A friend and I talked about folding a daily origami heart to mark the transition between a long day in the home office and being ourselves again.
Rituals have become important. Ways to draw invisible lines that can guide us, not just between our life on Zoom and ‘the other life’, but also through a time that has been challenging to say the least. We are still in the midst of it, but as vaccination programs roll out in many countries, people reflect and begin cautiously to imagine what life after COVID-19 might look like.
Conversations everywhere talk not only about loss but also about what we have gained. Many share that they have gained new rituals which have brought them closer. Closer to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues – even when physically distanced.
Especially in the Western cultures, rituals have been eroded over time. They got lost under layers of productivity and commerce. They fell by the wayside as we sped through life. And the rituals or traditions that still matter to us have been curtailed or made impossible. Reduced or no family meetings over Christmas, no end of year celebrations, no Valentine’s Day dinner… There is sadness, frustration, sometimes anger over all that we can’t do. And quite frankly, we are also bone-tired. We need to make space for this sadness, as bottling up emotions can at best be a temporary fix.
Beyond the sadnessthere is a place for personal and modern ritual.
It doesn’t have to feel new-agey or esoteric. Understanding the ingredients of ritual, we can all create our own rituals and bring the experience of safety and meaning to our lives. Since rituals energize us and focus our attention, they can be great way to support us in crafting a meaningful and intentional life.
Here are some ingredients of ritual that can transform ordinary actions into symbolic expression and help you create your ‘DIY ritual’:
Space and setting
An opening element to mark the beginning of your ritual, this might include sensory elements like light (lighting a candle or watching the sunrise), sounds (your own music or a song/ piece of music you listen to, or nature’s sounds), fragrances, the aroma and taste of certain foods…
The intention and meaning you want to mark with this ritual
Finding ways to ensure you are present
Elements of reflection or contemplation
Gratitude or a closing element
Do you wonder which ‘lockdown rituals’ should be carried into the next chapter of life? Start by reflecting on your needs and what feels meaningful. Notice meaningful moments throughout the day and write them down. See what patterns emerge.
If you are experiencing significant transitions this year, or in this moment, here’s a simple ritual that can be used during transition.
It’s a writing practice that helps you connect with the meaning of letting go and beginning something new. You can find it in the post “Transformation and unlearning”.
Usually, the 100-day project begins on 7th April each year – a date as random as the start of the British tax year (6th April anyone??). In 2021 however, the project started on 31st January. Why? We all had a pretty stressful 2020. And so far, 2021 has not exactly started low stress either. People living in the Northern hemisphere will be in the depth of winter. For many this means lockdown, reduced social connections, worries about Covid… the community around #the100dayproject simply wanted something to look forward to.
What better than a creative project and one that helps us practice the concept of creativity as a habit, as something we simply show up for without any pressure to create a daily masterpiece.
In short, #the100dayproject is a free, global art project, based on a simple idea: “choose a creative project, do it every day for 100 days, and share your process online.”
The originator of this project is Michael Bierut, who taught a workshop for the graduate graphic design students at the Yale School of Art. It was brought into the world of Instagram by Ella Luna in 2014.
2021 will be the 8th year of people discovering, deepening, stretching and nourishing their creativity.
It is a practical way of befriending your creativity.
Just like making new friends in real life, these are a few steps you might navigate:
Find out what holds your curiosity
Your project must excite you enough to engage with it for 100 days. Just like when you decide who to approach at a conference, or who in your yoga/art/cooking class is someone you could get on with… In 2019, I did 100-days of sensemaking emotions. I explored 100 different emotions, each with a collage and a found poem. I noticed I was drawn to emotions because they play a key role in my work as a therapist and coach. And it was a way of expanding my emotional vocabulary and explore visual associations of emotions.
Show up consistently
Just as you would when you invest in nurturing a new friendship. Sometimes, a coffee catch-up might feel like effort, but without this commitment, especially in the early stages of a friendship, you won’t be getting very close.
Be open to experiment and change
This is also a useful principle when it comes to friendship in real life, because nothing stays as it is. We relocate, marry, have children, change careers… Any creative project will go through a few iterations, but the intention at its core remains. Possible adjustments might be needed on other parameters. Maybe it’s the amount of time you can spend on it. Maybe you play with different materials…
Incorporate play and fun into your creations
This is a big one for me. I can get a bit serious and ambitious with creations which will inevitably end up with aborting the mission. A friendship that doesn’t allow us to be silly or talk about some light-hearted stuff can easily get a bit too heavy and serious.
My advice for other high achievers: when committing to 100 days, not every day can be deep and meaningful. Being playful brings a lightness, and with that we often make new discoveries of what we enjoy. I discovered my love for found poetry in my 100 days of emotions and they have now become a building block of my creativity.
Build a ritual or routine
Routine can sustain us in moments of wavering, when we don’t know why we bother or simply get bored of 100 repetitive creative acts. This is a good experiment in loyalty and commitment. It acknowledges that we are humans in a busy and distracting world. It’s easy to get distracted, when we are bombarded by news and media, navigate pandemics and life as such.
You can explore what may serve you as an anchor and later apply this to other creative endeavours, areas in life or work.
Is it a time of day?
Is it linked to a ritual like lighting a candle, putting a specific piece of music on?
Is it linked to place – do you best create when you are in the same spot and how can you stick with routine when you need to move around more or even travel? Not that this is currently on the cards or most of us…
Focus on the process
The process is the goal, not the outcome. If you need an upfront definition of what success looks like: showing up consistently for 100 days.
‘Process over product’ is also a mantra in art therapy and creative coaching. The creation might be important and something to keep, but often we learn more by consistently showing up and noticing micro steps in the process.
Practicing how we pick up again after a creative hiatus is an important part of a creative life. And of life in general. Just like getting in touch again with a friend after a busy period or a time when it might have felt that we were on different trajectories. Explore whether you feel the need to catch up, do you need all 100 days to be complete, or are you ok with skipping and having a few gaps. In the end, you make the rules about your creative process.
Notice what helps in showing up.
Which guardrails are useful?
When might they become too rigid?
What do you need to hold yourself accountable?
Do you need external accountability or is the agreement you make with yourself enough? Posting about your project online can help but shouldn’t become something you dread. Share with joy and be gentle if you don’t share on certain days (or at all, depending on your social media use).
For 2021, I have decided to be working in a small format. To make it manageable and to practice reduction, not everything has to be big, complex and multi-layered. Sometimes, small and simple is what I need.
To leave a lot of room for experiments, my project is simply called # 100 days of responding randomly and I’ll share – randomly, not daily – on my Instagram (have a loog for the specific #).
So far, sources of inspiration have been: a podcast I listened to, my clients, my own reflective and coaching work, a sense of stuckness with ongoing restrictions due to the pandemic. I’m curious what else will show up….
Twyla Tharp’s book ‘The Creative Habit. Learn and use it for life’ is one of the books on creativity I return to again and again. I remember looking at it so many times before buying it. I was unsure whether it’s for me. Mainly because Twyla Tharp is a renowned choreographer. And I am not a dancer. In fact, dancing has always felt like a very strange, unlearnable language to me.
I’m so glad I eventually got it because her writing and teaching isn’t just for dancers, choreographers or people interested in dance. It is for everyone who is interested in nurturing and using their creativity. In her book, she says:
Creativity is for everyone
Tharp’s writes about the benefits of engaging in creativity and the many shapes and forms of creativity well beyond artistic endeavours. Her broad definition of creativity aligns with my work and how I aim to introduce creativity into coaching or therapy sessions. I love that she challenges any notion of creativity being elitist or exclusive to people with certain talents, degrees, job titles or skills.
I have read many books about creativity and my favourite ones are usually those that give clear advice on how we can rekindle and nurture our creativity. This practical advice is what makes creativity more accessible. I have met no-one who said that they don’t want to be creative, but plenty of people told me that they don’t believe to be creative. Twyla Tharp is very practical when it comes to creativity and she shares so many examples of herself as well as other artists, writers, athletes, businesspeople, and many more who have all found their own creativity hacks.
Creativity as a habit
She is honest about the fact that creativity requires work and commitment. It requires steadiness, dedication and vulnerability. She shares her tricks of keeping habits in her life that nudge her to being creative. We are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of convenience. Doing creative work isn’t always the most convenient way of spending time, especially when distraction and passive ways of consuming entertainment are everywhere. It requires a good amount of discipline to show up for your creative work. Tharp emphasises the importance of “automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”
Creativity as a skill
When visiting museums, I often find myself most drawn to artists’ sketchbooks, less to the final masterpiece. The sketches reveal how much preparation, planning and practice has gone into a piece which, in isolation, can easily look like the work of a genius, an accomplishment reserved for the most gifted. But we can learn to be creative.
In an interview for the Harvard Business Review Tharp acknowledges: “I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece.” In The Creative Habit, she also talks about the importance of practice as a way of building and strengthening one’s skill. She warns us from getting too stuck in our ways and quotes the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi: “Never have a favourite weapon.”
When it comes to using creativity in coaching and therapy, I experience this as a fine balance. It is great to have some go to modalities, things we enjoy, that come to us more easily. Yet often the most surprising, significant and useful insights are reached when we use a modality we are not that good at or haven’t used before. It won’t surprise you that one of the most significant insights I personally gained in coaching was reached when I engaged in some movement. It was clumsy, uncomfortable, cringeworthy and… insightful.
Creativity as discovery
Even though creativity is something we are all born with, as we go through life, it’s easy to forget what our natural creative process feels like. We are unsure at which points we tend to get stuck and which phases of the creative process come easily to us. At the end of each chapter, Tharp shares exercises as an easy and fun way to explore your creativity.
She invites us to mine for memory in a photo, explore our creative DNA, and suggests removing one of our skills from the equation and see what we can still create or how we create differently.
Here are a couple of questions from her creative DNA exercise:
What is the first creative moment you remember?
Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
My first creative memory is this: I was helping my mother bake Christmas cookies. I stood on a little stool to reach the worktop and used my favourite cookie cutter, a pig. I still have a real soft spot for pigs… My mother was there to witness it. I remember that she commented on my Christmas pigs… some were a bit wonky. I can still hear my mother’s Austrian accent and I remember that I was so excited to be helping with the baking.
Creativity for joy
Sharing a creative act with the world involves risk. Perfectionism is a way of managing the fear associated with such a risk. Perfectionism is a creativity killer that often gets in the way of joyful creating.
The inner critic keeps telling us we’re not good enough. As a result, we either judge ourselves harshly (no joy in that!) or stop creating altogether. It’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism can have its origin in deep attachment or childhood wounds. It can be a formerly useful, now unhelpful strategy to ensure one’s safety.
In my experience, trying to ignore the inner critic never works. It only gets more disruptive. The only way forward is to befriend your inner critic. We must see its interference as a safety exercise designed to protect us from the vulnerable experience of creating.
Twyla Tharp embraces failure as part of the creative process. In fact, she lists a range of failures in her book – but that’s a whole other article… She recommends gathering a ‘validation squad’. This isn’t necessarily a group of people who will love anything you do. They are people you admire for their talent, who care about you, who don’t compete with you and provide constructive feedback, with great honesty as well as substance and respect. This is an invaluable support structure if your creative endeavours are designed to fly out into the world, possibly to earn you a living.
When we think about creating in a more private setting, creating purely for joy is such a balm for our emotional wellbeing. I recommend a group of like-minded friends or people you find you can easily connect with. Often, deep friendship emerges from creating alongside and experiencing the vulnerable act of creativity together.
Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.
And I do hope you feel inspired to create!
More tips on how to rekindle your creativity can be found in this article about creativity as a work skill and in this one, where I share some information about the various reasons why many of us stop creating. My own journey back to creativity began tentatively after a twenty-year hiatus. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back!
Taking clients through an exercise of exploring the creative process, reflecting on typical blocks and ways to overcome them is one of my favourite ways to begin a creative coaching relationship.
The world is changing… it has always been changing. Most recently though, we might have felt this change more intensely. The reality of living in a VUCA world has moved from board rooms into living rooms. VUCA stands for a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and don’t we know what that feels like?! This world asks for creative resilient responses. It’s no surprise that creativity has been listed among the top work skills for the future.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report predicts creativity, innovation and ideation will be key skills. A 2010 IBM study among CEOs revealed creativity as the single most important leadership skill. The McKinsey Global Institute identified increasingdemand for higher cognitive skills including creativity.
What exactly is creativity?
Too often people’s thoughts jump to art classes and canvases. They hasten to add that they don’t have a creative bone in their body. And many of us have been made to believe that creativity is for the creative types or the truly gifted – an exclusive club which we don’t belong to.
I offer you an alternative definition, quoting Sir Ken Robinson: creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.”
Most of us have memories of being creative as a child. There might be anecdotes or even videos of your contribution to dance, music or drama performances. The drawing that hung on the fridge for ages, or maybe even something that got framed?? And then there are all the games and roleplays we invented; the fancy dress outfits we wore.
George Land’s longitudinal creativity study showed that 98% of 5-year-olds fell into the category of ‘creative genius’. This percentage dropped rapidly as these kids grew up, and among a representative sample of adults, 2% believed to be creative. Land concluded that “non-creative behaviour is learned”. Therefore, we need to nurture our inherent creativity and un-learn the non-creative beliefs and behaviours.
Creativity for survival
We can find more evidence that we are creative creatures beyond statistical research: our dexterity with an opposable thumb suggests we evolved to make things. This ability and our creativity ensured our survival. As Liz Gilbert wrote:
“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers–these are our common ancestors.”
Benefits of creativity
Creativity has several benefits which are very useful in the VUCA world and the workplace of the future:
When we engage in a creative act, we focus on the present moment and calm our busy minds. this is increasingly important in the context of information overload and a world full of distractions.
In the early stages of the creative process, we think divergently. We think broadly and delay filtering and selecting of ideas. In a world of speed and productivity this doesn’t always come easy.
We experience accomplishment and learn to trust the process and our abilities – cultivating a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
We strengthen our imagination and problem-solving skills.
We explore and express our inner world – being grounded in our inner selves helps us navigate an ever-changing external world.
We build resilience for tough times.
Nurturing creativity becomes a cornerstone in caring for our wellbeing, in our private lives as well as in the workplace where the above-mentioned benefits can lead to more successful innovation, increased productivity and focus, better crisis management, overall resilience, improved collaboration and empathic leadership.
How to re-start your creativity
The main success factor in rediscovering creativity is time. Not tons of it, just the commitment to choose creativity and find pockets of time to practice it with intention. Ringfence a time of day, go on an artist date with yourself, establish a weekend practice.
Even though art therapy shows that our most significant insights are often achieved when working with a modality we are less comfortable or familiar with, I recommend starting from a place of preference or familiarity when you befriend your creativity again. Think back to creative activities and forms of play you enjoyed as a child. Whether it’s improv theatre or water colour painting. If you feel drawn to a particular material like textiles, wood or clay you might want to begin there.
It also helps to start with something that fits more easily in your everyday life. For many of us, a sketchbook is more practical than easel and canvas. Exploring photography through a daily photo using your smartphone can be more achievable than attempting your SLR camera manual.
Are you drawn to practical things or do you like to do things ‘just for fun’? If you are the practical type, making your own tea mugs or baking might suit you more than knitting miniature fruits and vegetables. And vice versa.
The accountability, encouragement and shared joy of creating in a group can also assist. Find a class, workshop, or an online course. One of my biggest joys of 2020 was the emergence of a small writing circle with women around the world using Zoom. Remember that many creative adventures do not need to begin with competence or learning a skill. We can simply get together and write or make a collage. If, at some point, we want to get better at it, we’ll be already motivated to put in extra effort. If we make ‘being good at it’ the first step, we’ll likely never start.
If you have a competitive streak, participating in a challenge can kickstart your creative endeavours. I personally love the 100-day project, but there are plenty more. You might want to use sharing your creations publicly, for example on social media or in private groups, as an accountability mechanism.
From hobby to life skill
As Tom and David Kelley write in their book Creative Confidence: “everybody is the creative type.” With the right encouragement and practice creativity can easily be rekindled, “but the real value of creativity doesn’t emerge until you are brave enough to act on those ideas.”
When we practice our creativity in this safe and joyful way, as a hobby initially and to re-charge our batteries, we will strengthen our ability to come up with creative solutions under pressure or when there’s more at stake. We will learn to trust our creativity as a work skill and weave it into our problem-solving and decision-making, steering us away from the dreaded ‘we’ve always done it like that’ principle. Most of us have been in a meeting where this was muttered, if not proclaimed aloud by some creativity grinch.
Creative coaching is a process that can kickstart the re-discovery of your creativity.
And while you are at it, you might learn a few new things about yourself, your values, beliefs, patterns or simply find the courage to begin a creative practice that could do with a cheer squad.