Action is Art, Art is Action

I hope this note finds all of my clients, friends, and visitors doing well during this busy post-election/holiday season. For many of us, the recent (and upcoming) weeks are ones that have and will test our patience, our bonds, and our hopes for the future.

I recently wrote a post on Psychology Today about post-election grieving. It stirred a mix of emotions, but eventually I had to turn off the commenting feature because the inflammatory responses were distracting readers from the positive intent of the article. You can read it here: Post-Election Grief and Resilience

Then last week I came across the stirring quote below by author Toni Morrison and it felt like the perfect companion to my article. And today, as I take a break from hanging a few antique paintings I picked up recently at estate sales, I wanted to share it with you.

With her message of art, inspiration, and action I wish you all a peaceful and productive week. I wish the same as you come together with loved ones this holiday season. I wish the same as you navigate this uncharted political landscape. And I wish the same as you step into a new year that is full of possibilities.

To you and yours, a peaceful, productive, and inspired year ahead!

 Toni Morrison - by Angela Radulescu (originally posted to Flickr as Toni Morrison (1)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Toni Morrison - by Angela Radulescu (originally posted to Flickr as Toni Morrison (1)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

"This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art."

Read the rest of the article at Brain Pickings

 Don't you just love a good estate sale find?

Don't you just love a good estate sale find?

A Good Old Fashioned Kick In The Shorts

 iStockPhoto

iStockPhoto

As we become more practiced and experienced at our craft — whether we’re writers, artists, therapists, or bricklayers — we gradually develop our style and method. Some develop their identity quickly, but most of us have to work diligently and constantly refine our skills. Seldom do you hear of an accomplished professional who is 100% happy with their final product. Always room for improvement and never enough time to practice.

I leave my old blog posts on Psychology Today because, however unpolished some of them now seem, I want to recall how my writing has grown. Striving for better but not expecting perfection, because that’s an unrealistic and disappointing pursuit. That’s a message I have to tell myself over and over when the instinct is to only publish a perfect piece. Here’s what I was writing about two years ago:

 10 Stereotypes of Mental Health Professionals @ Psychology Today

If you’re an aspiring creative or any kind of professional who is just getting started, remember the top piece of advice from those who’ve come before you: you don’t necessarily need innate talent to be successful– it’s consistent time and effort paired with a willingness to learn from your mistakes that yields the best results. That’s probably not news to you.

Putting it into practice is a different matter altogether. Yet it’s practice that sets successful people apart. I doubt I could list all of the hobbies and interests that I dropped quickly because I didn’t want to put in the time to practice. Piano, drums, 35-mm photography, fly tying… I guess I did become skilled at something: buying supplies and selling them a few months later.

So how do we become better at practicing? How do we stay consistently interested and motivated? These topics are why I love studying the lives of successful creatives. From the writers who put in hours of word time every single morning to the painters who didn’t have a public exhibit until after retirement, from them I take lessons that I can incorporate into my coaching with other creatives. There is a science to motivation and success, but it’s not a perfect science. We learn what works and then we try it on for size. Everyone’s process of practice and growth is different.

So I encourage you aspiring creatives out there to look to those who’ve come before you. Learn their habits and keep practicing until you find a system that works for you. If you’re a writer, read and write. If you’re an artist, draw and visit galleries. Maybe you need to find an accountability partner who will hold you to reporting on your progress. Maybe you need to make a commitment to go public with your work so that you have a deadline to meet and an audience waiting.

Of course I might be biased, but I also suggest hiring a coach! And if you do work with a coach, make a commitment to allow that coach to lead you into action rather than getting stuck in the discussion. Coaching is a wonderful environment for brainstorming and exploration, but talking can become a comfortable place where we get stuck because we’re not willing to start acting.

Does Passion Equate To Career Choice? Two Artist Case Studies.

Artists practice their craft because they foremost have a deep need to create and express. Some people discover such a passion and stick with it regardless of recognition or pay. Some feel like they have not, and perhaps never will, stumble onto that one strong passion. There tends to be a lot of pressure to find our one true passion and morph it into a high paying job. But does it have to be so? Have we somehow failed if we reach retirement having never turned our craft into a career?

There is intrinsic value/reward in finding a hobby or passion and it’s healthy to pursue interests regardless of financial gain or end result. Often times people don’t want to ‘mix business with pleasure.’ They are perfectly content working a day job and then practicing their craft in their spare time. Two Chicago artists have posthumously gained critical acclaim in recent years for doing just that.

 Henry Darger photo via Wikipedia

Henry Darger photo via Wikipedia

Henry Darger was a reclusive janitor living in a tiny studio apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Outside of work, Darger entered into his imaginary world of the Vivian Girls and the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm. Upon his death, caretakers discovered a realm of the unrealin Darger’s apartment- an enormous collection of artwork and a fictional tome of over 19,000 typed pages. His works are now on display at major museums throughout the country and he’s the subject of a full-length documentary.

Not far from Darger’s world, Vivian Maier was a nanny in Chicago who took upwards of 100,000 photos during her lifetime. Nobody realized she’d created such an immense body of work until her photos were discovered in an unpaid storage locker. Now she’s the subject of a major photography exhibition and the subject of an upcoming documentary (watch the trailer below).

 Vivian Maier via Wikipedia

Vivian Maier via Wikipedia

There’s a great mystique and profound respect surrounding these Chicagoans– neither of whom ever lived to see their fame. Neither of whom sought it in the first place.

UPDATE: If you’ve been following the Vivian Maier story, check out this podcast by WBEZ Chicago about legal process determining who rightfully owns her work.

This is the official trailer for the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. A film unraveling the life of the now famous Vivian Maier and John Maloof's journey to piece together Maier's past.

How To Complete (or Junk) An Unfinished Project

(I originally wrote this article for the website Pick The Brain.)

wood_project

So that brilliant new idea that washed over you in a hot rush of genius? It didn’t feel so hot once you put in a few hours. That big assignment that you fueled with caffeine and shook your finger at pointedly? It paid no mind to your stern threats of completion. You’re left sitting at your desk (your couch) with a cold keyboard, a warm remote, and a stomach full of gummy bears.

We right-brainers, project-non-completers, and coffee-hoisters know all too well how the thrill of a spark gets dampened by time and our inner-critic. What yesterday felt like a breakthrough in human ingenuity, today feels like yet another unfinished project; or worse, just another dumb idea.

If we were all lucky enough to have a tiny bobblehead life coach stuck to the dashboard of our brains, she would likely remind us at this point that there are no dumb ideas. That if we’d just organize our desk and buy more file folders, our workflow and carry-through would breed and spawn into a litter of completed projects.

But Project Runway just ended, there isn’t a life coach around for miles, and this puppy is due at 9 a.m. So here’s what you do:

Step 1.  Think of this pause in your motivation as the best gift ever. The gift of reevaluating what you’re doing in the first place, and why. What’s the point of this project? How did you feel when you envisioned it? And what will be the intrinsic reward when it’s completed?

I wish I could say that all projects, by virtue of their being birthed in your brain parts, are worth carrying through to completion. Sorry, my cheery optimism can’t come out and play right now. Take the time to evaluate if this project is still worth your time. If your job or grade depends on it, it’s probably worth your time. If you are obsessed with it, your passion deserves attention.

However, if this is just some wayward invasive seed that got rooted in your brain, yank it out and toss it in the composter. You have too many big ideas to get distracted by something small and weedy. No guilt, just let it go. If there’s something about the concept that’s intoxicating but not right for this moment, you won’t be able to junk it. Trust that instinct, jot down enough of the idea that it will jog your memory later, and file it away in your banker’s box of transient schemes. That way you’re respecting your new ideas by giving them a home, yet also respecting the backlog of ideas that are waiting for some love.

Step 2.  If you determine the project is worth your current effort, it’s time to silence your mind and sit with this baby for awhile. Nurture it, sing to it softly, and don’t drop it on its head.

First, try holding up a stop sign to all those self-critical voices that are popping up as you try to get your work done. I mean this (almost) literally. Picture a stop sign and flash it in front of your mind’s eye — that inner-critic Cyclops — every time he tries to stomp on your project. Stop worrying about how much work is left. Stop telling yourself it’s just too damn hard. Keep flashing the stop sign every time you see a jaywalking critic. “Hey jerky, can’t yeh see I’m walkin’ here!”

If this all becomes too much, STOP “working” altogether and just sit in silence for 15 minutes. This is meditation and this works. You need to give it a rest. Set a timer for 15 minutes and let the clouds float by in your brain. When time is up, clean up any clutter on your workspace, rearrange your materials in front of you, and try working again. Do not think about reaching the end. Do not think about the enormity of the project. You already know all about ends and enormities, so Stop. Then go.

Step 3.  Stay fully present in the moment and then type one word. Draw one line. Once you’ve written one word, or one sentence, concentrate on writing one more. Concentrate on putting in one minute of work. Then one more minute. You’re breaking down the enormity of a task into the smallest pieces you can handle at any given moment. You can only do what’s now, so focus on the tree rather than the forest. Momentum will build.

Step 4.  If Step 3 doesn’t work — you’re sitting there for 10 minutes and nothing is happening but frustration — get up and do something “light” for 5 minutes. Don’t get distracted with a new task. Do not turn on the T.V. or get sucked into the Internet! Just grab a snack or a breath of fresh air and come back. What we don’t want to do is train the brain to run away every time it’s frustrated. But we also don’t want you sitting at the desk stuck in snowballing desperation. Strike a balance between stepping away to recharge and pushing through the discomfort of worker’s block. Push-through and stick-to-itiveness will build up your project-completing willpower and confidence.

Side note: Trust your instinct. There are probably two voices (at least) in your head that will help guide you toward the right decision. One will probably say “If I take a smart break now, it will help me prepare for good work when I return.” The other voice will say “Enough! You’ve taken fifteen dumb breaks, no more excuses, just do the work!”

Step 5.  (Contingency Plan). Get the hell out of there! For some reason that I’m sure someone somewhere knows the answer to, there’s something magical about working from a coffee shop rather than an office. There’s also this horrible long-standing myth that all good work must be created at a cold hard desk. If you’re not getting your work done at point A, find a warm and cozy point B and repeat steps 1 through 4.

Once you’re absorbed in your project, maintain the momentum by not responding to distractions. Stop taking the short breaks that will interrupt your flow. You may not eat again for hours, weeks! But who cares as long as you get the project done. And you will.

Postscript: Some of these ideas may seem very simple and obvious to you. But have you actually practiced a new behavior to boost your productivity? If you need your behavior to change, you need to actually change your behavior. By keeping this process simple, you can focus more time on your project at hand and less time learning all the productivity strategies out there that allegedly take you to the finish line.