
Exercise: Faced with a creative challenge, find a partner to brainstorm ideas with. Clearly define and agree on the topic. Set a timer for a set period of time. Take it in turns to offer an idea. As one person says their idea, the other (regardless of how good they think the idea is) finds something to build on and says, “What I like about that is … and that makes me think of …”. Keep going until the timer goes off. Then come up with two more ideas each!
* Source: "Giving Up Is the Enemy of Creativity" by Brian J. Lucas and Loran Nordgren, Harvard Business Review
Sophie Neilan is a certified professional coach and creative mentor. She coaches high-achieving (and overstretched) women who want to take back control of their precious time and energy so they can focus their attention on what really matters.
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