“The object isn’t to create art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” – Robert Henri
Nearly 15 years ago, I learned about and quickly fell in love with the practice of coaching. Listening to my gut feelings, I entered into the field of coaching and learning & development right after completing my Masters in Fine Art. To be honest, I felt insecure at the time about this non-traditional and non sequitur pivot. I had a hard time explaining the logic of it to my friends and family. Understandably, people identified me one-dimensionally as “an artist,” without knowing my undergraduate roots in and passion for the psychology of learning. Many asked why I walked away from fine art, citing a variety of reasons (i.e., too competitive, isolating, hard to make money). In truth, I didn’t walk away from art: I expanded the scope of my art to beyond paint on a canvas.
I arrived in the coaching world as a black sheep of sorts – most of my colleagues had advanced degrees in business or psychology, not fine art. So, when I attended the International Coaching Conference in 2006 and heard the keynote speaker, author Dan Pink, announce that “the MFA is the new MBA,” I stopped in my tracks. I vividly remember feeling, in that moment, suddenly ebullient about the uncharted path ahead of me. Although I knew in my gut that my strengths in creative thinking and problem solving supported my impact and success as a coach and entrepreneur, this was the first time an outside expert so clearly validated it. The truth is, my MFA taught me two essential skills that I use every day as a coach, innovator, and entrepreneur: 1) generating creative insight, and 2) using creative insight to problem solve and innovate. You don’t need an MFA to learn these two skills. You need a simple framework for thinking about creativity, an open mind, and the will to try it.
MFA is the new MBA: Creative Insight
First and most critically, I learned in my MFA how to generate creative insights on a regular basis. I think of creative insight as the part of the creative process when we feel ignited by a novel idea. Artists call this “the muse,” and coaches call it “the a-ha moment.” I call it the first stage – or spark – of inspiration. In my experience with or in coaching, many individuals think themselves incapable of having sparks of inspiration, and especially incapable of generating these sparks on their own. However, if I ask them about something that inspires them, they respond easily with great engagement. This quandary left me wondering: How can I help clients shift their mindsets about their own creativity? How can I help them raise the probability that creative insights can occur?
In my experience as an artist, two critical factors enable creative insights to occur: reverie and milieu. If you don’t know what these two French words mean, by the end of this blog, you will. When reverie and milieu work in tandem, as a powerful creativity cocktail, great insights can occur. For me, this happens most frequently at conferences. Taken out of my typical work environment and put into a new milieu, surrounded by novel ideas and inspiring people, with plenty of time for mind wandering reverie, I find myself bombarded with unexpected ideas. In the middle of listening to a phenomenal speaker, my mind wanders off for a few seconds and then BAM! – a novel spark flies into my brain that infuses me with excitement, even euphoria. In fact, the idea for this very blog happened at a coaching conference this past September. Here’s why these two ingredients of a creativity cocktail work so well in tandem:
Reverie – being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts, daydreaming
In today’s rushed and distracted world, many find reverie hard to prioritize. Most of us have overstuffed calendars with barely enough time for a bathroom break, much less the large chunks of time that encourage the unconscious mind to emerge. We spend our days putting out daily fires and checking off to-do lists, rather than cultivating creative problem solving. We run the risk of labeling reverie, or unstructured think time, as wasted time. In order to prioritize this time for ourselves, we – and those around us – need to understand its importance.
A few weeks ago, I conducted an inspiration interview, as part of our inspiration research, with my former Psychology Professor at Dartmouth, Christian Jerndstedt. An expert in the neuroscience of learning and creativity, he explained that the best ideas emerge when our conscious minds are engaged in something for a chunk of time that does not require intense focus – like a shower, a long drive in the car, or a presentation on new topic. As the conscious mind passively focuses on a task, the unconscious mind-nearly 95% of our brain capacity- emerges to solve problems, synthesize ideas, and spark new ones. There are many companies, like Atlassian, Intuit, and Google, that recognize the importance of giving employees chunks of time for the sole purpose of generating creative ideas; some examples include innovation labs, paid “time off” at work for special projects of an employee’s choosing, and hackathons where groups set aside a chunk of time to work on a new idea together. In our busy lives and work, it can be difficult to set aside unstructured time for a task that has unclear outcomes. And yet, as Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist who has conducted research on creative geniuses for the last several decades, said in her Atlantic article: “When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.” We need moments of reverie to allow our minds to wander so our unconscious minds can emerge.
Milieu – a person’s environment
During my MFA, while I had plenty of unstructured think time, I felt creatively stuck during my first year. I needed something in my environment to spark new thinking and my art studio wasn’t cutting it. I left the studio and went to the Animal Welfare League of Arlington for inspiration. I spent hours sitting in the kennel and observing the dogs barking, jumping around, and howling; eventually, I started drawing them in movement. The dogs embodied a passionate spirit of energy and optimism that inspired me. When I went to the kennel to draw the dogs, I felt connected to and inspired by the animals and the chaotic environment. As a result, I started thinking in more divergent and novel ways – instead of drawing how they looked, I started drawing the patterns of their movements in the cages. The series of drawings and paintings that resulted from this looked like abstract webs of energy and chaos and represented, to me, the emotions of the animals themselves. My creative interpretation of the kennel dogs led to an award-winning series of pieces featured in my thesis show and galleries across Washington DC.
Today, this knowledge about the importance of milieu still impacts how I work. When I feel stuck, I change my environment and look for inspiration around me. For example, my company InspireCorps intentionally designs our quarterly business strategy sessions around inspiring locations off-site, some of them quite non-traditional (see our blog about the Kentucky Derby). Novel environments incite curiosity, excitement, and divergent thinking. For you, this could mean spending time at a museum, local park, or music show, whatever opens you up to seeing your world in a new way. For those of you who can’t leave your office space, it may mean putting something new into your work environment or changing your surrounding environment in a meaningful way (i.e., posting an inspiring picture or quote, painting the walls, shifting the furniture, adding music or other ambiance).
As I reflect back on my original curiosity around why conferences lead to rapid-fire creative ideas for me, it now makes sense: I put myself in a new and engaging milieu and give myself the time and permission for reverie. Inspired by people and novel ideas that generate excitement and divergent thinking, my mind wanders and new ideas emerge. No longer do I need to rationalize the opportunity cost of going to conferences; they are my perfect creative insights cocktail. What is yours?