Daylight is in abundance now in the far northern reaches of Scotland. It’s light out really early now, and although I love the mornings regardless, it’s more pleasant than usual to wake up early. As a result I’ve started another seasonal shift in my morning routine, and even more that than that, a bigger thematic shift in the expectations I set for what I do when during my days.
I’m now running first thing in the morning rather than later (mostly), and am trying to pay more attention to letting my energy guide my routine rather than my willpower.
Most people I know equate creativity with being “artistic”. That then means that many people don’t consider themselves creative. This is a severely limiting view and a major tragedy.
Consider the following from renowned non-fiction writer John McPhee, who wrote an entire book on a single tennis match that is one my favorite books I’ve ever read, and who could write about rocks (he did) and make it riveting:
“What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” (John McPhee, Draft No. 4)
This same idea that Mr McPhee is getting at can apply to any line of work, any discipline, any field. You can be creative on multiple levels and are certainly doing that, or have done it before, if you haven’t already noticed.
One of the things I have found recently is a renewed appreciation for the creativity within how I approach my current chosen domain (I’m not certain how to precisely name it, but a “engineering teacher” comes close). The appreciation has become stronger as I have taken the practice of my craft more seriously. I’ve found so many ways to exercise creativity in both how I produce and how I learn (and have taken feedback and tried to put my ego aside more as well). Creativity is not something you either have or don’t. Creativity is a skill that needs practice, everyone can be better, and it’s a simple matter of putting in the hours and looking for ways to make yourself more effective.
Some ways that I’ve been more creative in how I produce include exploring new habits, like keeping daily (physical and digital) logs, doing weekly summaries/reviews (some of which has been shared here), and trying to stretch myself to be faster and more effective in the things I do everyday, from the most basic, like typing and setting up pre-defined text snippets and templates that can be called up from a keystroke. I have become creative in how I learn by actively seeking out projects/problems to go and solve with the technology I work with as a way to stretch my expertise in intentional ways (in some cases, I’ll considering doing “fake” projects as exercises as well, I learn best by doing).
I would also be leaving out something if I also didn’t mention the role that feedback from my coworkers, and a desire to be seen as useful to them, provides me in fuelling my practice. This feedback is often what seems to ultimately be able to push me out of my comfort zone into doing things that are scary, and not surprisingly, the most impactful in getting more creative and better at what I do.
Finally, I have become more creative by taking things away from my daily habits as well. Prioritization is already hard. Distractions, needless process, and an over-dependence on needing to keep things too tidy and neat make it harder.
It’s possible that your job is to make decisions. If that’s what you do, what would it mean to do it more productively? With less hassle or drama? If we make decisions all day, how can we do it better? Because that’s the question every other professional asks about her work. If we make decisions for a living, it might be worth figuring out what would happen if we made better ones. (Seth Godin, What do you make?)
In the end, what is creative is unique and relative to you. My recent path of figuring out new work and how to do it better has been a great re-discovery that being a creative, being a creator, is what I do and have always loved to practice.
“Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.” (Cal Newport, Deep Work)
I’m not sure how this became a longer thing than it is. Maybe that’s because prioritization, the subject of this piece, is a longer, harder thing to do than it seems at a distance. Anyway, this illustration started as a little morning drawing of an idea that I revisited from a book excerpt and grew into the series of illustrations below. It’s been a fun exercise in playing with a brush pen, seeing how I could talk about an idea thorough pictures, and put together disparate pieces of each into some sort of whole (using GIMP for image editing). Here are the different illustration “parts” explained with the compined composite I created at the end.
I’ve had this little list next to my desk and stuck in my notebook for the last week and it has really come in handy. I’m susceptible to getting upset at things people say (or in my work, type), eagerly taking someone’s innocuous ping and blowing it up to a personal affront to myself and my family’s security or wellbeing. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens more often than it should.
Of course this is ridiculous and I’m not nearly as important as I think I am. Someone else’s irritation, rudeness or strange behavior is not likely to be about me. To use a shiny new word I recently learned, I am not the omphalos of the world, or even my own house.
Anyway, this is a handy tool for putting things in perspective in any work or personal dealings that start to get under your skin. Credit to Recomendo where I first found it.
How to stop taking things personally
Realise that other people’s rudeness is not about you. It’s a reflection of their own issues.
Ask yourself what else the comment might mean. For example, if someone doesn’t smile or say hello, they might just be shy.
Take comments or criticism in a constructive way. Ask yourself if there’s any truth to it? What could you learn?
Take a different perspective. Ask yourself how an unbiased outsider would see the situation.
Realise that you cannot please everyone.
Know that you are not defined by your mistakes or criticism.
Realise that your self-worth depends on you, not what others say about you.
Ok, thought experiment for you: If you had a few wishes to burn, would you want to use one of them to become the best in the world at something?
Twelve-year-old me would have taken that wish in a heartbeat to become the greatest basketball player in the world (I was, and still am, a maniacal fan of Michael Jordan). I would like to think that later-in-life me would also take it to be something a little more practical and altruistic, but, if I was honest, it would probably be something similarly grandiose and not all that useful to solving world problems.
Anyway, most people think that if my wish was granted I would be given near superhuman jumping capabilities and a near flawless ability to shoot over any outstretched arm (which, being one of the shortest and least fit kids in my school at the time, would have been a sight).
But what if, instead of me gaining basketball superpowers, everyone else lost theirs? If everyone had their abilities stripped away to below my level, the wish is still granted, technically I’m the best! Of course, there would be no more dunking and barely anything but long range jumpers and layups (right-handed only of course) would take place in a given game. It would be ugly, and everyone might think that, gee that’s pretty cool that guy can do a perfect (right-handed) layup every time, because we can’t, but how boring is this?
It feels like a lot of people who want to be the best at something would be totally fine with this type of outcome. It’s not about raising the baseline or “the love of the game”, but about making other people feel that they are less by showing them how much better they are.
Sports are an easy analogy but you can see it politics, business, your workplace and even your local school parent group or club. It’s easy to spot. Look for the loudest ones, the ones that always seem to be critical of others, seemingly unwilling to admit a mistake or be open to changing their mind.
The trouble is that in many cases we’re incentivized not to make the sport, a company, or a group of people better, but to show that we are better than someone else. This is all too common in the typical performance review/bonus allocation process in place at many big companies that encourage competition, but you can also simply observe it in siblings who want to earn favor with their parents. My daughter could teach a master class. In the end though, this type of behavior just ends with crying (adults and kids alike).
What if, instead of wanting to be the best player, you wanted to create the best game? Or the best product? Or even just the best family dinner?
By working on raising the baseline for everyone you will become better, and maybe the best, because being the best requires that you make everyone better.