Shifting from reacting to creating

It’s so easy to be reactive about problems and the pressures they cause in today’s fast-paced world. If you are reacting, you are putting out fires, but you aren’t creating anything. Problem-solving is about making something go away. Creativity, on the other hand, is about bringing something new and desirable into being. How do you shift gears? For many of us, including my corporate clients, the challenge is to be intentional about how we use our time and energy so that we can be creative.

Brian Arthur, known for his pioneering work in complexity economics at the Santa Fe Institute, states, “All great discoveries come from a deep inner journey. Leaders must intentionally pause and slow down to access a deeper level of knowing, which comes from inside yourself. [1]”

When I lead clients through the process of creativity I create immersive experiences for them to deeply engage with their topics, so that they can come into the present moment, wake up their senses, especially through hands-on experimentation, relax into playful exploration, and let creative sparks fly.

This allows for two important components missing in today’s workplace: Uninterrupted immersion into the context at hand; and incubation, to give the analytical mind a rest so the intuitive subconscious mind can come to the fore.

“The brightest minds spend their time either pursuing an activity with ferocious intensity, or engaging in complete restoration and recovery.” –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of positive psychology and noted for his studies on creativity, documented a process [2] common to almost all great intellectual and creative performers, including The Nobel Prize-winning scientists, ground-breaking inventors, artists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers:

  1. Immersiontotal engagement in their work with deep, unremitting focus.
  2. Incubationa period of rest and recovery when they are not at all thinking about their work.
  3. Insightthe occurrence of “aha” or “eureka” moments – the emergence of new ideas and growth in their thinking. 

Csikszentmihalyi discovered shifting between immersion and incubation not only prevents creative burnout and cognitive fatigue, it also fosters breakthrough ideas and discoveries.

I personally crave immersion because I experience it as being in a state of flow, which is what makes creativity so magical, but I also resist it when the task is particularly difficult. Incubation is only effective, if I have done the immersive work first. Insights tend to happen quickly and effortlessly while absorbed in the first two phases.

Immersion for Brian Arthur means to be fully engaged. “All profound innovations occur in an atmosphere of immersion. In that atmosphere, or sphere, one fully observes all that is happening and is also open to ideas from outside its boundaries.

When faced with a complicated dynamic situation that he is trying to figure out, he says,

I would observe, observe, observe and then simply retreat. If I were lucky, I would be able to get in touch with some deep inner place and allow knowing to emerge. You wait and wait and let your experience well up into something appropriate. In a sense, there is no decision making. What to do becomes obvious. You can’t rush it. Much of it depends on where you’re coming from and who you are as a person. This has a lot of implications for management. I am basically saying that what counts is where you’re coming from inside yourself. [3]

This way of knowing helped Otto Scharmer articulate the three-step version of the U process in Theory U: observe, observe, observe; retreat and reflect: allow the inner knowing to emerge; then act in an instant.

This process is reflected in the principles of Zen art and I intuitively resonate with the U process. Theory U speaks to me because it is both a framework for creativity and a roadmap for transformation both on the personal level and the group.

If you want to take a deeper dive and immerse your group in the creative process, or deepen your own creative practice, please contact me.


[1] Scharmer, Otto. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2016

[2] Stulberg, Brad and Magness, Steve: Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Penguin Random House. 2017

[3] Scharmer, Otto. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2016