August awakens the senses 👁👄

Winter is coming to a close. Get a jump start on the awakening of Spring with some sensory outing to stimulate the creative muscle.

QVB After Dark 

455 George Street, Sydney
Throughout August

https://www.qvb.com.au/#after-dark

After Dark Tour Series – just a little spooky
After Dark Live Event – Thu 22
Heart of the QVB – an immersive installation

Cherry Blossom Festival

Auburn Botanic Gardens
Sat 17 – Sun 25
https://www.cumberland.nsw.gov.au/sydney-cherry-blossom-festival
A feast for all your senses – cherry blossom, Japanese snacks (Adam Liaw), an izakaya serving  cherry blossom flower sake.

Luminous

A multi-sensory concert experience
Sat 17 – Fri 23
https://www.aco.com.au/whats-on/2019/luminous
Singer-songwriter Lior,  photographer Bill Henson and the Australian Chamber Orchestra join for a visual and aural feast.

Genius

Post workshop palettes

I recently rewatched the TED talk “Your elusive creative genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert from 2009.  

It reminded me again of the possibilities that await if I am continually opening myself to their arrival.

Some historical background 

Ancient Greece and ancient Rome did not believe that creativity came from human beings but believed it was a divine spirit that visited human beings from somewhere.

The Greeks called these spirits “daemons” and Socrates believed his wisdom came to him from a daemon.

The Romans also believed in this creative spirit but called it a “genius”. However, they did not think that a genius was particularly clever – just a magical divine entity, who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work.

Jump to the Renaissance. People started to believe that creativity came completely from the individual. So, for the first time in history,  people started referring to an artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius. This puts an incredible demand on the artist!

Back to now

I would guess that almost anyone involved in creative pursuits, whether they be of the “agreed” “artistic” kind – painting, writing, design, dance, … – or the rest – business, parenting,  relationships, life! … has had that moment of inspiration, that spark of an idea, that gift. Being aware of its arrival can be a joy and a scramble to jot it down, capture it in that moment before it’s gone and perhaps forgotten.

The saying “First thought, best thought” also captures this fly-in spark. As a designer, I would often be gifted with this during the initial briefing for a new job. I would be scratching it down on paper as the conversation continued. Invariably, as was convention, three designs were submitted, post briefing.

Once I’d completed the gifted piece, then was the slog began to deliver up the two others to meet the brief’s requirements. But, for me, it was always that first gifted one that was the winner.

I recall rightly or wrongly, (see box below for the facts!)  a famous New York adman from the sixties saying to a client, when they requested three designs, “No. You’ll get one design – the right design.” I haven’t been able to track this down as fact – maybe it was a scene from the hit show Mad Men! ,

Paul Rand – one design only

Paul Rand on trusting that first design idea

an Interesting example – Steve Jobs approached Paul Rand and asked him to design the NeXT identity. Paul stipulated that $100,000 would be paid upfront, he would design one identity/logo and Steve would have to like it or lump it.

It takes a confident designer to take this approach, but it also takes a very confident client to accept!

Day to day reality

But most of us don’t have that kind of confidence. 

Few of us can we call upon the genius – at will and on-demand. But some of us practice to make this visit more possible.

What we can do is to be open to the moment – because you never know when the spark will come. We can be curious and keep playing with what comes our way – then we are honing our skills to welcome the genius.

Keep playing!

An antidote for earworms

Self-talk

Most of us would be embarrassed if others could hear the contents of our internal soundtrack. Our self-talk that usually focuses on self-criticism, comparison and commentary on what we see in the avalanche of images coming at us via Instagram.

Internet cat videos, TV and even reading a good book give us a holiday from ourselves and huge growth of “mindfulness” practices, youtube meditation sessions, podcasts are proof that “the west” is seeking refuge from our default mode.

Earworms

One refuge we love is listening to a favourite sound in our head. Even if that song has lots of redemptive elements (“Don’t worry, be happy” – Joe Dolce, “Happy” –  Pharrel Williams) it can get annoying when it’s clamped onto your brain like a crab claw and just…won’t….let….go.

THIS my friends is the well-known “earworm” (or “stuck song syndrome” – SSS or Involuntary Musical Imagery -IMI). People literally exclaim to their friends “I can’t get it out of my head” which also triggers people to hear Kylie Minogue singing a perfect earworm “Can’t get you out of my head” and so the infection spreads when they sing a piece of the song, the friends fill in the pieces and then it gets stuck in their head.’

I’ve asked people if they have earworms and usually say “no”. But if I check in with them a few days or a week later, they’ve suddenly become aware that songs are a backing track to their day.

Repetition exacerbates the problem – in the past “high rotation” on radio meant that songs got stuck in people’s brains. More recently playing Beat Saber on Oculus is based around very catchy music and now those songs are in my brain as soon as I wake up. As soon as I finish a task that I’ve been focussing on and head to the toilet or the kitchen – the Beat Saber song is riding along inside my brain.

So what is the antidote?

I discovered by accident that “choiceless listening” is the most natural go-to solution. This is a form of mindfulness and part of “Choiceless Awareness” (I was surprised to learn that the term was made common by J. K. Krishnamurti).

Choiceless listening is simply allowing your attention to “let in” the sounds around you – this is not a problem while you are making the bed, brushing your teeth, walking to work. I was surprised that whilst I might often be practicing “mindfulness” while doing these tasks, my focus might be more visual or tactile.

Our society is so visually overstimulated that sound is relegated to a minor part of our daily experience – we take hearing for granted – we latch onto words that people say and extract the symbolic meaning, agendas from them – we treat listening as very transactional.

So being super-simple and letting sound come into my presence is a beautiful experience – and I discovered (obvious in hindsight) that my earworm just stopped dead – temporarily.

Try it! I’d be interested to hear if it works for you – or not!

Isn’t this harmless?

Is there something wrong about songs tootling along? When you start Googling “are earworms…..”, the first suggestion while you type is “are earworms a sign of mental illness”.

This is pretty heavy stuff: the British Journal of General Practice reporting that “up to 98% of the Western population has experienced earworms” and can be “more pronounced or debilitating in patience with OCD”.

I don’t line up my socks, straighten cutlery or obsess over the jaunty angle of a painting but I carry some traits that help earworms hitchhike into my day. At the very minimum, they are consuming mental bandwidth and energy that could be conserved or spent profitably.

Do earworms stifle Creativity?

Abso-bloody-lutely. Simply put this mental bandwidth* is a precious resource. The more we are present – in the moment is our most creative and responsive state. Earworms steal from this and setup a loop that cramps out “presence”.

Two Oscar Wilde quotes make the case well:

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

You might think that an earworm is “misbehaving” but it’s really just behaving entirely predictably. I love that Wilde states that “taught” is a very important part of creating. It takes discipline, presence and space. 

“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”

An earworm aims for perfect imitation – we don’t need another copy of that song!

Other antidotes

Some other antidotes can be found here and borrow from the BJGP** article above. But I don’t think they have the same self-awareness as what I suggest earlier.

      1. Chew some gum. Chewing gum could be a good way to get rid of earworms.
      2. Listen to the song. Listening to the song stuck in your head may bring closure and may help extract it.
      3. Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
      4. Do a puzzle.
      5. Let it go — but don’t try.

* Its quite possibly earworms are an artifact of the Default mode network and that’s another very big story in the discovery of how our western brain functions (or doesn’t).

** The BJGP article references a study that comes close to my proposed antidote. Personally I think that CBT is demanding a less natural and more ritualized way of dealing with earworms, in a sense they are pathologizing it: 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is evidence-based and effective for OCD. Patients learn to replace dysfunctional thoughts like ‘These uncontrollable songs indicate I’m going crazy!’ with new, more accepting thoughts.

AND

“Non-judgemental focus and acceptance form the basis for gradually shifting attention to other voluntary thoughts or emotions…..Yet, distraction is the most common self-help method for SSS and is often effective.”

Balance

This is not new. As with everything in life, the cycles keep moving – the good times pass, but so too do the challenging ones. Over the years, this little diagram keeps popping up, in slightly different forms each time, but with basically the same help.

In some forms it divides into 4 elements – fire, water, earth and air. In others, it is action, emotions, structure and wisdom. Each of the four elements should be in balance… in a perfect life…  in a perfect world!

Over the past while I’d been feeling a bit lost, unproductive, my mind awash with ideas but not quite able to get a start on anything, resulting in a feeling of time passing by without realising anything.

I happened upon the four elements again, sandwiched in a miscellaneous folder, and relooked at it. Rarely lacking in fire/action, or water/emotions, what lit up my realisation was earth/structure – my nemesis! Yes, planning. For reasons I still don’t understand, I feel that planning robs me of my freedom. My brain knows this is rubbish, even my experiences know this is rubbish. Yet tucked away snuggly and safely somewhere in my being, it resides.

So with the warmth of fresh realisation, I started to write the important things down (important for now, anyway).  Just five loose categories, ones which cover my everyday needs as well as my creative and physical needs. Almost immediately I started to pull away from the stuckness I had felt, feeling an accomplishment of sorts. Big goals, bite-sized actions and steps. My first bite-sized step!

Relook at the 4 elements diagram. Where are you strong? Where are you out of balance? Start with one small step. Good luck.

Marie Kondo for the creative spirit

The sensation that is Marie Kondo has the magic of old truths that ring true being repackaged in a new and exciting antidote to a very common malaise – clutter.

mariekondo

Thankfully the last decade has grown a number of movements attacking the very Western (primarily North American) conspicuous consumption and excess.

These movements like: Minimalism, Digital Nomadism, Veganism all call bullshit on a fixed abode filled to the brim with lettuce spinners, outdoor furniture, a garage full of unused adult toys (exercise equipment, not the others – ahem) and wardrobes full of once-worn clothes.

marie-kondo-spark-joy-featured-image-e1445355081720-846x715

The spark in Marie’s approach is that an object must “Spark Joy” to be worth keeping. The spirit of Marie’s method is an interesting observation that you don’t decide from some ideology or “ism” – you apply your own personal emotional response as your guide.

So too with creativity!

Debilitating Clutter?

Some people defer creative action because they feel paralysed by the clutter and disorder of their workspace. 

Others celebrate being surrounded by the tools of their trade. 

The photo of Einstein below is not one of a mundane scientist but a fabulously creative thinker, his writings outside science are also worth a read. Clearly clutter was not debilitating to this creator.

Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955
Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955

Recently, popular startup investor Naval Ravikant (@naval) and clear thinker, commented that he leaves books lying around the house and picks them up when the fancy takes him – skipping through the irrelevant cruft and not fearing that serendipity comes from outside himself. Perhaps conversely Paul Graham (@paulg) gets serendipity from the chaos of second-hand bookstores.

Is internal mental clutter the actual problem?

We fixate on the external, we blame external conditions. But if we look closer it’s not the external clutter but our internal response to the environment around us that is the big deal.

If Marie Kondo tidied Albert’s office it may look great but we may have less scientific breakthroughs! So it’s clear that Albert had an exceptional ability to focus and mentate with incredible clarity to the exclusion of the surrounding mayhem. Legend is that Nikola Tesla  would complete an invention in his mind before making the project manifest in the material world.

So these people are just a snapshot – others love to write books in noisy cafes. So it’s not JUST limited to geniuses.

Creative Clutter Exercise

Self-awareness** of what triggers Marie’s state of “Sparks Joy” within is the key here.
It’s an observation that is richer than dry mindfulness. Here’s a practice you can try:
  1. If you are a grub (you like chaos and mess). Get yourself to a library or even more grotesque – a conference room. Something that is as ordered or as sterile as you can find.
  2. If you are a neat-freak, get yourself to a cafe, a gym, a playground, a food-court in a shopping centre.
  3. Now get in touch with a sense of “joy”. Write, draw or code something around you that sparks that joy. Feel this inside.
  • Can you do this immersed in an environment that you would normally whinge about?
  • Do you have enough “self-awareness” to note that the environment is objective but your criticism is just a habitual response?
  • Can you take something from this opposite (“can you find beauty in a conference room”?,  “can you find stillness in a shopping center”? I assure you I’ve experienced both – I shit you not).
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall

Any benefit?

Is it possible that you’ve now strengthened your creative muscle? That you are a more creative supple athlete?

Does Marie Kondo  inspire us to throw out some old mental clutter that has been stifling our creative spirit?

Have we used external circumstances to foster self-doubt and postphone “JUST DO IT”?

We’d love to hear, hit us up!

Postscript: Sense of Completion

Many people love, love, love the thrill of a good tidy-up.

The endorphin’s of an easily achieved goal can be an addictive distraction. We have unread books, messy bedrooms, unwashed plates – they are all awesome tools in getting a “hit” of the good stuff during the day – but don’t let them thieve from your creative schedule.

Make internal space for both.

** Everyone claims "self-awareness" but have no objective proof or realization that its an onion (a topic for another blog post)

The Artist’s Date – 7 possibilities to inspire for July

Taking yourself on a weekly Artist’s Date (that’s a date with yourself) as an opportunity to let yourself follow your curiosities, is part of the creative awakening process in the book, The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, a 12 week do-it-yourself creativity course.

Here are seven inspirations for July:

1. The National Biennial of New Australian Art
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
Until Jul 21 2019
The latest ideas & forms in contemporary Australian art

2. The Essential Duchamp
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
Until Aug 11 2019
Discover the stories behind the art

3. Michael Armitage: The Promised Land
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), The Rocks
Until Sep 22 2019
Oils grounded in the social fabric and political dynamics of East Africa

4. Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), The Rocks
Jul 19 2019-Oct 7 2019
Cutting edge artist pushing the technological possibilities of 21st century art

5. Wellama
The Cutaway, Barangaroo

Until Dec 31 2019
New, ten-minute filmed artwork

6. A Drone Opera
Carriageworks, Eveleigh
Until Jul 28 2019
Haze, lasers and opera singers, and a cage 

7. 52 Artists, 52 Actions
Artspace, Wooloomooloo
Until Aug 4 2019
52 artists, 31 countries, 1 week to make a statement

Do it! Suspense writing

Don’t think. Just do.

Grab your journal, a book or some paper and write.

Take a mundane scene:

  • two people sitting in a car at traffic lights
  • a woman eating alone in a cafe
  • young children playing on the swings at the park
  • a young man waiting for the bus

Write a paragraph or a page that turns this seemingly mundane scene into nail-biting suspense. What details will add to the picture, giving it reality, authenticity, make the reader get to know the characters. And what might you leave out to add to the suspense.

Have fun!

10 ways smart people stay calm

I’ve just come back from a couple of days in the country – a complete change of pace, demand, activity … even got a few hours of forest bathing – bliss.  I think for me, this ticked off #1 and #4 in this article I’m sharing about staying calm and staying on top of the stress.

You can preempt much of your stress with these vital practices.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.

Here’s the first 4
1. They Appreciate What They Have
2. They Avoid Asking “What If?”
3. They Stay Positive
4. They Disconnect

For all ten ways with explanations as well as the complete article and a great  Performance vs Stress diagram head to  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/10-ways-smart-people-stay-calm_us_59134c00e4b0e070cad70b0b

A return to authenticity

Many years ago I used a bought image in a job for a client for the Asian market. The girl in the image was clean and sparkly with a fabulously engaging smile – perfect!

Over the years I see her pop up more and more often, in everything from a nurses outfit to a tennis player. She always looks “perfect”.

Seems we’re all a bit over that – now wanting an authenticity in what we see. A simplicity. A truth. We want our business people to look like they are working, that they are tired, or stressed, or fooling around or simply, honestly happy. That they actually look like people you know – not the perfectly manicured, the perfectly made-up with the perfect hair. We want them to seem real to us. We want to empathise with them in whatever role they have. We want them captured in a human moment.

Time for something real, something human, something imperfect, individual – a simplicity

 

Design! Not just the look and feel, but how it works.

The Look – it’s important – whether it’s a one-off unique and personal item, a fully crafted corporate brand or a family of diverse cross media pieces.

The Feel – it’s what stops me in the street to take a longer look, what makes me respect, empathise, love, read, keep. Every piece has to reach out and touch me.

The Work – 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. We all love and remember when the flash of inspiration is gifted to us. Respect it with good work.

And the Inspiration – read, walk, photograph, play, dance, meditate, visit, chat, laugh, give, share, draw, love, value, wish, live, smile, be open.

“A designer knows when she has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”
– inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery