Pulling Open the Flower

On week three of our Shattering the Meme novena, we explore the concept of creativity.  Creativity cannot be forced, nor can it emerge fully formed from the depths of our minds.  Unlearning the idea that hours spent equals quality of output to force an outcome is the lesson of this week.

As creatives, it’s ingrained in us from our earliest years that we are somehow supposed to be masters of everything.  The image of the superstar sole proprietor who conquers the word is dangled before us and we’re made to feel as if we are doing something wrong if we can’t achieve it.  From those first weeks in studio classes, the all-nighter is introduced. The idea behind it is that we need to work hard, really hard, at being creative.  We are not taught techniques for collaboration, or pulling in ideas from other industries or arts.  We are not taught how to understand the needs of the people we design for.  No, Instead the message is that it all must come from within.  And if the great idea won’t just open up out of our mind and bloom, we need to start picking at the bud, much like an ant on a peony.

Sounds strangely logical, except that creativity doesn’t work that way.  The worst thing you can do is to put performance pressure on it, instead of letting it flow, to close down its sources instead of expanding its horizons.  This meme has never served anything but our collective egos as it takes our self-esteem on a perpetual roller coaster ride.

Stop the suffering
Because we have been taught the behavior pattern of hard work, it feels wrong when an idea comes too easily.  We analyze it, reconstruct it, over-embellish it, reject it.  All in an attempt to make the act of creation something that requires tremendous effort.  We need to recognize that what we have been conditioned to feel “right” about in the design process is actually only what feels familiar to ourselves and our profession.  It gets propagated as “the way.”  In fact, what really ends up being propagated is stress inducing behavior. So, we think that if we are not under stress, we must not be very creative.  This is somewhat like planting a shade-loving plant in full sun, assuming that your shadow as you constantly tend it will be enough.

Live in the now
Creativity is about being present, not trying to predict the future based on the past.  When you are in the zone and are in a state of pure consciousness, nothing except the present moment matters.  You stop imposing past limiting beliefs and letting fears about what might happen restrict you, and you just go with it.  No over-thinking, no judgement.  Just think what would happen if you gave yourself more opportunities to disconnect the outcome from possibility. You might even realize that what you or your client thought the outcome should be wasn’t the best way to solve the problem. Stop ignoring all of the other ideas flowering in the garden in your focus on the one plant that hasn’t yet bloomed.

Allow the unfolding
In our “I am enough” mentality, we believe that we can go directly from intention to outcome.  We think that we control the outcome solely through our efforts, and if we didn’t get the result we wanted, we must have either not worked hard enough or made some mistake.  Not only does this corrode self esteem, it sets us up to shut down opportunities that might lead us to an even better result. You can plant the seeds, and tend the garden, but the plant will grow at its own rate, take its own form.  Building the framework for your intent and ideas to grow and then letting them take shape organically will lead you to the best possible outcome.  Relinquish control of what the outcome needs to look like and trust that you have set the right things in motion.

Shatter the Meme:
Allow yourself to detach from the outcome and instead focus on the intent behind the work you are doing.  What opportunity for growth can you find in the problem?  What is really motivating your client to take action?  What kind of environments do people really need? By asking these questions of yourself, your team and your client, you are able to ensure you are solving the right problems and building the right framework.  Resist the need to be a control freak and remember that when you pull open the flower, you usually spoil it.  Step back and let things unfold instead of trying, in your impatience, to force the outcome.

What does Success Look Like to You?

On week two of our Shattering the Meme novena, we look at how to tell the difference between illusion and reality, especially when it comes to how we define our success.  Success is not a destination, but a measuring stick.  When calculating how you measure up, make sure you are being honest with yourself and using valid criteria, not other people’s beliefs and agendas.

Mirror mirror on the wall...the evil queen just didn’t get it.  To her, beauty was defined very specifically as physical appearance. The mirror had a very different definition of beauty, or maybe it just changed its mind (since we never do learn of the mirror’s evaluation criteria, it’s hard to say what it was that made Snow White suddenly jump to the top of the mirror’s ranking). Whatever she had been doing to be declared “fairest of them all” suddenly stopped working for the queen and away went the daily affirmation that she had become so used to receiving. The queen was stuck in one definition of success - beauty - that she built her whole life around. When it was taken away from her, she reacted by trying to restore the past. 

Why go on about a fairy tale?  Because I think many of us define success as some version of vanquishing enemies, being a hero and living happily ever after.  Success comes to be an illusion, built on living up to other people’s expectations.  What success is really about is knowing that you are living your life to your fullest potential.  That requires taking the time to discover your true gifts and find a way to live your life as an expression of them.  Some common success memes that get shattered right now:

Letting others define you
Do you attach yourself to heroes and tie your self worth to how much praise or attention you can get from them? The queen could have spared herself a great deal of misery had she taken the time to think about what it was about beauty that really mattered so much to her.  She might have discovered beauty was not a particularly important or necessary criterion for a good queen (pity Queen Victoria wasn’t around until later).  Instead, she let a mirror define her, without even knowing the basis of the definition.  Everything was right with her world until she stopped hearing what she wanted to hear.    Have you lost the ability to know what you want for yourself because you are so busy trying to be something you think others will value?

Trying to eliminate the threat
Change is the one thing you can count on, and you either get out in front of it or get left behind.  In the red ocean view of the world that so many architects have unfortunately adopted, competition is a threat because you believe that it’s kill or be killed.  The evil queen set out to eliminate Snow White, thinking that that was the way to put herself back on top.  She never stopped to think about what her competition might be doing differently or how she might express her own beauty more strongly.  How many times do you think you are doing everything “right” and stubbornly persist in the same behaviors, becoming more and more competitive and cutthroat?  Success is never a static monolithic thing that you can “set and forget.”  It’s a constant state of becoming.  Understand that you need to adapt your strategies for achieving success to the changing factors around you.

Using the wrong criteria
I don’t know if much can be said to redeem the archetype of the evil stepmother, but it’s highly likely that the woman had some other positive attributes besides beauty.  By being stuck on a single dimension of herself, she was in an all or nothing position, where failure at life itself was the only alternative to being the “fairest of them all.”  How many times do you hold yourself to a standard of perfection?  Of all that you are capable of doing, all the things that you are really good at, you focus instead on a single attribute and allow yourself to feel like a failure because you haven’t achieved the fullest expression of that yet.

Ineffectively seeking feedback
Success is not a destination, its a measurement of whether you are on track to achieving personal fulfillment.  That said, it does require some external measures. However, external measures are a bit of a garbage-in/garbage-out proposition.  Let’s look at our evil queen example again.  This woman had a magic mirror, for God’s sake.  It always told the truth.  That’s a pretty powerful tool.  You think she might use it to find out if enemies were plotting the demise of her kingdom, or if a famine was on the horizon.  Instead, she asked it whether or not she was beautiful.  That’s because she was so stuck on being successful in the one way she had defined it for herself that nothing else mattered.  She could have gotten all kinds of useful information that would have made her loved and powerful (which is probably why she thought being beautiful was important anyway), she wouldn’t have had to compete to be “the most” of anything, and could have had everything she wanted just being herself.  But she didn’t trust that she was enough.  Use your feedback sources, be they a mentor, a client, a friend, a list of accomplishments to good effect by not filtering the information you seek so narrowly that you miss the larger message of how well you are really doing.

Shatter the Meme:
Think about what you want to happen in your life in order to consider yourself successful.  Look at those things you think are necessary for success and ask yourself why you think they are important.  Did someone else tell you that they were the only way to “make it?”  Do you think that someone whose opinion matters to you will be impressed?  Are other people expecting that you do these things in order for them to value you? Who said that particular attribute even was important?  Was it your mother, or a professor you admired?  What do they really know?

 Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we need to constantly challenge ourselves, to move outside of our comfort zones and grow.  But when you allow someone else, no matter how well meaning, to tell you what you should value you start to take on an idea of what success should be that is not your own.  You could check every box on their criteria list and still not feel successful because accomplishing those things may not resonate with you.  Success is living the fullest expression of yourself.  It is not living out someone else’s dream.

Shattering the Meme

For the third annual novena at the Patron Saint of Architecture, I want to help you to see all of the unlimited potential you have and start putting it to work for you.  Novenas are an annual chance to look in-depth at issues that affect how we operate in the world.  In past novenas we looked at how we can truly make a difference in the world, and how to overcome the things that drain our creativity.  This year, we will center around all of the things that we may not even know are holding us back, so that you can shatter those memes and become all that you were meant to be.

Memes, those ideas or beliefs that pervade our culture, are hard to avoid.  Like frogs in the pot, we don’t even know that they’re affecting us, they just seem to be the way it is.  As creative people we are especially susceptible to memes because there’s a certain voodoo around the act of creation.  When your work involves acts for which there is no right answer, you can only respond by evoking memes. The memes of a culture and its expectations, the memes of professional conduct, the memes of what a relationship with a client is supposed to look like.  But what if the meme is wrong? 

We can see the short-term effects of memes in viral internet content.  People get caught up in the topic, idiomatic speech may even be affected.  Then it passes.  Observing these micormemes allows us to see how something can be incredibly relevant due to factors taking place at the moment then pass away like a fad. I want to try to look at metamemes in much the same way.  That’s a lot harder to do.  Even if you can see that there may be something beyond, you might not see why it’s even in your interests to pursue it. 

Live outside the fishbowl
It’s important to realize that memes can operate on two different levels.  The horizontal level is what we absorb from our peers and other surroundings. Those memes can be, but aren’t always, easier to identify.  The more insidious memes are the ones that operate on a vertical level through cultural inheritance.  It’s what you learned about the culture of your profession from your professors and mentors, what your employers and co-workers have enforced, even what your parents thought.  If memes are all around us and have helped to form our beliefs about who we are and what’s possible in our lives and careers, that means we are not necessarily aware of them.  In this nine week series, we are going to bust through some common memes and shatter all of the limitations they hold.  I warn you, this will be both challenging and scary.  Your first reaction will be to disagree, but I ask you to sit with it and really think about why you might be unwilling to question a given issue.  We may not arrive at the same idea for shattering it, but just the realization that there could be a different approach is powerful.

Change the Equation

Believe it or not, most of us live our lives as if everything we encounter were a basic algebra problem.  We use the formulas we know to solve for x (ex. 6 + x = 10).  Unfortunately, solving for x means you have used a meme to eliminate the other variables, in our example that would be the number six or even the outcome, the number 10.  This very straightforward approach to problem solving often causes us to have tunnel vision about achieving outcomes.  If you have ever become frustrated about why you could be doing “all the right things” and still not get the desired outcome, you know what I am talking about.  I want to challenge you to think of things in a different way:  what do you really want the outcome to be?  Not the outcome you think you should achieve, but the one you really want.  Then, work backwards to see how you could achieve it.  Allow there to be more variables and less givens about the situation.  Use a little calculus, or even some differential equations.

Enter the World of Innovative Transformation
Innovative transformation is about challenging yourself to have a game-changing response to the opportunities in your life, instead of your automatic one.  How often do you start a new project the same way you start every other project?  I’m willing to bet you have all kinds of reasons why this is the best or only way to approach things.  You might be open to tweaking your process, but probably feel resistant to throwing it out wholesale.  But what if you did?  Silence all those limiting beliefs and just think about that.  What could happen?  Now think about all of the little things, the small and large decisions you make every single day.  Instead of making them on auto-pilot, start being conscious of them, and start asking yourself what assumptions are tied up in your typical actions.  Change your thinking and change your life.

For the next eight posts, I’m going to present common metamemes that we all deal with and give you strategies for looking at them in a whole different way.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences as you work to shatter each one.  The Patron community supports you and I know that you are unlimited.