Moving Quickly, Caring Deeply: Creating Nine Lives in the New Year



Creating the space for flow, divergent thought, and creation in the New Year -- the power, not paralysis, of possibility.

I hopped on a phone call two years ago when I lived in the stunning city of New Haven, CT. As a young professional in a college town, I lacked friends. So I found a few older women mentors, one of whom was starting an entrepreneurial network in the area for alumni of my college. I arrived, bright, shiny, and early at its launch, surrounded by a plethora of older white men. In turn, she gave me a free, official “coaching” call. I was skeptical. My mom also grew her own coaching practice, and I work for an organization, The Future Project, that pairs volunteer coaches with High School students to help them build passion-driven projects. I get coaching to a degree, but had not realized the power of its simplicity. On the call this woman, like in any therapy session, asked me about what I do. What I do transitioned to what I love. What I love transitioned to astronomical questions about life, trajectory, skills, plans, the future, oh boy, and oh boy.

This coach was magical. She said something simple that I could very well have figured out on my own (but my often too-critical mind roadblocked). She told me to create a space each week – 3 hours minimum – where I do nothing but create. I could paint, sketch, write, play piano, maybe even read. But I should devote to a task, certainly not open this computer, and be with this art for a sustained period of time. Be with this art and nothing else. It was clear to her that in listening to me, I could very well describe myself as creative and was attracted to creative-driven institutions outside of my regimented daily work in a psychology lab, but I never, ever gave myself the permission or peace of mind to let myself BE creative in my young adult life.

So, one might ask, have I put in my three hours? No. Not in the least. I actually think it is the single hardest act someone has asked me to perform over the last four years since graduating college. Applying to grad school is a piece of cake, moving cities, pshhh, finding new communities, new friends, acquiring new skills: all doable. There is evidence, literature, organizations, and endless TED Talks that confirm the simple fact that both our current structures of school and society make it such that by the time we are “adult,” we very much fear open, divergent thought. Not only that, but we run steadfast away from anything that lacks clear goals or definite outcomes – like having three hours of seemingly empty space in time. We dislike ambiguity, we are adverse to risk, and we respond best to structural-driven achievements. Ouch. Perhaps this is why columnists in the NY Times always worry about my generation – from David Brooks beautifully illustrating that we are, to an extent, paralyzed by possibility -to Christy Wampole stating that we are a generation that lives out in irony and not in sincerity.

I return to: why these three hours? And why now, of all the times of year, do I come back to this charge for how to spend my time and center myself? For one, we young adults need constraints. Creativity is both a divergent and convergent process. We need the wild ideas and we need the root cause and the focus – and we need to flow and iterate through those processes multiple times. Secondly, adults or, I prefer, students of the world, also need multiple entry points to best learn from and access information. Though Dr. Gardner’s work on the theory of multiple intelligences has been confounded by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and our ability to grow our intelligence, it still created a much needed space for a goal we should never stray from – creating multiple entry points to learning. Perhaps I am biased because Dr. Gardner was my advisor, but I do believe he opened the door for us to challenge the narrowed, harrowing lens we use to dictate achievement. No wonder we are conditioned to fear. We do not stop growing at age 20, but we do become increasingly more inhibited as artistic and creative thinkers by academic and professional expectations. We think there is one way to advance, yet we are stuck in endless possibility. Ms. Wampole is right, then, to an extent, because that is just ironic.

Young students are innately divergent thinkers, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of Dr. Gardner’s partners in crime, defines as “fluency, flexibility, and originality of mental operations.” Adults, however, according to the same 1991 article by Ckiszentimihalyi, are crippled by fear of shifting contexts, and in turn, stick to the safety of convergent thoughts. As adults, we move further away from thinking creatively; yet, as a society, especially in the realm of innovation in business, medicine, and technology, we place high value on creative thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Ckiszentimihalyi other than offering wise words on the perplexing transition to adulthood before many other psychological scholars, is best known for the concept of “flow” -- generally described as a mental state where one feels fully immersed, energized, focused and like time passes unknowingly – when one is both highly skilled and incredibly challenged. I just gave the gift of the book, “Flow” to a highly skilled game-designer colleague of mine who is changing our organization for the better. Game-design is meant to induce flow. He helped design “Magic the Gathering,” a card game that has enraptured nerdy adults for centuries. If we could build systems to create flow in our workplaces and every day lives, we would all be in incredibly productive and fulfilling states of creation and being more often than not. We could converge and diverge fluidly.

Like being charged with my three hours, this is no easy task, mostly because it is so general and is both context and individually-driven. However, in sync with the holiday season and New Year, we all might be a step closer to unlocking our creative and flow-driven selves in rather tangible ways. Not only do the holidays provide constraints, they yield to creating multiple entry points to unified goals: giving and sharing. In making homemade cards every Christmas, including the occasional premiere of a video-card on iMovie, creating a scavenger-hunt gift experience for my game-designing colleague, playing Christmas music on the piano, and dancing around the house, I realize that the holiday season subtly creates multiple ways to diverge and converge in a way that no other part of my post-schooling life does. I do not have many resources right now: I have loans and expenses and low non-profit salary, but during the holidays, we make a lot from what we have. And it is entirely beautiful. The process of diverging and then converging to focus on the specifics of a gift or the experience of giving is an incredible way to catapult the habit of creating the space and the time to be in flow in every day life.

I conclude with my own charge to myself and to you:

We, as a young generation of twenty-somethings, and a growing generation of adult children of the world, could very well all live nine happy lives. There is indeed possibility in visually acknowledging all you hope to do – it is the first step to not being crippled by options. I ask you as you enter the New Year, instead of making a resolution: what would your nine lives be? Jot all of your wild and crazy ideas (uninhibited by actuality) down on post-its and stick them around your bed or workbench. Choose nine. Look at one: find the root cause, the need, the desire that forms the underbelly of that life, and then create five tangible steps that one would take in living that life. In the next year, live one of steps or goals of your nine lives in your day-to-day existence.

And, if you stumble in thinking of your nine lives, you might instead consider nine moments, nine quick snapshots of feelings or experiences or connections with others that felt a lot like bliss and timelessness – a lot like flow. Use these moments when you so completely existed instead of thinking to what you need or want to be “when you grow up” to guide you. I feel new moments every year. I flash to moments when I was growing up of rebuilding the probe for a fake “Challenger mission,” memorizing Billy Joel lyrics behind a couch, and pretending to be the first woman to play on the New York Knicks outside alone for endless hours. This year, these moments came randomly: building IKEA furniture for my office this Thanksgiving, running fast with a backpack and a friend through the streets of New York City dodging tourists and pretending to be in a video game, and looking at color-wheel maps of economic systems and interpreting them. Like most good things, creativity pops up when you are least looking for it. Here is to living nine lives with one soul in a generation of moving quickly and caring deeply.

Happy New Year.

Article Featured Image: courtesy of   Gabrielle Santa-Donato, "the picture taken at the pop-up holiday 3D printing village, 3DEA, in NYC where I took my secret santa for a part of his gift".

Tags: creative thinking, divergent thinking, flow, the future project

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