When You Hit a Brick Wall, Turn to Stone Like Carl Jung



Carl Jung played with stones during a time of deep confusion. His example illustrates some things we know about the science of creative insight and the making hands-at-work.

“It would be no exaggeration to call it a state of disorientation.” - Carl Jung 

At 37 years old, Carl Jung became disoriented and entered a phase of fertile confusion. Smack in the middle of his disorientation, an inner voice called him out on his integrity. 

When that voice calls and says, “Look at how you’re living your life. How are you walking the talk?,” most of us reply with, “You’ve got the wrong number,” hang up, and turn up the volume on Downton Abby.

Or we get stuck in the pit of self-doubt.

But when Jung got challenged on his own soul stuff, he didn’t hang up. He kept the line open. 

His ability to stay creatively in disorientation led, in many ways, to break-throughs in his thinking that in turn would influence decades later the success of great films like Thelma and Louise and the success of books like Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception

And here’s the take-away: How Jung found his way out of that disorientation could be an example to any of us who at times doubt our artistic and entrepreneurial role in the world, who doubt our own integrity, or who hit a creative impasse.

The Disruption
Jung, like his mentor Sigmund Freud, yearned to understand the unconscious to help people become whole. In that pursuit, Jung had amassed knowledge of numerous myths from around the world and from all different times. Myths in this sense weren’t falsehoods but people’s stories that reflected how we have worked out our psyche’s desires and conflicts.

Jung’s views of the unconscious gradually differed from his notorious mentor. In 1912, he published what he knew and had dreamed would be the book to break his ties with Freud. The Psychology of the Unconscious lays out Jung’s most influential ideas - archetypes, the collective unconscious, the introverted and extroverted personalities. 

But the book’s interpretations of libido and of certain dreams’ significance radically differed from Freud’s, and, as he dreams foretold, the two parted ways.

Jung was free. He was free from the man who would otherwise have stifled Jung’s contributions to our understanding, many years later, of the primal structures of story, the hero’s mythic journey, and much more that would shape and continues to shape so much of what we make and how we shape it - be it a film, painting, website, brand.  

But then the voice called.

“What is your myth - the myth in which you live?” That’s the question that rattled inside Jung. He writes that when he examined the hero stories and myths he had amassed, he held them up like mirrors and wondered about his own life.

He wasn’t, as far as he could see, the hero of his own story. 

Such questioning can deepen our creative quest, but without useful tools we can get stuck in the pit of doubt. Who am I to launch this business or write this book? When will I be living my truth and with purpose? 

Turn to Stone 

So, what did Jung do? He turned to stone. 

He describes in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections how he went outdoors and almost each day would gather from a lake a series of stones to stack. Without why and to play. 

But stacking stones led to desire. He built a village made of stones, complete with cottages, castle, and cathedral.

“What are you doing?” he asked himself. “I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning.”

The building led him to drawing and painting. He realized he wasn’t “doing” psychology or psychotherapy. The former protege of one founder of modern psychology was “doing art.” 

“This sort of thing has been consistent with me and at any  time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall, I painted a picture or hewed a stone. Each such experience proved to be a rite d’entre for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it.” - Carl Jung

When Jung hit a wall, he didn’t get blocked. He created into and through the block.

Jung’s experience is consistent with what psychologists and neuroscientists keep reaffirming about the way we human beings learn, ideate, and create.

Myths of Making It and Making Your Way

If you don’t know what your calling is or what the answer is to one of your creative challenges, make your way. Literally.

We talk about “making it.” “She made her way here,” we say, or “He made his way to the top.” By “making it” we usually mean outward signs of success.

But you can literally make your way into your callings and creative conundrums. You prototype, test out. Designers constantly test things out, sketch, and productively doodle to keep their creative minds brewing instead of stagnating. 

We learn by rolling up our sleeves and making things, even if what we make is crap or doodles or stacks of stones. The embodied creative mind lights up when the body is engaged in focused play. 

We know three elements of the mind and of brain activity that correlate to creative insight: 

  1. relaxed calm focus, 
  2.  positive moods, and 
  3.  meta-awareness (being aware of your awareness and thoughts). 

The playful hands-on activity of working with clay or sketching puts your mind in a state of relaxed calm, quiets the machinating worrier within, and awakens parts of your brain associated with creative insight.

What works for creative impasses also works for creative callings. Two clients are willing to use their websites and blogs as prototypes to help them “make their way” into their calling. They’re prototyping before innovating.

Here’s where well-intending business coaches might offer unhelpful advice. They push their clients to define their market, customer segment, and “unique selling proposition” before they open the doors. But business lore is ripe with stories of entrepreneurs who test out an idea on the market to see what sticks, and then when something takes off, the creator discovers what he’s passionate about making and who’s eager to receive it. He discovers his calling by creating. 

Does the market dictate the calling? Not exactly. But woe to the entrepreneur or creative who focuses only on her passion without regard for what her patch of the planet’s heart aches for.

Shoot Bullets Before Cannons

In his new business book Great By Choice, Jim Collins considers why certain corporations actually thrive during upheaval and uncertainty while others flounder. His key findings return to one point: These thriving companies didn’t just innovate to innovate, nor were they always the most innovative companies in their industry. They “shoot bullets before shooting cannons.” 

They test things out to see  what hits the target. Then when something hits, they fire the cannon - the big product, event, website launch gala, or offering.

4 Ways to Make Your Way

Make your way into it and through your creative impasse or period of doubt and deep questioning.

1. Make the question part of a project. Tag a notebook just for your creative project or life-phase project. Create an Evernote folder for the question. Sketch and reflect your way each day into your question. Don’t ignore it. 

2.Think with your hands. Get some clay, legos, a sketch pad, or a whiteboard. Plant the question in the back of your mind, and start doodling with your hands. Diagramming on a whiteboard or doodling in a sketch pad trips up the brain’s “worry circuitry.” 

I recently led a group of authors, entrepreneurs, artists, and designers through a 6-day retreat in Taos, New Mexico. Our aims were to find the means to go deeply and move forward on our respective projects as well as to get perspective on our quests from amateurs to maestros. Our means included Yoga As Muse, the science of creativity, tracking wonder, as well as principles of Deep Story Design for writing, art, and brands. And my Chief in Charge of Delight, Heidi Johnson of Inkwell Insight, made two well-stocked craft tables.

I got stuck on a couple of dualing, paradoxical concepts for my book. Analyzing my way through the concepts wouldn’t work. So, I went to the craft table, gathered clay and buttons and art paper, and started making my way into question marks. While I paid attention to the material and the choices I made, I also spoke to my mind and listened to the observations and insights that arose. Within 90 minutes, I had a sculpture whose colors and metaphorical shapes & combinations delighted myself and others, I had a new product idea (to be unveiled later), and I had a list of topics to explore in my book chapter.

Wonder-tracker scientists are on the scent of how gesture triggers gestalt, so to speak. 

Designer Marty Neumeier also lays out his take on what I am proposing in his book-length manifesto Metaskills by identifying this one of his five key metaskills for creatives and entrepreneurs to master in this age: Making.

3. Make a path to research your unconscious. Before you stack up on books or pay an expert to answer your questions for you, research your own unconscious. Note how your dreams feed the question. Note recurring images or themes from your dreams to see how your unconscious is problem-solving for you. Sketch images that recur in your dreams or recur at nexus moments or impasses in your life. You’ll likely start to see patterns in the images that then, like a constellation, can give you direction or insight. 

4. Be playfully obsessedAndy Goldsworthy inspired me several years ago to start making random stick sculptures in our woods. I had no idea what I was doing or why except that it was helping me “work through” some ideas for some life-transition questions. 

You don’t have to be like Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind who maniacally sculpts an archetypal shape out of mashed potatoes and then mounds and mounds of dirt and garden pots all in his living room (my favorite part of the film, by the way).

But do make your doubt into a curious obsession, and do make your curious obsession playful. 

Tags: carl jung, creative block, creativity thinking, disruptive thinking, fertile confusion, play

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