Tag Archives: Creative

Top Takeaways from STORY 2016!

cjz7l7guuaal6r1The STORY 2016 conference has come and gone! Those of us who attended the two-day gathering are now left to stew in the myriad of motivational messaging.

What is STORY? I’m actually still trying to figure it out. I suppose it is like Ted Talks aimed at creatives/artistically-minded folks, presenting them with an extensive lineup of speakers from various creative bents who share about their experiences and lessons they’ve learned so far in their work. The talks ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes or so, and were tightly packed with anecdotes to uphold the conference’s name. All told, the conference amounted to a serious pep talk for people doing creative work. Creatives sometimes (all the time) need that.

As I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling, and because the conference this year was 15 minutes from my house, I made sure to attend. I collected many takeaways from the 20 different presentations and wanted to share them with you.


…on Motivation and Validation.
The first speaker, Brad Montague, filmmaker behind the Kid President sensation, really stole the show (almost too bad he went first). He talked about a line from one of the videos where Kid President asks, “What if Michael Jordan had quit? He never would have made Space Jam!” For Brad, this line started funny, but took on an insidious flavor when the video’s sensational popularity prompted Brad to ask, “Was this my Space Jam?” The idea haunted him. He knew he would crave more validation for his work to feel good. What he discovered, though, was that this was true of anyone…anyone…even Beyoncé…even Obama…both of whom finished their interviews with Kid President and asked, “Was that ok? I can do it again…” Brad is motivated by the idea that we each don’t just have one Space Jam, but can focus on our entire body of work over the course of our life. We can approach life with child-like wonder and enthusiasm and be better off for it. He asked, “Why does a child pick up a box of crayons? Because they like it. They want to make a present for their mom. They want to see what happens when they blend colors.” They create out of joy, and so should we. As Fred Rogers said, “We were all children once.”

…on Empathy and Experience.
Two ideas emerged from many of the speakers in what makes for better stories: the need for empathy and the need for personal experience. As Rick Rekedal, creative guru at Dreamworks, said, “The best stories are not just stories I like, but stories that are like me.” Hannah Brencher, a writer, put it this way:”Loneliness is at large today—we all need ‘me, too’ moments.” Stories work wonders for creating empathetic connections with audiences, but empathy requires personal knowledge of the experience being shared. Therefore, storytellers need to live life and not just talk about life. Casey Neistat brought this idea home with his story about getting fined $50 for riding his bike outside of the bike lane in New York City. The subsequent viral video resonated so deeply with so many people it even led to city-wide policy changes regarding bike use. Casey found an audience for this story because it was based on a real experience and created those “me, too!” moments.

…on Process and Getting Out of Our Own Way. 
Writer Hannah Brencher has no illusions regarding romance in being a writer. Her message was clear: creative work is a fight. It’s not personal, it’s business. “Your voice,” she says, “is not something that you find; it is something that is birthed.” This means that there is struggle involved, and that it will take time. I appreciate it when people acknowledge this, instead of glossing over the tough parts of creating to glory in the final product. Of course, it is easy to understand why they do that. They do not want to remember how much of a struggle it was, how much they got in their own way. Jason Jaggard, an executive coach, talked about the dark side of imagination, or the ways in which our mind can become extremely imaginative devising ways to tell us that we can’t do things. We have, as he described, somatic markers or instincts that protect us from the unknown. These keep us safe from danger, but they also keep us safe from opportunity. He suggested that we need to address these instincts and counteract them purposefully:
 a) We all long to look good. We overcome this by being willing to look foolish. 
     b) We all want to feel good. We overcome this by accepting pain as inevitable, and focusing on making something useful with those experiences. 
     c) We all want to be right, even when it means being right about our own perceived lack of abilities. We need to realize it might be good to be wrong about this. 

Overall, I can say I’ve come away from this conference motivated to work harder and strive for better focus. I will also say though that the conference content ended up being different than I had hoped it would be. Like I said, I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling. Very little of the conference actually focused on narrative craft. How to become a better storyteller, and why the great stories we know and love are the great stories we know and love…this is what I crave. Please, readers, let me know if you have resources for me in my continued quest.


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How to Facilitate Epiphanies

Over the weekend my friend and I facilitated two, back-to-back, day-long design workshops (yes, I am still recovering, thanks). We worked with two nonprofits, one on Saturday and the other Sunday, and coached them through their respective complex design challenges using Design Thinking methodology. As grueling as it was to push through the mental blocks and exhaustion that comes with day-long brainstorming sessions, both groups came away jazzed and thinking totally differently about their respective problems than when they walked in that morning. So, SUCCESS!


Design Thinking Phases

So what went right? We’ve been trying to figure it out. Replicating an epiphany-inducing process would be awesome, but were we just lucky? Not sure yet, but I can say that both days we saw a confluence of factors that led to brainwave breakthroughs:

  1. lit_match_by_blackhiveA Controlled Flare. At the beginning of each day, I made sure to emphasize that when Design Thinkers say, “Trust the Process,” what they want is to let the ideas flow, no matter how erratic, tangential, or numerous. If you look at the Design Thinking diagram above, you can see that some stages flare while others focus. The flare portion can make people nervous, especially people who like control and orderly meeting styles. But the trick is to welcome ideas, however radical or impractical. Only when you have a complete collection of all of the factors at play or all of the ideas in peoples’ heads can you make educated decisions about the best direction to pursue. For the facilitator in this process, think of a controlled forest fire; firemen stand by to ensure that the burning process does what it needs to do in order to cultivate the healthiest results.
  2. Creative Boundaries Make the Difference. Each sprint generated dozens and dozens of post-it note ideas. With each new wave of post-it tsunamis, we asked group members to categorize the post-its, summarize their categories, and prioritize their top ideas. It was fascinating as a facilitator to step back and watch brains work. Every time we asked this, the group would fall silent in extreme focus, and begin rearranging the post-its in trance-like movements. Within minutes they would generate categories out of chaos and, what’s more, could explain their new world order with confidence. By what power did they achieve this? I believe it has to do with setting creative boundaries. They say that limitations are the essence of art, and broadening this to any creative task, boundaries are the essence of creative work. The alternative, like saying “Anything is Possible,” can often leave us feeling paralyzed by the options. But just as rules make a game, boundaries work on our brains to shape our ideas into something real. As a facilitator, therefore, crafting questions that set creative boundaries becomes one of the most important tasks you have.
  3. diagramImagery and Metaphors Bring Cohesion. One of our groups was having trouble. They had so much they wanted to accomplish and had identified half a dozen audiences they wanted to help. At the same time, the collective gut feeling in the room was that their goals, as different as they appeared on paper, had something in common. Suddenly, someone suggested that what we wanted to provide was the “connective tissue” between the disparate audiences, like ligaments between muscles, and the group burst into smiles. We finally had an image to work from, and you could feel the tension in the room relax into pleasant excitement. We drew a couple of quick diagrams, and it sealed cohesion among the group members. As a facilitator, then, it is critical to try to help these images take shape. The whole process will benefit with better visuals.


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5 Best Creativity Books (so far)

Over the last few years of blogging about creativity I’ve made many references to books I’ve read on the subject. Today, I am creating a listicle (as my sister says, everyone loves a listicle) of my favorite five.

Why should you care? There is so much research coming out today about neuroplasticity, or our mind’s capacity to change. It means is that we can continue to learn, to reshape our thoughts, and make connections that didn’t exist before. This is the essence of creativity. Creativity might often seem like a natural gift, where some people have it and others don’t, but I believe it is so much more than this. Creativity is a skill we can practice, a collection of habits we can hone. This is good news because it means that, with a little intentionality and practice, we can better live into our creative potentials. This is true whether you call your self a “creative” or not. We all have problems to solve, relationships to build, and tasks to complete; we can all use a leg-up for improving our creative output.

So here are the top five books I’ve read over the last few years for improving creative skills. If you have a book to suggest, please do! Always looking for more!

  1. creative accThe Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, by Todd Henry
    Followers of this blog might think I’m a broken record with my constant praise for this book. But as a creative professional, i.e. the book’s target audience, it spoke to me more accurately than so many others I’ve read. Author Todd Henry defines ‘creative professional’ as people who create value with their minds, which applies very broadly across human work. His strategy for creativity is to create habits that balance your capacity to be brilliant, healthy, and prolific simultaneously. Often in the work place, we can be one or two of these things, but without balancing the third, our work will suffer. The Accidental Creative outlines extremely practical ideas for radically improving creative output. More about The Accidental Creative…

  2. 51gwzfggzal-_sx403_bo1204203200_The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
    I confess: I am still working my way through this one. I’ve been working through it over the last year. The book is part workbook and jam-packed with excellent, convicting questions that provoke your memory and challenge presuppositions you may not have known you had about yourself and your ability to produce creative value. Cameron approaches the subject of creativity from a place of faith, but is not so specific in her theological claims that it would throw off more sensitive readers. The idea is that we are created creative, and our Creator wants to work with us in creating new things, as well as work through the fears, memories, and misconceptions that inhibit us from reaching our creative potential. Personally, the book has provided me with revolutionary healing; I had no idea how inhibited I was by negative feedback I’ve received over the years. The book helped me face these memories, name them, and move on. I’m so grateful.
  3. 31ydwirl7ol-_sx331_bo1204203200_Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch 
    I don’t even know where to begin with my admiration for this book.
    Culture, according to Crouch, is what we make of the world. This means that when we are handed eggs, our inherent creativity compels us to make omelettes, and therein change and enhance the value of the egg. God created us in His creative image so that we could add value to this world, value that will last throughout eternity. This truth ennobles the work we do because it means that our efforts are not in vain. It also means that we should be especially mindful of our posture toward the culture being made around us. Crouch advocates that instead of limiting ourselves to critiquing culture, copying culture, or mindlessly consuming culture, we need to be cultivating culture, meaning we champion the good culture that exists and develop new ideas for improving our culture moving forward. This book, in short, provides a rich context for why we do creative work and how to do it well.
  4. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, by Tim Brown 41-aavmqafl-_sx329_bo1204203200_
    Ever been to a “brainstorming session” with coworkers and felt like it was a complete waste of time? We’ve all been there. Whether it is a micromanaging boss who needs to control the conversation or a Negative Nancy bashing every idea, innovation is not easily realized in groups. Design Thinking provides a practical and reproducible methodology that makes for effective group brainstorming. This book is full of amazing case studies showing how different the results are when Design Thinking is applied. It presents a compelling case for why designers should be empathetic or “human-centered” and why prototyping sooner than later in the process can be the most efficient way to test new ideas.
  5. harryThe Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling 
    Bet you weren’t expecting this one. Bear with me as I explain how this book can teach us about creativity. I believe that effective communication is one of the most critical skills we can attain, and storytelling is one of the best communication tools. Good communication and storytelling require prodigious creative effort to transfer complex concepts through simple means to an intended audience. If you’ve ever struggled to get someone to understand one of your ideas, you know success often depends on a miracle. The Harry Potter books tackle universal themes of joy, pain, friendship, sacrifice, and fear, and do so with nuance, subtlety, and emotion. I regularly urge Potter skeptics to give the books a chance; the creative treatment of its themes, its characters, and narrative are not only immensely entertaining but worth considerable study. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read Harry. What I know is that I learn new things every time through, and I still have a lot to learn. How is it that I feel like her characters are real people? How does she pace her books so well? Where does she get her plot devices, like the Mirror of Erised or portkeys or horcruxes? Creative Genius. Genius.

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Getting Gritty, part 3

A year and a half ago I wrote a 2 part series called Getting Gritty. This is the third installment on this theme. Part 1 defines grit and examines the life of Leonardo DaVinci and his remarkable perseverance, and Part 2 discusses the balance of grit and rest as the formula for prolific creative activity. 

What do Leonardo DaVinci, Julia Child, and Bob Dylan all have in common? Our first answer to this might be “genius,” meaning natural talent, or “success,” meaning they were in the right place at the right time. The temptation for those of us struggling to live creative and productive lives is to think that they had something we don’t have—or worse, can’t have. If you are like me and fall prey to this temptation, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that what these great minds have in common is something we too can have: grit. The bad news is that what we need to be like these great minds is grit.

True Grit. No, not the classic western. I’m talking about the “stick-to-it-ness” that characterizes many if not all of the most prolific and creative people across history. These figures lived through what Adam Westbrook, creator of the video essay below, calls “The Difficult Years,” or those years of hard work, sweat, and tears that history often ignores. He cites author Robert Green who defines that period as “A largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.”

Five to ten years, no achievement. That is a tough pill to swallow, especially for our instant gratification generation, a people trained to believe hard work is the stuff of fast movie montages and is over before we can blink. Is this really what it takes?

Um, well, yes. Sorry to break it to you. Grit is the thing that links great minds, and if we seek to accomplish creative feats then we must keep working, disregarding failures and the lack of an audience. We must keep creating. Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative, urges his readers and podcast listeners often to undertake “unnecessary creating,” meaning creative activity that we do for ourselves, for fun, and not for money. Pursuing our passions is the best training for prolific creative accomplishment; passion and grit go hand in hand.

And that is the good news. When we think of bearing down and getting gritty, we might think that this means assuming supernatural self-discipline. While discipline is important, willpower only goes so far. The only thing powerful enough to push us to this level of creative pursuit is passion, love of the craft, love of beauty, and a surviving hope that, no matter how long it takes, someone else will share that love with you.

In this video essay we learn about the profound passion of Vincent Van Gogh, and while I believe he went overboard by sacrificing his health to his art, his grittiness inspires me to push past a temporary lack of the spoils of “success” and just keep creating.

“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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4 Tips for a Capotastic Halloween

Happy Halloween! It’s time for the creativity junkies to come out and glory in giant messy projects!

Halloween is always an intensely nostalgic time for me. For one thing, we grew up in Sleepy Hollow, as in The Legend of. Every year we would anticipate the town’s elaborate Halloween events, especially the ridiculously fun Haunted Hayride. We would pile onto the itchy haystacks in the back of a trailer and bump along through the famed cemetery in silence. Ahead, we could hear yells and ghoulish sounds coming from the woods where, once we entered, we were taunted with haunted spectacles and the obligatory appearance of the Headless Horseman.

Nearer and dearer to my heart are the Halloween traditions my family developed. Our house always became an explosion of creativity during the Halloween season, and thanks to the genius of my uninhibited mother, our house was the best house in the whole neighborhood for trick-or-treating. Not only were our costumes always awesome and homemade, and our pumpkin carving ambitious and impressive, but we would rig our front door with stunts every year to entertain the kiddos. Favorite pumpkin memories include the political caricatures of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Arnold Schwartzeneger, among others. Favorite door stunts include the spider that flew out from the stairwell, the witch that flew down from the tree on the side of the house, and the Phantom of the Opera that inflated out of a flower pot.

As I think back on a wonderful childhood full of fun, creative memories, I think about the deep impact these traditions have on the way I see the world. For instance, my future children will never be allowed to carve a normal jack-o-lantern. They will be taught, as I was, to seize the opportunity for going above and beyond and being as creative as they can be. I am extremely proud of my family’s zany projects–all of which were before Pinterest, mind you. Likewise, I want to encourage you readers to be as creative as you can be with Halloween, because it is a terrific excuse, assuming you need one, to stretch your creativity muscle. To this end, here are some Creative Halloween tips learned from years of Capo Family goofiness. Enjoy!

  1. The best costumes are sometimes just pieces of fabric.
    A few years ago my dad was getting rid of junk in an effort to sell the house. When he got to the costume bin, all three of us kids intervened. The contents of that bin had proved far too useful over the years for them to be discarded. The funny thing is that there were actually very few complete costumes in there. Most of it was just strips of different colored fabric. We knew from much practice that a few safety pins was all it took to make extraordinary costumes ranging from Lord of the Rings Elves to Egyptian Pharaohs to Renaissance courtiers.
  2. Pumpkins: How to go the extra mile
    You know those pumpkin carving kits that come with those little books of designs? You don’t need those. Just draw or print out whatever you want to carve, tape it to your de-gunked pumpkin, and with a poker tool trace the image with dots to transfer the picture onto the surface of your pumpkin. Decide which parts you want light and dark, then hack away. With this technique you can celebrate the year’s biggest blockbuster or mock the politicians up for election.

    From the 2008 Election

  3. These are a little cutesier than the bugs my mom made, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, the photos of our originals are in storage.

    Eat Bugs.
    My mom was one of those class moms that made all the other class moms jealous. She would come into to class and demonstrate elaborate science experiments or bring homemade comic valentines or, at Halloween, impress the kids with bug sculptures made of candy. She developed a whole system for these bugs. The flies were the most impressive because she would cut out wings from wafer cookies and attach them with icing. Again, she figured this out without Pinterest. Today, as we all know, the internet is full of ideas for this kind of thing, but I encourage you not to be a copycat. Use your creativity and, like my pioneering mother, experiment with your own Halloween themed snacks.

  4. Get Interactive.
    There is nothing quite like the joy of opening up a door to a gaggle of little trick-or-treaters and surprising them with a little trick of your own. I don’t remember how this idea came into my mother’s head, but the original trick we set up involved opening our double doors with fishing twine and having a spider swing out at the trick-or-treaters. I think there was music too. We made the spider out of an old T Shirt and socks stuffed with crumpled-up plastic bags. We rigged it with fishing twine through some i-hooks in the ceiling and pulled it back into the stairwell where it sat, poised, ready to be released for the next victims.

    A few years ago we pulled our last stunt at the house where I grew up. It was our most interactive one yet. Here is the video. Enjoy.

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Stimuli for Stimuli: The Accidental Creative

For my birthday last year my brilliant husband, knowing I get my kicks from being creative and thinking about creativity, gave me Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant At A Moment’s Notice. The book in many ways has revolutionized how I think about creativity, and has also served as a large impetus for restarting this blog.

The audience for the book is creative professionals, or anyone who creates value from their ideas. This covers a wide number of professions and interests, including many people who might not realize how creative their work really is (hence the “accidental”). For me, the first three chapters describing the challenges Creatives face in the workplace read like my professional memoir. Naturally, Henry’s acknowledgement of these challenges affirmed my concerns and consoled my frustrations. But the book’s real impact is in its heavily practical advice for how we can enhance creative output through becoming more intentional with our creative habits.

My copy of the book is now full of underlined passages and notes in the margin, but today I want to share with you specifically on the chapter on of stimuli, or the raw materials that stimulate thought. This includes the books, TV, articles, films, experiences, or anything else that provides us with new information we will need to filter. Henry says, “This is essentially how the creative process works—it’s the connection of multiple preexisting patterns into solutions. One pathway to creating more effectively and consistently is to be strategic about our inputs.” Henry challenges the reader to pay attention to the information flowing through our heads as we may not realize how much influence that information has.  “The more random the information you absorb, the more effort is required to process it and utilize it in your creative work.” If we want to make brilliant connections that bridge different spheres of ideas, we need to monitor our ‘diet’ of stimuli. Just like keeping a healthy diet with what we eat, each of us needs to determine a healthy sources of stimuli.  High quality stimuli includes that which is challenging, relevant, and diverse. Henry goes on to detail why you should create a study plan to keep your stimuli diet healthy, why you should create a space in your schedule for regular study, and why you should take ample notes.

The goal of all of this is to convert information to wisdom, and from wisdom, to creative insight. “There is a significant difference between information and wisdom,” he says, “In a culture that is obsessed with sound bites and snack-sized media, wisdom is increasingly taking a backseat to perpetual stimulation. The danger in this is that we stop thinking, ‘what’s best?’ and instead worry only about ‘what’s next?’.” With all of this stimuli, Henry warns of the consequences of failing to process that information: “If you don’t cultivate insights from what you take in, then the value of stimuli in your life decreases dramatically. Taking good notes on your observations, insights, and experiences with a reliable thought-capture system prevents them from disappearing into the ether.”

A thought capture system, I wondered. Naturally, a notebook is the first stage. But I would need to be held accountable to intentionally observing things around me, regularly writing about what I see, read, or experience, and writing clearly.  Each of these, my moleskin notebook, as much as it has been a trusty companion, cannot demand of me. My moleskin likewise cannot give feedback or begin a dialogue. An audience, however, can give me all of these things. Why not then blog about creative insights? Best case scenario, readers respond and begin a conversation about the things that inspire them; worst case, I can thank my readers for reminding me to be intentional and regular about processing my stimuli.  Hopefully the blog will at least entertain readers and encourage them to be more curious about the fascinating world in which we live. Henry says, “You need to regularly seek experiences that will enlighten you, help you see the world in new ways, and open you to new ways of thinking.”

My hope for this blog is that as I share about my own mind stretching, it stretches readers as well, and encourages them to go out and get some stretching in on their own. But we need not think of this as a painful exercise. It often looks much more like play. Henry quotes Stuart Brown, author of Play: “Play is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.”

So readers, let’s lead lively lives. Let’s also pay attention to what makes them so.


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