Creativity and the Meaning of Work
“Creativity and the Meaning of Work” was first published in Perspectives on Business and Global Change by the World Business Academy and Berrett-Koehler in March, 1998, yet the message remains surprisingly relevant today.
Today we are experiencing a revolution in the workplace. Not only are institutions and huge conglomerates crumbling around us, our traditional ideas about work itself are dissolving. As a society we are undergoing a radical change in the way we think of work. We are starved for meaning and purpose in our lives, and with the breakdown in job security in the corporate world, we are no longer willing to separate our values from our work.
There is a yearning to align life purpose with work to make it meaningful. The Buddhists call this Dharma, spiritual work, the vehicle for Spirit to express its blessing. It is both inner work, remembering our true Self, and outer work, the expression of our unique talents and role in the evolution of humanity. Work is meaningful when we add to the quality of life to those around us. Work is a vehicle for our creations to be a blessing to the world.
Understanding the nature of creativity and how to develop it at the personal and organizational level will help us create the world we want. My vision is for the artists, mystics, scientists, and leaders in business to collaborate in using the convergence of science, technology, art, and spirituality to create a renaissance in the next millennium.
Understanding the cycles of creation will help us thrive in change, rather than to fear it. Developing our imagination, the language of the soul, allows Spirit to work through us as we answer our calling. Work has historically been thought of as a job. The word “job” originates from the Middle English jobbe, meaning “mouthful.”
We’ve worked to eat, dreaming of escape, while real life happened on the weekend. For most people work has been thought of as a disease or imprisonment. Historically, 90 percent of people have lived and worked as peasants. When machines were introduced 200 years ago, our lives were ruled by time clocks and jobs.
For most, the supposedly liberating jobs of the industrial revolution drained humanity of its spirit. The worker was dehumanized of energy and not particularly required to think, let alone dream or imagine. For the masses, it was life in the dead zone.
The industrial revolution spawned the Information Age. With technology as king, it was supposed to save us from the drudgery of work and allow more time for leisure. However, the system itself had not changed. Work was still based on the old model of masculine values: logic, linear time, and linear thinking.
Work was about consumption, security, status, domination, and control. Work was based on fear. The problem with the old model of work was that it had no heart, no soul, and no connection with human values.
We are now moving from the Information Age into the “age of brainware” or “creation intensification,” according to the Nomura Research Institute of Japan. Microsoft is an example of creativity in action. Like many companies born in the Information Age, it is constantly reinventing itself, dissolving old ideas and creating new models and new forms. “Microsoft’s only factory asset is the human imagination,” declared The New York Times in 1991.
One of the problems with creativity is that it tends to be chaotic and messy. It grows in a non-linear fashion, like an unruly visitor in the controlled environment of the boardroom. We need to learn to shift our thinking, to work with chaos, because we can no longer avoid it.
Chaos is part of the cycle of transition and thus transformation. Embedded in chaos are the clues to a higher order. I believe we fear change because there is a belief that time is linear, and at the end of time is chaos; the Anubis of the gateway of the Great Abyss.
We have forgotten in our modern urbanized world that time is cyclical, and we can transform our lives through change. Nature itself is an example of constant birth, growth, death, and renewal. Ancient wisdom through myths such as the story of Persephone and Demeter teaches us about loss and renewal and the cycle of creation. Understanding these cycles helps us overcome fear as we evolve.
The Cycles of Creativity
The transformation of work from life in the dead zone to livelihood (work as ecstasy) roughly parallels Gabrielle Roth’s model of the evolution of consciousness in her book Maps to Ecstasy. She identifies the cycles as inertia, imitation, intuition, imagination, and finally, inspiration.1
As an artist and entrepreneur I have found Roth’s model helpful in understanding my own creative cycles. Creatively, we are constantly moving from inertia to inspiration and back again. I have experienced these cycles over years, days, months, and even minutes. For instance, I may be working on a design for a client.
The idea has yet to emerge and I am in the dead zone, bored in resistance to breaking new ground, looking for an excuse to get out of the task – but I have a deadline. For inspiration I look through magazines for other people’s ideas and I am then in imitation mode. Suddenly, I sense an idea, but I’m not sure what it is.
I use my intuition and start sketching. Pressure builds. I’m moving into unknown territory. My thoughts gravitate from judgement – Will the client like this? Do I like this?- to being in a state of no-thought, allowing the process to unfold. I keep exploring. Tension turns to exhilaration. I’ve ignited the creative fire.
I shift from the intuitive mode to the mode of the imagination. I work it, not giving up, and then, I’ve got it! I have moved to inspiration. My creation becomes joyful and effortless. I know I’m on the right track when my heart opens and I feel energized or I feel the satisfaction that comes with fulfillment – the completion of a creative act. The gift of creativity is not only to have ideas but to take action on those ideas. When the action is complete I deserve to rest. In nature, fields lie fallow between growing seasons. Inertia becomes a time of renewal before starting the next cycle.
The first level of creativity is inertia. Inertia has a dual nature, a positive and negative force. It is inert energy, a resting place before mobilizing into action. In nature, it is the fallow period between growing seasons. Inertia is the void, the great mystery from which all creation forms and to which all creation dissolves. When we access the void we access our unconscious. Inertia is the seed state waiting to grow from the darkness (our unknowing) into the light (knowledge, wisdom, illumination).
The negative aspect of inertia occurs when, through laziness or apathy, we allow ourselves to be hypnotized, living our lives in a trance, unquestioningly accepting convention as truth, resisting change and living in fear.
Perhaps we are a slave to a job because of the money and the perceived security, or we stay in a toxic relationship for the same reasons. We stay on even when we’ve stopped growing and learning because we are afraid to quit or look for something new.
All we can see is disaster when we look into the unknown. Maybe we come up with a great marketing idea or a new invention, or consider a new career. We tell our friends and co-workers and everyone tells us why it can’t be done. We listen to the criticism, our own and others. We lose the motivation to birth that new idea.
There is always a reason not to do something. This is life in the dead zone. We are seduced by the voice of our inner critic, our negative ego, which, in an endless tape, tells us three things: “something is wrong” (creating fear); “this isn’t it” (creating anger); and “it’s not enough” (creating sadness).
These three messages create a pain-based reality that separates us from our divine source and puts our human spirit to sleep. The ego takes over, and we mistakenly believe it’s the CEO, when in fact it belongs in data management.
I remember when, as a recent graduate of design school, I was looking for a job. It was the early eighties in Vancouver, the height of the recession. Many businesses were going bankrupt and I couldn’t find work anywhere. Even my doctor left town. It was a scary time. I decided if I couldn’t find a job I would create one.
I chose to have nothing to fall back on. There was no room to sell out; it was do or die. I would go to parties and the subject of work would always come up in conversation. When I told people that I was starting my own business they always said, “That takes a lot of guts.”
I hadn’t thought of that before but after hearing that message a number of times, I would lie in bed awake wondering…do I have the guts?…am I doing the right thing?…am I talented enough?…am I good enough? Lawyers and senior managers were telling me they were fearful in their own job situations and they told me they wouldn’t dream of going out on their own.
So if they didn’t have the guts, how could I? The inner critic had plenty of material to work with. I could have become a victim by listening to the fears of convention, but I didn’t. I stuck to my vision and slowly built my career.
When you are in a state of inertia you are entering the void, what some have called the pregnant silence. This is the unmanifest source of pure potential. Go within, to the realm of silence and stillness. Meditation takes you there. So does time in nature. Experience the void and you will soon hear the whispers in your heart of hearts that give life to your dreams.
Just as the seed grows out of the darkness, we stir from our sleep state when someone or something inspires us to learn and grow. At first we learn about the world around us from our parents, teachers, heroes, and the media. Imitation is a vital part of our growth.
We learn from the masters in business, art, philosophy, or science. In business, if we like someone else’s idea, we copy it. Sometimes we copy ourselves working within an existing form. Imitation is an important phase, allowing us to develop new ideas in a safe way.
In art school I learned by copying the styles of various painters I admired. In business I observed how my clients handled problems in communications, marketing, and management. If I had a problem I would ask executives I respected for their advice on how to handle the situation. My motto within the imitation phase of creativity is to model mastery.
But if we stay too long in the imitation mode we become stagnant and sink back into inertia. At this point we have a choice. We can stay within a tradition, applying our own creative expression, as did Glen Gould in his interpretation of classical music, or we can break out of the paradigm altogether, seeking our own unique vision.
From one of my spiritual teachers I learned that every person, place, and situation in our lives is here to teach us something. When the teaching is done, that circumstance dissolves. Existing forms and structures dissolve when they have served their purpose. Knowing this helps me let go of the past, and let go of my attachments. Buddha said the root of all suffering is our attachments. He also said to question everything. This takes us to the next phase of the creative cycle: intuition.
Intuition in the creative cycle is a time of chaos and for many it is a time of fear. The world itself is in a state of chaos. We read about chaos everywhere. None of us has escaped the dramatic changes taking place at every level of existence; we get fired from that dead zone job, we lose an important client, a relationship ends, a financial deal falls through, and so on. As governments, schools, families, and financial institutions fall apart we are called upon to create new solutions.
Let us remember that we created these systems in the first place and we can change them. This is a time to let go of trying to control everything, in spite of the fear. Old forms break down to make room for the new. This is a time to go within, to let go of the past and to do the inner work. To wake up. To break the grip of convention. To let go of false security in the outer form. Instead of fearing the unknown, you can learn to trust your intuition and let it guide you through the abyss.
Physiologically the body is unable to tell the difference between fear and excitement. You can turn your fear into excitement and use your intuition to allow the mystery to be revealed. The mystics have always told us the answers are within. To transcend fear I repeat to myself, “I am divinely guided,” or ask, “What is the next opportunity?” I let my intuition guide me.
In the old model, we’ve been taught to mistrust our intuition and worship logic and control. Furthermore, we’ve been taught to follow instructions in our educational system, to be good workers in the smokestack economy. We were punished for day-dreaming in school. We were not taught to develop our creative imagination; we were taught to suppress it. It takes courage and perseverance to let go of control and trust our intuition.
I used to believe if I let go of control I would die. So I gave myself a month-long sabbatical one summer to do whatever my intuition guided me to do. I spent the month painting (intuitively, of course), meditating, working in my garden, and hosting luncheons that took all afternoon. The experience changed my life. I did not die. “I let go and let God work through me” is a powerful affirmation to shift consciousness.
So, if you want to be creative, listen to your intuition. Remember who you are. Ask yourself, “Why did I come to this planet? What is the meaning and purpose of my work? What is my place in the world? What is it I love to do?” These questions help you define your vision, which I believe is the guiding light that sets the founda-tion for all choices we make and all of what we create. When we engage in what we are naturally suited to do, our work takes on the quality of play and it is play that stimulates creativity. So play with your intuition.
I pay attention to messages – words, stories, images – that attract my attention and ask myself what meaning this synchronicity has for me. Opportunities are everywhere all the time. The universe speaks to us through people, places, and situations. The mystics have always told us we are interconnected.
Now through the Web we see this is true, which is one of the reasons the magazine Wired calls this “the Network Economy.” Each connection on the network creates a synchronicity that holds the potential for new opportunities. All we have to do is be alert to the possibilities.
How do you develop your intuition? Notice the feeling tone of an idea or impulse. What is your gut reaction or heart’s response? Do you feel a sense of ease and expansion? Or contraction? Does your choice bring peace and joy to yourself and others, or not? The voice of our soul or human spirit is always based on love.
To strengthen your connection with your intuition, take action on small things first where you can check your results. Test your ideas with logic, which will help you build your confidence. You could try determining the number of e-mail messages waiting for you or which elevator will be first to arrive. Freud used to toss a coin to make a decision. It wasn’t how the coin fell that was important, it was his reaction to it that guided his choice.
I use intuition constantly to determine what is next. It will often guide me to do seemingly irrational things such as taking a walk when I should be working, or impulsively pulling weeds from my garden in the middle of a deadline. By giving my brain a chance to rest and incubate I allow the flow of ideas that provide the solutions I need. As a result my work gets done faster and with more ease.
Notice what makes your inner flame grow brighter. Pay attention to the world around you. Intuition gives you the ability to access ideas and solutions rapidly. In the new economy when businesses are conceived and launched within thirty days, the world won’t wait for lengthy analysis. Decision making in the business world calls for intuitive mastery. Intuition assists us in achieving maximum results with the minimum of effort-what Carlos Castaneda in the Don Juan stories calls “elegance.”
Our imagination and creativity take us to the next level of awareness. From dissolution comes the artistry of creating new forms and structures, only this time they are yours. This is a time to integrate the spiritual with the material. Our intuition and imagination lead us to fresh thinking with which we can creatively manage change. We are in the process of creating a new model for work: one of nurturing, learning, meaning, fulfilment, and interconnectedness with humanity and the planet.
This model embraces the feminine values of intuition, chaos, integration, wholeness, and balance. We are learning to be, to go with the flow, to honor cycles. Work changes from being fear-based and reactive to an expression of creativity and vision. It is through our creative work that we find meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.
Creativity in the workplace must be nurtured and cultivated for it to flourish. This means creating a culture of trust and having the freedom to express new ideas without being ridiculed, allowing room for mistakes, and developing the radar to spot opportunities in unexpected places. Many of the inventions that are now commonplace, such as 3M’s Post-It notes, started out as “mistakes.”
Work is no longer separate from imagination and creativity. Living from the imagination brings out the artist, the poet, the visionary, and the mystic. From this place we are truly alive, connected to our mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit. We move through the fear, anger, and sadness of life in the dead zone into joy. Work becomes joy. Imagination involves giving your intuitions form through creativity, which is simply the act of making something new.
Creativity nourishes us, replenishes us. It is also an act of love. When we create from love, we have room to make mistakes. Our creativity is our gift to the world.
Incorporate the qualities of the artist in your work. Delight yourself and you delight the world. Give yourself opportunities to daydream, to allow unlimited thinking. Unlimited thinking sparks the imagination, increases your creativity and expands possibilities. Expanded possibilities link you with a greater vision and unlimited potential.
Creative activities expand our brain power, blending the intuitive with logic. When Winston Churchill wasn’t leading England, he took time out in the countryside to paint. Science shows that creativity actually increases the neuron connections in our brain.
At this level of consciousness, work is art both nurturing and meaningful. The focus is on the freedom to create, on learning, wholeness, integration, and creating your own structure or plan. Work generates energy. Rather than a problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be revealed. Work changes from the win-lose game to Buckminster Fuller’s triple-win game: I win, you win, and the community wins.
The fifth level of consciousness in the cycle of creativity is inspiration. The voice of the inner critic is quiet. Conscious thought ceases. This is pure potential, the space between the words. It is the miracle of creation when we lose ourselves in the vastness of the moment. Thought and time disappear. We are one with our creation. We are fully awake to our human spirit, pure energy, completely connected with life force energy in a state of ecstasy. Some call this “the zone.” T.S. Eliot described it as the “still point of the turning world.” It is Siva in the dance of life. You are a partner in the cosmic dance.
Frithjof Bergmann, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, talks about the future of work.2 He describes the polarity of work from the dead zone to its ecstatic side where work can draw out powers we never knew we had when we have a purpose, whether it is hauling sand bags as whole communities did to stop the Mississippi floods in 1993, or giving a presentation that inspires thousands.
Bergmann equates purpose with answering a calling, a force that uplifts, mobilizes our talents, and guides us in doing things we never thought possible. For most of us, our calling is to help others and to be of service. Bergmann’s vision of the future of work is for organizations to set up foundations to finance the calling employees have, to attract and harness talent within.
He established this model in Detroit as an answer to unemployment. Instead of workers being massively laid off, they worked a certain number of months a year and during their time off pursued their calling. What an intriguing way to foster innovation!
When we are connected to our purpose, we are connected to our power – the power to love, to trust, and to inspire others to create a team. The power comes not from words but from love. It is the energy that magnetizes, that mobilizes.
Creativity is a process that takes you from an inert state to inspired creation. It occurs when we engage our Spirit in the process of any creative expression, be it music, art, dance, design, or implementing innovation. Knowing this cycle-and perhaps it is really part of an evolutionary spiral-helps provide understanding and insights in taking the next step.
1. Gabriel Roth, Maps to Ecstasy: Teachings of an Urban Shaman. San Rafael, CA: New World Library, 1989.
2. See Frithjof Bergmann, The Future of Work, Perspectives on Business and Global Change, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 7-22.
Copyright, Linda Naiman, 1998. All rights reserved. This article appeared in Perspectives on Business and Global Change published by the World Business Academy and Berrett-Koehler. March, 1998.
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