Magnificent Misfits

Nobody said it out loud in grade school, but the subtext was clear – don’t stand out. It’s okay to “win” approved games in approved ways, but it’s not okay be different. Is being a misfit really such a bad thing?

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Magnificent Misfits

Photo by Peter Gunneweg – courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

It wasn’t her fault – or mine. It was just a coincidence that the visiting arts teacher’s presentation captured a seven year old mind that day. It never occurred to either of us that what happened next would carry an opportunity cost that rippled decades into the future.

Here was the artistic challenge she set for us:

  • First, we were to take a few one and two syllable words and sing them to a simple ethnic melody that contained no more than three or four notes.
  • Next, she had us move a pair of “twapper” sticks around in ways that choreographed the story points of the song. I can’t recall now what sort of sticks they were.

They could have been actual percussion instruments or just some random scraps of wood. At any rate, I got into it and lost track of where I was for a minute – especially forgetting that other kids might be watching or making decisions about me. The next thing I knew, I was being called up front to demonstrate the combined moves to the entire class.

Regrettably for me, I had picked it up like a natural.

In a setting less dysfunctional than the average public school system our teachers are forced to cope with, this could have been something to celebrate – but the other kids got that handled pretty quickly. Apparently they all knew something that I did not – that this arts teacher was not cool and neither was her ethnic stick song. The unspoken message was this – we can’t have anyone breaking ranks and exposing our sneering mediocrity. Stick out too far above the group for the wrong reasons and you’re liable to get lopped off.

Again, nobody said it out loud, but I saw it in their faces – all 20 or 30 of them looking back at me while I twapped my sticks with a red face and growing self-consciousness. Suddenly, having “perfect form” didn’t feel so good anymore. In that moment I made a decision that kept my creativity in check well into my adult life. I allowed the joy of the achievement to get plowed under by my desire to fit in.

In that experience were the seeds of years of misdirected thinking:

  1. Keeping quiet when it was time to speak up.
  2. Playing it “safe” even when I knew a better course of action.
  3. Believing that all my ideas were defective if one got rejected.
  4. Looking to others for approval I should have been giving to myself.
  5. Not trusting my inner voice when group-think tried to shout it down.

Here’s something that you and I are just going to have to remind one another about from time to time. Not everyone is going to like us… or our ideas… or the fact that we’re just plain better with the twapper sticks than they would be if they’d had the guts to try. The “misfit” treatment might start out as friendly advice or a left-handed compliment, but they’ll eventually turn up the heat until we get back in line. Sometimes you can see the corporate immune system kicking in when someone proposes something a little too unorthodox.

Later I started to get some enjoyment out of being labeled the closet bohemian in a few of the cubicle cultures where I worked. Sometimes I was able to turn it into a personal brand that worked, but there were places where it backfired. There are bosses and even siblings and significant others that will just automatically go all “whack-a-mole” on you if you say or do anything that appears to threaten their status quo.

Their attitudes and behavior have nothing to do with us or our ideas. The only power they have over us is the power we give them. How many artists, leaders and inventors never gave the world their gifts because they were tricked into believing they were misfits? Most of the significant improvements to our quality of life in the last thousand years or so came from so-called misfits who let go of their fear of not belonging.

It’s not that you don’t belong. You just belong to a smaller, more supportive club.

Questions: Can you recall a time when standing out backfired on you? How did you handle it? In what ways do you embrace being a “misfit” in your current personal or professional life – or where might you start?

New Paper Hats

My more evolved friends don’t appear to be having an issue with this, so I want to make something clear from the outset. I’m writing about my own hang-up here. When did it stop being cool to wear paper hats?

Paper Hats - Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

One morning I was picking up doughnuts for work (yes, and extras to scarf in the car) and noticed a family with small children ahead of me in line. Besides the sudden sugar high, it was clear that the paper hats with the bright franchise logo were a big draw for the little ones. It seemed to be a family ritual – all the kids marching back to the minivan like a row of downy ducklings wearing their new paper hats.

I noticed something else, too.

Nobody my size was wearing one unless they were working behind the counter. What happened? Not so long ago I was unselfconsciously eager to be crowned “Burger King.” I was lord of the post-nutritional realm, knighting my subjects with a royal french-fry, which had become a starchy Excalibur under the power of my golden paper crown.

Where IS that person now?

The hat was a portal and all I cared about from the time it touched my head was where my imagination was taking me. It didn’t matter to me that there were other people in the room. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would feel one way or another about my fantasy of the moment. If I noticed them at all, they were nothing more to me than extras in my show.

When and how did the opinions of other people become so important?

Once I passed a certain age, it’s almost as if I entered into an implied contract with the rest of the world that paper hats weren’t dignified anymore. Now it takes a national holiday and a fair amount of alcohol to get one of those things on my head.

It’s one thing to mourn the loss of your childhood pass to turn into a cartoon mascot without fear of being institutionalized. It’s quite another to consider how this involuntary agreement spills over into other areas of adult life where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s what paper hats turn into for grown-ups:

  • Sharing your new idea out loud in a meeting.
  • Talking about anything in front of lots of people.
  • Getting up the nerve to share your feelings with someone who may not return them.
  • Trying a new dance step in a room full of strangers (especially tough for me).
  • Daring to write or sing or paint or play an instrument when you’ve been told that you’re not the “artistic” type.

Rejection is scary. Our reaction to it is primal and it’s connected with biological reactions we don’t necessarily control. Julia Cameron presents some inspiring ideas for dealing with all kinds of creative rejection in The Artist’s Way. For some people, it just gets easier over time to pretend they never really wanted to do any of those things in the first place.

But here’s a liberating idea that came to me in yoga class.

For months I crammed myself into the most hot and isolated corner of the room. I could barely see what I was doing in the mirror, which sort of defeated the purpose of the class. My fear was that all those hard-body yogis would see me struggling with my poses. Guess what? They never knew I was there because they were all focused on their own poses. I missed out on a lot of benefit for nothing.

Sometimes “paper hats” are okay, even for grown-ups.

If you’ve stopped wearing some of your modern day “paper hats” like I have, I’m daring to say that it’s time for us to take back permission. What about new ones you’ve been wanting to try on? These are the passions in our lives that cause us to lose track of time and connect with authentic imagination. Ultimately they’re the channels through which we’re empowered to give our highest and best gifts to the world.

I’m not suggesting that it’s good to hog the spotlight or behave in ways that are uncaring, disruptive or disrespectful. What I am suggesting for myself (without getting too preachy) is that maybe it’s time to stop being so concerned about what others are thinking of me – and start realizing that they’re usually not. As Dr. Seuss reportedly said, “the ones who mind don’t matter and the ones who matter don’t mind.”

Questions: What symbolic “paper hats” have been trying to re-emerge in your life? How have you been able to free yourself from the imaginary judgments of others when too much self-consciousness comes up?

Time To Let Go

When you think about a memory… an object… a person that’s taking up space in your life, does it ever feel like you’re looking down from a scary height? Maybe it’s time to let go.

Change On Purpose - Time To Let Go

Photo by Tim McDonnell (Sorrento, Italy – August, 2011)

I sold my Fight Club DVD a couple weeks ago, along with dozens of others that were just taking up space. Looking at the wall of movies I’d collected over the years, I had to ask myself why they were there. Sure, there are some that I’d watch again and again. I kept those. Truthfully, most of the rest were there in hopes that visitors would think I get Lynch or Tarantino. I don’t. I barely catch half the pop culture references in The Simpsons.

It was a bumpy, crooked road to the realization that what Tyler Durden said in Fight Club had become frighteningly true for me. The things you own end up owning you. Somehow the idea of “having” had become more important to me than just being. I fell for the lie that my worth as a person might be enhanced by the the stuff in my house, the people in my life, the beliefs I defended or the title on my business card.

The truth I resisted was that the “holding and having” had cut me off from living.

There comes a time when we have to empty the cup in order to get it filled up again. I’m thinking now about the supply of creativity and ideas you and I require to be fulfilled in our work, but this applies to our relationships and material circumstances too. I don’t know why it’s taking this lesson so long to stick with me, because it seems I have to keep learning it over and over again.

Get rid of what you DON’T want to make room for what you DO want.

Simple, but hard. I’m reminded of two versions of a story about monkeys. The lighter version involves a lab with a special jar. The opening was just big enough for a monkey’s empty hand to fit through and there were treats inside. What the observers found was that most monkeys would not let go of the treats, even though it kept them from pulling their loaded fists back out of the jar. Does that situation sound familiar?

In The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, Deepak Chopra paints an inspiring picture of shooting stars as a metaphor for miracles. He says that we think of shooting stars as something rare, but they actually happen all the time. We just can’t see them against the background of sunlight. Creative solutions to life’s challenges – personal and professional – are as abundant as shooting stars. It’s up to us to create the space in our minds and in our surroundings so we can see them flowing again.

This is something that takes awareness, practice and courage.

The best ideas are the ones that flow through us. Holding on too tightly to too many things inevitably cuts us off from that natural flow. If you’re feeling any creative blocks in your life, here are ten clearing techniques that may help get things moving again:

  1. Ask yourself why you’re holding onto certain things that are crowding you
  2. Do a symbolic clearing of your closet, cupboards or garage to create more space
  3. Donate things you no longer use to people who can truly benefit from them
  4. Keep photographs of sentimental objects you know you’re better off releasing
  5. Rate every contact as “helpful” or “not helpful” – you know which ones to delete
  6. Make room for ideas by removing clutter from your desk, drawers and computer
  7. Question your current beliefs about what you can be, do and have
  8. Let go of the ones that aren’t serving you anymore and replace them with new ones
  9. Drop outdated goals or renegotiate broken agreements that bog you down with guilt
  10. See if you’re managing relationships as they really are or as you wish they would be

Letting go isn’t the same as quitting or giving up – it’s just being brutally honest with ourselves when it’s time to say “enough.” Holding onto things that are no longer adding value to our lives carries an enormous opportunity cost. What fresh ideas could we be missing by clinging to yesterday’s leftovers? Instead of grasping life so tightly, let’s try a catch and release approach together and see what happens.

Questions: Have you been thinking about letting go of something? How have you been rewarded when you’ve had the courage to let go at other times in your life and how could that help you manage the fear of letting go today?

Your Four Creative Aces

It’s your World Series, game seven lineup. Which will you cut – your hitters or your fielders? Ridiculous, right? You might be doing the same thing at work without realizing it.

Change On Purpose - Your Four Creative Aces

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

If the game matters, then it pays to play your aces in every key position. The creative process works that way too. When you have an important creative challenge in front of you, these are the four aces you want in your starting lineup – but (and here’s the key) – the batting order is crucial.

  • The Explorer
  • The Editor
  • The Evaluator
  • The Evangelist

I adapted these ideas from Roger Von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head. It was his writing that first helped me see creativity as a natural process I could tap into on purpose. Before that, I always thought of it as some random lightning bolt of luck. Creativity follows the same pattern we see in nature from seed to plant to blossom to fruit.

The secret lies in following the sequence instead of fighting it. 

  1. The Explorer: (seed) You’re in gathering mode, observing the environment and available raw materials without judgment. At this stage, you have to be willing to play the fool, collecting every option and angle no matter how random or ridiculous it might seem at first.
  2. The Editor: (tree) Patterns and potentials start to emerge. Now you can begin sorting things and trying out different combinations. You might rearrange a few or notice some new ones, but you’re not making any final decisions yet.
  3. The Evaluator: (blossom) Gathering and sorting give way to the judge who makes the call on the ideas that offer the most simple and elegant fit for your ultimate goals. Which approach offers the most benefits with the least friction?
  4. The Evangelist: (fruit) At this point, the other three players have loaded up the bases for you. All your inner champion has to think about now is the power hit that channels your energy into persistence and gets your project out into the world.

Any analogy breaks down if you push it too hard, but I think the application to individuals and organizations is pretty clear. Too often the creative process gets sabotaged when we play the wrong role at the wrong time, or when we impose one at the wrong point in someone else’s creative flow.

Here are four ways to work with the creative flow instead of against it:

  1. When you approach a creative challenge on your own, ask yourself “what time is it?” In The Architecture of All Abundance, author Lenedra J. Carroll describes the power shift this simple question created for her. There’s a natural time for each player to take their sequential turn at bat and then head for the dugout.
  2. Turn off the inner voices and stick to the flow. Once you become aware of this, you’ll catch your inner critic jumping in as the Editor or Evaluator before the Explorer has a chance to grab any seeds. No seeds, no harvest, but the Explorer also has to know when to be quiet, or nothing will ever get finished.
  3. If you’re part of a larger group, create a time and place for each of these roles to do their natural work. You’ll begin to notice that many teams and meetings emphasize one role at the expense of others. Make it clear to everyone what stage you’re in and set ground rules to encourage that kind of participation.
  4. If this soft stuff isn’t your bag and you find yourself in constant “Evaluator” mode, no problem. Some people are just wired that way. Surround yourself with people who are good Explorers, Editors and Evangelists and allow those roles to flourish in others. Timing is the key. Nothing kills an Explorer faster than phrases like, “the problem with that is…” or “we tried that before and…”

Imagine being able to take a deep, relaxing breath and just let go of anxiety about creative deadlines. Like it or not, we live in a results-driven world. There’s constant pressure to monetize everything as quickly as possible, or duplicate somebody else’s success and slap a new label on it. Taking time to send all four starting players up to bat in sequence might feel counterintuitive. If you give them the opportunity, they’ll help you play to your authentic strengths with more power, speed and consistency.

Questions: Do you tend to get stuck in one part of the creative process? What methods of coming unstuck work best for you?

Creativity Is Not A Crime

Most people are more creative than they think. Not only are there simple ways to bring your inner artist back to life, there are also compelling personal and professional reasons why it’s important to give it a shot. It’s a blind spot that might be costing you.

Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose - Creativity Is Not A Crime

Da Vinci drawing courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

“I’m not creative.” What most people usually mean when they say that is that they don’t rate themselves as a professional artist in some traditional creative outlet. They’ve fallen for the lie that unless their work is on a commercial par with somebody famous, then it’s better for all concerned to just keep a lid on it.

Everyone is creative. Not everyone expresses creativity in the same way.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about creativity is Orbiting the Giant Hairball
by the late Gordon MacKenzie. He observed that creativity is conditioned out of most kids before they get to sixth grade. School teaches us a couple of primary, if unwritten, rules:

  1. There’s only ONE right answer.
  2. NEVER stand out, unless it’s for a pre-approved reason.

A second grade art project taught me these rules the hard way.

Using scissors and glue, we were to make construction paper “frames” for watercolors we had done earlier. From a previous class I remembered a mesmerizing glitter demonstration the teacher had done. Certain that it would make my frame a masterpiece, I ran to the supply cupboard, grabbed a jar of silver glitter and started… creating.

Vatican treasures had nothing on my masterful scrolls and stars.

Our teacher was patrolling the desks and apparently found what she’d been policing for when she got to mine. She had me on multiple counts of aggravated creativity. It was bad enough that I’d gone beyond the scope of the assignment, but worse that I’d gone to the cupboard on my own without running it up the chain of command first. She made a loud, public case of it to deter other young thought criminals in the making, and it worked.

Here’s a truth that took me decades to rediscover.

Sometimes it’s okay to add glitter. Yes, it takes discipline to run a business, but it’s a costly mistake to check our creative impulses at the door (or squash those of others). The key is balance. Here are three practical strategies to reclaim your creativity:

  1. Look for more than one right answer. Shift your context. Challenge your assumptions. Ask radical questions about the issue at hand. Steve Jobs refused to allow his thinking to become constrained by convention, just because others were focused on being incrementally better at the same old thing.
  2. Become an active observer of everything. Our brains are wired to filter out details that might contain hidden value. For example, a brick is more than just a red rectangle. Look closely and you’ll see that it has infinite textures, colors and surface variations. So do your opportunities.
  3. Remember that there are phases to the creative process. Allow yourself (or your organization) opportunities to get all the way through the idea-gathering phase before you start editing and implementing. Most people engage their inner critic long before the gatherer has a fair chance to find the richest alternatives.

Quit beating yourself up.

Creativity is linked to genuine primal fears. We’re tribal by nature. Standing out in the wrong way and being ostracized from the tribe once meant certain death. Today it’s time for an updated perspective. You won’t be thrown out of the village and eaten by predators for putting glitter on your art project.

  • Making room for creativity in your life renews your energy to get things done.
  • It helps you stay grounded in your true vision and purpose.
  • It opens unexpected doors to personal and professional abundance.

You’re applying creativity to the everyday challenges of life, work and relationships all the time, whether you realize it or not. Even if you never write a bestseller or paint a masterpiece or sell out a concert hall, your whole life is a worthy work of art, so put it out there in your own way and keep on creating.

Question: What creative instincts have you been putting on the back burner? Can you recall a time in your life when following them paid off?