how a creative mindset busts nighttime monsters

 In Science

Image by John Olander

The other night, ‘round midnight, my toddler daughter wailed in a loop. My wife’s maternal consolation was of no avail. I went into her room, lifted her, and I witnessed my mind leap to work, scouting how to navigate the situation.

What came up for her and for me, it turns out, comes up for many people on the job and many creatives in the middle of their most important work. If you want to see how to bust your own monsters, read the story or skip down to the take-aways and share your stories, questions, and insights.

So, I look into her wet eyes and ask gently, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”


“Are you afraid?”

Nods. Good – agreement.

“What are you afraid of?”

No response.

Hmm. Too difficult to answer. How to enter her world? What would help her project her fear, utterly irrational and hard to explain to her 3-year-old mind? Quick! Something…

“Is there a monster?”

Nods. Wails wane.

Good. Agreement.

“Can you point to where the monster is?”

She points near her dresser to the floor. Wails subside.

Oh, we’re onto something. Here’s the critical moment, Creative Mind: How do we get rid of the monster?  My eyes scan her environment for any “magic weapon” that will help her excise the monster.

“Oh! It’s over there?!”

Delay tactic while we figure out the next step. No tool avails itself. Wait! There are Crayolas and drawing paper on her desk.

“Okay, sweetie. Here’s what we’ll do. We’re going to draw a net to capture the monster. Does that sound good?”


“Okay! And then we’ll toss him out the front door. Okay?”

Vigorous nods.

Lamp switched on, we each grab a Crayola, scribble a net in three minutes, turn out the light. One of her tiny hands holds mine; the other holds the Crayola net. We walk to the monster lair.

“Okay! Now scoop up the monster with the net!”

Her focus and exactitude of her swish confirm that the monster in the room is real to her. We walk downstairs and as we approach the front door I instruct her to toss the monster out while I announce to the monster that he’s not to return tonight and that he must leave the house.

Door opens. Little girl shakes out a piece of paper with all her might. Monster is vanquished for now. Little girl crawls into bed and blows Papa a kiss.

I explain what happened to my wife. “Score for Papa!” she says.

“Score for sudden creative problem-solving,” I think.

What happened? Little girl took creative action to absolve her own irrational, unnameable fear. What this papa did was likely a form of an ancient practice that I’ve picked up from reading countless trickster tales in native traditions. Otherwise, I don’t know where the instinct comes from except for years of thinking this way. (And for the record, for every 1 maneuver that “works” on my girl, 2 fail. So it goes.)

But here are two related questions I’m living in for us:

1. How do we parent our creative minds on the job? As people “on the job” and “on the go,” we face daily unbidden challenges, the equivalent of a wailing 3-year-old in the middle of the night. I’m convinced that as we partner with our creative minds, we can respond more than react to these situations. I’m convinced that the most “un-creative” of accountants and bankers or whomever claims they’re not creative actually can be far more creatively productive than they realize.

It’s not about attitude. It’s about a habitual way of framing a situation. Is an unexpected challenge an irritation and inconvenience? Or with a bit of witnessing and mental window opening, is it a simple opportunity to solve a problem?

When I recently interviewed candidates for a new Operations Assistant, I was listening for someone with the latter mindset and mental habits.

I work with groups and individuals on this topic, and it continues to fascinate me.

2. How do we create into our monsters? People engaged in creative work typically face constant monsters of fear, self-doubt, even utter pre-launch or pre-publication anxiety. They inevitably appear if not in the middle of the night then in the middle of a complex project. Such monsters, often unnameable, can often paralyze us into inaction and into the equivalent of our own internal wailing loop. Once Mark Twain realized Huckleberry Finn was more than just a boy’s tale and was something potentially more than he could handle, the project went on hiatus for around three years.

Here’s an idea for you the next time a monster comes into one of your Mind Rooms:

  • Step back in your mind, so to speak. Witness the fear for what it is. Bring out the voice that parents your Best Self in a compassionate, imaginative way. Name the fear, and if it’s hard to explain, simply acknowledge it as the monster it is.
  • Do something intentionally physical to shift the emotional charge. Clean. Make a house of cards or sticks. Craft something. Play with clay. Draw. Make a paper hat or paper airplane.
  • Engaged in intentional physical activity, let the mind work out its tension.

This is not art therapy. It’s not repression. It’s a potentially simple, profound way to shift reactivity into creativity (a favorite anagram, by the way).


1 – How do you respond to sudden challenges when they arise? Do you react? Try to fix them quickly with unconscious habitual ways of thinking and acting? How can you habitually step back an inch in your mind, so to speak, and let your creative mind come out to play and work?

2 – Case in point: When your own monsters of doubt and fear arises, at midnight or noon, do you wail within or can you grab the equivalent of a Crayola and drawing paper and create your way into a monster-busting solution? A way of creating your way into shifting fear into creative action instead of letting the fear paralyze you into the equivalent of a near-inconsolable wailing loop?

And, by the way, sometimes a good wail does the mind good, too. We just don’t want to get stuck there.

See you in the woods,

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