Liberation: six steps to set your creativity free

Does your thinking always default to “fault?” Are you trapped in an endless game of “gotcha” with yourself?  Have you imprisoned your creative spirit in a cage of self doubt? As someone who expects perfection out of myself I can relate to the fears and desire to overachieve and exceed expectations that hold creative people back.  I recently read an excellent article on letting go by Tony Schwartz that got me thinking about how we can set ourselves free of things that don’t serve our highest self in order to make room for the things that do.  Sounds like a scary proposition- but it’s not.  What it is is nothing short of liberation.  Just as fear of failing can immobilize us and keep us stuck in a rut, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good causes us to aim low, and apologize for taking chances.  It causes that judge and jury in our heads to consistently level a guilty verdict. This is my list of six common creative prisons and recommendations for breaking out:

Shackled to the past
Maybe it took you a while to really get the hang of model building, or a design program.  Maybe you got some harsh criticisms of your work.  Maybe that first internship was a bit rocky as you learned the ropes.  Maybe, just maybe you learned from all of this and are now competent.  However, you got used to viewing yourself as inexperienced and mistake prone.  That self-image no longer is a true representation of the architect you are today.  Like the person who’s conquered a lifelong weight problem, and can’t stop seeing themselves as fat, you are locked inside your initial years as a fledgeling architect. Re-write your resume, update your LinkedIn profile, do something to affirm the architect you are today and keep celebrating that in order to change your self image so that you can feel empowered to make decisions from the point of view of who you are, not who you were.

Confined by busywork
No one ever says on their deathbed that they wished they’d worked more.  If anything they probably wished they’ed enjoyed life more and made more of an impact.  No, you can’t blow off deadlines, but you can prioritize.  Are you letting your to-do list be your excuse?  Whether it’s deadlines at work or personal projects, not giving yourself permission to move forward is not only silly, but it makes you feel so uninspired that you probably won’t actually get all those tasks done anyway.  You eat a pie one bite at a time.  At the beginning of each day, look at what parts of your life goals you can accomplish on that day.  It may be a single task and that’s fine because it advanced your agenda.  Contract, distill and excel.  When you say no to the expansive opportunities before you in order to scratch off some (insignificant in a global view) task, you are really saying no to your own expansion.

Locked into Entitlement
Do you brood about what’s not right or not fair in your career?  The client who treated you poorly, the promotion you didn’t get?  Do you beat yourself up over every real or imagined misstep?  The root of those feelings is an unyielding and harsh view of yourself as all or nothing.  Like a teenager, you believe that you deserve certain things and that life is lived at the extremes of always and never.  As your mother probably told you then, “life’s not fair.”  She was right.  Life’s not just about you.  The people you interact with have their own motives- you are far better served when you focus on understanding them because what really matters is the result and how you respond to a situation, not all the things that happened along the way to cause it.

Energetically in Isolation
You might think you took the high road by not telling your boss off, or giving that unappreciative client a lecture on the value of your service.  But you are still holding on to the resentment and it colors all of your future interactions not only with the individual in question but with others in your professional and private life as well.  Realize that by being non-confrontational, you are choosing to make yourself invisible- no wonder you aren’t on these people’s A-List.  Think about your passion for what you do as a ball of energy that lives at your core.  The more expansive the energy, the further out the glow extends.  Other people are attracted to that glow and want to work with you.  The greatest architects have such expansive energy that people will crowd into lecture halls to hear what they have to say, buy their monographs and wish they could work for or with them.  When you can’t let go of all of your resentments or regrets, you diminish your energy.  Think about that glass-half empty colleague or friend  How drawn to that person do you (or clients) feel?  Then realize that, at times, we are all that person.  Choose to be aware of when you are letting your anger, doubts and fears diminish your energy.  Then take steps to let go.  Stop suppressing your emotions and instead think about whether you actually made your point of view heard.   Calmly and with an open mind approach the person and ask them to recount their decision/actions from their point of view.  You may be surprised at what you learn.

On the chain gang of Trying Too Hard
Are you trying to make your clients like you more by practically wiping their noses for them?   Score points with your boss by being a workaholic?  Being a doormat diminishes your expertise and loses any respect people will have for you.  A project is a partnership and all involved have to understand their roles and responsibilities.  Decisions and directives (or lack of them) have consequences.  Don’t try to sweep client driven issues or office problems under the rug and cheerfully try to compensate by doing others work for them.  So often, we try to just make our situation work and do it all. You never want to put yourself in a position of being held accountable for an outcome in an areas where you have no responsibility. Your boss and your client’s main objective is to have a successful project.  If they aren’t giving you what you need to accomplish this, the greatest service you can provide is one of coaching them on how they can help make the outcome a success. 

Rotting in the dungeon of the Status Quo
What’s good for General Bullmoose is not necessarily what’s good for you.  If you are trying to live up to the expectations of your family, co-workers, society, you are engaged in conformance.  Conformity erodes creativity.  I am not suggesting that you have to be an angry, angry artist who rejects the world in order to be successful.  I am telling you that you need to know yourself and make decisions because they are right for you.  Unfortunately, we’re all likely to hit cruise control when we feel that our lives are basically going in a good direction.  It usually takes some disruptive event to create a breakthrough.  Why?  Because being shaken out of your status quo stupor makes you refocus on what really matters to you.  In the disruptive state, you reject limits and question rules.  Make bold, purposeful moves in your life and you will fail, but you will also succeed beyond your wildest dreams.    When you take actions with purpose, not just because you can or should, miracles can happen.
Who caged your creativity? Who cares?  What’s important to remember is that you hold the key to your own creative freedom. Unlock your own liberation.

Wellness the Series: Urban Rx: Cures for Sick Places

My most recent article for Urban Times discusses ways neighborhoods can develop strategies to challenge blight.

Every city has at least one: the neighborhood with rampant crime, boarded up buildings, empty lots. Few stroll its streets and the businesses that remain have bars on the windows. This kind of place had a heyday once, but is now in a tragic state of demise. Often, such places are in strategic urban locations and ripe for revitalization. But, short of calling in the bulldozers, how does a neighborhood go about fomenting its renaissance? It starts with properly diagnosing the reasons for decline (every story is not the same) and working closely with neighborhood residents and businesses to develop the prescription to turn things around.

Read the Symptoms, Treat the Problem

A sketch I did showing the importance of mixed use and a variety of building textures, styles and colors as part of a charrette for the revitalization of Phoenix's Wilson neighborhood.
So often, response to urban decline is reactionary: high crime translates to constructing fences and more security, for example. However, responding defensively to a series of symptoms has the unintended consequences of creating an even more hostile environment, sending not the message of toughness, but a message that no one, not even the neighborhood residents, are very welcome in the neighborhood. Most people don’t understand this, neither do most planning and zoning commissions. Hence, we end up with everyone’s fears written into the codes, instead of everyone’s hopes.  Something like higher crime is usually a symptom of a greater urban disease, which is why applying the aspirin of “lockdown” to the cancer of urban decay seldom works.  What a community really needs to do is take a long hard look at itself and begin to look at social and economic factors that have changed for the worse, then look at strategies for making a change:
Urban decay Vandalism at the Broadford Works on Ann Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Character is Brand – Most struggling neighborhoods are suffering from an identity crisis, while they know they need to have a more walkable community that feels safe and is clean, they need help figuring out their unique path to revitalization.  No two neighborhoods are exactly alike.  If you take the time to talk to the people who live there you’ll find out why they stay, and even more, why they’re willing to fight so hard for revitalization. That character, which is an experience not available elsewhere in the city, is what needs to be celebrated and cultivated in everything from the streetscape and plantings, to the type of businesses that are courted, to the density and style of the buildings. Think about traffic patterns and flows, the accessibility of parking and how parking impacts the feel of the space. The brand that develops is what can be used to court new businesses. Brand builds the expectation of the customer/user.  It needs to be based on a solid and clear vision, integrated as an experience, and it has to deliver on its promise.
  • Leverage Assets – For any community, being able to achieve what it wants (its vision for a future), from what it has (its character and history) involves knowing what it needs. Copying what worked for another neighborhood is no guarantee of success. People are not attracted to generic, soulless communities to live, work and play. They are attracted to the quirky, wonderful little neighborhood with the interesting mix of shops and restaurants that is worth the trip. Once they spend enough time there, they may even become interested in living nearby. Communities must be being willing to start small – maybe just a few blocks on a main road to develop a critical mass. Look at the merchant mix and think about the message that it sends, then work with the owners of the businesses you want to keep to help them find locations where they can be grouped in a way that they help one another succeed (i.e. a series of restaurants and shops in a row).
  • Get Momentum – Even the most thorough and realistic of plans won’t lead to revitalization if the community itself isn’t engaged. While it may be impossible to have complete agreement, it is not impossible to reach out to local businesses and law enforcement as well as grant programs and other opportunities available at a municipal level. Seeing these first steps of positive change allays fears and suspicion and encourages residents to be more involved as well because they can see the effect of their actions. Most struggling neighborhoods have plenty of missing teeth in the form of abandoned or under-occupied buildings and vacant lots.  However, in order to convince new businesses to locate there, a neighborhood must have some momentum going. Even something as simple as a streetscape improvement project shows a commitment to change and reinforces that all-important brand.  Don’t forget to grow entrepreneurs from local residents and always aim for authenticity.

Seek Alternative Therapies

Photo c/o dennoir (flickr)

While they may have had their place, traditional zoning codes with their restrictive description of uses have little relevance for the modern city.  Zoning codes are about achieving uniformity and compliance, not about cultivating character – kind of like Mom saying “no.”  What if, instead, we thought about codes as a list of everything you can do, should do, might do?  Form-based codes  are a great alternative for urban areas because they are not about segregating uses, but about encouraging density, walkability and character.  Many cities have implemented them and many more like my home city of Cincinnati, Ohio are in the process of doing so because they allow redevelopment to be shepherded in a way that reinforces identity of place over simply following rules.  Form-based codes focus on the fine grain aspect of experience, looking at things like human scale and pedestrian friendliness.  True to their name, this code system is less about land use than urban form, with an emphasis on creating public space shaped by private buildings.
Communities that take the time to really know their needs, and are willing to fight for them, do get better.  What’s critical is to stay true to a vision, pull the community into the effort, support local businesses and never stop improving.  Think of redevelopment as a bird flapping its wings – it can soar as long as it continues the effort, but can glide only so long before it will plummet.  It takes time, patience and tireless commitment for an ailing neighborhood to recover, but blight is curable.

Superheroes of the Built World

Last week, I took trapeze lessons.  A group of co-workers have taken on a challenge to do extreme sports activities over the course of the year and sent an email inviting others to join.  I could not hit reply fast enough- what an adventure!  When I got up on that platform, my inner daredevil took over and it was beyond thrilling.  I only regret that I do not have the body of an acrobat, and thus could not do things like a catch and release (but I tried, I tried).  After I develop more core strength, I will go back again in the hopes of successfully completing this stunt.  My four year old self is begging for the opportunity. You see, this was a childhood fantasy come true; I loved going to the circus and, next to the clowns, the acrobats were my favorite. I wanted to be one when I grew up, causing my mother some bit of consternation. While I did pursue gymnastics lessons though high school, I never competed and by the time I was eight or so, I had abandoned my dream career in the circus for being an astrophysicist, then a teacher, then an artist, only finding my way to architecture late in high school. My time on the trapeze got me thinking about what our childhood fantasy careers are really trying to tell us about who we are.

One thing they don’t tell us is to play it safe

Children crave the action oriented, things that serve an obvious purpose with a touch of adventure thrown in. They don’t dream of hours spent in mind-numbing meetings, being heckled by a bullying boss or playing office politics.  They don’t fantasize about the drudgery of overtime because of over-promised deadlines.  They most certainly do not aspire to being awarded some silly title that will pigeon-hole them into a constrained set of roles.  In fact, if you were to present any of these dismal (but all too real) scenarios to a child, they would respond by proposing some bold brash action to put the perpetrator of such misery in his or her place.

This visceral response, commonly echoed in comics, and even some movies, allows the hero to stand up for him or herself, indulging in the supreme satisfaction of defeating evil, telling off an annoying person, double crossing a backstabber  or ceremoniously walking away from oppressive expectations like a toxic job or relationship.  Many times this is coupled with  a physical act- literally vanquishing life’s villain.  We can’t legally do many of these things in real life, so we bury our frustrations and resign ourselves to our fate.  Kapow!  That’s the sound of me smacking you upside the head (virtually of course).  When you feel the urge to be resigned is when you should resign - literally - from whatever is oppressing your ability to be great.  Reconnect with your childhood self and your innermost passions- in other words, look beyond the ordinary career path.

What would Wonder Woman do?
As a child, you truly believed you could change the world.  What you may not realize is that you still can.  You don’t have to accept less than your expectations.  In career paths laden with compromise and nuance, our purpose gets lost.  This is a creativity buzzkill to say the least.  Choose to embark on a more adventurous route:
Lead a double life
No, you don’t need to have a secret identity (unless you want to), but you do need to have more than one dimension.  You can deal with the sometimes mundane aspects involved in being Diana Prince when you know that as Wonder Woman, you are saving the world.  Many times when I talk to someone who is frustrated in their career, they usually work at their job and that’s about it.  They have become flattened, so the consequences of the day to day effort involved in a project or interpersonal business relationships become all consuming.  If you have lost perspective in this way, you need to look for opportunities to live your passion outside of your job.  Volunteer in the community, apply to be a member of a board or commission- do something else that matters to you to expand your network.  It might seem counter-intuitive, but when you expose yourself to fun and inspiring activities (like trapezing), you actually become better at solving workplace problems and making career choices.
Be a hero
You are an architect, so why isn’t your city better?  People on the street may not cry out for help like they do in comic books, but it’s not very heroic of you to keep ignoring obvious need.  Heroes don’t let a purse snatcher get away because they’d rather wait for their archenemy to launch some diabolical plot.  They help wherever they are needed.  So should you. Take initiative and work to make a change. 
Confront your nemesis
What’s holding you back?  What are you too afraid to even attempt?  If you take the time to really think about it, these root fears of inadequacy or failure are the excuse you use not to pursue things that really matter  to you.  They make you risk adverse and keep you stuck in that rut you always complain about being stuck in.  Challenge yourself and remember, those elaborate plots to eliminate the hero were always foiled in the end (mostly because they were way too elaborate).  Your nemesis is really just you over-thinking everything.

Over the next few weeks, I am launching my second Patron Saint of Architecture novena (click on the tab at the top of the page to read last year's Breaking Points and Turning Points novena).  Change the World (an experiment), will profile cities as seen through the lens of the real-life superheroes who weren’t afraid to step outside their comfort zone and champion a cause in the built environment.  What they did made a difference, and you will get to hear their stories so that you, too can be inspired to use your powers as an architect for the greater good.   Before you shut down this idea by automatically thinking that you can’t possibly pull off a stunt like this, I want to share the most profound thing I discovered at my trapeze lesson: falling is truly no big deal.  It’s how you get down when you are done with your act.