Think Like a Kid: Get Sh*t Done

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

– Pablo Picasso

By asking “why?” Edwin Land’s daughter unknowingly sparked the idea for instant film cameras.

Edwin Land dreamt up the Polaroid camera after his 3-year-old daughter asked him why she couldn’t see her photo right away. Repeatedly asking “why” as kids often do, Land’s daughter demonstrated the natural curiosity youngsters use to make sense of the world around them; and she unknowingly sparked an idea for the instant film camera that would decades later become the inspiration for Instagram.

Some adults need a little extra push to be creative. Once we’ve matured, maintaining curiosity and a thirst for knowledge isn’t as easy because our frontal cortex has developed, allowing us to use rules to govern our behavior. By the time we’ve grown, many of us have replaced wonder with the web, and daydreaming with data. Unlike children, who are creative with ease and without a filter, adults are more calculated, and thus must actively pursue creativity.

For entrepreneurs and business owners, creativity is more vital than ever due to the rapid pace of innovation, and falling behind the herd has the potential to be painfully visible. This is where personal growth comes in.

Is creativity worth the investment?

Companies are embracing employee personal growth not only for the health and happiness of their team, but as an employee retention tool and a way to grow the business.

Google University, home of the Googlers

In 2008, Google began offering its employees courses at the School of Personal Growth at Google University, “… to develop Googlers as whole human beings on all levels: emotional, physical, mental and spiritual.” With instructors like neuroscientist Philippe Goldin and poet/Zen priest Norman Fischer, Google hoped to improve the brainstorming capabilities and leadership qualities of its team, one individual at a time — a feat backed by expert suggestions that emotional intelligence is vital to leadership, and that when teams are relaxed, they are more creative.

Clearly, this information could be tremendously beneficial for business owners who want to get better work out of their teams, so I decided I’d share my findings. But if I was to write about creative growth in the workplace, wouldn’t it be hypocritical of me if I didn’t practice what I preach?

I remember during my last year teaching English in Thailand, a friend passed me the best-selling book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. She had been using the book to recover her own creativity, and swore by its effectiveness.

“Be prepared to shock yourself with your own originality,” she said. Personal growth meant I’d have to invest real, valuable time — time I wasn’t willing to designate — so I filed “The Artist’s Way” in the “someday” section of my brain and didn’t think about it again until this summer.

Now, as I prepared to embark on a quest for creative growth, and to validate what I’d learned from businesses and entrepreneurs who take personal growth very seriously, I tracked down a copy of “The Artist’s Way” and challenged myself to try the first week in Cameron’s “creative recovery” program while also seriously examining my workplace and its approach to team member well-being. Here’s what I learned:

Encouragement is everything.

 

Creative encouragement should not only come in the form of money. This just won’t work. Employees are actually encouraged more by the emotional intelligence of their leadership, as I mentioned before. In his book “What Makes a Leader” Daniel Goleman suggests that emotional intelligence is actually twice as important as intellect and cognitive skills, and that is evident through demonstrated self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation.

Basically, encourage your employees by showing them you care about their growth. This may come in the form of one-on-one walks (instead of seated meetings), book clubs, or the encouragement of creative clubs or volunteer opportunities. Companies can hold talent shows or platforms where team members can showcase their creativity. You could even showcase employees’ creative projects in a section of your monthly newsletter!

“Positive Affirmations”

Julia Cameron encourages creating positive affirmations to be said daily, calling upon old “champions of creative self-worth” (like encouraging instructors from school, for example), and to recall moments in the past where your creativity was crushed. According to Cameron, identifying your own negative beliefs about creativity (“If I follow my instincts to lead a creative life, I will never have any real money”) it’s easier to turn them into positive affirmations to recover a “sense of safety.”

At The Newsletter Pro, we encourage creativity in every aspect of the newsletter process, so this part of the challenge wasn’t a huge issue for me, creatively. Discussions are real, transparent, and positive. Writers take breaks to mad-lib and keep our minds moving. Designers hold cartoon contests. Project managers play communication games to relax and stay fresh. We “collaborate to innovate” as a core value, and particularly amazing work is showcased and applauded.

I’ve found myself in other companies, however, with a less-than encouraging approach to ingenuity, and it showed in almost all aspects of the business, from morale and burnout to plummeting KPIs, and even unresolved conflict among team members.

To take it even further than high fives and public recognition, leadership must make creative growth opportunities widely available to the whole team, if not part of their everyday tasks.

Let them learn.

 

Individuals in the company who are provided opportunities for self-growth will be much more likely to innovate. This is where investment comes in.

FactSet Research Systems is a great example of a company investing in opportunities for employees to better themselves. The financial information provider in Connecticut embraces the philosophy “Businesses don’t grow. People do.” The company encourages employees with a healthy bonus system, personal-growth benefits, free lunch, health coverage by the company at 90%-100%, and even healthy living incentives like memberships to gyms, weight watchers, and nutritional counseling. The company has seen steady growth over the years, and attributes that growth, in part, to the investment in their employees.

“Morning Pages”

According to Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, journaling has been shown to increase work performance.

The first investment Cameron suggests is one of time and habit.

Morning Pages requires waking up 30 minutes early every day in order to write three full pages in a stream of consciousness to get creativity moving. These pages are meant to be handwritten and completed daily, without excuses.

Although morning pages are meant to be a sort of meditation rather than a record, at its core, a team member’s “personal growth” for the sake of creativity is just that: it’s personal. I talk with entrepreneurs and business owners nearly every day, and many business owners I interview keep journals in an attempt to stay on top of progress and to hold themselves accountable for how they spend their time. I’ve noticed a common desire among business owners to keep track of habits and maintain a personal awareness in order to move forward professionally. And they’re onto something. In fact, journaling has been shown to increase work performance, according to Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile.

This part of my process was at once both the most difficult and the most useful. On the first day, I recall writing a lot of words that cursed the morning and waking up early, and Julia Cameron for forcing me to write before having coffee.

That being said, by the end of the week I was enjoying spilling out of bed to write, and with the sloppiness left safely in my notebook, I began to feel more prepared to write when I arrived at work. If the simple habit of journaling could be adapted to suit your team, I’m willing to bet you’d see an increase in creative output within a few short months.

Remember, ingenuity is active.

 

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play.”

-Albert Einstein

Another big part of creating a safe and relaxed environment is allowing the team to have fun at their work. Julia Cameron maintains that the “inner artist” is like a child. Managers can maintain a creative work environment by promoting curiosity and fun. Throw parties, have contests, play games! At TNP, taking fun seriously is another one of our core values, and we’re not above a good battle of Nerf darts. By keeping the atmosphere light and positive, employees are more comfortable with even their wildest ideas, and will be much more open to sharing them.

This goes back to the idea that when we can tap in to our inner child, creativity flows like Kool-Aid at an 1980s 5th birthday party.

“The Artist Date”

Cameron recommends taking your childlike inner artist on an “artist date” once a week. However, to get the full effect of the artist date, the date must be 100% solo.

Kids are natural explorers.

Have you ever noticed how kids can wander around a new place for hours exploring their surroundings (which could very well be the reason behind the invention of kiddie leash)? How often do you unplug and go out alone without a plan except to enjoy yourself as a grown adult? Cameron recommends taking your childlike inner artist on an “artist date” once a week. These dates can be a trip to a museum, going out to watch kites fly, or simply having a cup of your favorite gelato.

The only rule here is that you do it. And you are not to bring anyone with you, either. The artist date must be 100 percent solo.

Poet Maya Angelou was known to designate time for herself in which she would spend a day away from everything and everyone she knew (another growth technique we’ll discuss shortly). She would wander a city’s streets or public parks, sit in lobbies, and try to forget herself and her responsibilities for an entire day. She defended her alone time as being a key component of productivity, rather than the antithesis of it, saying:

“If we step away for a time, we are not, as many may think and some will accuse, being irresponsible, but rather we are preparing ourselves to more ably perform our duties and discharge our obligations.”

Maya Angelou defended her alone time as being a key component of productivity.

When thinking about the idea of alone time as a means of reflection and creative growth, I think back to where my interest in the matter first began, when I first secured a job as a high school English teacher in Thailand and made the long journey by train to my new home in the rural Southeast.

I had been in a creative slump for over a year at that point, having graduated college in the midst of a recession, and finding my dead-end job and ridiculous Bay Area rent less and less “worth it” every month. So on the first afternoon in my new world, I sat down against the wall in my empty living room and took out my laptop. Other than the gecko on the wall, I was completely alone. With little more than the contents of my suitcase, and without a drop of Wi-Fi, I began to type words.

I had no problem writing several pages, and only stopped when darkness found its way through the window and I started to feel the numbness in my feet from sitting on them. I had made a huge change, and, because of that, much-needed creative things were beginning to happen.

In what she refers to as “filling the well,” Cameron discusses the importance of new imagery and sensory experiences that feed the inner artist. But filling the creative well doesn’t have to be as extreme a sensory experience as packing up and moving to a faraway land. Exposure to new images for your creative mind can happen while driving, listening to music, or walking.

Get Results

I experienced many interesting outcomes since I took up this project a few weeks ago, and I think any team member, in any position, doing any type of personal growth experiment would see similarly positive effects based solely on the idea that holding a mirror up to our habits can initiate the change we need.

These are the most interesting things I’ve noticed thus far:

1. The quality of your work will improve. I received more positive feedback from clients and team members on the content I created. This could have been coincidence, or my own learning curve, but it was interesting to me that a hyper-awareness of my own creativity actually improved the quality of work I was producing.

2. You’ll become more productive. Knowing I would be writing morning pages every day created a greater awareness of my daily thought processes which became progressively more focused and positive as time went on. My on-the-job writing was thus less muddled, and completed with more ease.

3. Work will be more enjoyable. Perhaps a product of the aforementioned outcomes, I became more comfortable with my assignments and systems in place. And with a better sense of freedom, I was less inhibited to think outside the box.

Keep in mind that your company is made up of super capable adult humans who were once curious, naïve little things hanging on to their father’s pant legs asking “why, why, why?” Remember that every inner child needs to be encouraged and supported. You can be the catalyst for your employee’s increased creative energy, which ultimately benefits everyone involved.

“Because I said so.”

Sure, you may not be in a total creative rut, but there may very well be better ways to make innovation in the workplace more encouraged, more comfortable, and certainly more fun.

There’s a way to do it better — find it.

-Thomas Edison

So, you tell me, is it worth the effort?

How does your company nurture employee creative growth?

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