Fertilize Confusion to Thrive During Creative & Life Challenges

Confusion can fuel rather than inhibit creative & personal growth.

Note: One client lost his corporate job last week just as he was completing the third draft of his novel. Another client’s 30-year marriage has dissolved while she creates her way into what’s next in life. Another client will retire from her beloved professorship of 30-plus years soon as she, too, creates her way into what’s next. Another client is transitioning from one brand to an as-of-yet defined one. Another client is flummoxed that her dream of actually becoming a serious and taken-seriously writer might be coming true – and it’s pivoting her self-identity on its head. Because so many of my clients and readers have been creating their way through fertile confusion lately, I am re-printing a few related pieces during the next two weeks. The following piece was originally published on February 16, 2011 in my Tracking Wonder column at Psychology Today.
Salvador Dali, Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936, oil on canvas.
You have to systematically create confusion; it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life. – Salvador Dali


“I’m not who I used to be anymore, and I don’t know who I’m becoming. And that feels amazing. As if for the first time in my life anything is possible.”

That’s what Alice Cramer* told me a few months ago. She’s 63. Her former self:
a professor for two decades to struggling students
daughter to an ailing parent
mother to two adult children
and wife to a distant husband

Her present self:
a writer, artist, and thriving teacher

Her future self:
Who knows?

And that “who knows” is more exhilarating than frightening.

For the past two years, she’s taken overseas trips to conduct research for her first book, she’s paid more attention to and acted upon her creative needs as a writer and artist, she’s said “no” to course assignments that no longer serve her fullest potential, and she’s monitoring her emotions and thoughts as a way to guide her own course.

Alice is in fertile confusion. And it’s a rich place to be in.

Fertilizing Confusion
Many people flinch at uncertainty, bristle at not-knowing, flee from confusion. Considering the uncertain state of our global economy and of people’s careers or even soon-to-be antiquated notions of “career,” we must be a nation of flinches and bristles and flees.

It seems counter-intuitive not to seek mental order amidst chaos. If a partner leaves us, we jump into a new relationship. If we’re ignorant, we want to appear like a know-it-all. If we don’t know how a novel we’re writing will turn out, we seek a readymade ending – or we’ll abandon it.

But a number of Alices – regardless of age or background – as well as numerous business leaders, entrepreneurs, and freelancers are discovering what poets, artists, and writers have known for centuries: confusion can be converted into creative innovation and personal break-through.

Confusion is a period when two or more notions of your worldview, your self-definition, or of a creative project combine in ways you don’t immediately grasp.

Worldview: You think “Good things happen to good people” and yet in a short period of time, you’re beset by natural disaster, illness, or other surprising hardship.

Self-definition: You’ve defined yourself as a struggling writer for 20 years but suddenly start to view yourself as a community organizer – or vice-versa.

Creative Project: Your novel has two conflicting themes of war and peace, and you’re not sure how if at all to reconcile them.

For most creative people, these three categories entwine. Creative people habitually suspend hard-fast notions of reality (worldview), identity (self-definition), and beauty and art (creative project). Constant questioning feeds their flexible approaches to creative problems. They keep open to possibilities and let those possibilities incubate.

Most creative break-throughs require incubation. So do most personal transformations.

Fertile confusion is a state in which you refrain from seeking easy solutions or revert to old patterns long enough to transform your worldview, yourself, or your approach to a creative project. Fertile? Two conflicting forces, ideas, or concepts come together to seed this pregnant phase of possibility.

But how do you stay in confusion?

Take a Cue from Fiction Writers & Musicians: Reframe From Crisis to Quest.
Drop the mid-life crisis tag (a coinage by psychologist Elliot Jaques in 1965 and popularized by Gail Sheehy’s 1974 book Passages).

“As a writer,” fiction writer Charles Baxter recently told me, “I don’t think I have just one mid-life crisis. [As a writer] you’re perpetually uncertain and in change.”

(Note: Recent studies do suggest that the “global average age of unhappiness” is 46  – so the trope still has merit. I’m suggesting that the tag can short-cut your seeing potential for growth, and I’m also suggesting that this trope just doesn’t fit for many of us who have lived on our creative edge since age 16.)

Consider fertile confusion less as a crisis and more as a quest after a new solution, a new design, or a new identity. Whether we’re talking about your life or a creative project in the context of your life, a quest is marked by adventure, creative risk, resourcefulness, and meaningful change.

When the Beatles disbanded, each of the fabulous four crafted new creative identities in music, film, art, and more. How many times has David Bowie fashioned a new identity for his latest creative inklings? Why should you be any less free to transform and shape something new?

Maintain an Optimal Mind (OM…).
If in fact we creatives are in perpetual uncertainty, then no wonder we’ve been known to drown in despair and addiction.

But creative heroes can’t get trapped in anxiety’s quicksand.

A slew of contemporary creatives have discovered what psychologists have been studying for years: 1) drugs and despondency inhibit creativity; 2) positive emotions contribute to creativity.

Social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill especially tracks positive emotions in people under duress. She and her team of psychologists monitored groups of college students in 2001, before and after 9/11. Her work – and that of numerous others – consistently demonstrates that positive emotions
* build resiliency during hard times
* correlate with more openness and flexibility when faced with problems
* literally expand the mind’s functioning and visual perception’s range
* ultimately help people thrive not simply survive during challenges

Your muse likes delight.
During creative and existential confusion, focus more on what brings you pleasure instead of despair. Court your senses. Writer George Sand knew creative tumult intimately – a woman in a male-dominated writer’s world and lover to fickle and oft-ill pianist Frederick Chopin. To keep her wits, she allegedly kept rotting apples in her desk drawer, the aroma awakening her imagination on cue (that, according to Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses).

Do at least one thing each day that pleases your senses. Your senses feed the imagination.

Each day focus more on thoughts and activities that instill gratitude, love, and joy.

Play 3 Highlights.
At each day’s end, I ask myself, “What were the day’s three highlights?” and often try to remember inconspicuous moments of pleasure and delight. Numerous people who engaged in this online experiment reported that playing itself shifts their awareness in the ensuing days to pay attention. It’s an enjoyable way to witness your emotions and experiences and to make meaning of your experiences.

Pause thinking.
If you’re not up for 5 or 20 minutes of seated meditation, then try this: Every once in a while throughout the day, hold your breath for 1-3 seconds after a soft exhalation. Just observe a momentary lull in the chitter-chatter. (Note: If have arrhythmia or any other heart irregularity, consult with your physician or yoga therapist before trying to hold your breath.)

That simple breathing tool creates mental space. Openness. It helps you witness negative emotions before they drown the muse and reverse your emotional flow to revive your muse.

Form & run with your packs.
We mammals really do need each other. The right “each other,” of course. Not just any “each other.” When in fertile confusion, check in with and reach out to people who nourish you and people who get your quirky ideas. Don’t expect them to reach out to you.

And, yes, I thrive by mentoring others to thrive during fertile confusion – whether while creating a book, a business, or their encore life stage. So, reach out and ask a question, share a story, or drop me a note about working together. I have room for 2 in my client pack. I have room for plenty in the Hut.

See you in the woods,

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