“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert
For those who do creative work, finding the inspiration to be consistently creative can feel a bit daunting—like attempting to summon a mystical creature. When I was younger, I thought that to be an artist I needed to live tumultuous life, defined by a constant pursuit of darkness to contrast the light. At the time, many of my favorite musicians had all died too young, several favorite writers were famous drunks or misogynists, and I believed that people only created when they were dramatically inspired. Write only when your muse has a gun to your head, paint only when the light creates the perfect shadows. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Sure, there are a handful of cases when brilliant artists created exceptional work under these sorts of circumstances. But far more often, creative work is real work. It’s a grind that comes with fits and starts, requires dedication and perseverance, comes with twists and turns that need to be adapted to, and will not wait for the fleeting moment when you’re at your desk, properly caffeinated, able to focus, and sitting with your muse.
In the VUCA world we live and work in, creativity can no longer be conceived as something that only artists have or do. The ability to look at the world and make previously unseen connections, to deviate from the status quo, and to propose new solutions to old problems (or old solutions to new problems), is critical in a wide range of industries and roles today. There’s no time to wait for a muse to show up when a competitor is eating up your market share, and it’s difficult to contemplate the play of shadows when you’ve got 20 emails to respond to.
Routines for Thriving in Change
So, if we all need to be creative at work in some capacity, how can we create the conditions that allow us to be flexible and innovative problem solvers?
Creativity can no longer be conceived as something that only artists have or do.Tweet
Let me give you an example: In the past few months, I’ve lamented on several occasions the idea that I’m not a very visual thinker. I’m a writer, and several of my closest friends are brilliant visual artists, so I often feel inadequate in that department. However, my work requires several tasks that require ensuring things look good. I regularly need to select images, coordinate with graphic designers, and enforce brand standards. Slowly, I’m learning that my challenge is not that “I’m not a visual thinker” and I need to find ways around it—instead, I’m learning to recognize that the visual elements of creativity make me feel uncertain and a bit anxious. So, I double down on those aspects, slowing way down when I need to work on something visual, and questioning it piece by piece. Am I suddenly a prolific designer, or brilliant visual artist? Absolutely not. But I am stretching and strengthening the muscles involved, and getting the job done.
The next step is to identify the routines and rituals that help us stay centered, and protect the time we need for them. Writers often have routines where they will write for certain hours of the day, or until they hit a certain word count. You don’t have to look far to find articles about successful entrepreneurs who follow strict morning routines. It can be as simple as eating the same thing for lunch each day or writing in a journal, or as radical as going offline for days at a time or training for ultra marathons. Establishing the routines that help us perform at our best—and then prioritizing those things—will help us stay sharp and centered for when we need to be creative or flexible.
Our brains are wired to embrace routine, and push back against change. As a result, when we are tasked with dealing with change (which is now almost constantly), relying on those routines that keep us grounded can help us from getting overloaded or burned out. Take a lesson from Flaubert, and be as ordinary and regular as you can in your routines, so that you may be explosive and adaptive when circumstances call for it.
Lastly, be rigorous and stubborn in your vision, and be flexible in your tactics. What is non-negotiable for you? What destination are you moving toward? Whether it’s the mission of your organization, the objectives of your team, or the personal vision that guides you—there is great power in clearly articulating your vision or purpose, and sticking to it. However, you also need to be willing to be flexible in the tactics you use to pursue that vision. Things will come up. Challenges will derail your progress. Keep your true-north vision top of mind, and then be creative about how you get there.
This also means being willing to examine the distance between your intentions and your outcomes, and to adjust as necessary. One of my personal values is to be helpful. The world is a tough place to navigate for everyone, and it’s important for me to take opportunities to help others move through the world. However, I am also coming to terms with the fact that my definition of “helpful” can often be at odds with what other people need. Sometimes the most helpful thing is to sit back and listen instead of trying to jump in with solutions. With the idea of helpfulness as my true north for how I want to live my life, I often have to step back and examine if the tactics I’m using are actually helpful—and adjust if they are not.
We live in a world that places value on productivity above pretty much everything else. And yet, to be able to do great work in a volatile and uncertain world, we need flexibility and creativity. Understand how we can grow our capacity for creativity, identifying the routines that keep us grounded, and getting clear on the values and missions that are non-negotiable, we can all become better prepared to be flexible and creative enough to thrive during times of rapid change.