Let Your Freak Flag Fly

People don’t trust what they don’t see. You can tell your people that they are safe with you til you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t have blue in your hair, they will still think they have to stick to strict standards of conformity.

I’m not saying you have to literally dye your hair. I’m saying that if you want a creative team who feel safe speaking up, who trust you will have their backs if they mess up, who believe they can bring any wacky new idea to you and you will listen and help them find the part that will work – then you need to be a little wacky too. You need to show your vulnerability, and admit when you make mistakes. You need to wear mismatched socks sometimes. You need to show that you are your own person with your own peculiarities, and that you welcome the peculiar parts of other people too.

I spoke to an image consultant once who told me the blue in my hair had to go if I wanted to get corporate clients. I said no way! I’m advocating for people to show up as their whole, unique, creative, and messy selves at work. I want people to feel safe to be weird and silly as well as focused and capable. I want people to bring all their ideas, not just the conforming ones. This is how we will survive, with the creative ideas to solve complex problems coming from all the people bringing all the weirdness together and seeing which parts work. Cutting part of us off in order to fit in does no one any good.

This is part of my mission to change the world of work. I want people to feel safe being themselves. I want people to feel safe bringing up new ideas. We need the creativity that comes from disparate things coming together. If all we show up with is the same as what everyone else has, we will come up with the same solutions everyone has already come up with. So please – let your freak flag fly. At least a little. Let the other freaks know that you’re their kind of freak, so they can feel safe being weird around you. We will all benefit in the end.

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Pleasure Is The New Gratitude

Does it sometimes feel like a chore to come up with a list of things you’re grateful for? Like you’re in a perfectly good grumpy mood, and someone wants you to say things like “I’m grateful for hot running water” and then you feel like a jerk for not being grateful for something that some people lack, but at the same time you’re annoyed that someone is challenging your status quo?

Now, what does it feel like to step into a hot shower? When you feel the warmth on your body, breathe in the steam, feel the dirt and sweat washed away, feel your body caressed by the water? Isn’t that delicious? I believe that intentionally enjoying pleasurable moments like that is a lot like gratitude. The good kind of gratitude where your heart feels full and happy, not the one where you feel judged and inadequately appreciative of all that you have.

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Noticing things that feel good in your day is also a means towards mindfulness. Noticing the flavor of the food you eat – yum! – or the softness of cat fur, or the laughter you share with friends, or the relief of sitting down after a long walk – all of these things that feel good also help us be present in our bodies, aware of the moment, present and happy.

I love touching soft things. Furry things, smooth things, velvety things, all sorts of things that feel soft. The lovely thing is, I can enjoy the brief moment of softness even on a day that’s not going so well. I can remember that the world is not endlessly bleak, and that there can be moments of light even on the darkest days. That is what a gratitude practice does too. There are reasons to be grateful even when the cat barfs on your new shirt and the toilet clogs – at least the car is still running, at least there’s food in the pantry, we are warm and safe right now.

So for this Thanksgiving holiday, we can make lists of things we are grateful for – and we can also enjoy the things we have to enjoy. The hugs of dear friends and family. The yummy food. Hot showers. Taking time to really notice and appreciate the things that feel good is gratitude repackaged – and delicious, too!

Playing While Messy

I haven’t done a creativity game in a while, so I wanted to share this one with you. I like it partly because it takes something messy and turns it into something creative and fun.

Start with a stain on some paper. Maybe you put down your coffee cup. Maybe a leaky pen. I’m using a paper stained with grease:

The first picture is of the paper with the stain on a desk, the second picture is held up to the light to make the pattern easier to see.

The challenge is to turn this random collection of blobs into something different. Maybe recognizable, even. This is what I did:

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I looked at my little critter and thought it needed a place to live, so I kept doodling:

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I even gave it a friend in the lower left hand corner. A friend just as lumpy as it is, but without the dramatic coloration.

I would like to note that I am not a professional artist. I’m sure that some people could turn this into a work of art. I just doodle. If I can do this, so can you. You don’t have to share the results of your doodling, but give it a try. It’s a great way to open up possibility thinking – what could this random stain turn into? What do I see in it? How can I transform it? How can I bring out its essence? How can I play with it?

As I’ve said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, creativity is like a muscle, and it needs to be exercised. The more creativity games you play, the more you practice open-ended possibility thinking  – the more creative thinking you have the rest of the time, too. So when your job, or your life, needs creative thinking, you will have more new ideas because of practicing creative thinking.

Another creative exercise – give your doodle a caption or a title. I find this challenging, which is why I’m including it! Maybe: Fluffy Finally Finds a Friend. Or: Yes, He’s Part Rottweiler and Part Dragon. What do you think it should be called?

Practice Makes Perfect – Or Does It?

My father is a professional musician. He always told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice your mistakes, you get really good at making those mistakes!

This makes sense for anything where you are training your fingers or body to do something the same way over and over. Musicians, dancers, martial artists, all want their muscles to think for them from having practiced until perfection is innate.

What about other arts? I think practice makes easier, in a lot of ways. My husband is a professional artist, and he says everyone has 10,000 bad drawings inside them, so you’d better get started drawing to get them out. The more you draw, the more you learn about drawing, and the easier it is to draw next time. The more you perform, the more ease you have with performance.

I read about a ceramics teacher who divided his class in half. The first half he graded on quantity – they’d get an A if they used enough clay and made enough stuff during the semester. The second half he graded on quality – they’d get an A if they made really good stuff. What he found was that the half that made a lot of stuff kept practicing, learning from mistakes, trying something new, and getting better and better. The half that focused on making really good stuff spent a lot of time talking about it and planning it, but the stuff they made wasn’t that good.

So, another reason practice makes perfect is that practice allows you to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It lets you try out new things in a safe space.

The problem comes when all you do is practice. Or theorize. Or talk about it. At some point you have to do it. Experience comes from doing.

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I took a class with Caterina Rando, and she doesn’t like the idea of practice. She says just go out there and do it. The doing is practice of a sort, in that you get better and better the more you do it. But if you spend all your time trying to get perfect before putting yourself out in the world you’ll never get anywhere.

The thing is, mistakes teach you something. No one will ever get to be so good they don’t make any mistakes – and if they did, they’d be boring and stunted. You risk mistakes to try something new. You risk mistakes to get bigger, brighter, and more amazing. But if you don’t risk it, you stay small and dim.

Mistakes aren’t the enemy. Staying stuck is.

In improvisational acting, mistakes are celebrated. People feel like they failed and are encouraged to say Yay! Mistakes are a sign that someone stretched. They tried for something. They learned something. This is a cause for celebration, not demonization. It takes courage to fail, loudly, publicly, and on stage. But if it’s not actually a failure, if it’s a sign you’re human and striving and it gives permission to everyone else to be human and striving too, that’s a victory.

So, practice scales. Practice tai-chi. And then get out there and dance. Wildly, imperfectly, and perfectly you.

What makes a high functioning team? (The truth will shock you!)

Ah, click bait. I hate those headlines, so I won’t keep you in suspense. The secret is:

Psychological Safety

When Google investigated what makes a high-functioning team (see NYTimes article), they discovered that the teams in which people spoke up about equally were the most productive, creative, and efficient. The biggest requirement for people to be able to speak up about equally was psychological safety.

To save you the trouble, I’ve gathered some definitions of what makes a space psychologically safe from various experts:

Amy Edmonson of Harvard from her TED talk:
1) Encourage everyone to contribute
2) Listen to one another
3) Review / repeat people’s points
4) Avoid dominating or interrupting
5) Be caring, curious, and nonjudgemental

 

John Looney, Principal Engineer, Intercom
When I worked for Google as a Site Reliability Engineer, I was lucky enough to travel around the world with a group called “Team Development”. …The biggest finding was that the number-one indicator of a successful team wasn’t tenure, seniority or salary levels, but psychological safety.

1) Make respect part of your team’s culture
2) Make space for people to take chances
3) Make it obvious when your team is doing well
4) Make your communication clear, and your expectations explicit
5) Make your team feel safe

 

Dale Carnegie on Uncovering Leadership Blind Spots (and Discovering thePathway to Motivating Your Employees)
These characteristics of leaders bring out the best in employees:
1) Sincere appreciation and praise are essential
2) Employees demand leaders who can admit when they’re wrong
3) Honesty and integrity in action drive engagement
4) Effective leaders truly listen to and value their employees’ opinions

 

Talia Dashow, Play Professional
1) All of the above!
2) Set up a culture where there is no failure, only feedback
3) Play is a great way to practice taking chances and speaking up
4) Some ideas need to grow before they can withstand criticism – give them that time

I’m sure there are more definitions out there, but this is a sampling of what you should look for in your own team environments. Do people listen to each other? Do people ask clarifying questions? Do people dismiss any idea that’s not their own? Do people admit to mistakes? Do people make others pay for their mistakes over and over again?

You probably know most of this stuff already – you know if there is space for your ideas or not. You know if people share their ideas with you, or not. These lists are here to give you some ideas of how to fix things if participation is out of balance.

Revising Our Thinking (Advanced Problem Solving)

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This quote has always struck me as both wise and difficult to do something about. On the one hand, the thinking we have now is what led us to consequences, perhaps unintended, that are causing problems. On the other hand – how do you change how you think? Thoughts are just there, like air.

Actually, it turns out that thoughts can change. I think this is fascinating stuff.

First step – pause. If there’s no pause, there’s no chance to question. We believe what we think because it’s always there, informing everything we experience. If we can take a breath, stop the knee-jerk reaction, pause before moving ahead, it gives us a chance to do something different.

One way to practice the pause is to meditate. One school of meditation suggests that you notice what you are thinking, and then let it go. Aim for total quiet in the brain. Thoughts and feelings will come through, and rather than getting snagged in them, just let them pass. This takes practice, and honestly, doesn’t work all the time. When I meditate, I spend plenty of time thinking. But even a little practice in letting the thought be separate from the thinking of it helps create a pause. Seriously, even 3 minutes once a week.

Second step – question. I’m going to quote the wikipedia page about Byron Katie for this:

Byron Katie’s method of self-inquiry, The Work, consists of four questions and what she calls turnarounds, which are ways of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The questions are: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without the thought?

Contemporary neuroscience identifies a particular part of the brain, sometimes called “the interpreter,” as the source of the familiar internal narrative that gives us our sense of self. This discovery, based on solid experimental work, show that we tend to believe our own press releases.

If we can question our own thoughts, we can start to figure out where they might be right, where they might be wrong, where they might be more compassionate, where they might be more expansive, etc.

Pause, and question. How often do we do this in our own lives?

I’m going to tell you a parenting story. My son has sensory processing issues, which means he’s sensory seeking a lot of the time. He was playing with a toy on a string, enjoying the feeling of it swinging around his head, swinging against furniture, swirling around on the floor and against the edge of another toy. All that swinging was driving me crazy. I saw the floor being scratched. I saw the toy about to hit things on shelves, about to sweep the papers off my desk, about to hit me. I kept asking him to stop, and he didn’t stop. I was getting madder and madder.

This time, hallelujah and hooray, I remembered to pause, and question. I took a break, went outside, and asked myself what was going on. I helped myself remember that my kid gets hooked by how things feel. He wasn’t continuing to swing the damn thing around in order to piss me off, he was doing it because he liked how it felt. It was hard for him to stop because it fed something in his brain. I had a choice how I responded. I’ve tried yelling, I’ve tried grabbing the toy away, and these things don’t usually end well. What other choices did I have?

Once I calmed down, I went back inside. I told him he could use the toy on a string in a certain area, but not in others, because he could damage things. He agreed, and after a while was done swinging it around and moved on to something else. Relationship preserved, boundaries enforced with kindness, no yelling. What a difference. Pausing, and questioning.

I think it can be unnerving to be still and open to new ideas. It’s much easier and more comfortable to just be Right. All. The. Time. But we can’t solve our problems with our current thoughts and frames of reference. If we are open to new ideas, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. It’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a vessel for new ideas flowing in. (That may be another blog post.) But how wonderful to find a new solution!

Where have you paused, and questioned? What happened?

Creativity Games

I haven’t talked about creativity games in a while, so I wanted to touch on them again. As I’ve mentioned, play provides a way to create a space where there is no winning or losing, which makes it safer for people to practice speaking up. This only works, of course, if the people in charge are making it safe by appreciating all answers, not preferring some over others.

I think it’s cool that even if people don’t speak up, just by thinking up the answers they can stretch their comfort zones and exercise their creativity muscles, so it will be a little easier to speak up next time. Or the time after. Whenever it feels safe enough and they feel confident enough of their answer.

I’m going to draw some cards from the game Disruptus. This is a card game by Funnybone Toys designed to help people stretch their minds. There are four choices of what to do with the cards, then a box full of pictures of things. The four choices are:

Improve. Make it better: Add or change one or more elements depicted on the card to improve the object or idea.

Disrupt. Look at the picture, grasp what the purpose is, and come up with a completely different way to achieve the same purpose.

Create 2. Take any number of elements from each (of two) card(s) and use these to create a new object or idea.

Transform. Use the object or idea on the card for a different purpose.

I’ve selected 4 cards at random:

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How can you improve, disrupt, create, or transform these images?

Here are some ideas I came up with; I’d love to hear yours. (Just as an aside, my insecurities come up too. I want to label these ideas as silly, or somehow put them down, so you won’t judge me too harshly for coming up with unusable or stupid ideas. But I’m not going to censor myself because of these insecurities. Please don’t censor yourself either!)

Disrupt: The sink is to wash hair in a hair salon. What if there was a chair that could rotate upside down, and lower the person into a sink? Maybe into a series of sinks, for shampoo and rinsing and conditioning. The person would need to be strapped in, but they might not need plastic covering since they will be above the water.

Create 2: That clothes hanger looks like it would work for a zip line with the rope. Maybe a zip line for clothes from storage to your hand, or a zip line for a person to get from one place to another. (We could even include the tall building and make a zip line that ties two buildings together!)

Transform: Use that high-rise for a farm. All those windows can let in light to grow plants. Maybe the center of the building can be used to trap and store rainwater.

Improve: Rope is really thick. That makes it good to support heavy things, but it makes it hard to tie it or tie things to it. But you could make a rope with a strand that has loops in it. So the loops would be tied into the strength of the rope, but would be sticking out all over so things can be attached.

What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear them!