A Sense of Safety

Years ago when I was visiting in Philadelphia, I bought a book by Julia Cameron, “The Artist’s Way.”

The book was new then, but went on to become a phenomenon and it is easy to understand why. It’s purpose was to help “recovering creatives”, that is to help creative people who had lost the spark and habit of living creatively, find their way back to a more creative life. It was aimed at artists, writers and musicians, but as the years have gone by, I have come to see that it’s principles extend far beyond artists, and into business, technology and life itself.

If you read much about business and technology, you already know that we are living in what many call “the creativity age”, a time where business and technology are driven by innovation. Coming up with “the next big thing”, or disruptive technology, or simplifying the complex is the path successful companies are taking day in and day out. This extends to business processes, ministries, and almost any organization that wants to grow consistently and dramatically.

But developing a creative culture where people feel free to share ideas, and where there is a process to sift through the ideas and find ones that are both effective and implementable  is a challenge. And often the challenge starts with the very first issue that Julia Cameron brings out in “The Artist’s Way.”

Creativity, she tells us, is something that we are all born with. You don’t have to look far to see that is true. Watch small children play and their imaginations will astound you. But somewhere along the way we lose that spontaneity, that willingness, even anxiousness, to throw out ideas as they tumble through our head.

The reason is that as children, we want approval and we assume adults know best. And at an early age we are told to “be practical” or told “That’s a silly idea.”. And so we do what people do when they want approval, we adapt. We become practical, And we stuff our ideas in a closet somewhere, like old toys.

We may think we outgrow that need for approval, but trust me, we don’t. We carry it with us throughout life. And so we keep a lot of our good ideas shut up in those closets and in time, often, lose the knack of generating ideas all together.

What creative people (and I would say all people who want to be innovative) need, according to Cameron, is a sense of safety, And what we need to do in life, work or ministry, is create a place of safety for ideas to flourish.

When I am working with organizations that want to develop a more creative culture, most organizations or people THINK they do nothing to quell creativity, but when I start to visit, sit in on meetings and talk to people, I inevitably find the same things:

In meetings, when new ideas are asked for, they are critiqued as soon as the ideas emerge. Reasons they won’t work spring out of everyone’s mouth as soon as the idea is voice, effectively shooting it down immediately.

People in the organization all feel that it’s “useless” to bring up new ideas because “nothing’s going to change.” Most of the time they can point to a particular manager who they see as the great wall, blocking new thoughts before they have a chance to even be thought about.

Even when ideas are taken and used by management, there is rarely any acknowledgement of where the ideas came from.

The thing is, we’re all still kids at some level. We don’t like being shot down. We love praise and encouragement. If we don’t feel it’s safe – safe for our image, safe for our careers, safe for our tender feelings (and they are tender, even in the hardest nosed businessman.), then we will cease to risk tossing out ideas.

If we are in a corporate or organizational setting, the ONLY way a corporate culture changes is if those at the top create that place of safety, then the culture can change. If the people at the top don’t create that place. then we’re all stuck, and other companies and organizations will grow at our expense.

What can we do? Here are a few ideas.

In meetings, hold back the “that’s crazy: critique. Urge people to build on each other’s ideas. In brainstorming sessions, institute a “if you can’t say anything good about an idea, keep quiet” rule. (Yes, Mom was right on this one, even in business).
At the end of a brainstorming session, have the group pick a few of their favorite ideas and ask people to do some research and thinking on how it could actually work. You will only use a few of the ideas, but it will create an atmosphere of possibility that will grow and nourish ideas – and it only takes one or two great ideas to make a profound difference in your bottom line.

When Ideas are implemented, or even a variation of an idea, recognize those that came up with it. We’re all kids inside and we all love praise by the teacher. Even at our age.
When I was a partner at The Kingma Agency, I used to keep a big white board in a public place and when we were working on a new project, I urged everyone who had ideas to write them on the board. It became a game, and we all had fun with all the ideas, smart and silly, that showed up. Having them in public like that made it easy to write something down, and ideas spawned ideas. We’d talk about ideas that showed up on the boards. And in the end,l we almost always found great ideas for our clients. Everyone had a part. Everyone.

The point is, if you want innovation and creativity, you have to create a place for it to flourish. A place that addresses our basic human need for safety and encouragement. It has to be done consciously because it is rarely natural. We’re all too tuned in on what’s practical. There’s a time and place to make ideas practical and profitable. But that’s later. First, you have to HAVE the ideas.

What if you are an individual who wants’ to build a more creative life for yourself? How do you apply this same principle of creating a sense of safety?

Go back to what Mom said. You remember don’t you? Mom was all about making sure we had the right friends around us.

That principle is still the same. If we want a more creative life, we need to surround ourselves with people that have a sense of possibility and encouragement. So it’s time to do a reality check. Look at the people you spend time with. Do they encourage playful, creative thinking? Or do they squelch it? We don’t need to ditch people if they aren’t raising us up, but we DO need to have people who encourage us and make us feel safe talking and imagining if we want to live more creatively.

Here’s the good news. We lost our creative spark, as people and as organizations, because of a slow, systematic whacking at imagination by friends, family, managers, ministers, and other leaders in our life and work. We slowly bought into the myth that creativity wasn’t practical. But amazingly, the rest of the world, even business and industry, have caught up with our childhood, and has come to see the very practical value of creativity. In the same way we lost it, slowly, we can regain that creative energy for ourselves and our organizations by mindfully and purposefully making changes that create a sense of safety.

And it is so worth it. A creative life is more fun, more fulfilling, and just plain interesting to live, whatever form our creativity takes. Isn’t that something we all want for ourselves?

Take care. Travel wisely.


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