In 2019, I was invited to speak at the Canteen Youth Leadership Festival on Creativity, Leadership and Being Present. I was a keynote speaker and presented this speech on Saturday 25 August 2019. It was followed by a series of Creativity and Well-Being Workshops. Working with young people affected by cancer as a volunteer and mentor is one the highlights of my career.
“As a leader, I believe that the most important moment in time is right now. Because it’s the only moment over which we have complete control. Yet, we all have trouble staying in the here and now.
Neuroscientists have found that our brains have a way of managing our attention and controlling information overload, and it’s called mind wandering. That’s when you are sitting here looking at me and your thoughts have gone somewhere else. Perhaps you’re thinking about something that happened yesterday or last week or even last year. Maybe you’re worrying about something that might happen tonight.
Neuroscientists say that we are only able to pay attention in the moment, 50% of the time. That’s right 50%. But the good news is that we can train our minds to pay attention. So my challenge to you, should you choose to accept it, today, is when you notice that your body is here but your thoughts have taken a ride to the past or the future, take a deep breath and gently bring your attention back to the present. Because being present has lots of rewards, including reducing stress and helping us manage our emotions. So now that I have your complete attention, I want to tell you some stories about how being present and using creativity has impacted on my life.
I am going to take you on a journey, it starts with an 8-year-old girl. Yes, it starts in my past and it was a long time ago when television was in black and white, and the telephone was attached the wall. Picture this, an 8-year-old girl dressed in pink flannelette pyjamas. She takes her bath towel and wraps it around her like a beautiful shawl. Her face lights up with joy as she dances around the kitchen. “look Mummy” she says, “I’m going to be a famous actress”. The next day she is sitting at the dining room table and it is covered in pictures and stories. “mummy I’m going to be a famous writer” That little girl was me and while the professions she dreamed of becoming changed. There was always a theme. She wanted to be creative. Oh and famous.
Fast forward, 10 years and the young girl is now a young woman, she has been identified as a leader, she is smart and capable and an outstanding organizer. School is nearly over and I am called to a meeting with the career counsellor. We met in a bland grey room in the library, sitting at a white laminated desk and mildly uncomfortable plastic chairs. Mrs Bourgoigne peered over the top of her glasses and said “So Jenny, have you decided what you want to do when you leave school?” I am thinking of course I have. I remember the dreams that I had as an 8 year old girl so I say “I want to do something creative, write or act” Mrs Bourgoigne purses her lips. For one brief moment, I imagine she is going to say “Wow that’s wonderful” buts she doesn’t. She leans forward and says “you are a natural leader and a great organiser, what else would you like to be?” I am pretty smart, I got the message, I had had the same conversation with my parents. So I say “I am thinking about doing Social Work” Mrs B sighs a huge sigh of relief and says that will be a great way to use your talents. So, I wrapped my dreams of being creative in tissue paper and put them away in my cupboard of postponed dreams.
I became a social worker and then a manager and pretty soon I was one of the youngest senior managers in a local council. Fast forward another 20 years and I am married with a son and managing my husband’s business. Give me a project and I could map out the steps, engage the staff and make it happen. On the outside it looked like I had everything I could want in life. But deep down, I wasn’t happy. I was working hard, very hard, balancing lot of responsibilities but I wasn’t taking care of myself. That cupboard of postponed dreams was getting very full. AND My Wellbeing and Self Care Bag was very empty. I was depleted. Some people might say that I was burned out.
A friend of mine gave me a really good analogy. She said you know when you go on an airplane and the staff do the safety talk. They say “In the unlikely event of a decrease in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. if you are travelling with a child or person who requires your assistance, it is important to fit your own oxygen mask before helping someone else” This really resonated with me because for years I had been taking care of other people and starving myself of oxygen.
So I stopped and took stock. Then I went on a quest to put balance back in my life, to nourish my body, mind and spirit. This might sound flakey but it literally changed my life and helped me become a more loving partner, caring mother and a significantly much better boss to our staff. So what did I do? The most important thing that I did was to ask for help. For many years I believed that I could solve my own problems and I needed to find a way to be vulnerable and acknowledge I didn’t have all the answers. The counsellor I saw helped me to pay attention to the stories that I was telling myself in my head about who I was and how I should be in the world. Well, as humans we love to tell stories.
Telling stories is how we organize our world and every day we engage in telling stories to our friends, our family and even to strangers. And most of the time we are also having conversations in our heads The National Science Foundation, has found that an average person has between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts. That is a scary statistic but one I can relate to. Now some negative thoughts are generated in our childhood. When I was a child, everyone said my sister was the creative one. I was smart and responsible. This became a family story. Like rationally as if there was only one creative gene permitted in our family. One creative gene, one smart and responsible gene etc. Seems insane when I say it out loud.
So how did I learn to manage my negative stories.
- Notice First step is to become aware that I am stuck in a negative story loop
- Stop This is a truly life changing tool for me. When I am stuck in negative self-talk, I press the pause button. This gives me perspective.
- Breathe Our breath is the single most powerful tool we have to manage our emotions. It’s something our bodies do automatically but when we are stressed we shallow breathe. This deprives us of oxygen and raises our cortisol levels.
- Review Is this thought true? Is it based on fact?
- Reframe Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves or someone else for their actions and sometimes we need to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. 6. Focus on the external environment. Getting out of our heads and into the outside world is an excellent antidote to stress.
Now I want to talk to you about my two favourite ways to pay attention to the external environment. First is Nature. I grew up in a country town and came to the city to boarding school. So by the time I left school, I was really clear. The country was boring and I was now a city girl. But over the last ten years I regularly find ways to go bush, to walk in nature, whether it’s the park down the street or hiking in the national park or putting a blanket on the grass in my garden and staring at the sky. I make time to be in nature. Connection with nature is not new. Many cultures have long felt a spiritual connection with land and nature. Some cultures believe everything in nature; rocks, streams and trees have a healing power. This is how I feel about nature. When I feel stressed or sick or stuck in negative self talk. I take a walk in nature. There are lots of scientific studies emerging now that find spending time in nature decreases our anxiety, improves mood, increases energy and boosts our immune system.
My other favourite way of focusing on the external environment is through Creativity. Everyone is creative. The fact is when you allow yourself to express yourself in the outside world, you might use your imagination, you might use your body or you might use external materials. I have zillions of ways that I am creative every day from cooking a yummy meal, to singing at the top of my voice in the car, to dancing to my favourite tune. I encourage you all to find ways to be creative by tapping into your imagination. When we do something new and creative, we are waking up different parts of our brains and rewiring our thinking.
BUT while we have lots of ways of being creative, we also have some terrific ways of killing creativity.
- The number one killer is fear. Mostly fear of failure – I’ll draw a picture and everyone will hate it. I’ll write a story and no-one will like it. Susan Jeffers psychologist and author says you have to “Feel the fear and do it anyway”
- Creativity killer number two killer is our internal critic. My internal critic can be fierce and loud. I practice telling my inner critic, thanks for the feedback, but I got this.
- The number three killer is comparing yourself to others. The thing is we are all unique. So we need to remember what ever we create is ours and an expression of who we are.
- The number four killer is the desire for perfection. Yet we can also learn to love our imperfections.
So the two best antidotes to these killers is to find mentors who support and encourage you and to look at your creativity with the eye of appreciation. I have done lots of art and creativity classes. One of my best tutors is my photography tutor, Len Metcalf whose mantra is “find what works”. Artists, creatives, writers can only grow and develop with positive regard. As he says if you concentrate on what works, you build confidence and the work will always improve.
One day I was out taking photos with my class and I had forgotten to take the camera off manual focus. I took a photo that was blurry and out of focus. But I fell in love with the photo. (In fact it the photo that is at the top of this post) I said to my tutor, I made a terrible mistake but I love this photo. He said “Just do more of what you love”. So now I mostly take blurry photos. I am satisfying my desire to be an painter by taking photos that remind me of art works.
So that is one way to spark your creativity – celebrate the mistakes. Some of the greatest life changing achievements in the world happened because of mistakes. Post-it notes, penicillin and artificial sweetener were all discovered By Mistake.
So I want to finish with a story about how I used creativity to help me manage a major challenge in my work life. Seven years ago, my husband I were running our business together. We loved our business but it was getting more and more competitive and small family owned businesses were being squeezed by the big companies. So we decided to sell. This was a hugely emotional decision. Part of the contract of sale was that we had to stay on for 6 months to help with the handover. We felt like we had put our family up for adoption and over that six months, the new owners were changing everything. On top of that our staff were now being loyal to their new bosses, their new parents. We were grieving. We had to find a way to take care of ourselves.
One weekend we headed to the country for a break and while we were there, I googled “creative approaches to management and life transitions” One story I read really resonated with me. A man wrote about a management training course where he was invited to write his life as a fairytale or myth. He said that this experience was very powerful and helped him finding some resolution. So I wrote a fairytale about what was happening to us. There were two characters; the King and Penelope who sold their Kingdom. Every day the King and Penelope stood at the gate and watched as everything they had built up was being torn down. Of course, I reached the point in the story where I was right then, and I had to find a resolution. Now all good fairytales have a wise person or wise object or wise animal that gives sage advice to the main character. In my story, it was a wise woman who said to the King and Penelope that as they had signed the Deed of Land Exchange and received the Pot of Gold, it was time for them to cross the Mountains in search of new lands. It sounds so simple but I was surprised how much of a relief I felt when I finished the story. I felt like the metaphor had given me resolution. The next day, my husband and I sat down and made a plan and took steps to map out our new life after the business. Now writing fairytales and making art and taking photographs are part of my every day life.
My last piece of advice to you comes from Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote a wonderful book on Creativity called Big Magic. In it she said “One of the oldest and most generous tricks that universe plays on human beings is to bury strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can ever find them”
Don’t wait until your 48 to discover the wonderful jewels of creativity buried within each of you.”