Several weeks ago, I participated in a public speaking workshop, but I was unable to present my speech due to an unfortunate food poisoning incident involving a duck pizza. I hope to find another opportunity to present (after additional practice), but here is the text of it, along with some photos and links to references.
If you’ve been reading this blog long (hi, grad schoolmates!), then you might recognize the project. It’s been a couple of years, but this lesson has stuck with me, and I now consider myself a recovering perfectionist.
Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin introduced me to the concept of the lizard brain. What is the lizard brain? It’s resistance. It’s the little voice in your head you might hear that says to stop, don’t do it, back away slowly. It’s the writer’s block, the shaky knees, the fear factor. My lizard brain is screeching quite loudly right now. It craves safety, familiarity, rationality and status quo. It hates change and fights newness.
Here’s a fun fact about me: I’ve always been a perfectionist. Well into adulthood and sometimes still, failing or even just not performing well have always been among my greatest fears. I would quit things as a kid (soccer, dance, gymnastics, rock climbing) if I wasn’t good at them right away. I would spend hours and hours on research papers and projects to make sure I went above and beyond expectations. I wanted to be right, I wanted A plusses and 110 percents and gold stars and blue ribbons.
I was horrified of criticism. And I hated it when teachers grouped me with who I perceived had lower standards of work or didn’t know as much as I did on a subject because it likely meant I had to lower my bar or pull the weight (obviously I didn’t yet understand the benefits of collaboration). I was basically the Lisa Simpson of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Counter-intuitively, I would procrastinate like crazy on papers or projects I didn’t think I would do very well on. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother studying for a test because I just “knew” I would fail it (I’m looking at you, algebra 2.) This is the lizard brain in action! Self-sabotaging perfectionism is a thing. I mean, truly, I was pretty tightly wound.
Fast forward to graduate school. I took a class called Creativity & Networks, a class designed to get us out of our comfort zones, increase our creative confidence and embrace our vulnerability to make meaningful connections with people. We did a number of off-the-wall activities during that course including a found-object creation or trash art.
Backing up a little bit, all the way back in 1939, James Webb Young wrote a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas. In it, he laid out five essential steps for a productive creative process, guided by two principles. For the steps, you’ll have to read the book or Google it, but the principles are:
- An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements, and
- The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
Now, trash is nothing more than discarded elements that are no longer needed or no longer function for their original intent. Some argue that the materials in trash are essentially untapped resources for new things. You see this a lot now in the up-cycle movement made especially popular by Pinterest.
Anyway, to practice enacting these principles, we were given the following instructions: Gather five seemingly unrelated items that have been discarded as waste. Mash them together to create something new.
I raided the recycle bin at home for four of my pieces, gathering a paper towel roll, a Tetrapak (boxed soup), a magazine and a soda can. At the time, I happened to work at an aviation parts distributor where we had a scrap cage full of unsellable materials. So, for my fifth element, I grabbed an old seal from a PW 4000 airplane engine.
I spent a few hours on a Saturday cutting, crafting, mashing. Waiting to see how these bits would fit, waiting for this new creation to reveal itself to me. I finally chopped up the soda can and this sun appeared. Once I found this sun, everything else just… came together. I cut up the paper roll and made flowers from the rings, then sliced up the Tetrapak and magazine to make to make additional flowers and then a little swag.
Pretty awesome result, right? The key here, though, was not necessarily the end result. The point was the process. This exercise was meant to teach us about curiosity, play and experimentation for idea generation.
While this wasn’t actually the first found-object creation for me, this course and this assignment were pivotal.
This was basically a smack in the face that I am just not going to be good at everything I pick up. I have to embrace the process and the practice because experience is where the learning, growth, improvement and innovation happen. I didn’t know when looking at pieces of trash what would happen, and no one else knew what those pieces would become. I had no blueprint or IKEA pictographs. I just had to cut, craft and mash my way through to something cool.
In his book The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin writes: “We’ve been trained to prefer being right to learning something, to prefer passing the test to making a difference, and most of all, to prefer fitting in, but now it’s your turn to stand up and stand out… you can risk being wrong or you can boring.”
He also reminded me that “failure is an event, not a person.” Something I need to remind myself regularly. It happens. Pick up and keep going. So using those thousand ways that didn’t work meant I was closer to finding what did, to paraphrase Edison. Soak up any criticism that comes along and use it to get better. David Kelley of IDEO calls this “enlightened trial and error.”
These days I spend a lot more time reminding myself that my comfort zone doesn’t expand if I don’t test its limits. I am not a better employee if I just keep doing what I’m doing, what’s easy. I still do my best, of course, but I have to challenge myself and try things that aren’t necessarily comfortable, like public speaking. It’s the only way to become a better version of myself.
When I was in Dublin earlier this year, I spotted a huge piece of trash art crafted into the shape of a building-sized squirrel. Does the squirrel itself have meaning? I don’t know, but I smiled when I saw it because it was another reminder of the power of creative confidence and of relationships – from previously discarded and seemingly disparate elements appears something new and something pretty special.
James Webb Young of the second principle, seeing relationships among unrelated elements, says, “Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is … the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”
Creative confidence is the willingness to share your strengths and your weaknesses and make connections with other humans.
How will you connect the dots?