Embracing Creative Change

Ever notice how people and organizations love creative ideas, but hate to change? We all have been in situations where change is needed, but executing the change seems too hard.

In her book, Creative Change: Why we resist it . . . How we can embrace it, Jennifer Mueller writes about her research and learning on the subject of creativity. I apply it to the job search. At one point she writes:

People make creative change only when they realize their current definitions are blocking them from achieving what they want. Our current definitions have to fail in some respect. When the status quo is unacceptable, we have no choice but to broaden our thinking

Hope for the future necessarily means that you want something better than what you have right now. By challenging our conventional wisdom, we open up ourselves to that brighter future.

But we face roadblocks to that brighter future in our own thoughts. “I’ll never find a job that pays as well as this one”. “I hear it takes months to find a new job, I can’t do that.” “I am only a (marketer, or accountant or project manager, etc.)”. “They will never consider someone like me”. “I don’t even know what I want to do or who to talk with.” Every one of those statements, and the hundreds more we create, can be challenged and creatively changed. While they represent the status quo, that is simply “the existing state of affairs”.

If you look at the phrase “status quo”, neither “reality” or “destiny” are synonyms.

Where you are, and what you do, today are simply fixed points in time. Your current state can change!

She goes on to writes this in the next paragraph. This is the really hard part:

Even people who are entrenched in their status quo beliefs – beliefs that have existed for a long time  – can still redefine and embrace creative change. But when people hold fast to a given definition about the world, they don’t change because they want to. They don’t change if they know change is the right thing to do. They don’t change if they know the benefits and costs of staying put. They only change if they feel something. They change when they feel embarrassed, frustrated or ashamed of the status quo. 

I have met and talked to a lot of people who are “not where they want to be in life”, but seemingly cannot move away from it. This paragraph gets at a key point that may explain why they don’t change. Intellectually, people may recognize the need for change, but it takes more. Logic may clearly point to change as the reasonable course. Even a cost/benefit analysis may lean towards change. But none of those may drive the needed change.

I believe the author is arguing you have to reach that emotional spot that demands change, you have “felt something”, to use the author’s words. The emotions she mentions – embarrassment, frustration or ashamed – are very strong emotions. But it is the strength of those emotions that allow us to overcome our intellectual mind. That is not easy. But it is a path out of the jungle for those struggling with a career or a job that is unsatisfying.

So how do you make progress?

She poses a simple question to ask ourselves – and maybe also ask our friends and colleagues about us: “What definitions or assumptions are holding me back?” It might be your definition of “job” (“oh, it is just something I need to do to pay the bills and give me benefits”). It may be your definition of your skills and talents. Sometimes it is the assumption that whatever else that I want to do is too hard to get to. It may be your assumptions about what’s out there and the fear of the unknown. But those are all simply assumptions.

“What definitions or assumptions are holding me back?”

To break through those very strong, intellectual assumptions takes something equally strong. Perhaps the time has come to confront your own definitions and assumptions. This confrontation may be enough to create those emotions so essential to creative change.

Paying Attention to the Small Things

I like to believe that ideas, opportunities and new directions come to us all of the time. Often, they are “disguised” as every-day events, seemingly insignificant in their singularity.

Have you ever looked back at something after it happened and decide you should have known it would happen based on finding all kinds of clues? This is called “hindsight bias”. It occurs all of the time. We are good at looking backwards, connecting the dots to seemingly disconnected circumstances. Ironically, we are not very open to those same types of disconnected circumstances as they are happening. At the time, they fly by, often unnoticed or not acknowledged.

We all experience random and targeted events in our life. The chance meeting with someone at a store. The article that we read talking about some idea or concept. A near miss traffic accident. Some activity that keeps us from doing some other activity. We hear something on TV or read something on line that momentarily crosses our consciousness. Singly, they are easy to ignore or brush off as happenstance.

There is a Biblical story about the person who spreads his seeds. Some of the seeds land on the pathway and are eaten by the birds before they have a chance to grow. Some land on rocky soil. They sprout, but because their roots are not deep, they wither in the hot sun. But some of them land in good soil, get nourished by rain and eventually bear fruit.

How aware are we of the seeds being thrown our way? Do we provide a fertile ground for them? Do we pause for a minute to consider the connections the seed might have to other seeds? Or, are we hard, worn soil that does not let many things in? In the rush of time, or the refusal to acknowledge reality, do the weak roots wither and die?

It is hard to be open to messages being sent our way. We are busy, frustrated, frazzled, angry, anxious, overwhelmed, already full. We get bombarded with so many messages, it is easy to ignore them. Sometimes the act of carefully considering a message we hear is REALLY hard to do. We don’t have time. We “must” move on to whatever it was we were actually doing before being interrupted. Even if we acknowledge the message, it may challenge our conventional wisdom. It might make us reevaluate what we are doing. It may be asking us to consider something that feels like a “risk”. None of those sound like a great idea.

It is possible that we have to work hard to put together the puzzle of some very random events that occurred over a long period of time. From many different sources. But the picture may be a beautiful one. It might be life altering. It may just lead us in the right direction.

It all starts with awareness and openness. Just the act of being aware of our surroundings. Could it be as simple as taking two minutes at lunch or at the end of the day to reflect? Might the act of simply writing down two things heard, read or saw today be the start of awareness? Sharing what you experienced with someone else might shine a new light. Engage your gut feelings. Who knows what might sprout from that humble beginning?

Boredom and Procrastination might be good?

Riding in a car for a long road trip. Listening to a presenter drone on-and-on with seemingly no message to deliver. Stuck in slow-moving or stopped traffic jams for an hour. Waiting in line at the BMV. Do all of those sound boring? What if I was to tell you that might be an opportunity for growth?

In his book The Power of Boredom, philosopher Mark Hawkins describes boredom as “spaces in time containing pure creative potential available for self and life transformation.”

Who among us ever associates “boredom” with “potential”? I certainly don’t. Do any of us feel like when we are bored we might be “available” for “transformation”? Nah. But I do like to look at things in a counter-intuitive way. What if boredom was a way to potentially transform ourselves?

“Properly understood, boredom helps us understand time, and ourselves,” Gayatri Devi, a professor of English at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania wrote. “Unlike fun or work, boredom is not about anything; it is our encounter with pure time as form and content.”

“Pure” time. Not sure I am really buying that. But could we be missing the opportunity to take advantage of those idle moments and hours that are so often missed? Maybe it makes sense to fill the boredom space with curiosity and exploration. I guess you could say that you are taking those “boring minutes”, recognizing them, and turning them into something productive. I am not talking about those long, boring card rides. But think of the times you are in a boring meeting that seems to have nothing to do with your “real” work. Perhaps allowing your mind to wander will create connections you had not thought of before.

For many job seekers, boredom is a fact of life. Days that were once filled with at least eight hours of work are now filled with long periods of boredom sometime. Researchers Gasper and Middlewood feel boredom has a purpose in our lives. They write that boredom “encourages people to explore because it signals that your current situation is lacking so it’s kind of a push to seek out something new”. Let’s face it, we all face times when out “current situation is lacking”. I like “seeking out something new”. Harnessing the potential in that situation might just be the creative connection we need.

Here is another way to think of it. Most of us feel we don’t “have any time”. We are too busy. How about embracing the boring times (we all have them, no matter how busy we are) as our “me time”? Time to allow yourself some space to relax or to be creative?

It is tough to find an inspiring quote with the word “Procrastinate” in it

I tend to think of procrastination as a “distant cousin” of boredom. Procrastination is the act of postponing or not doing something. It, too, has a negative connotation. We are generally putting off something that needs to be done. You don’t very often find someone who will say “procrastination is one of my strengths”. We generally do not link procrastination with anything creative or action oriented.

But the author and professor Adam Grant wrote about the positive benefits of procrastinating in his book, Originals (even though Grant admits to hating to procrastinate). He says the reason procrastination may have benefits is that our initial thoughts are often our most conventional ones. Procrastination gives space for a person’s mind to wander, leading to more innovative ideas. Using procrastination, we actually get creative. He sites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as two examples where the speaker waited until the last minute to finish the address. That is not to say they waited to start the address. They had written and revised it many times over a period of time, honing their thoughts as creative points surfaced. But they allowed procrastination to enrich the message, up until the last minute.

So long as you’re delaying your work with the explicit idea of coming back to it, Grant says in a recent TED talk, “procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

Procrastinating doesn’t work in all cases. If you really wait until the last minute to do something, you’ll probably find yourself scrambling to cobble something together haphazardly. The work won’t be creative; it’ll be desperate. To arrive at something truly unique, you always need the slow and sometimes frustrating ingredient of time. That is Grant’s basic idea. Use that time by starting on an idea, then let it sit for a while. Allow yourself time to make connections and arrive at creative thoughts.

I have found myself looking at how I do major things like presentations and even these blog posts. I am not a person than anyone would call a “procrastinator”. I plan things out. I don’t like to be late. I don’t like deadlines to sneak up on me. I have never been one to “cram” at the very last minute. But I realize I am using procrastination to make my work better. By getting started, then leaving it sit, I find my mind working on the post or the presentation in the background. Ideas pop into my head later, and I incorporate them. I might eventually write five revisions of a post. Not because it was necessarily “bad”. No, it’s because I found a more creative or more interesting way to express things.

Heck, maybe I am taking advantage of those “boring” times to “encounter” my ideas in a more interesting way. So the next time you find yourself bored or procrastinating, think about how you might use the time to be creative or to make new connections in your thoughts.

The Message in Misfortune

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts is receiving justifiable praise for a commencement address he recently gave at his son’s middle school graduation. He provides a lot of thoughts for the young men. But I believe he is speaking to all of us. His message is one that reminds us why we have misfortune in life. He asks us to think about how we react to the misfortune because this is how we are defined. He says:

“From time to time, I hope that you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I wish that you will be lonely from time-to-time, so that you don’t take friends for granted.”

Value justice. Importance of loyalty. Long-lasting friendship.

I think all of us would agree that these are among the most important traits to have in our lives. All of us wish to experience them. But do we ever think about the fact that they sometimes must come about through the pain of suffering their opposites?  Unfairness. Betrayal. Loneliness. Are we willing to suffer through those painful moments in order to find the joy that comes? No one wants to suffer, but his point magnifies the idea that if we don’t experience some setbacks in life, we take the good things for granted.

The Chief Justice goes on to say this:

“I wish you bad luck, from time-to-time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”

Who of us hasn’t suffered bad luck? The definition of “chance” is that we are not in control. That is, unfortunately, a big part of life. Chief Justice Roberts was sending a message to all of us on that day. We may be going through some tough times. I know a lot of people who are out of work, or are unhappy with work that they have. It is human nature to wonder “why me?”. Perhaps the answer is in this address. Sometimes it is only through pain, or having to live through the opposite of what we really want, that we finally achieve our goals. Maybe the contrast between the “unlucky” or “lonely” or “losing” state and “chance”, “friendship”, and “sportsmanship” serves to sharpen our view.

There is also a strong message for all of us to think outside ourselves for a moment. I really love this line from his speech, “understand . . . the failure of others is not completely deserved either”. We lose sight sometimes that bad things happen to good people. Some people have a cloud over their head, seeming to go from one pitfall to another. It is easy to categorize them in many ways, when perhaps the word “chance” is simply the answer. We also take our own good luck for granted some days. As he says, do we always “deserve” good fortune? The hubris it takes to believe we “deserve” good fortune might be blinding us to the reality of life. Plus, we might actually take good fortune for granted.

“whether you benefit from them or not, (your success) will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes”

We can’t explain, or quickly fix, misfortunes. Maybe it makes sense to look back at a tough time in your life and see how you grew from that event. It was probably very painful at the time, but hopefully you are a better person now. If you are out of a job today, I hope Justice Roberts’ words help you find some strength to push forward.

One last thought. Sometimes, our service to others is the way forward. We can all help others, sometimes in ways that seem small at the time but can actually be big in the end. Even if we choose our service in a simple way as Justice Roberts notes – by smiling and greeting everyone we meet along the way, no matter what their station in life. Who knows the impact that might have on the other person that day? After all, as he says, “the worst thing is you will become known as the (person) who smiles and says hello”. Now wouldn’t that be a great tag line to have on your LinkedIn profile?

If you want to listen to the speech, it is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gzu9S5FL-Ug

Never give up . . ?????

The Wharton College professor and author Adam Grant recently gave a graduation speech at Utah State University. In his speech, one of his themes was around persistence and grit.  He said: “Never give up is bad advice. Sometimes quitting is a virtue. Grit doesn’t mean “keep doing the thing that’s failing.” It means “define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.”

“Never give up is bad advice” – Adam Grant

He went on to provide an example. He explained that as a young person, he always wanted to be a basketball player. But his lack of size and lack of ability – despite lots of practice – meant he got cut from his junior high basketball team. So he turned to diving and made the Junior Olympics twice. If he hadn’t “given up” basketball, he never would have gotten to diving. His “failure” led to success in a totally different venture.

He goes on to say “So don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans.”

I am a guy who likes to plan everything, so that almost sounds heretical to me at first. But actually, I like the sound of that. Values are second nature to us. They are what really makes us who we are. But plans are totally different.  One definition of a plan is “a detailed proposal to complete something”. Those are the things I do all the time! But it can also mean an “intention or desire to do something”. An “intention”, that sounds simply like an idea. Sometimes our plans are unrealistic. It is possible to create an unrealistic plan, I know I have done it. But if you are willing to think of your plan, even if it is a detailed proposal, as an “intention”, it might be easier to rethink it.

None of us likes to be a quitter (“a person who gives up easily or does not have the courage or determination to finish a task”). It never sounds good. But sometimes creating a new frame around reconsidering an action can allow us to see it in a new way. There are times when sticking with something can be a sign of stubbornness. Other times, we can be complacent. We decide to stick with something because we don’t want to spend time creating a Plan B. Stubborn and complacent don’t sound that great either, do they?

How many people do you know that are unhappy with their current job? They go through the motions, complaining about their lot in life or their boss. But ask them “why do you keep doing it then?” and you get an amazed look. I encounter the same thing with people looking for a new job. Are they stubborn? Complacent? Don’t want to be labeled a quitter?

“Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags. Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws.”

So why don’t we quit? Is it because the word has a negative connotation? Is it because we might have to “admit our flaws” as Grant says? What if we reflected on the phrase “never give up” in a slightly different way? “Never give up” can mean not abandoning your values, but instead moving on from a bad situation. You aren’t “giving up”, you are letting go so you can grow elsewhere.