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5 Ways to Think Like An Artist (Or At Least to Look Like One)

5 Ways to Think Like An Artist (Or At Least to Look Like One)

Looking to boost your creativity in 2016?  Whether you’re starting a novel, painting a masterpiece, recording your first album or just enhancing your life by busting some salsa moves in the evening, the most important first move is to break yourself out of your routine, practical thinking–and into the mindset that will allow your creativity to flourish.  This terrific TED video by Cindy Foley based on new research from Project Zero at Harvard lays out the basic elements you need in order to think like an artist (or wow people at dinner parties by making them think you must be one!)  Here they are, broken down into five key techniques:

1. Be comfortable with ambiguity.

As a coach working with creatives, I find that one of the key issues my clients face is that they are struggling over their work.  Why are they struggling?  Because though creative work can be exhilarating when you’re in a state of flow, the state of total, rapturous absorption described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (for extra creative credit, try pronouncing that name five times before breakfast), on many other occasions, creative thinking by definition will take you beyond what you already know or understand.  This state of not-knowing, of ambiguity, can be deeply uncomfortable–which ironically is the key to many creative breakthroughs.  What I tell my clients is that the problem is not that they’re struggling–the problem is that they’re resisting the struggle.  For an artist, writer or musician, developing the ability to stay with this state of not-knowing and ambiguity is the cornerstone of creative work.

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2. Go for volume over quality at first.

One of the key definitions of creativity is your ability to come up with as many new ideas as possible in a short period of time–which is the basis of the gold-standard of creativity measures, the Alternative Uses Test, in which you’re given a few minutes to come up with as many uses as possible for a common object, like a brick or a paperclip.  The Harvard researchers call this process “idea generation,” and it’s not dissimilar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages, in which you write like a demon every morning for a few pages without stopping.  Whatever you call it, the process is the same: you crank out as many ideas as possible without censoring yourself, loosening the grip of your inner critic for a while to give every idea, even the really crazy ones, a moment in the sun.  Often, once you start throwing down ideas, the most interesting ones will come in the second or third round, once you’ve gotten past your usual thoughts.

3. Play.

Now that you’ve embraced ambiguity and allowed your ideas to come pouring out, give yourself permission to play, using a spirit of “what if…?”  Pick your wildest idea, the one that maybe you think is a little nutty but that kind of appeals to you, and see what happens if you go with it for a while, not in the spirit of creating the greatest masterpiece of all time, but in a mood of fun, just to see what happens.  The essence of all art is what Jacques Derrida calls “jouissance,” an exuberant (and for you francophiles, hell yeah, it’s also sexual) all-out joy  So now that your inner critic is on a mini-break, pack him or her off on an hour long vacation by reminding this grim logician that professors at Harvard have told you that play is essential.  Enjoy!

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4. Follow Your Curiosity.

Now that you’re throwing yourself full-out into your creative work, you’ll often find that your mind is teeming with questions and new ideas.  “My ideas are having babies all over the place!” a client of mine once exclaimed. Let’s say you’re a writer, and you’ve thrown yourself into a new series of short stories.  All of a sudden, everything you see may seem like a possible story. Who lived in your apartment before you did?  Why did they move out so suddenly?  Who built your car?  Why does that guy with the law degree now run your favorite doughnut store–what’s up with that?  Instead of shutting down these thoughts as irrelevant, keep a small notebook with you and scribble notes. Ask questions (politely), look closely, find out the deeper meaning of things. What you discover may become the basis for your next novel, painting or song.

5. Nerd out.

The Harvard researchers, being Harvard researchers, call this process “transdisciplinary research.”  In other words, do a deep dive into a subject that fascinates you, and then incorporate it into your work.  If you’re a novelist fascinated by the history of California, follow that passion.  Drive up the coast visiting every mission, or take a walking tour of the old theaters of downtown L.A., or learn about the Gabrielano Indians.  If you’re a science geek, study the stars, or new tech developments, or read a history of Galileo.  Your new knowledge will fuel your creativity, sometimes directly, by becoming the subject of your newest work, and sometimes indirectly, by sparking new ways of seeing the world, new ideas and even new friends.

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Above all, in 2016, give yourself permission to be creative.  If you haven’t noticed, these five steps are not just the key to producing great creative work–they’re the key to living a full and joyous life.  Here’s to a happy, creatively productive new year!

Featured photo credit: The Artist/martinak15 via flickr.com

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Last Updated on October 15, 2018

Why Helping Others Actually Helps Yourself

Why Helping Others Actually Helps Yourself

Helping others: it’s a fundamental part of humanity, bonding together and helping a fellow man or woman. In times of tragedy, the stories of those who help others are inspiring, such as helping the nation recover from national disasters and terrorist attacks. Some men and women even devote their lives to helping others, from the police force that protects our cities, to the fire departments who run into burning buildings, to the service men and women who risk their lives for the common good.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ― Anne Frank, diary of Anne Frank

But helping others isn’t limited to these grand gestures or times of tribulation. Helping others can be done each and every day. And contrary to what you may have heard, helping others doesn’t always have to be a selfless act. It’s important to understand that helping others can actually help yourself. No matter what the motivation, getting out and helping others is the key. So in that spirit of motivation, here are 5 reasons why helping others actually helps yourself.

1. Quid Pro Quo

When you help someone, they will be more likely to help you. This is the basic, unspoken agreement that fuels nearly every move. I’ll spend my entire day lugging boxes, but you owe me. It’s much easier to find help when someone knows you’d do the same for them. They may not always live up to their end of the bargin, and you may not either. But if you help enough people and do many good deeds, it will be given back when needed.

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2. Karma goes both ways.

All too often, the idea of Karma is described in a negative way. If you do bad, bad will come find you. But it works the other way too. When you are a good person and help people, good things seem to happen. And while you may not believe in an inter-connected universe that rewards good deeds, there is something to be said about how helping others changes your perspective. When you’re helping others, you will often feel better about yourself, increasing the likelihood that your next experience will be a positive one, rather than a negative one.

3. Doing good feels good.

It’s maybe the most cited benefit of doing good: you’ll feel great. Helping others is a great way to feel better about yourself. Seeing a smile or even tears of joy makes it all worth it. It’s as simple as that.

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4. Good publicity is the best publicity.

People notice when you’re doing good. It may not be the reason you help out, but someone is always watching. Even the simplest gesture can make an awesome impression.

When I was in college, I had a class that helped out at a school for a full day. I worked with a small group of high school students who were incredibly interested in writing, and I had a great time. I asked the teacher if I could come back on my own time and work with these students to finish this project we were working on, to which she agreed.

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I went two more times that week, thinking nothing more about it. Fast forward a few weeks: I received a letter in the mail stating I had been chosen as a Presidential Grant Recipient for the summer and received a $2,000 stipend to work with a group of students and professors on a research project over the summer. I was floored, as I hadn’t even applied. I was nominated by that teacher who appreciated the work I did with her students. It wasn’t expected, but helping others ended up opening a door I never would have known was even available.

5. Helping others looks good on a resume or application.

Is your resume looking a little thin? Does your college application need a bit of pizzaz? Volunteering your time and energy to help others makes your resume and applications look as good as it makes you feel. Hiring managers look favorably on volunteer work and many acceptance committees use it to separate similar candidates. So read to some first graders, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and volunteer at your local Boys and Girl Club. Your resume will thank you.

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Featured photo credit: xavi talleda via flickr.com

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