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On creativity

It’s high time we stopped looking at creativity in the most uncreative way. Click To Tweet

We need to dispose of the notion that divides people into those who are born creative and those who are not.

Creativity, like beauty, is subjective. It is not a profession, or a personality trait found among one group. It is also a duplicitous concept, seeking to flatter originality while cautioning against unorthodoxy.

No industry has the monopoly on creativity. I know this first-hand, having worked with a wide variety of people: be it artists, researchers, musicians, exporters, importers, art directors, diplomats, bureaucrats, scientists, cooks, accountants, tech founders, educators, sheep herders, writers, actors, economists, mixologists, professors, chocolatiers, farmers, code developers, policy wonks, lawyers, surgeons, or tailors. All were deeply creative, yet many were reluctant to describe their work as such, instead relegating that adjective to select professions – like mine (marketing). But a skilled butcher is just as fascinating to watch as an orchestra conductor, a traffic warden, a teacher in a classroom, or a nurse at work.

We are all born creative; we create when we translate our thoughts from internal monologues and feelings to ideas or expressions that can be detected by those around us. A string of running code can have a profound impact on the viewer, as could a kaleidoscope of pigmented oil strewn across a canvas, a hypothesis proposed, or a complex ledger that beautifully concludes with a single number. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

If you’re curious, my experiences tell me the least creative individuals are those who parrot stereotypes, and believe an industry, sector, geographic region, office layout, or attire is indicative of the flow of creativity that can be expected.

The point is: You are creative – regardless of what you do, where you live, how you dress, or what you say. You greatly enrich the human condition with anything you do, even if you don’t see that yet.  Don’t follow a painfully limiting way of defining creativity, it does damage to yourself as well as the future of many professions. Plus, it’s more than likely that an advertiser was responsible for that definition in the first place.

There are moments in life when we find ourselves running away from something or someone as a solution to an undesirable situation. We take new jobs to replace horrible bosses, orchestrate dates with the next available distraction, occupy ourselves by being in a constant state of “busy.” That way, we don’t have to stand up and face the ugliness that is disappointment, heartbreak, frustration, rejection…

On the one hand, to run away from the disagreeable or uncomfortable is to surrender control over your life choices, to open the door to regret and disenchantment. It solves nothing, merely delays the inevitable but necessary pain of dealing with the unpleasant.

On the other, running towards an idea, a job, a person, a calling, a dream… is an entirely different matter. It’s a leap forward that is driven by hope, excitement, and passion. It’s the sensation of your heart skipping a beat, the tingling feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the energy you feel when all you see before you is a world full of saturated colours and delicious scents.

Don’t wait for things to get bad before you decide to leave. Don’t run away from your own life when parts of it feel broken or scattered. Stand tall and look towards the future, your future. One minute from now, five months, a year. Think about where you want to be. And then go forward, towards.

 

In the pursuit of understanding one’s purpose in life, we often assign meaning and value to our work based on popularized and widely accepted definitions of worth and success. As a result, goals often end up being things like eradicating hunger, disease and injustice, being recognized as the best in our field, or earning a top-figure income.

Measures of success like those send a message: our work needs to have a big, significant, and visible impact to matter. Otherwise, we’re underdeveloped and haven’t reached our potential – we set the bar too low. The message is that when we fall short of those goals, we must keep going forward and (hopefully) upward.

Or does it?

Maybe what we need to do instead is acknowledge that our actions, every day, have a ripple effect not only on those immediately around us, but on our communities, cities, and environments. When we chase absolute successes (like getting bought out by Facebook or winning a Pulitzer), we define our purpose in life by scales that fail to value the small-but-mighty micro-influences we can and do have.

You don’t need to wait for accolades from your idols to feel proud of your work, or for overt acts of gratitude to feel valuable. We’re too often blind to the true positive impact we have on those we interact with for one minute, one year, one lifetime. Our lofty goals left unachieved, we underreport our value to ourselves and those around us because we missed the mark on the yardstick – never mind the progress we made.

Maybe that’s what we need to change.

To begin fully understanding our true value to ourselves and those around us, we need to reflect on the moments, however grand or little, that were meaningful to us each day. We should also share these reflections with those who helped create such moments with or for us, because what is more powerful than hearing that your presence has made a difference for someone?

It’s simple. You matter.

 

Today is International Women’s Day.

As my business grows and I meet new people, I get asked about the role gender plays in running a business, and the difficulties and obstacles I face as a woman in the workplace.

The answer I usually offer is that when it comes to business, I don’t want to define my entire work philosophy around my being a woman. I focus on my work as an individual who gets compared to peers regardless of sex. That said, my gender has a profound effect on how and why I make decisions, personally and professionally – specifically in terms of luck and power.

I won the female lottery

I was born into an environment that raised individuals, not girls. I grew up around ideas of equality, financial independence, and freedom of choice. I was surrounded by strong female role models in my family: business owners, professionals, and war heroines. I knew women were capable of doing absolutely anything by watching my mom raise two children in foreign countries on her own.

By virtue of travel, good education, and exposure to unusual childhood experiences, I knew very well that I was among the privileged group of women who possessed an education, had access to proper health care, and consequently the chance of having a prosperous future.

That was luck.

Competence is power

I like to believe that the professional workplace is where meritocracy comes to full effect. You may say that’s naive or negligent of the statistics that prove gender equality is largely a myth. And I would be in agreement with you.

Personally, I have never been in a position where the caliber of my work was questioned because it was provided by a woman. In my opinion, competence levels the professional playing field – which is why I don’t feel intimidated or unequal when I walk into any business situation. That’s where I think my professional power – if we call it that – comes from.

In the wee hours of the night

Recently I attended a networking event that provided new business opportunities. At one point, I looked at the time and realized I had to start making my way home. I had a long commute ahead of me, which required walking through isolated parking lots and along poorly-lit pathways. There are alternatives that would take any worry out of the situation, but that added sense of vulnerability had a real effect on my business. I delivered the line about turning into a pumpkin at midnight, and made my exit earlier than I might have because of a small paranoid voice in my head that has me in a constant state of readiness.

I know the statistical likelihood of getting attacked by a stranger, particularly in a developed country with historically low crime rates, is extremely low. That said, I’ve been in situations where I experienced cruelty for no other reason than being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky is the only way to describe it. Vulnerability is not tied with a location, time of day, physical strength, state of mind, or manner of dress. It has everything to do with power*, and the perceived loss of it.

When I find myself in an unpredictable environment, unlike the workplace, I shift from a confident and powerful individual to one who is subject to the basic instinct of self-preservation. I don’t like admitting that, but to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

One day that voice may go away…

Today we celebrate women, worldwide. What do we do tomorrow? How do we have a future where luck plays no role in determining a woman’s quality of life? How do we shift power from a mechanism that exploits the uneducated, disadvantaged, and vulnerable to one that allows everyone to be the best person they can be?

I strongly believe that education is and has always been the key to end social injustice.

Teach women maths and sciences as well as their reproductive choices, encourage the exploration of their sexuality and allow them to deliver on their full potential. At the same time, teach everyone alike to respect the choices that women make with their minds and what they do with their bodies, and learn to see the value of what they produce as individual free-thinkers.

Maybe then the voice would go away, and there will be no more questions about the role gender plays in and outside of business contexts.

* Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will explores the relationship between power and vulnerability as it affects women everywhere. I strongly recommend this book for both men and women.

– – –

Several weeks ago, a friend was having a hard time following some personal and professional letdowns. She asked a very simple and poignant question: “How come no one fights for us?”

I had no answer for her, and a defeatist sentiment permeated my skin and sat heavy on my heart for weeks. The haunting possibility that she was right kept me awake for some nights. I started looking closely at everyone around me to see if any of them could be my “great defender” – a coworker siding vocally with my opinion, a friend arguing most vehemently on my behalf, an inamorato who won’t let me just happen. I felt despair at the absence of pistols being drawn at a moment’s notice in my honour.

So absorbed was I by the idea that the world was largely indifferent, that I didn’t think of asking an important question: why should anyone fight for us?

Without an answer in mind, I reconciled myself to the fact that we would have to do our own fighting for all the days to come. I was going to share this realization with my friend; tell her that she’d need to commandeer her army of one and fight for herself, because that’s just the way things are.

As I was writing this response to her, it dawned on me that our situation is actually great.

We grow stronger when we embrace the liberation that comes with having control and mastery over our lives, and stop worrying about finding someone to pick up our banners. If we can’t convincingly play the protagonist in our own scenario, how can we expect anyone to take note of our role?

When you stand convinced of your own actions and value, the number of people who join your ranks expands tenfold. But you have to take the first step so others can see you moving. And trust that if you stumble, they will come out of the woodwork and catch you.

The world fights for us when we fight for ourselves first. No one wants to side with a downcast individual.

Truthfully, I am a little embarrassed it took me this long to see that the broadest shoulders I lean on belong to the quiet ones, those who do not display grandiose or theatrical gestures of heroism – they simply take action and support me when and how they can.

Rather amazing beings, humans.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is Cervantes’ powerful story about an unrealistic idealist. The main character, Quixote, is mostly well-intentioned but often misguided when trying to rescue the world from itself. He is also at times a disturber of the peace who unwittingly (and only occasionally) manages to do some good. One of the ideas behind the book is that morality, tradition, and courage are not universal in their definition. The story also warns those who take up causes in the name of virtue about the damage they could be involuntarily inflicting along their righteous path, often creating miserable circumstances for those around them.

I don’t see myself as a quixotic person, but I do “fight” regularly for what I believe in – both in personal and subjective realms like arts and culture, as well as in more fact-based professional disagreements. I feel particularly strongly about championing my ideas, I suppose in no small part because of the highly scrutinized and questioning environment and industry I work in.

The idea of how much fighting we do as individuals has been circling in my mind for a while now. And a small matter that unfolded at work today brought into light the questions I’ve been having about the interplay between conviction and common sense.

I was being challenged over a word that would have, in my professional opinion, greatly improved the overall quality of a product I was working on. But, upon reflection, it seemed very stupid to retaliate and ready my lance because of one word. Kicking a fuss over this minute detail would be the definition of quixotic. The opportunity cost here was too high, considering the fairly minor impact of this particular product on the bigger picture.

Almost as soon as I made the decision to “let go” and relent, a very unsettling feeling washed over me: is perspective, the big picture, undermining the strength of my conviction?

It was disturbing to see just how quickly and easily I set aside my own valid views in favour of a quick and easy resolution. Could this mark the beginning of indifference? Does the absence of a fighting spirit signify a lack of passion? Will dropping this one relatively tiny issue be the loose thread that, when gently pulled, unravels and disintegrates a complex tapestry of personal beliefs and convictions?

Or was the discomfort I felt a result of realizing that the fight is not outwards with a client or coworker, it’s my way of coming to terms with the full spectrum of the issue. It seems we are all at war with ourselves each and every day, with two sides called up for battle. One fights for beliefs, convictions and ideologies, while the other defends perspective and a well-balanced examination of the true costs and benefits behind each cause.

Whether or not Ideology and perspective exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, a balance of both is essential. Perhaps, like Quixote, I have been seeing things in black and white, right and wrong, when I should also consider the hues in between – assigning value to conflict in terms of significance or transience, worthy of fight or flight.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo

There is no authority in the universe that truly has the ability to impose upon us what we must feel about anything or anyone. Despite this fact, we grow up with rules and traditions designed to help us navigate through life in ways that have worked for others; sometimes a few others, or sometimes thousands, millions or billions of people. Well-intentioned as they may be, these rules can become stifling restrictions, turning what should bring us joy and pleasure into a source of frustration and displeasure, as piano quickly became for me when my desire to lead with my heart began to overrule the desire to follow my head.

The many years of formal music education I received focused entirely on faithful recitation of original works. We were taught the right way to play and were required to do away with personal whims and fancy.

Those in charge did exactly what was expected of them: they taught hundreds of students the proper tried and tested techniques and pieces for the purposes of either passing the Royal Conservatory’s examinations or performing at concerts. Music, we were told, is the highest form of art. Talented pianists were supposed to perform flawlessly, meticulously recite the work, and strive to evoke strong reactions from the audience. 

Within the walls of the school, being a great teacher meant creating and maintaining an environment that kept personal interpretations and creative outbursts in check. The works of classical composers were treated as museum-like objects: admired, but not touched. For students, the formula for success was simple: all you had to do was exactly what everyone else was doing.

Teachers placed heavy emphasis on communicating the “feeling” behind the music… but only within the confines of the composer’s annotations. It didn’t matter if the piece spoke to the player of delight, love or affection – if the markings declared it a cry of war, then the player’s fingers had best be marching along. And while many students had no issue adapting and thriving within this structure, some of us had trouble reconciling the dissonance we felt as we progressed through the years. There was no harmony between what we felt and how we were told to feel it. 

Privately, I practiced the pieces taught in class in the way that I chose to interpret and feel the work. I discarded the annotations that didn’t fit in with what I perceived the story to be. I changed the tempo to suit my particular mood. “Swan Lake”? Not always. Sometimes, it was full of hippos, thunder and speed. On occasion, my rendition of the “Moonlight Sonata” was accompanied by a hail of meteorites, sharp heavy punches on the piano (much to the horror of my parents). But back in class, I had to revert back to exactly what was written before me on the music sheets lest I face a barrage of criticism from well-intentioned but myopic and staid teachers.

With time, the need to play what I wanted to play in my own personal style became far more important to me than receiving positive feedback from the instructors or participating in any concert. My parents and teachers began to wonder if I would ever be the performer they hoped I would be. They rationalized it away, like it was some mildly unhealthy habit: I was a stubborn teen; I got bored with the instrument; I kept bad company; I was influenced by ridiculous modern music. 

They could attempt to reason it away all they liked, the reality was that there was no way to please everyone. And no reason to do so. 

I belonged to a group of outsiders who chose to act on impulse and create genuine experiences for themselves above anyone else. We performed with our hearts. We sought to retell the stories written by composers long dead and gone as seen through our own eyes and painted by our fingertips. We didn’t care if there was an audience of one listener, fifty, or two hundred. We had to let the music out of our heads, through our fingertips and into the auditorium that echoed back our strokes, reaffirming what we felt, how we felt it, and how real and legitimate it was. 

On the other side of the spectrum were our colleagues, the traditionalist piano students, who performed with their heads. They had the makings of the type of technical virtuosos revered and admired by many, both within and beyond the walls of the music school. By following the instructions, annotations, and traditions of performing according to a set of arbitrary but established and agreed-upon standards, they followed the guaranteed path to “success.” And I can’t be sure if they’ve ever stopped practicing long enough to hear if what they played was an extension of their character, or a mere parroting of their teachers’ values and expectations. 

What the microcosm that is music school really taught us was the need to make a seemingly simple but deceivingly important choice that had implications far beyond examination rooms and concert halls. Choose your head, or choose your heart. And know that you have a choice to make. Even though sometimes the choice may feel like it’s already been made for you, or it’s impossible, or not worth the struggle or the shame that comes from breaking time-honoured traditions – know that you can, and should, actively choose. And know that it’s okay to change your mind once you’ve done so, too.

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