Stepping Stones: a meditation on the nature of creativity

Today's post is very short. That's because I want you to spend less time reading and more time reflecting on what you've read. For the reading allow about 60 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to spend ten times that long, ten minutes in this case, reflecting.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the danger of Maslow's Hammer; the tendency for the tools we use to narrow our perspective and leave us blinkered, rigid, and predictable.

This brings us to the single hardest problem for creativity:

  • We use tools to help us express creativity
  • Over time we get better at using the tools
  • The better we get the more we rely on the tools
  • The more we rely on the tools the worse we get at expressing creativity

In my view it's wrong to think of creativity as a set of skills or tools. I see creativity as a relationship, a way of existing in the world. People who have a strong relationship with creativity are somewhat like children, driven by curiosity, open to change; keeping a beginners mind, ready to receive. Tools can help us to achieve this relationship but they aren't a substitute for it.

Where last week I shared the intellectual basis for this argument, this week I want to share with you a meditation that I find helps me both to understand this idea more deeply and to communicate it more clearly; I call it 'Stepping Stones'.

Stepping Stones

If we want to get to the other side of a deep, fast flowing river, it would be very risky to try to swim unaided! Instead we look for stepping stones leading to the other side.

With each stone we come closer to where we're going. The stones feel solid and safe but the river is rushing past and, with each moment, a stone might slip and we might fall in!

It's wise to use the stones but it's foolish to stand on them for too long. Remember our confidence will only grow until the moment we fall.


Hard Not Complicated Tips

A new thing I'm trying out is to have a weekly theme for my communications and split my Monday, Wednesday and Friday communications to address that theme in different ways.

On Monday I talked about how I'm using visualisation to set and stick to long term goals. Pop back and read it if you haven't yet.

Today I want to offer some quick tips on how to do this better.

One: Make it emotional

Visualisations work by stimulating us emotionally. If we want data to back up logical decision making we don't need a visualisation, we need a spreadsheet and a bunch of charts. A strong visualisation needs to be an emotional kick in the arse.

Pro-emotional tip – emotions exist in the body, not just the brain. Maybe that's why we call them "feelings"? If a visualisation doesn't make you feel something physically then it's not emotional enough. Use embodied emotions meditation techniques to tune your ability to feel emotions in your body and ensure your visualisations are powerful enough to stimulate them.

Two: Keep it simple

A picture paints a thousand words so you don't need anything complicated. A great visualisation needs to be at your fingertips, mentally speaking, and ready to go in a moment. If it takes you hours to survey your scene then you won't use it often enough to be helpful.

If your goal doesn't lend itself to simple visualisation in a literal way, consider metaphor and the use of personas. Imagine yourself as a King or Queen, see yourself standing on the moon. The picture can have meanings that are figurative which allows you to pack even more meaning and emotional punch into something you can bring to mind in moments.

Three: If it isn't working, change it

Sometimes a visualisation seems wonderful at first but if you find it stops working over time it may be that your goals have moved on or your emotional triggers have changed. Maybe the visualisation was more powerful for its novelty than anything else.

Don't be afraid, in these circumstances, to change what you use. Try, first, tweaking one or two elements. See if this makes the visualisation more or less powerful. If you change too many things at once it will be harder to know what is and isn't helping.

On Friday I'll be sending out my weekly newsletter which will link back to this and Monday's blog as well as offering extra tidbits, news about what Sabre Tooth Panda is up to and more. If you'd like to find out more about being creative the Hard Not Complicated way, go to to sign up for our newsletter and get a free thirty minute consultation.

Life’s Snapshot

I’m working on a rather longer piece at the moment, inspired by my favourite villains, both of tv and film, and from literature old and new. I’m writing about the lessons in success we can learn from them and why the hero might not be the best role model if you want to live a proactive life. But as I write this I wanted to share an insight that I’ve already put to use. I call it The Littlefinger Rule.

This bit may contain spoilers. Little ones.

Last week millions of people watched the finale of Game of Thrones Season Six. And while most probably spent the following days wondering about the implications of Jon Snow’s true parentage or anticipating the epic battles that are surely on their way now that The Queen of Dragons is crossing the Iron Sea, I spent them rethinking my life.

That’s because of this one short speech delivered by Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in conversation with Sansa Stark.

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make this picture a reality, pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by side.

My immediate thought was that this is some strong long term planning technique; of each thing ask if it really contributes to your long term goal. But then, on further reflection, I realised the true genius of one of GoT’s most mysterious villains – the simplicity of the image.

When you ask people about what they want in life, and this is certainly the case for me, they will usually give you a list of things. A nice house, a happy family, a good job, a new car, fancy holidays, close friends, etc. Unlike Littlefinger most people aren’t as single minded in their aims. But, of course, this nuance comes with a cost.

While Littlefinger can summon, in seconds, a rich, emotionally powerful image that unambiguously sums up his principal motivation, I realised that I could not. For me it took a good couple of minutes to think through my life goals and even longer to work them into strong images to which I had a powerful emotional response. What I realised was this:

  • If you can’t see it in a snapshot, it’s too complicated for your monkey brain.

This leads us to a tricky problem: how do you sum up in a single snapshot a complicated set of goals. While sitting on the Iron Throne and ruling the Seven Kingdoms comes with an obvious image right from the start, I realised that for me and my goals, what I needed were metaphors.

So over the weekend I sat down with my wife and we talked about what I want out of my life. We talked about my goals and aims, the things that worry me or upset me and the things I wish to overcome. In the end we managed to narrow it all down to four areas:

  1. Health – my physical, emotional and mental wellbeing
  2. Adventure – living a full and exciting life with learning and new experiences
  3. Love – being a good friend and loved one to those around me
  4. Work – providing for myself and my family with meaningful employment

For each of these areas I wrote down a short, 100 words or so, description based on what this state would look and feel like. But even these were too complicated to translate to simple snapshots that could be called upon in a moment. Too detailed to be emotionally punchy.

As a final step I decided to create personas – metaphorical states that could represent the wider meaning of each life goal. I’d like to share those with you now.

  1. Aran the Beach Bod – I’ve never been entirely comfortable with my body. When I imagine myself as the picture of health and fitness the image of me, on a beach, untroubled by being in public semi naked(!) is about as powerful an emotional driver I can come up with. In this image I see sports equipment and maybe even a surfboard. This is an Aran who is healthy and confident.
  2. Aran the Warrior Monk – Bold, outward facing action mixed with a deep inner life. In this snapshot I imagine myself dressed in some Asian inspired robes, carrying a staff. Again I’m outside, with others but not tethered to anything or anyone. In this image I see freedom and adventure, learning and self expression. This is an Aran who lives a full life.
  3. Aran the Zen Dad – I’m not a father yet but I know that, when I am, this will be the biggest personal challenge of my life. So when I think about being a good friend and loved one it’s in the role of a dad that this idea is most profound. In this snapshot, a simple image compared to the first two, I’m a little older, a little calmer, I see a man who is ready and able to be there for those around him. I’m in my home which is a welcoming and loving place and there’s my child who represents something joyful, not pressure and not fear. This is an Aran who can be there for others because he’s centred in himself.
  4. Aran the Guru Coach – this one is simple. When I think about my work, when I imagine any scene in which I am delivering services to anyone, what I see in this snapshot is a coach and since I find Eastern spiritualism so rich in interesting images, I use the word Guru to bring to mind a calm wisdom. In this scene I am in a room with a group of people, sitting in a circle. There are ideas flashing here and there, suprising and exciting thoughts and insights, and I quietly help the thinking, gently nudge, reflect and challenge. When I see this snapshot I feel good. I feel right. And I know this is the Aran I need to be in my work.

Littlefinger only has one image in his mind when he thinks about his future. But he’s a villain in a TV show which makes his life a little simpler. Now I have four images to work with so my rather less eloquent speech would go something like this:

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same four pictures. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make these pictures a reality, pull them out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. Pictures of me as a Beach Bod, a Warrior Monk, a Zen Dad and a Guru Coach.

OK, it’s not quite must see TV, but it works for me.

What about you?

  • Can you sum up your major goals in simple, powerful, emotionally meaningful snapshots?
  • Can you connect with these snapshots strongly enough that they can deeply move you now, changing what you choose to do?
  • How rich is your image of the future, metaphor, persona or literal?

I’d love to hear from you and happy to answer any questions you have about motivation, creativity, coaching and change.

Pity Isn’t Kindness

Last week I had an epiphany somewhere between Kings Cross and Russell Square. This moment was deeply emotional. I felt great relief, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. You see, I had realised, for the first time in my life, that I didn't need to solve all the problems in the world.

I should back up a little.

I don't know when it started. It may have been when I was a child and I realised that I got a lot of approval for being clever. Perhaps it was during my parents' divorce when it seemed to me that the world of grownups had let me down and only I, eleven year old me, could sort it all out. Because I was clever, you see.

Perhaps it came later. Perhaps it was a range of things. But I do recall feeling, for as long as I can remember, that somehow the world was a mess and that if only I was clever enough I should be able to fix it.

Writing this down it immediately seems absurd. No one person can fix the world. Absurd or not, this has been a feeling that has nagged at me. A pressure that I've put on myself – to always be the one with the answers.

This pressure has not been good for me. In fact, I realise now that it has been behind a lot of the fears that have dogged me. You see, the chain of wonky logic goes like this.

  • The world needs me to fix it
  • Therefore the world is filled with suffering people who are helpless
  • But I am not strong enough to fix the world
  • So maybe I'm just like them – helpless
  • I could end up like them… suffering and unable to fix it!
  • The world is scary and sad

I said the logic was wonky but it is logic, given the view of the world that I held in my head. This belief that all that stood between me and helpless suffering was blind luck kept me afraid, seeking to ignore the darkness in the world for fear that I was looking at my future.

But, you might be thinking, you're a coach! How can you be a coach and believe the world is hopeless? Isn't that antithetical? Well, yes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is what has attracted me to the coaching concept. I think, deep down, the idea that this is a discipline that believes utterly in the ability of each person to fix his or her own problems, called to me because it's what I wanted to believe.

Perhaps it's because I've spent so long now actively working to build this new way of thinking that my epiphany came about. This is what happened.

I saw an advert. The advert was seeking low paid workers, filling unskilled jobs. And I felt a pang of sadness. I thought about people who were only able to get work like that. I thought about times in my life when I've had to take on work that was boring and poorly paid. And I felt pity for the people who still had to work these sorts of jobs, and with it a little twinge of fear; there but for the grace of god go I.

And then I remembered a comedy sketch, of all things, in which David Mitchell played a middle class man wracked with guilt every time he came into contact with someone he felt was in a demeaning or low prestige position. Robert Webb played said persons and the entire thing highlighted how unfair it was to think that way. To look at people with pity. I saw myself in that comedy sketch and I was ashamed.

Instead of just feeling ashamed, however, I asked myself what I could do about it. I decided to force myself to look at the people around me and instead of seeing all the potential pain, look at all the potential joy. So I looked and I tried to imagine everyone on the tube, everyone in the stations, everyone on the street, being OK.

I realised, when I let pity become my overarching emotions, that I was counting only the negative elements and that's why I felt so dark. But someone in a shitty job situation isn't just someone with a shitty job. That person has family and friends, interests and hobbies, can dance and play and hug and listen to music and read books. I realised that I was looking at the darkness and ignoring the light. What's more, someone who can hug and play and dance and love, that person can also think and hope and strive. Someone who is a full, rounded human, not just an object of pity, is empowered. That person doesn't need me to solve his or her problems. They just need me to believe in them.

And then something switched in my head. A moment of clarity and relief. Finally I had let go of my need to always be the hero. I'd stopped putting myself under that pressure and chosen, instead, to believe in people. That was my moment of epiphany. That was my breakthrough.

They say, when you learn to be a coach, that your first and most challenging client is always yourself. The more I continue on this journey the more I see that this is the case. I believe I'm a little different to the person I was last week. I believe this difference will help me to be a better coach, a better friend and a happier person. And every day I try to take a moment to remember this difference. Reminding myself of the moment, how it felt and what it meant.

Because, even though it looks quick from the outside, instant change always happens gradually and, despite the desire for clever tricks, making it stick is hard, but it isn't complicated.

Storytelling and The Real World

One of the techniques I use with my clients is storytelling. Often this is seen as a good way to understand a business model or come to terms with a team dynamic. But for me the most powerful use of this exercise aligns with one of my core principles.

Creativity Happens Now

Having a strong relationship with creativity means a lot of things. It means applying a playful curiosity to life, expressing an attitude of generosity and selflessness, rejecting blame and promoting an environment of safety and tolerance; tolerance for change, ambiguity and conflict.

But all of these elements fall apart if we lack the presence of mind to apply the right behaviours at the right times. The right response five minutes too late is an empty victory.

This is where storytelling comes in.

The meaning of life

We live in a complex world. Stories are how we make sense of it. That’s why we write literature and tell tales. Stories are the map we use to navigate reality. As we go through our days, stories help us decide what things mean.

Meaning is the point.

Actions are triggered by stimulus. This is how cause and effect works. But humans don’t just respond to stimulus directly in the way that an unconscious substance reacts to another. Humans take information and turn it into meaning and then we respond to that. That’s why the same stimulus creates a different response under different circumstances. A tender kiss on the cheek from a loved one makes us feel good. A tender kiss on the cheek by a stranger on the bus… Not so much.

Meaning is the difference. And since stories help us decide what things mean it follows that more powerful stories help us to discern meaning more rapidly and more accurately when the moment comes.

Tell a better story

By getting better at storytelling we can equip ourselves with a powerful tool for guiding our own attention. If you consistently tell yourself stories, build rich mental models of the world you are moving through, you are more likely to notice things that are out of the ordinary.

Out of the ordinary things are frequently creative opportunities waiting to happen.

Richer stories also prevent a narrowing of focus or what psychologists call Cognitive Tunnelling; when focus narrows and we are unable to see anything but the most obvious information.

Non-obvious information is often the answer to a creative challenge.

Train your own internal narrator

When I was a kid I loved narrators in films and TV. They always knew what was going on and got to make snarky quips while remaining aloof from it all. Come to think of it, that probably explains a lot of my problems! But on the upside it meant that I would frequently imagine myself narrating my own day, telling stories in my head about what I was doing and what I was going to do.

This habit has stayed with me. I often play through conversations I am about to have or build rich scenarios in my head about potential futures. This richness of mental model helps me to notice the unexpected.

So if you think that storytelling is only for marketers, infant school teachers and the mid term planning meeting then I have news for you: storytelling is a tool that you can use every day and that you should use every day.

At Sabre Tooth Panda I offer storytelling workshops as part of the Hard Not Complicated method. Not only does it help solve immediate problems but, as part of a Daily Practice for creativity, storytelling can help us be present in the real world.

The Dirty Old Mirror

Over the next week or so I’ll begin sharing a range of Field Guides that I’ve written, designed for use by individuals and, hopefully, consumable without the need of any additional support, that will guide you through the process of using the Hard Not Complicated approach to creativity in your personal and professional life.

During the process of writing these Field Guides I noticed a tension building in me. There was something I was trying to achieve that I didn’t feel I was reaching. Something unspoken. While meditating yesterday I had a realisation, suddenly I could see what was at the heart of my concerns. I had allowed an assumption to creep in. A belief of sorts. And the statement was this:

“These writings should constitute a complete, one pass solution, from start to finish.”

I had never consciously chosen this goal nor examined this belief. It crept up on me. This goal, this belief, was unachievable. Certainly for me! I concede that there may be a writer out there able to produce a work of such subtle complexity that simply by reading it from start to finish the consumer would come to a complete, life changing and irreversible realisation of absolute truth. Alas I am not that writer.

And besides, my entire approach to change is built on the antithesis of this idea. Change isn’t a one pass activity. Real change happens when we choose, repeatedly, to focus on and work on something.

Armed with this insight I was able to let go of this overwhelming and unreasonable pressure. I felt a lightness and clarity which, on further contemplation, I developed into a visualisation that I’d like to share with you.

Imagine that you’ve just take up residence in a beautiful old country house with wide, open grounds around it, left to you by some wealthy distant relative. On your second day you decide to pause the unpacking and explore some of your new home. In an old outhouse you find some bits and pieces, some old chairs, some pieces of art. And under a pile of dusty, dirty rags, a beautiful old mirror in a brass frame.

You bring the mirror indoors and set it on the kitchen table. It’s covered in layers of grime and dust, you’re probably the first to see it in years. You grab a jiffy cloth and a glass cleaning spray and begin to clean.

At first all the happens is you smear the dirt this way and that. But you don’t give up. Gently you wipe the glass. Time after time, wiping away the layers of dirt. Sometimes you come across a particularly stubborn patch, giving it some extra attention until the crud breaks down and wipes away.

Again, and again you wipe the surface and gradually the shinning mirror finish begins to show through. You see your nose, distorted at first through a smudge, and then clear. Then your eyes and your eyebrows. A few more wipes and you can see your mouth, then your chin. Finally your entire image is clear, beaming back at you from the pristine surface.

This process, cleaning a dirty old mirror, is very much like the process of real change. If you’d taken a chisel to the mirror and tried to crack through the layers of dirt, all the way through to the glass in one go, well that wouldn’t end well.

Real change happens when we focus on a gradual process of learning. Sometimes it won’t feel as if anything is changing. Sometimes parts of the process will happen more slowly than others. Some parts will require more focused attention while other parts will come easily. But all you need to do is keep working away, steadily and with purpose.

When you come to work through the Daily Practice Field Guide for the first time it might be tempting to try to take a chisel and get to the very bottom of it in one go. The pervasive ideal of one shot redemption, the grand, world changing realisation or life altering moment of clarity, makes us yearn for those moments. I don’t know if they exist, and if they do they’re rare and unreliable. Far better to place your faith not in miracles but in your own strength and perseverance.

Begin by finding one authentic insight and follow it with curiosity and and open mind. Then, when you’re ready, come back and repeat the process. As time goes by, with each pass, you’ll see more of yourself, reveal more and understand more. Change is a process. Like cleaning a dirty mirror, every pass, however gentle, brings you closer to seeing the complete picture.