Creativity & Wisdom: How Curiosity + Focus on the Craft + Steady Action Override Doubt & Anxiety

Andrew Zuckerman had three minutes to shoot a portrait of Nelson Mandela. The 30-year-old photographer had no training or experience in taking portraits – other than the ones he had taken the previous few weeks of Henry Kissinger, Desmond Tutu, and Ted Kennedy. Despite that green resume, Zuckerman landed the project of a lifetime by sheer luck, force of will, and confidence as he traveled to 11 countries and thousands of miles to capture 50 faces of the world’s wisest leaders for a project called Wisdom. The project would become a book, a film, and traveling exhibit that found its way in museums, parks, corporate buildings.

In 2007, almost no one had been given access to photograph Mandela who was turning 90. But Zuckerman prevailed. How did the young photographer keep anxiety at bay?

You might find yourself not faced with shooting one of the twentieth century’s most influential political figures, but you’ve likely found yourself on your creative precipice – asked to give a talk in front of 500 people or asked to supervise a project or trying to write your first book. In other words, something that gets you out of your creative comfort zone and stretches you to the edge of possible incompetency and failure.

What could wonder have to do with any of this? I’ve written recently about renovating the house of fear and about fertilizing confusion by tracking wonder. But something I heard Zuckerman say last week prompted more questions.

Curiosity + rigor is the formula Zuckerman presented at Behance’s 99% Conference last week in Manhattan’s Times Center. You learn from the subject of your project, he said, and that “curiosity keeps me going.”

Curiosity Kills the Naysayer – the Inner & the Outer Heckler
Or, rather, curiosity redirects anxiety. That’s a key point in psychologist Todd Kashdan’s book Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life (William Morrow 2009). Kashdan calls curiosity an “anxiety antidote.” Kashdan cites Beth Comstock, then-President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, who says that it’s easy to be shy and intimidated around intelligent people. Curiosity, she says, “propels me forward” (170).

Incidentally, if not coincidentally, a few years later Comstock is now Chief Marketing Officer and SVP of General Electric, which sponsored the 99% Conference.

Had neuropsychologist Elizabeth Gould listened to her anxiety or fretted about what her peers would think, she never would have persisted in 1999 to change the way we – and her colleagues – think about the human brain. In 1999, most neuroscientists scoffed at the idea that the adult human brain could generate new brain cells. At the risk of being ostracized, she persisted with her questions about the brain and the environment and monkeys. Her curiosity paid off for all of us. Her studies on how healthy environments generate brain cells in macaque monkeys set off ripples in her colleagues’ brains.

Focus on the Sentence, not Yourself
So you pursue your curiosity, and you find yourself amidst a heap of pages but no novel or right there in front of Henry Kissinger – who’s told you, “Gentlemen, don’t make a production of this [taking his portrait]. I only have thirty minutes, so let’s make it quick. And it had better be a good photo.”

Or you’ve been asked to write and deliver a poem at President Obama’s Inauguration. When given that assignment, poet Elizabeth Alexander said she didn’t let herself get paralyzed with anxiety. How? She said she tried to think of it as just writing another poem – not the poem to be read before millions of listeners and viewers and attendees as part of 21st century history.

Alexander took out the context.

I asked the remarkably imaginative and skilled fiction writer Charles Baxter how he got through writing the novel that raised the most self-doubt, Shadow Play.

“I just focused on the sentence. I just focused on writing really good sentences.”

Baxter took out the context.

To capture Mandela’s portrait, Zucerkman didn’t focus on abstractions like apartheid, political freedom, history-making. He focused on the technical problems of lighting since Mandela’s handlers would not allow him to use his huge flash.

With a focus on the craft challenge – and with his signature white background – Zuckerman took out the context.

In fact, Zuckerman indeed must have learned from his subjects. Cool guy Clint Eastwood said that success comes from not thinking about yourself but from thinking about your medium, your craft, your profession. You’re temporary and, ultimately, unimportant.

Get out of the way. Stop indulging all your personal stories for why you’re anxious.

Take your self and your anxious mind out of the context. Focus on the craft and challenge at hand.

Apply It
Tool your curiosity. Make your own curiosity cabinet or curiosity corner that holds the notebooks and images and pens and other tools that make your project happen.

Behance – who produced the 99% Conference – makes a line of such products for the design-minded. Here’s their clever motto: “Give your ideas some respect.”

Study and hone the craft. If you want to excel as a blogger, study the craft. If you want to be an expert consultant, study the craft. If you want to get over your anxiety about being senior project manager, interview other project managers and ask them how they did it. If you want to excel as a yoga teacher, attend classes of exceptional teachers and take one out for tea and tips. Find a mentor.

Use a focus intention. A focus intention is a simple but effective tool to anchor the mind with its time-specific task. You don’t sit down to write a book. You sit down to write a page. You sit down to write into a scene. You sit down to write sentences. You can focus your mind on such a limited task by using clear, concrete internal language, “For the next hour, I am making three sketches for this client’s design project.” “For the next hour, I am sketching the rough topic outline for my five-day workshop.”

Behind the worry is wonder. Remember that. Forget the rest.

And that portrait of Mandela that Zuckerman snagged in three minutes? TIME took it.
Not a bad pay off.

How do you quell anxiety with curiosity? What stories do you have of overcoming fear in face of a seemingly “huge” and daunting project?  We’d love to hear your experiences.


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