Tag Archives: Creativity research

water colours and various papers

The enemies and friends of creativity

My great grandfather was a tailor. One of his sons took over the business. Their studio was a brick building at the back of a four-storey building in the centre of Innsbruck, a city in Austria. When my great uncle died, we had to clear it out. I was fairly young and have only patchy memories, but I do remember the balls of fabric, boxes and boxes of buttons and spools of thread. There were proper tailor scissors, too heavy for me to lift. The studio was surrounded by some fruit trees and garden space. Maybe that’s where my dream of having my own studio one day began.

The idea of working in a studio has clearly moved something inside me when I was very young. I loved the dedicated space to create and the idea of collaborating and creating together with others. I dreamed of large communal tables, open studios and the conversations that flow while we’re also engaged in an activity. I dreamed of collective making, women’s circles, community quilts and collaborative writing projects.

Deep down, I must have known two truths about creativity.

Both are deeply anchored on our neurobiology and our wiring to be creative and social creatures.

It feels good to make things

“The fact that it feels good to make things with our hands harkens back to our hunter-gatherer nature, which lives on in our psychology.”

Ellen Dissanayake

Making things together can feel even better

“Collaboration is how most of our ancestors used to work and live, before machines came along and fragmented society.”

Twyla Tharp

Making things with our hands does indeed feel good and we all know the sense of satisfaction we get from it. Whether we bake a loaf of bread, paint, write a book, make a piece of furniture or a vision board. When making things feels so good, why is it often so hard to integrate it more into everyday life?


mixed media collage stating creativity takes courage

There are a few common enemies of creativity

Doubt and fear

Self-doubt and fear can keep us stuck in the holding pattern of ‘not enough’. We wait until we are skilled enough or have a good enough idea or a big enough audience or a book deal. We spend more time looking at other people’s creativity than venturing out to discover our own. We have started to believe that creativity is reserved for the creative type working in creative jobs.

Distractions

Unless a certain creative activity is part of our ‘day job’, it’s easy to let life’s distractions and demands take over. Even in the era of self-care, simply creating to feel good or nourish a deep need inside us can feel a bit self-indulgent or simply not important enough to defend it against all the other things that want our time and attention.

Negative collaborators or judgmental friends

Any creative endeavour is vulnerable. As we express ourselves creatively, no matter the medium, we invite critique, and often we get criticism. Not always delivered in the most constructive way. Hence sharing your creativity with the wrong crowd can lead to getting disheartened and ultimately blocked.


But: we can mobilise the friends of creativity

I have found that the friends of creativity are more easily summoned when creating alongside others. This can take many forms, from simply creating together to co-creation and more formal collaboration.

Showing up

A meaningful deadline, creative date or agreement to collaborate will lead us towards creativity. Just like going to the dentist, showing up is made so much easier when we have an appointment. That’s why initiatives like ‘The 530 Club’ work. It’s a community for people who want to work on personal projects; to make progress they meet at 5.30am at Australian cafés and work alongside each other.

Agreeing to a creative date gives us the discipline to ignore distractions and uphold our boundaries and the courage to overcome fear.

Momentum

Creating together isn’t only boosting our discipline to show up. It also provides a reinvigorating energy that flows between people. I’m sure I’ve written about my virtual writing circle before, and I can’t rave enough about it. A shared intention to be creative, and a willingness to share our process, progress and possibly end product propels us on. As a result, I have not only had a weekly feel-good hour, but also more content to support my work and an opportunity to experiment with writing techniques and prompts.

A quiet and focused place to think and create

When I left the world of corporate offices and hum of open plan hot desking, I thought my time had come. Founding Sensemaking Space, I thought I would rent a studio and begin a ‘proper’ creative life as an art therapist and creative coach, offering myself and others this quiet, focused place to think and make sense of life.

There are certainly spaces that help us sink into the deep focus and clarity of creative flow. I am not shelving this dream altogether; but for now, I embrace what 2020 has taught me: I’ve learned a lot about being apart and staying connected through gathering virtually and experimenting with new ways of connecting. The lack of a studio or dedicated space is not an acceptable excuse to skip creativity or delay dreams. And the idea of a virtual studio feels worth pursuing.

Inspiration

While inspiration is part of creativity, it can’t be the initiator. Our busy lives are loud enough to drown out the quiet whispers of inspiration.

But showing up at an agreed time, in an agreed place (virtual or IRL) with supportive people who spur us on and encourage the process provides the setting within which inspiration can land.


Bringing it all together

While I keep dreaming about my bricks and mortar studio, for now, I have decided to offer Sensemaking Studio Hours. Because here is another friend of creativity: Start where you are.

Rather than waiting for perfect circumstances, we simply begin. I begin by placing my work in a world of virtual connection, with its upsides and downsides, and in an era where we crave deep connection and real conversations. Because there’s lots to talk about and make sense of when our world has been shaken in its foundations.


art materials spread out

My offer for you: Sensemaking Studio Hours

Sensemaking Studio Hours are virtual equivalent of walking into an open studio. They are designed to combine the pleasure of making with the pleasure of connecting. They provide the experiencing of coming together and creating together. The experience of being in a real conversation or quietly making alongside and benefitting from the energy this creates. And of course, together we’d be making some sense of life along the way.

It’s a BYO creativity date, you bring your project, I bring mine. Seeing what others create is in itself inspiring.

It’s an opportunity to create alongside each other, for one hour, in a virtual 1-on-1 setting (Zoom). That way it’s easier to connect and have real conversations than in a larger group. It also means that we can both create and inspire each other. Also, did you know that it is often easier to achieve the state of ‘Flow’ in a group rather than on your own?

It’s a commitment to beat distraction and excuses. They are free (because they are neither a coaching/ therapy session, nor an art class) – but signing up comes with the expectation that you show up. I acknowledge that this is a bit of an experiment, but as Priya Parker says in her book The Art of Gathering: as a host of special gatherings, we need to have generosity and the spirit to try!


What creative projects might we be working on?

The creative project you bring along can be a lot of different things:

  • writing – poetry, creative writing, writing a book, blog post, website copy, or a business plan…
  • visual art – collage, painting, drawing, sketching, mixed media, calligraphy…
  • textile art – knitting, crochet, embroidery, cross stich, slow stitching, macrame, quilting…
  • bookbinding, making dolls, making pompoms, paper art, weaving, beading, stamping, printing, cardmaking origami, scrapbooking, building a kite, working with clay, flower arranging…
  • You could even plan out a creative project, but it’s important that we both show up with the intention of creating something and making some progress

Which project would you like to bring along to a studio hour? Is there anything you have always wanted to try or something you wanted to make progress on, in good company of another maker?

Each month, I’ll have two hours ringfenced to meet up with some of you to harness the power of collective making. Maybe I’ll block out some more… They can be booked online. You get an email with your Zoom link. You gather your project and materials, and we begin.

There’s a bit more information here or you can of course get in touch to ask me anything.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space


So far, these are some of the things we have done in previous Sensemaking Studio Hours: Water colour painting, working with clay, collage, weaving, visualising values, found poetry, acrylics and playing with frisket, printing with random objects… What would you do?

Letters spelling creativity on colourful background

Creativity – a superpower of the future?

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 increasing demand 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.”

“I think of creativity as putting your imagination to work. It’s like the executive wing of imagination. You can be imaginative all day long and never do anything. To be creative, you have to do something.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Creative childhoods

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.”

―Elizabeth Gilbert

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.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

mixed media collage stating creativity takes courage

Creativity takes courage

When I introduce myself and my work, I’m typically met with lots of curiosity and some confusion.

Here’s what I hear a lot: That sounds great, but sadly I’m not creative. I can’t draw for the life of me. That’s so interesting, is it mainly for blocked artists? Do you work with children?

Listening to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown, I came across the term creative midwifery. Brené Brown spoke about her inherent ability to tell stories, but when writing her first books she struggled. Only when she realised that her creativity needed a midwife, was she able to fulfil her potential. She simply asked colleagues to join her in a weekend getaway and listen to her stories, as if they were sitting around the campfire. Sharing her stories, in an auditory format, and receiving her colleagues’ suggestions and questions helped structuring her knowledge and research into what, in the end, became very successful books. The term creative midwife resonated strongly when I thought about my work.

Now, you might ask: if we are all born with creativity and it is an inherent ability, why would some of us need a midwife to give birth to it (again)? Isn’t creativity alive in all of us? Well…

Sadly, creativity is something we unlearn.

Putting my researcher hat on, I was delighted to find evidence that this isn’t just a hunch based on the typical answers I get from people who don’t consider themselves creative…. A longitudinal study by George Land, developed for NASA, assessed children’s creativity. Among 5-year-olds, a whopping 98% of kids were categorised as creative and imaginative. This percentage dwindled as the children grew older: 30% when they were ten years old, 12% when they were 15 years old. In a separate group of adults, who have been asked to complete the same test, a shocking 2% remain who call themselves creative. Against the trend we see with most other skills and talents, we don’t expand our creativity as we grow older, we unlearn it. And this explains why some of us need to tease it out again, later in life, when we want to re-connect with our creativity.


I come across three typical reasons why someone has lost their creativity:

Many of us lose our creative confidence and our self-belief. We have art scars from experiences when we were told we had failed at a creative endeavour and that we were clearly not talented in this field. Whether that’s the teacher who criticises a drawing or essay; or the ‘banter’ stating jokingly that we shouldn’t give up the day job; or a parent who, often with good intentions, reinforces other talents over our creative ones.

Another reason why we unlearn our creativity is purely neurobiological. Whenever our brain encounters a problem it searches through our database of experiences and knowledge to find an answer. When we are young, this database is naturally tiny and needs to be built. We play to explore the world, ask a gazillion ‘why’ questions and our brain busily files everything for later use. If all goes well, we emerge from childhood with a database grown in size and complexity, ready for solving the challenges of adult life. And now that it has grown into a substantial knowledge base, our brain develops ways of tagging and filtering this database to rapidly access the information that seems most relevant. This is useful as it makes for faster decisions and saves energy. Remember that the brain represents only 2% of the weight of an adult but consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. To limit this significant need for energy, we develop automatic behaviours and muscle memory, such as being able to tie our shoelaces without having to think about it every day. And our brain develops narrow search algorithms to find useful information quickly. If we are in the process of learning a new computer program, it’s more useful if our brain sifts through what we know about user interface and software and ignores our memories of family gatherings in the 90s.

And then there’s the conditioning and expectation of being fast and efficient in our problem-solving. It’s easy to understand why very unfamiliar and creative solutions to problems are less likely to see the light of day. They carry a greater risk of failure, push-back or rejection. Our creative muscle weakens. Pathways of ‘tried and tested’ become grooves, then deep canyons. Our brain gets a bit stiffer. And just like we end up unable to touch our toes, we struggle to put pen to paper and scribble away, or we feel inhibited to write a story, even though we write tons of emails, articles, and reports every day.


How can we re-learn creativity?

There are three key ingredients to strengthening our creativity: inspiration, process and encouragement. All of these can be initiated in creative coaching and then practiced going forward. We need to train our brains for a wider search, even though this is harder work and often more time consuming. Making time for divergent thinking is a key step in creative coaching. I cultivate openness and soft thinking around anything that can serve as inspiration and a starting point. That’s why I share books, quotes, TED talks, random questions, or different frameworks, whether from the therapeutic or coaching world, in my sessions. I also have a set of what I call ‘poetic prompts’ which often yield unexpected and delightful results.   

Then we need process – not in a formal, rigid or technical sense, but in a sense of offering a safe space, some structure and guidance. This ensures that every inquiry gets wrapped up safely and captures the new insights. We often begin by exploring our own creative process, where we tend to get blocked and how we most easily achieve the state of creative flow. And it includes a big selection of creative processes and reflective exercises which allows us to remain open without losing ourselves down a rabbit hole and stalling our progress. This is the area where I hugely benefit from my Art Therapy training, bringing together creative process and psychological expertise.

And lastly, we need encouragement, back-up and support, a cheer squad, and someone who can ask the right questions, including those that feel a little uncomfortable to begin with. Creativity requires risk, and it is easier to do something that feels a bit risky with someone in your corner.

Of course, working with a creative coach or art therapist can support you in the process of bringing your creativity back into your life. Especially if you want to explore and heal deeper art scars. But also, because creativity usually brings up fear.

Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it is, however, something to be dealt with.

Elizabeth Gilbert

They can offer a safe and supportive exploration of these memories and the emotional risks of creativity as well as the emotional cost of suppressing your creativity.

But re-connecting with your creativity as a hobby is a great way to start. It’s how I started again after years of disconnection. And it’s the reason why I love that part of my practice: delivering creative workshops, workshops that don’t dive more deeply into the therapeutic territory, but a gentle portal back into the world of creative strength. I encourage you to find your portal back into this world! Whether it’s a workshop, a self-paced, pressure-free online course, a guided journaling exercise – anything goes. And as you practice your creative muscle, you might find that it contributes to all areas in life. You’ll be more creative at work, in your parenting, in your relationships and friendships. It makes for a richer, more varied life. It supports you in taking transformative decisions and navigating change with a new resilience and robustness. Creativity certainly takes courage; we need to be willing to take a risk or make a mistake. But it also builds courage through greater self-awareness. It makes us braver in our choices, in asserting our boundaries, in staying true to ourselves.

Start with these two writing prompts:

For me, creativity is ….

When I can be creative ….

And feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have around creativity. The lockdown has proved that Zoom-based sessions are working well! And if you worry about requiring a huge range of art materials to get started with an online session, have a look at this video where I share a glimpse into my studio.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space