Over the last two decades of sitting with leaders in Corporate America, I’ve noticed a hunger for creativity equally balanced with a belief that sounds something like this: “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” Or sometimes “I can’t draw a straight line.”
What do I then hear, especially after they have been working with me for a while? “I started taking guitar lessons.” “I am setting up an art studio in my house.” “I found the perfect place for me to practice dance.” These clients are starting to experience unobstructed self-expression.
By the way, I love these words strung together: unobstructed self-expression. I’m borrowing it from Josh Waitzkin, the author of The Art of Learning and the chess prodigy featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
We are born creative beings. If you doubt it, just watch children – the younger the better. After a few years in school, they start conforming and following the rules and for many, pretty soon, there is no self-expression. In his classic book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordan MacKenzie tells a story of visiting elementary schools and asking the children “Who here is an artist?” In first grade, almost all the hands raise. By sixth grade, only a few dare to slightly lift their hands.
Like a water hose that gets holes in it or bent in half, soon there is no flow and before long we forget we ever had that kind of freedom to be.
Until something triggers the memory, the long forgotten sensation of possibility, the joy of making something.
When I was a kid, my parents took us to visit my aunt in another town. Just after we arrived, my mom presented my sister and me with some felt tip pens and a blank notebook – with no lines! As a parent looking back on this moment, I’m pretty sure my mom was grasping for something, anything that would keep us contained and being good little girls.
For me though, I will always remember the velvet feeling of the felt tip on the page and the delight involved in making this the most beautiful sketchbook ever. For at least an hour, I rode the wave of elation.
And then I crashed.
The drawings on the page looked like nothing in my head. The thought “I’ve ruined it!” bounced around in my head like a pinball that would never drain. Soon the pen and journal were lost or forgotten and I’m pretty sure I became the pain in the ass my mom was trying desperately to contain.
Fast forward 25 years later and I’m a banker wearing “man-suits”, using black pens and enforcing policies when I walk into a training program to teach me to be a trainer. On the table were colored markers. As I guiltily opened them, I snuck glances at the door waiting for someone to burst in to confiscate them.
I seriously felt like a subversive revolutionary. Especially when I realized that I liked colored markers that smelled like orange and grape and blueberry! Surely this kind of joy was not allowed in the halls of Corporate America.
That tiny earthquake set me off on a creative journey that has lasted the next 25 years. As I write this, I’m drinking from a mug made with my own hands. I’m sitting under one of my paintings filled with joyful hues of orange, purple and blue. The Lynn of 25 years ago could not have dreamed that a little thing like colored felt tip markers could be the key that unlocked my creative obstructions.
I should actually say the key unlocked the first tiny door of my creative obstructions.
Flow was not restored in that momentary flash of possibility. It was more like a squirt. I certainly could not see the many obstructions I would come to face. Perhaps if I had known, I would have silently slid back into the prison of my mind and I would still be a banker with a lot of money and no joy.
Because it is a war that continues to this day. Unobstructed self-expression requires letting go of precious resources designed to keep me safe but not whole.
What happened that day back in nineteen sixty something when I crashed after my creative high? I unconsciously made a choice to keep me safe. I said to myself quietly and outside of my conscious awareness: “You are not an artist. Don’t even try.” And with that decision, I cut off a part of myself.
What happened when I opened those colored markers back in nineteen ninety something? It touched a hunger deep inside of me to express myself – my true self – and it began to whisper “You can do this.” The hunger was greater than the fear of being judged. Most days.
To my great fortune, I soon had a chance to take the HBDI Thinking Styles Assessment. My profile showed that under pressure, I was decidedly analytical, quantitative and black and white. Yet I could also see my creative possibilities right there on the page. AND – insert the sound of the hallelujah chorus here -the assessment also included exercises to develop my creativity!
The core message is simple. I have a whole brain. Learning to use it takes practice, patience and determination.
Those nonsense voices that say “Don’t even try” can be coaxed into becoming cheerleaders for a mission of developing unobstructed self-expression.
What are your obstructions to self-expression? What beliefs have you constructed to keep yourself safe? How can you cultivate your hunger for self-expression? What form does your creativity take?
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