Starting with a pattern

Patterns are reassuring. They occur naturally, in the petals of a dahlia, as well as in the manufactured environments that surround us. They are the basis of our material lives: throw pillows, sheets, brick walls, symmetry in the buildings where we work. The stability that we feel in our environments comes from consistency in pattern. Physical patterns come naturally to our eyes and they are appealing both consciously and sub-consciously. We recognize when something doesn't work in our sight. That's the basis of good design: workmanship that doesn't disturb the conscious or sub-conscious of the user. It could be said that good design goes unnoticed because it's so good. Our eye recognizes and accepts it as quality.

Lifestyle patterns, similar to architectural and decorative patterns, can be reassuring. They represent stability. A 9-5 job results in a paycheck every two weeks. It's a preset schedule that ensures productivity. A well-designed lifestyle is one that doesn't disturb the conscious or sub-conscious of the individual. Theoretically, such disturbances could be cured by the introduction of patterns, or habits, and the return of stability.

I realize that repetition is not the cure-all solution to the burdens of life. Patterns, and visual stimuli in general, can do much more than just soothe or reassure, however. How I shape my environment with the things I can control can heavily influence how I feel. What we look at molds who we are, and how we communicate who we are determines how we are. Supposedly, then, good art is the answer to many ails. 

Neuroaesthetics is the study of how brain processes art. In this article from the Smithsonian a summary is given of a study showing that the motor cortex in brains of viewers were activated when exposed to certain images, meaning the viewers had the impulse to mirror the action they saw in the image. That reaction isn't a conscious decision, but rather an automatic response to visual stimuli. 

So what? Well, the visual stimuli that we feed our brain on a daily basis is causing a physical reaction within us. Neural pathways are formed when we encounter new information, and are strengthened through exposure to that information. At least I think that's how our brains work. But going off of that assumption, visual stimuli consistently viewed can change the physiology of our brains! What we look at is all of a sudden a lot more important (go ahead on over to my shop where you can find lots of uplifting art).

What we take in as stimuli is contrasted by what we then communicate. Professor of biology and neuroscience Dave Featherstone says: 

I think one of the most primitive innate needs of humans is to understand the world around us, and then share that understanding....Both artists and scientists strive to see the world in new ways, and to communicate that vision. When they are successful, the rest of us suddenly 'see' the world differently. Our 'truth' is fundamentally changed.

Maybe I like that because it makes me feel good when art is paired with science, but expression is a reflection of our insides- what we know and believe to be true. Communicating that part of ourselves is crucial for us, and likewise affects those who are exposed to our expressions. Think of the power of social media here. First, as a strong visual stimulus that is molding our brain for better or for worse. Then, as a mode of communication, which is essential to who we are.

Paul Holinger writes about three crucial developmental systems: feelings, thinking, and talking. The interaction between these things in the early stages of development have a heavy impact on our futures. He notes the importance of "putting words to a viable form of emotional regulation". He goes on to say that "verbalization (spoken or written) of current emotional experience reduces distress in contrast to no verbalization". 

We regulate our emotion, and I'll say our well-being, by verbalizing our feelings. On the other hand, we become distressed when our feelings are not verbalized. The question ought to be posed, do I give myself enough opportunity to vocalize my feelings? What mode of communication is available to me so that I am able regulate my emotion? I'm sure you can find plenty of posts and podcasts on what you can do to better express yourself.

In this context, social media can be a developmental savior, because all of a sudden everyone has a mode of expression that can quickly be validated by viewers. I think the important factor here is balance: good input paired with a wholesome mode of output.

So, imagery we expose ourselves to can rewire our brains for good. Modes of expression help us regulate our emotions. We all ought to make more and look at more art. Or write in a journal.

Carving Wood

In school, prepping a piece of wood for a carving was my least favorite part of the relief process. I took every possible shortcut, from leaving out a layer of varnish to protect the wood to skipping sanding after I've carved into the surface. I was always eager to dive into printing and get to the end result. 

Now, I'm much more methodical in my approach. Part of the reason is that each progressive step often means a purchase. Where I used to have unlimited ink, I now have a big shipping bill. My conscience feels better when I make many small purchases over a longer period so to have all the necessary things for a project takes time. But money isn't the only reason for the change.

In making a woodcut, as long as I'm prepping the wood, I'm not committing. The wood carries all the potential in the world, and I get to imagine it. As soon as I make the first cut though, the possibilities are limited. The more I carve, the less there is to wonder about, until the wood has finally found its purpose, from which there is no deviating.

I am at a point in my life where the wood is prepped, the sketch is drawn, but instead of cutting I just keep adding varnish. I keep sanding. Somehow there is a safety in staying at the bottom of every ladder, which saves me from finding myself at the top of a ladder which it turns out I didn't want to climb. 

I also have a hard time throwing away (in the recycling of course) paper. Nothing is more useful than scratch paper. Maybe there's a metaphor in that too.

Ironically, the ladder I least want to climb is the one whose view reveals that in the face of all these opportunities, I took none. 

Now, at some point I usually always start to carve, and the print gets finished. But that first cut will always be the most difficult. Without exception there is always that moment right before I do it that feels like I'm standing at a cliff's edge, although I hate heights so I'm much more inclined to cut the wood.

Rooted Happiness

Just recently I've stopped with my 9-5 job and adopted a jigsaw method of income, meaning I'm doing about 5 different things yielding 5 different (often non-existent) paychecks. Now, this wouldn't be possible without a husband who has consigned to wage work (7-5, bless his heart). This little-bit-of-everything approach is not unlike my previous employment in variety, only differing in free time and, consequently, amount earned (not much).

Prompted primarily by a move from a place where I had a job and maintained by the prospect of a baby coming in November, my unemployment has proven both a gift and a curse. Even as I write I feel the need to justify my not working to readers, emphasizing that I stay busy and relatively productive, and that it really doesn't make sense to get a job that I'll quit in three months, and that no one would hire me anyway because of the growth in my uterus...

In other words, it's hard for me not to work. But in actuality I'm least happy when I work, or at least in the jobs that I've had. My husband has diagnosed me with the I'll-Be-Happy-When complex. I'll find fulfillment on the summit of a never-ending mountain. I'm either pining for days free of structure or resenting my minuscule contribution to the family income. 

I've had a happy life. Good things have happened to me. I remember blocks of time in college when I would go to bed thinking that I was truly happy. I was surrounded by friends, I was working hard in my degree, and I was seeing success in the other aspects of my life. To be fair to my current (not unhappy but definitely more stressed) self, there was no "work" in the picture. Financial security came in the form of magic scholarship money that appeared monthly. I had a role to play on a team, I had a close student community where my work was recognized and appreciated.

So what's different now? Carl Jung summarizes happiness in 5 elements. 1. Physical/mental health 2. Good, intimate relationships 3. The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature 4. Good standard of living and satisfactory work 5. A philosophy or religion that helps you cope with life. 

Already, as I read through these things I can see where I was strong then and not so strong now. But I get tired of hearing that I'll be happier when I'm healthier, and when work is fulfilling, and when my spirit is well-fed. That's not specific enough for me.

George Bradt divides the good of happiness into three “goods”. Good for others, good at "it", good for self. I look at my happy college days, and I was a good teammate. I was good at school, and I was very healthy. 

These considerations broke down very clearly for me what a happy life looks like. A happy person is needed by other people. They are a cog in a community, and their absence would be noticed. A happy person is good at what they do. They are experienced and their knowledge yields a product. A happy person is internally good. We live in the age of mindfulness, health, clean dieting, strong is the new skinny...pick your preferred source of how to be good to yourself. If we look at Mr. Jung's list again, each element can be subdivided into Mr. Bradt's "goods". Identifying components of our lives that fall into the category of each of these "goods" is a really good exercise in self-reflection.

For me this opens up a whole new world of to-do lists (I LOVE those) to make me happy. But ultimately, if at the end of my day I've served some one, bettered my craft, and taken care of myself, then I can say that I'm happy. That simplifies my to-do list to 3 things. Thank goodness for simplicity.

Caught in the Routine

When the alarm goes off in the morning, it’s the beginning of a sequence of actions that happen because we are obliged to a schedule. Eric works his way through the dark apartment to the shower where he proudly does everything with his eyes still closed. I sit and contemplate why I have to get up when my first thing of the day isn’t until 2:00, but eventually I do. Breakfast and lunch are made, teeths are brushed, there’s a silent battle of who will go back to turn off the light in the kitchen, and upon leaving one of us pulls on the door so the other can lock it.

He goes to work. It’s still dark. “Have a wonderful day, I love you.” “Have a wonderful day, I love you.” It’s too early to say much more than that. When he gets home at 5:00 he’s already talking about going to bed. How can he not when he feels dead unless he gets 9 hours? It’s as if he’s still in jr. high. Work doesn’t energize him. He told me that 10 years is about the time it takes to climb the ladder to department manager or whatever. I think, I would die doing this for 10 years.

Schedules are good. They keep us responsible. Bills have due dates, paychecks come on certain days contingent upon if we show up to work. Schedules help make goals a reality. I of all people can testify that schedules make work get done.

But the why of the schedule, to be productive, starts to replace the why of life, to have joy. This study as reported by Lonnie Golden explores the effects of unemployment, underemployment (desire for more hours) and overemployment (willingness to get paid less for working less). Schedule variability is a common factor in today’s part-time employment sector. Hours are determined by employers and change some times at the last minute. Schedules that are subject to change lead to income volatility. Not only is work determined by some one else, but pay also then is unpredictable. Golden writes,

A common consequence is that such practices limit employees’ opportunity to balance work, social, and family responsibilities…Employees’ dissatisfaction with their work hours, not too surprisingly, is intensified by the interaction of want of schedule control and the variability of their hours.

Work, which is supposed to sustain us and enable us, becomes a source of dissatisfaction. Statistics in the report measure “work-family interference, work stress, and fatigue”, all of which are affected by one’s work schedule. The thing that ought to improve all of the above is one of the biggest contributors to their existence.

Eric, who works 50 hour weeks, does not receive benefits and can be laid off at any time. He is at a computer screen all day. He doesn’t get any incentives, bonuses, there is no opportunity for a raise in sight. He is the newer of many workers of the same position, all of whom are hoping for the same thing, to rise in the industry.

Yoko Ishikura of Hitotsubashi University writes on the World Economic Forum about why we work. Her number one reason: “It is critical to have financial means to support oneself. Without economic independence, we cannot design our life.”

Work is empowering. It is part of who we are, and also determines how we live. It plays such a crucial role in everything we do, for better and for worse. While work may be the means with which we can design our life, it also takes up a considerable amount of the composition of life. Ishikura continues.

It is crucial that WE feel we are in charge of our own work, and not be subject to the decisions forced on us. When we feel we can control what and how we work, we become productive and find work fun and meaningful.

Crucial to what? To our well-being. To our sanity. Control over how much we work and what kind of work we do will eventually determine what we live for, and ultimately, who we are. When Eric has to submit to menial work and long hours, he starts to surrender authorship of his life and instead of creating his own design, resigns to a pre-made template. This acts as a drain to what he had in mind for himself.

In his TEDtalk in 2014 Barry Schwartz talks about the effect ideas on behavior, and from there the effect of capitalism, Adam Smith’s big idea, on society. Of attitudes, he says:

If you think your poverty is God's will, you pray. If you think your poverty is the result of your own inadequacy, you shrink into despair. And if you think your poverty is the result of oppression and domination, then you rise up in revolt. Whether your response to poverty is resignation or revolution, depends on how you understand the sources of your poverty. This is the role that ideas play in shaping us as human beings…

We have the idea, or at least Eric’s line of work has the idea, that one has to put in the time at the bottom of the ladder, take one’s turn working long seemingly meaningless hours so that one day long down the road, one can get paid millions per year for sending an email per day. This is not a truth, but an attitude and habit that has been carved from years and years of practice. Schwartz continues:

It is not true that you "just can't get good help anymore." It is true that you "can't get good help anymore" when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless. And interestingly enough, Adam Smith -- the same guy who gave us this incredible invention of mass production, and division of labor -- understood this. He said, of people who worked in assembly lines, of men who worked in assembly lines, he says: "He generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become."

Those same people who did their time at the bottom of the ladder are actually continuing a practice that decreases the capacity of everyone else to succeed. What if the entry-level position was the most intellectually challenging? What if we were required to do more? Had more responsibilities? More depending on us? If this doesn’t happen, The consequences can be severe. Last quote from Barry:

…the very shape of the institution within which people work creates people who are fitted to the demands of that institution and deprives people of the opportunity to derive the kinds of satisfactions from their work that we take for granted.

The alarm will go off tomorrow at 6:00. Eric will get home at 5:00 and talk about going to bed. He can control whether or not he continues to follow this pattern, but the consequences of not doing so would be severe. What he has to figure out, and me, and everyone, is how to shape the institution of his life, my life, our life so that our daily demands are enough to save us from stupidity, to use the words of Adam Smith. If instagram is the most mentally stimulating thing I do in a day, then that day I’m afraid that I got dumber. Entry-level positions may inevitably be boring and seemingly unnecessary, so then it becomes my responsibility to find mental stimulation elsewhere. It may be hard to find the energy, but my brain depends on it!

Go out and challenge yourself!

Building the Beloved community

Today I felt inspired by the brawl that nearly broke out at the last college women's soccer game I attended. The King Center, an archive of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provides a list of terms associated with Dr. King's many sermons.

AGAPE – Overflowing unconditional love for all, including adversaries, needed for nonviolent conflict-resolution. Dr. King called it “love in action…love seeking to preserve and create community…love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative.”

BELOVED COMMUNITY - ...a society of justice, peace and harmony which can be achieved through nonviolence.The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of a beloved community."

This beloved community was non-existent when exhibit A told exhibit B's wife to "f--- off" to which exhibit B climbed down the bleachers, grabbed exhibit A's shirt collar and emitted heavy threats before intervention stopped the two more-than-middle-aged hooligans. 

Why did this exchange transpire this way? Psychologist Susan Heitler says in an article for Psychology Today that "bickering, arguing or getting insistent about your point of view indicate someone who is unskilled at handling conflicts in a collaborative way." This definitely isn't the only instance of conflict resolution gone wrong, maybe our society has lost the skill set required to effectively communicate during disagreements.

What is our modern-day method of resolution? Does it work? 

So often it seems that well placed blame is more sought after and more celebrated than a well thought out solution. We approach problems as if the answer only belongs to one specific system of beliefs. That results in a black and white environment of I'm right and you're wrong. This attitude limits our problem solving potential because it eliminates a whole body of possible answers. No one wants to acknowledge a good solution that comes from an opposing party because that admits defeat, and so self-proclaimed morals are preserved at the price of progressive decisions. 

In a much shorter sentence, pride makes us blind.

Susan Heitler continues in her article about conflict resolution, particularly the often ignored step of "exploration of the underlying concerns" that ought to take place after recognizing the problem, and before finding the solution. She says:

If either person is interested in WINNING instead of in learning each other’s concerns for the benefit of both of you, the process [of resolution] will abort. 

Similarly, if either party listens to the other with a goal of proving “I am right and you are wrong,” the discussion will turn turbulent and end prematurely.  The impulse to win by causing the other to lose is like boulders in a stream of water; it blocks the flow and causes turbulence. 

If we approach problems like we approach sports, there will always be a winner and always be a loser, and there will always be resentment and biased anger. That is a result of competition. She goes on.

Another requirement is a belief that mutually gratifying solutions can be found; without this belief the attempt to create solutions never gets launched. 

(Do we even have hope anymore that solutions can be found? If not, that's tragic.)

What's vital on the listening end is that we learn to listen seriously to our own wishes and concerns, and also to hear the wishes and underlying concerns of others.  I call that dual ability bilateral listening, that is, two-sided listening. Bilateral listening is a hallmark of personal maturity because it enables people to create solutions that encompass the concerns of both participants. 

It stings to hear that people who fight instead of resolve are immature. I feel it. 

I can't help but think of the current state of our governing political system. In a perfect world I would eliminate the concept of a political party, because a party imitates a sports team which implies the above downward spiral of win, lose, resent, hate, exhibit A and B trying to start a fist fight in a bleacher full of infants and pregnant women trying not to pee their pants.

While there are many things in sports that we shouldn't use as a model of proper interaction, there are valuable lessons to be learned from them. At least that's what my mom always said.

These sports psychologists talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in athletes. Intrinsic is achievement based, the outcome is motivated by internal enjoyment and satisfaction. This is the motivation that sports psychologists tries to promote in their athletes. Extrinsic is based on obtaining awards and avoiding punishments. These athletes compete with and define themselves in relation to others as opposed to intrinsic comparing my previous effort with my current one. 

Now transfer that attitude to everything else in life. Intrinsically motivated people bounce back from mistakes, work harder, and aren't affected by the performance of others. They find joy in getting better. Extrinsically motivated people are basing their satisfaction on how they rank compared to others. They are either better or worse then the next guy. More or less skilled, more or less capable, more or less right. This is an attitude cultivated by many factors in our society, grading systems, playing time in sports, income disparities, feeling that you need a boat cause the neighbor has one. 

Even in sports where everything goes this is recognized as a negative attribute, so why is it so predominant in everything else? How many times as an athlete are you told to leave it all on the field, because actually that sort of behavior in any other environment isn't really healthy? If this is how you approach life, get help. I suffered (and still do) for years from extrinsic-based motivation. Maybe it's melodramatic of me, but I believe it's a disease that requires treatment. I realize that nothing is black and white, and that applies here, but still stick with my guns on this one. This article is interesting and somewhat relevant, and maybe helpful.

I think as we recognize extrinsic influences, and try to change our approach to what we deem as success, we will have more harmonious and fulfilling lives.

This brings families, athletes, governing bodies, businesses, etc. back to good communication 101. Using "I" statements that force you to consider why you think what you do rather than why what the other person thinks is wrong. Listening and considering the needs of the other person. Valuing those needs. Avoiding "you never's" and replacing them with "I want to's". Ultimately, we have to be comfortable with communicating clearly our "why", and likewise respect that the other person has an equally important and valid "why". 

Exhibit A and exhibit B need to realize that they both value their team because they know one of the players or have seen every one of the games. They are invested in their team's success and concerned for their safety. The team's victories are their victories, the team's losses their losses. They actually have the exact same why and really, in the end, ought to be friends.


Self-portrait challenge

Sit down with a piece of paper, a pencil, and draw yourself. First without a reference (no photos, mirrors) then with one. Are they different? Did you try it or did you say "I don't have a creative bone in my body. I can't do that." Like I've heard so many times?

I came across artist Amy Stein's Healing Through Self-Portraits workshop in an article she wrote describing the course that she offers to health professionals. This workshop attempts to open a creative outlet for the everyday stresses of the profession through portraiture. Why self-portraits? She uses the anecdote of when "someone told the famous portrait artist Rembrandt van Rijn that he had captured the soul of the sitter, he is reputed to have replied, 'Madam, I beg to differ with you, I have captured my own soul.'"

Although it sounds dramatic, that process of capturing your own soul is actually a neglected source of what Stein calls emotional nourishment that we all need.

Psychologist Tara Well writes about the role of mirrors in the development of our sense of self in infancy, how our reflection early on helps us establish our independent existence. How would it do this? A mirror, while reflecting your actions, does not feel your actions. Realizing this, you are aware of sight, and feeling. The mirror cannot speak like you can. If you touch a mirror, it is cold. You are warm. Consider how studying your reflection, without criticism, can help you discover a physical sense of self, and thereafter an emotional. Some may feel stuck at the "without criticism" condition. This is where the portrait comes in.

Have you ever had to learn to use a machine that was complex and difficult, but upon reading the manual and a little trial and error you found that it worked wonderfully and actually wasn't so bad after all? Think now of sitting down, with a mirror and a piece of paper. Maybe upon first look the mirror shows you something undesirable. But then you draw an oval, with two lines intersecting its horizontal and vertical center. As you look at your face you realize that the corners of your eyes line up with the edges of your nose, even the side that sits higher than the other. You see that your ears are level with your eyebrows, your mouth fitting into an invisible channel descending from the middle of your eyes. Your face is it's own unique interpretation of a template that everyone follows. That doesn't sound so bad! Some times we do better to approach ourselves objectively.

So how does any of this give us emotional nourishment? Amy Stein's article shares lots of individuals experiences of the workshop that are worth a read, but I think there are also practical benefits that strengthen us emotionally.

The first is a temporary release from multitasking. Phyllis Korkki of the New York Times quotes neuroscientist Earl K Miller in her article on productivity saying:

Trying to multitask...impedes creativity, he said. Truly innovative thinking arises when we allow our brains to follow a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas, and this is more likely when we can focus on a single mental pathway for an extended period.

The brain is like a muscle: It becomes stronger with use, Dr. Miller said. As with physical exercise, the more we strengthen our mental connections by focusing on one task to the exclusion of all others, the better we can perform.

Sitting down and focusing all of your efforts on figuring out your face sparks creativity and strengthens the brain. It relieves you from the pressure of doing multiple things at once and revives a sense of purpose. When we sit down to a task and see it through to the end, we are emotionally strengthened. It would be worthwhile to invest more time (separately of course) in more of these activities. I was lucky enough to spend my whole college career carving wood. In essence, my schooling trained me to monotask. I'm still really good at doing one thing for hours at a time. Hurray for education! 

Neurogenesis. Know what it is? Growing your brain! When you engage in new activities your brain is building new pathways to accommodate the action (neuroscientists out there, please feel free to call me out if I ever speak lies. I think I understand more than I do.) Something like drawing from a mirror also helps improve hand-eye coordination, which at least in young kids helps with learning capacity, so what could the harm be for adults?

As always, having studied art I am sworn to defend its utility to the end of my days. Give the portrait challenge a chance (see first paragraph) and revel in the results.

Creative Problem-Solving

It was one of my more philosophical days, so I googled “problems in today’s world” and a myriad of lists popped up. The gist of these lists were this: Lack of economic and employment opportunities, lack of food and water security, lack of safety and well-being, lack of education, religious conflicts, government accountability….

In other words, nothing new. I recently had a conversation with a friend about the science behind sleep. What happens when we sleep is actually crucial not only to the way we recover and rejuvenate, but also to how we learn. This sparked my interest and I began reading more, and I came across the connection between sleep and creativity.

Ultimately, if we sleep more, the world’s problems will be solved. But not because we will all be less grumpy! The way sleep affects creativity gives insight to creativity itself, which gives more insight to how problems are eventually solved (yes. Creativity is the act of problem-solving. If you’re solving problems, you’re creative. If you ever find yourself saying you don’t have any creativity, and that tapping into your creative side won’t affect your life, stop it.).

Dutch scientists Simone Ritter, Madelijn Strick, Maarten Bos, Rick van Baaren, and Ap Dijksterhuis all took part in conducting a study about aforementioned relationship between sleep and creativity. The study was interesting and you can sure check it out here, but what I liked was how they approached the definition of creativity. Here are some blips from the study:

“The creative process… entails the formation of associative elements into new combinations.”

“a creative idea has to be both useful and novel”

“Creative thought, like insightful behavior, often considers a mental restructuring of information, which in turn leads to the generation of novel associations between concepts”

Creative problem-solving is “the integration of unassociated information” with the original problem.

Psychologist Joanne Cantor writes that

Researchers looking inside the brain while people solve insight problems have noted that the areas of the brain that become active first are focused in a small area. But after a period of tight focus on the problem and just before the aha! moment occurs, they observe a state of brain relaxation, which loosens the tight focus and makes the brain more likely to make new and distant connections between previously unrelated areas. Relaxing the brain's focus then, seems to be essential for insight.

I didn’t want to pay for access to the Sleep Inspires Insight study, but luckily the abstract gave me the blips I needed:

“Insight denotes a mental restructuring that leads to a sudden gain of explicit knowledge allowing qualitatively changed behaviour”

“Sleep consolidates recent memories and, concomitantly, could allow insight by changing their representational structure.” 

Sorry about all the quotes. I was excited by the idea of new ideas coming from making new connections between old ideas. We have what we need, now we just need to make the right connection. The solution to violence? Self-sufficiency. The solution to an education gap? More trade schools. The solution to government transparency? Language immersion programs. All possibilities.

The Bauhaus was an institute of design in Germany in the 20s and 30s. It found a problem in the art world: that too few people had access to good art. Art, said founder Walter Gropius, existed in “complacent isolation.” They approached this problem in a few ways. First, they integrated everything. Gropius wrote in the school’s manifesto that “the ultimate goal of all art is the building!” The school was broken up into multiple different workshops. Students were instructed in all fields before they chose a specialization. Art wasn’t just paintings, but also woven tapestries, furniture, photography, and much more.

Second, they shifted the value of art from novelty to function. People can’t justify an expensive wall decoration, but everyone needs chairs. So why not make the chairs beautiful? This approach helped both the consumer and the artist. The manifesto says:

When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the geekery. These artists found an issue around which they built their success.

On a more personal level, if there’s a problem in our lives, there is probably a solution that we have access to, but just haven’t tried yet. My love Eric has found himself as a contingent worker for a big company that has money to burn and never-ending ladders to climb. Being some one not even considered as a full-time worker despite 50 hour weeks, Eric has of course had some discouraging weeks. Among his frustrations was a lack of official training of these contingent workers on the part of the company which left him feeling useless and burdensome for some time. His solution? He started compiling a survival guide for new workers with tips on how to get the some times tedious work done. Now he is being useful, and his action will forever change the experience of those after him for the better.

Here’s an exercise. Write out all the “problems” in your life. Mine would look like this: No job. No printing press. Unorganized. No sales at vendor show. No clientele. Bad cook. Kills all plants. Painful bunions. I’ll stop there before I get depressed.

Now, for 5 minutes, don’t let your pencil stop moving and consider each problem. This is called stream of consciousness. Write down every solution, good or bad, that comes to mind. They may be obvious at first. No job? Start over and get a new degree. But some times the obvious ones are out of reach for now. The idea would be to gradually draw that list down from the unobtainable, to that which you can start today. Here’s mine: No job? Start over and get a new degree…without going into debt. Earn money. Use current degree. Make a product that people want. Start with gifts and stuff you can use. Baby products with prints on them to make them yours. Post it. Share it. Start taking commissions. Use money to fund further projects. Expand inventory. Buy a press. Rent out press. Fund schooling.

You get the idea. Now I’m excited to start making those hand-printed diaper clutches! Happy problem-solving!

Routine Creativity

I love coming across good stuff. It makes me wish that I had come up with it. But I am also content with sharing it. I am here to promote the pursuit of interdisciplinary knowledge and to convince you to branch out. This is also shameless self-promotion (take my class at the Provo Rec Center!), but one backed with good results!

Srinivas Rao writes in his article The Power of Creative Cross-training: How Experimentation Creates Possibility about the benefit of pursuing new creative endeavors in order to stimulate productivity in our chosen field. He asks us think outside of our professional labels, a territory that is difficult to leave without the promise of a paycheck, and embark on a new endeavor. This endeavor isn't meant for monetary profit, which is why what he calls the "byproducts" of such an endeavor can prove so significant in our growth. Think of that! Pursuing something that won't lead to profit. In the creative field, that could take the form of a painter who might feel stuck in his work until, upon trying photography, he suddenly finds a new method of dealing with light. Consider what this cross-training could mean in an interdisciplinary sense. How could I, as an artist, better communicate my ideas, or communicate better ideas for that matter? Get better acquainted with science. Learn a language. Study web design. 

I should say that I am going to do just that. This website is a token of my failed attempt to learn web design. While seemingly unsuccessful, the byproduct of my effort was my resignation to use a platform, and thus finally get a website!

What is needed to make this branching out exercise beneficial? Focus. Find what Rao calls a "keystone creative habit," which is a consistent effort that is tracked and yields results. This can be something as simple as cooking a good breakfast every morning. The input is cooking, the product is food, and the result is health. Keep a journal while your at it. 

My latest interdisciplinary project has stemmed from my pregnancy. I am fascinated by birth. My keystone habit is casual, just a booklist, but the information gleaned from those books has led to new material for my art, a greater knowledge of my own body which has prepared me to make informed decisions, and a tentative ten year plan to change the world of women's health.

It can be argued that to focus on a new endeavor would take away from the real task at hand (see my prospective career change above), whatever that may be. Jason Fried of Basecamp writes how aiming for profit, which often takes to role of the antagonist in my posts (mostly because I have yet to achieve it) has helped to make their company successful. "It helps us shed things beyond the scope, it helps us keep the company fit, without accumulated layers of fat from chasing a thousand potential directions at once." They don't focus on the things they can't accomplish, or don't need to, and are therefore able to maintain a tight, successful business. 

I suffer from thousands-of-potential-directions syndrome. It's resulted in dispersed piles of unfinished projects that drive the co-inhabitants crazy. But a focused pursuit of a new skill is a worthwhile thing. Can you take my word for it? It's possible to fit it in. Laura Vanderkam of 99u writes: 

I’ve found that many of us have space to lean deeper into our careers if we like. The good news? We don’t even need to work around the clock. We simply need to allocate the hours we choose to work to our highest value activities, rather than filling hours with things that just expand to fill the available space.

Now is an appropriate place to lament how much time is wasted in all manner of ways. Maybe I'll post about it. But what's important here I think is that without taking too much time away from primary obligations, there is time for other things. What is needed is time management, and a bit of follow-through. My unfinished projects have all sorts of potential, but I lacked the discipline to make it happen. I have the unfortunate need of formal structure to get things done, which inevitably leads to bigger bills. Groupon, however, is a great resource for those like me who need the social structure of a class to succeed. 

To lean deeper into a variety of worthy projects is to lean deeper into our careers. With growth, profit, and status constantly on our minds, we get pigeon-holed into one method of working that yields one type of result. Liberate yourself, challenge yourself, to do something with the sole purpose of expanding yourself, and bask in the wealth of results.