Thursday, July 28, 2011

Weaving a creative life balance

No matter which side you look at it from, our society seems set up to make living a creative life and doing meaningful work mutually exclusive. The fact that so many people struggle to incorporate both into their lives in a balanced way would seem to support the idea that only the lucky few can have it both ways. But I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think the problem is that the two are exclusive from one another; the problem – or a part of it - is that our definitions of both are exclusive.

“We all have talents and gifts. When we cultivate those gifts and share them with the world, we create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives" ** 

Creativity goes beyond just paint on canvas and words on paper. It’s not just ‘artists’ who are creative, and this idea of their being creative and non-creative people really doesn’t work, because ALL people are creative – creativity begins with thought, the only difference is if and how you choose to use that creativity. And yet we still talk about artists and ‘creative types’ as though they’re a rare species. 

“The artist is not a different kind of person, but every person is a different kind of artist”
- Eric Gill

Meaningful work is similarly narrowed down to something done by an elite group of people – Doctors, Lawyers, and professionals. We seem to confuse meaningful with ‘important’ – and what society considers important – forgetting that only we can define what is meaningful to us. It comes from the heart - not a rule book that says so.

“No-one can define what is meaningful for us. Culture doesn’t get to dictate if it’s working outside the home, raising children, lawyering, teaching or painting. Like our gifts and talents, meaning is unique to each one of us.” ** 

It doesn’t matter which side of the divide you fall, this is a problem, because despite what the straight suits may say - we need BOTH creativity and meaningful work in our lives to thrive both personally AND professionally.

For those whose creativity IS a part of what they define as meaningful work, it can seem like an impossible equation to balance. But I also think they’re more aware of how important those things are in their lives and I think it’s a part of why phrases like ‘the struggling artist’ exist. Because people who are fully engaged in their creativity become acutely aware of just what it brings to their lives, and for many the things it does bring are of far greater value than the dollars it doesn’t. So it’s not so much that they are choosing financial insecurity, it is more the case that they are choosing to ensure the personal paradigms that their creativity nurtures. They’re unwilling to endure the pain of suffocating their creative spirit.

“Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. As it turns out it’s not merely benign or “too bad” if we don’t use the gifts we’ve been given; we pay for it with our emotional and physical wellbeing. When we don’t use our talents to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear and even grief.” ** 

One of the problems is that this can also come at a cost – and not just a dollar figure. A lot of creative work is unstable and under-appreciated; it may be personally meaningful, but it often falls outside the box of what our friends, family and/or society defines as ‘meaningful’.

“Using our gifts and talents to create meaningful work takes a tremendous amount of commitment, because in many cases meaningful work is not what pays the bills. Some folks have managed to align everything – they use their gifts and talents to do work that feeds their souls and their families; however, most people piece it together.” ** 

And it’s that piecing it together part that a lot of people find to be the biggest struggle. But I think that one of the main reasons is that we don’t bring our creativity to the process of cultivating meaningful work and a creative life. Instead, of looking for outside the box to create a workable balance, we try to fit our creativity into the boxes that society labels ‘meaningful’ – in some cases we settle for merely ‘acceptable’. And I think that sometimes in the process, we amputate the most meaningful parts to fit inside these narrow definitions. The fact of the matter is that not every artist will find Graphic Design rewarding, stimulating &/or meaningful; not every writer wants to be a journalist. So it’s little wonder that when we do squish our lives into these rigid boxes we often find ourselves uncomfortable. What we need to do is to use our creativity to expand the dimensions of the spaces we live our lives in. Not only does it provide greater comfort for our current selves, it also allows for growth and broadening of our perceptions.

Personally, I don't believe you can last long in a soul-destroying job without feeling the effects in other aspects of your life; but I DO believe that you can balance doing work that may not be your life passion, by weaving creativity through everything you do. Living a creative life is not about the number of hours a day you spend painting or writing or singing; on the most basic level, a 'creative life' is a way of thinking. And one that is valuable to art as it is business, and most importantly - to you individually. Creativity is the heart of innovation and growth; it's also how we solve all problems. Solutions come from creativity and knowledge, and almost all knowledge is the documented result(s) of previous creativity. So by operating from this mind set and bringing creativity to every task, we make the mundane more enjoyable; the challenging more easily resolved; and when we DO have that dedicated creative time to write or paint or play we're able to make the most of it, because we don't have to warm up or switch on the creative brain - it's already fully engaged.

So how do you keep the brain in that space all of the time? I think that the answer to that question is probably different for all of us. Practice is the very simple answer. In more specific terms, these are some of the things that I personally find helpful.

- Get clear on what inspires your creative thought and what drains it. Write down lists for both with your ideal life in mind, and identify the barriers that get in the way of living it. The things that inspire me I try to weave into my daily life - even in small doses. And the things that get in the way I try to eliminate shift or minimize.

- Be mindful of your environment and the effect it has on you. Personally, I cannot work amongst clutter and disorganisation - but I also find if things are too clinical it kills inspiration. It comes down to comfort & belonging - the mood, music, temperature and personal touches all play a part in cultivating that.

- Create an inspiration wall, pin board or blog. Whether its photos, artwork, quotes, fabric or trinkets - creating a visual reminder of all the things that inspire you can have an incredibly powerful effect. And I personally find that it has me expanding my list of what inspires me and adding or changing the visuals constantly, which also keeps it all fresh in my mind.

- Notice the little things. Nature truly is the world greatest artist. For me, there are few things that bring a smile to my face faster than colour and light - I have been known to almost walk into telegraph poles mesmerized by the beauty of pink camellias on bright green leaves, against a clear blue sky! A lot of people find photography really helps with this – you begin to look at the world through an imaginary viewfinder. I can certainly say that when I discovered the Hipstamatic iPhone app I did find myself wearing 'will this make a good lomo imitation photo?' goggles. The beauty of things like camera phone apps is that it makes it so easy to find a dash of creative inspiration in any moment.

- Don't always schedule creative time last on the list after the days work - make it a priority. One of the things I've discovered is a huge barrier to using my free time to be creative is exhaustion. By the time that point of the day(or night rather) arrives I'm exhausted, and when my brain is over-tired the creative flow stops. It was a realisation that actually took me by surprise, because I can't count the amount of times I've been so wrapped in a drawing or piece of jewelry I was making that 3AM would arrive without me even blinking. The key difference is that in those instances I started whatever I was doing before exhaustion took over. And this highlights one of the other reasons dedicated creative time is so valuable and essential: Engaging my mind creatively energizes me; the effect is not unlike meditation, leaving my mind clear and at peace.

- Step outside your comfort zone. When confronted with the unknown or unfamiliar we can’t rely on what we ‘know’; we don’t have a rehearsed or automatic response as we do for so many situations. What this does is forces us to think outside the square of what we do know, and explore new thoughts, ideas, feelings and solutions. Once the stream of new thought is flowing you never know where it may take you. Often when I come up with new creative ideas I’ll wonder why on earth I didn’t think of it before, and so often it’s because ideas pop up from the most unexpected places.

And stepping into the unknown is exactly what I’m about to do. I’m returning to work in a job that isn’t the sort of meaningful work that is most important to me, and it isn’t what I want to do forever - but it does create a solution to my present situation. It is meaningful to me in some sense, and it does offer me the chance to use my creativity in different ways that will help me get to where I’m going - and that makes me smile.

How do you weave creativity and meaningful work into your life? Have you been able to find a balance, or is it still a struggle? I’d love to hear how YOU stay inspired and on track.

** Quotes come from the book The Gifts Of Imperfection by Brene Brown.

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