Monday, April 16, 2012

John Cleese on Creativity

I recently subscribed to the weekly digest of a website called Brain Pickings. It is a fascinating repository of talks, articles, book reviews, exhibits and performances that the site's curator describes as focused on "combinatorial creativity." Every week it's like a present in your inbox and there is always (ALWAYS) something compelling to ingest, digest and play with.

This talk by John Cleese, a genius of "combinatorial creativity" to be sure, is very much in the spirit of Steven Pressfield's deeply compelling and challenging book, "The War of Art" and is my favorite so far. Enjoy!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Getting Ready: A Spring Essay

A perfect spring storm rolled through town last week. It rained hard for an hour or so and then it started to clear, precisely at sunset, a spectacular play of light and shadow, clean air and a whopper of a double-rainbow, fully formed and arcing high across the sky to the east. A meaningful rain in Southern California is a rare thing but one that has all of those elements at once is truly exceptional, inspiring deep appreciation that a waiting world is restlessly waking up to a new dawn of growth and vitality.

Spring is here and what it yields it does so tentatively, with fits and starts, warm and cool air fighting for dominance with the victor never really in doubt. But here at the beginning of the season what was dormant and quiet through the winter begins to change its conversation with the landscape. Beautifully childlike, it says “here I am” and “wait ‘til you see this” and little by little that bulb pushes up a stem that finally breaks the surface and stretches up to be known again.

If we trust that our lives play out in accord with nature’s seasonal shifts and if we notice how we experience transitions that seem to align with changes in the natural world, we should not be surprised. We are, first and foremost, biological. That we would see in our own lives a reflection of what’s happening outside the window makes perfect sense if we are willing to honor our integral, if often unrecognized, connection to the cycles and systems of which we are a part.

To borrow the language of the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, a recognized leader in adult development and transition, there are times when we are “going for it,” times when we are “out of sync,” times for “cocooning” and times for “getting ready.” I have long found these to be synonymous with the seasons: summer, fall, winter and spring, respectively. Though we can certainly experience them “out of season,” each is marked by unique qualities and each calls us to engage in a new kind of conversation and relationship, with ourselves and the world around us.

Thinking more carefully about the qualities of “getting ready” I can’t help but consider the other realities of the advent of spring: the outcome and output of all of that new growth is that the air teems with pollen and other airborne matter finally freed from winter’s prison. Spring breezes start to blow and the stuff goes everywhere. If you suffer from hay-fever or other spring allergies, this is a season less about new growth and possibility and more about the anticipation and realities of discomfort: red eyes, stuffy noses and plenty of itching and scratching. And so it is that whether we actually experience allergic reactions to the “stuff” of spring or just feel the restlessness and fever of a season of “getting ready” – whatever time of year it might be – it can be an unsettling and uncomfortable period for many of us.

My personal epiphany this spring is that not only have I become restless about a few things but the itchiness I feel is a cumulative one, the kind that’s been sneaking up on me for a long time and then feels like it’s been there all along. I have heard it called a “blinding flash of the obvious.” You feel a little silly that you didn’t notice it before and know that you do you realize you’ve got to deal with it.

A couple of examples to illustrate my point:

First, and most benignly, my wife and I recognized that some parts of our home were starting to look a little worn. A few cracks in the walls had stretched and widened; that great paint job we did when we moved in had lost its luster; the kitchen faucet hasn’t worked correctly for precisely…always, and on and on. Taking all this in one day it finally struck me: it’s been seven years since we moved into our house and the inevitable itchiness we’d been feeling had become more common than not. And, easily enough, patchers, painters and faucet repairers were summoned to the task. See a problem and fix it; a kind of convenient scratching.

It also happens that this year marks the seventh anniversary of my employment with the organization that made it possible for me to become a “Chief Learning Officer” or, more accurately a “Chief Learner.” And, as with the house, as I reflect on the status of some key initiatives, once new, fresh and invigorating, I recognize that the cracks are starting to show, that some maintenance is needed and that the itch I need to scratch is that of reenergizing myself through the redefinition, reinvention and reconfiguration of the work itself. Where are the patchers and painters now, I wonder?

I realize that if I stay with something long enough it requires me to reassess and revise my relationship with it. And there’s something incredibly satisfying about being with something that long. There is also something quite daunting about tackling the interactions, conversations and decisions necessary to reinvent and recreate; the realization that there is no outsourcing this job. The realization that I am the patcher, the painter and the faucet repairer. A fresh coat of paint is one thing; taking on the reinvention of a system of which I am only one part – a marriage, a cultural initiative, a team – is something else altogether.

This spring, I am steeling myself for that work. It is an intense getting ready.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Small Things: A Winter Essay

Winter is, specifically in the northern latitudes, a time of cold, snowy retreat. It is a time to battle the elements and be subdued by them all at once. It is a time of forced accommodation to nature’s declaration that it has wrapped up another cycle of starting, surging and retreating, resigned to lie in preparatory wait for the conditions which allow it to begin again. All the while the creatures of this environment, human and otherwise, must adapt to surroundings that seriously limit both mobility and access and require a focus on economy of effort and the prevention of exposure. There is nothing subtle about it.

The Southern California winter, on the other hand, offers a considerably more nuanced physical presence. It does not arrive with a blast of cold or a blanket of snow. It comes to us hesitantly but with purpose. It is easily and instantly recognizable in its very measured and quiet advance. I have learned to mark the arrival and progression of our winter by the quality of the daylight. Tilted further from the sun as we are at this time of year it arcs lower in the sky and even at the peak of day offers a more diffuse and forgiving light. It is a small move, one you know has been underway for some time but that seems to arrive all at once.

Visitors from those far-off latitudes rejoice in our perpetual “summer” just as we are settling in to appreciate the subtle and comforting shift in light and growth. Without time and presence it is impossible to fully appreciate that this is a stage of slight changes, small shifts in the light and the landscape that tell the keen observer that we are progressing from one place to another. The artist Andy Goldsworthy wrote that “real change is best understood by staying in one place.” He appreciates that when we are visitors to a place we only have the present context of that place, not the additional awareness of what preceded it. We’ve missed the gradual changes and the many hints that told us it was coming. His work invites us to observe where we are and to appreciate how it is inextricably linked to where we have just been and where we are going.

The winter landscape, northern or southern, obvious or subtle, represents a significant slowing down of the natural world. And, though we may be tempted to see this as stagnation, it most definitely is not. The interlude of winter often masks from us the fractional alterations and the underlying energy that is present both around and beneath us. In the winter landscape there is a buzz of conservation, restoration and deep rooting. If it is not the time to go up, beckoned by warm soil and sun, then surely it must be the time to go across and down. To strengthen what can be strengthened in preparation for what’s to come. On the surface, very little changes. Below the surface, an intense getting ready.

In this specific winter reflection I find myself humbled by the realization that I have been neglectful of those fractional shifts in my own learning, preferring to obsess over the big change yet to be achieved rather than on the slight changes that methodically and carefully pave the way forward. The idea of progression, of building part by part and bit by bit remains a foreign landscape, a place of excuse and rationalization for those who “just don’t have what it takes to put it all together.” And, yet, amidst the harshness of that self-talk is a dawning realization of what is present and vital: that all of my learning is in service of both a vibrant present and a promising future. It is recognition that the minor shifts in my interior winter landscape are no different than those in the world outside my window. Each small change an essential part of defining a powerful presence – this is winter, here and now – while necessarily hinting at the inevitability of what’s to come.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deficit Spending

Though we've got still three more months to enjoy 2011, my personal theme and takeaway from this year has already become clear to me. Namely, that deficit spending doesn't work for me. I am not speaking of financial mismanagement, debt ceilings or monetary policy of any kind. I am speaking of my attempts over the last 9 months to activate and extend my creative self at times when I did not possess the resources to do so.

What I have learned this year is that there is a line dividing my higher, creative self and my lower, surviving self. When I am operating below the line, it because I am I am in need of renewal, refreshment, restoration. When I am operating above the line I am capable of creativity, energy, extension. 

The awareness I have gained is that I am not very gracious to myself when I am below the line and expect that I should be above it. Put another way, when I need to focus on renewal I need to focus on renewal; to focus on getting back to the line before I can again cross over it and above it.