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Brain Hack | Intentional Creativity

A mixed media abstract painting with intentional flower and patterns layered on the top
My study in layering, palette, and pattern thanks to artist Kim Dellow

As a creativity and growth executive coach, I often hear clients say they lack creativity or others are more creative than they are or they wish they had the "innovation" gene. The subtheme is that creativity or innovation is an innate talent that you either have or you don't. My experience is different. In working with creative people, companies, and sectors, the idea that creativity is a gift or a talent is an urban myth that deserves debunking. When we think about creativity what if we could move from a have/have not mindset to an intentional mindset? Would you welcome more inspiration, solutions, and/or "aha" moments in your daily life?

Does Intentional Creativity Exist?

Rather than rattle off all the projects and experiences I have had in the creative realm to prove that creativity is a practice or strategy, it occured to me that I could become a test project of one. For over 30 years, I've helped people, projects, and organizations in the creative sector realize their ideas. You might call me a creative enabler. And working with singers, musicians, conductors, designers, directors, dancers, composers, and writers, I found no single template of a creative person. Creativity is found in diverse and varied approaches and processes with no single formula. Yet, the one attribute they all share, whether innovator or creator, is intentionality. They didn't take creativity for granted, and worked best in environments where happenstance and intentionality could exist in the same space. Or often, in the same mind. So, if I was going to put myself to the test, I wondered how I might move from creativity enabler to creator? If creativity was a practice, could I learn to tap into my inner creator?

The Ideation

illustration of goldilocks eating porridge

The first step embraced something I use in my own coaching practice: ideation. How might I go from zero to hero in manifesting creativity? Using the "how might we/I" Goldilocks principle to frame the problem is important to generate ideas that aren't too big or numerous (Pappa bear) or too narrow and small where there is only one obvious answer (Baby bear). With the right frame, you want to generate 3-5 possible ideas that have potential (Mama bear). In this case, I wanted to clarify what a creativity as a practice brain hack would look like. Here is my Mama bear framing:

  • How might I short-circuit my "expert" or existing skill-based mindset?

  • How might I be intentional and happenstance at the same time?

  • How might I limit the number of resources needed?

Knowing all too well that my brain and my habits would overcompensate by seeking information, one of the resources that needed to be limited was time. With Google search offering thousands of resources available, given too much time I would gravitate to information mastery versus creativity. To be clear, watching multiple YouTube videos on a single subject is not creativity; it's expertise seeking. I also came to the conclusion that it would need to be a "doing" hack rather than a "thinking" hack, so I could make sure to engage my brain's "Do Mostly Nothing Function." Staying in the amateur space would help keep a beginner mindset, optimal for learning. If creativity was a learned practice, my intuition was fostering the right mindset would be important. And finally, the limiting of resources beyond time would require me to channel my inner "McGyver," utilizing happenstance materials and substitutes when following intentional creative prompts.

The Ingredients

a table draped with a paint drop cloth and various art supplies
My work table for two days

Here how the prototyping or mini-experiment was framed based one the Goldilocks ideations:

I chose to use a visual genre as my hack as I have very little experience in that area but had basic materials or resources that could be assembled including pencils, pens, paper, glue, and some crafting paints and brushes. My background is in performing arts, so producing visual materials rather than a "performance" is certainly outside of my comfort zone. And as far as passions, I've always gravitated to the written word versus the visual mark. With these ingredients, could I learn to channel creativity?

The Intention

calligraphy of the word "intention" set in gold

At the beginning of my two-day experience with twenty-some mixed media artists offering 56+ creative sessions, I followed the organizer's advice and set both an intention and a mantra for my time. This was my go-to help line whenever the inner critic emerged and threatened my fun. (And believe me it did.)

Intention: To connect with my inner creativity, without judgment. The convergence zone is what I bring and what I don't know. I will agree to stay in that zone, even if it is uncomfortable.
Mantra: I will not judge. I will create.

The Immersion Experiment

collage of eight different sketches, paintings, and studies
A sampling of my output

Over the two days, I made myself work along side the various artists rather than watch the session and then create. That let me be in the moment. Yes, I did push pause from time to time to catch up, but I also streamed sessions at 1.5- 2x speed to help my critical brain stay in the off stage. When you are working at a brisk pace, there is little time to judge and critique. When one artist session was done, I would take a mini break to tidy up, walk the dog, or make a meal before I ventured onto the next. In some cases, when something had "drying time" I would choose the next session based on time or materials required. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the "actions" I took over the two days:

  • dyed paper with my coffee/tea

  • made background papers with marks and patterns for collage-use later

  • painted a fictitious happy hound

  • moved ink/paint by blowing through a straw which inspired a stylized "blowing" duo clothed in cutouts from a James Joyce paperback and sushi papers

  • fashioned a bound painting journal out of paper, masking tape, dental floss, a stick and rubberband

  • let my imagination run wild with scissors, magazines, and gel pens

  • drew 12 intuitive faces in 12 minutes

  • created a 3-D emerging face from newsprint, gesso, charcoal, and a bit of bling

  • made 4 expressive art cards with splatter paint and pencil

The Insight

Honestly, sharing my process and output was far outside my usual perfectionist chord and much harder than the creative experiment. Even though I worked hard not to judge myself during the creative sessions, the decision to share is vulnerable and can be both affirming and damning. Yet, I remind myself that the experiment was not to become a master of anything, but rather to test whether a creative intention and execution could be learned. I know that I had to problem solve in new ways, and I discovered capabilities that had been dormant or unexpressed. I found great joy in the happenstance events as well as the intentional ones. Here are a few of my take-ways:

  • Working fast turned the critical mind off and allowed a more intuitive approach that surprised and delighted.

  • Channeling the beginner mind also had a similar effect. The goal of creating without judgment allowed for multiple "what if" and "I wonder" expressions.

  • I was shocked that the my output had a unique character and personality, rather than a mimic of the master artists. Working with a beginner and improvising mind allowed something to come through that was unique rather than a carbon copy of the instructor's work.

  • The sessions where I had limited supplies and had to improvise produced some of my favorite pieces. Substituting a stick for a button, a dried up paint palette for a painting, a sushi wrapper for collage paper and a book catalogue for drawing paper helped short-circuit my mastery bias.

  • I came out with a burst of energy and ideas for all other areas of my life including a new respect for the question "If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you do?"

  • And last but not least, I came away both emotionally and physically engaged. Two weeks later, there is still a halo effect. And that's worth innovating for!

Break the Tape Leadership helps leaders unleash creativity and potential in themselves and the organizations they lead to generate meaningful momentum. (And we love experimenting with a little mixed media, a beginner's mind and all that you know and don't. Intentional creativity is not happenstance, it's happening!)

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