Unlocking Impactful Creative Ideas Through Radical Openness

The act of making an idea into an impactful endeavor lights up every “cylinder” in us.  As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who coined the term “flow”) said in his 2008 TED talk, “When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” You seek this sense of fullness through imagination, artistic expression, and even subconsciously through the quirky ideas pop into your head unbidden every once in a while. Yet you don’t pursue them, or you complete your project only to stow it away in the attic of your mind thinking “maybe someday.” You hide what could be your most potent ideas, not only from yourself, but from others that could benefit from them. Why?

When we surveyed our global community of readers on this topic, we were surprised by the answer. I had thought that lack of time or resources or support might have topped the list. Instead, what held back these accomplished professionals, published authors, smart consultants and coaches and knowledge workers and leaders was this:

Fear. Fear of judgment, rejection, backlash, failure. 

The fear of revealing our unique ideas to the world holds us back from growth and discovery. Many of us have potentially brilliant ideas. Many of us have the potential to make a rippling difference in this world with our endeavors. Yet what separates the people whose ideas ripple from others is this: they work with their fear and reveal the innermost workings of their minds. They practice radical openness.

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How to Lead with Integrity

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about the importance of belief-driven business in this information age. People today hunger for brands that express a compelling, genuine point of view and a strong sense of purpose. But before your business or brand can take a stand, you have to discover what drives you.

You see, great leaders do two things. One, they tell a Story that captivates people and inspires them to work collectively toward a common goal. This narrative is constructed from their lived experience, both personal and professional, and the core principles derived from those experiences. Two, they live that Story. They make decisions and take actions consistent with their beliefs, and this is where the real challenge lies.

It can be scary to lead – to step into the spotlight, bear your soul, and stand in the authority of your ideas, especially when doing so means going against the majority or status quo. But research shows that you lead your best when you know who you are and what you value, then lead from that strength. In the field of psychology, this stance is often called authentic leadership.  (more…)

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Brand Authenticity: What We Get Wrong & How to Get it Right

In a world awash with targeted advertising, influencer marketing, and fake news, we are starved for sincerity. We are disillusioned with the pervasive blur of fantasy and reality, spin and honest solutions, and as a result, consumers are increasingly distrustful of brands and businesses. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, only 48% of consumers today trust companies (down from 58% in 2017), and according to Gallup’s annual trust poll only 23% of Americans trust big business. 

We distrust with good reason. Traditional marketing is inherently insincere. It co-opts trends, capitalizes on breaking news, mimics popular vernacular, and glamorizes the mundane to make us believe that products can solve our problems. But in today’s cultural context, these slick and sensational tactics don’t work. Consumers are demanding that businesses define their purpose, take a stand, and operate with transparency. Consumers are demanding that businesses be authentic. A global study by Cohn & Wolf shows that 90% of consumers are willing to reward a brand for authenticity, while 52% would recommend the brand  and 49% who would pledge loyalty. 

But there’s a problem. When business owners come to me with branding needs, they know or assume they need strategy in shaping, broadcasting, and delivering an authentic brand, but they have a number of resistances. One, they do not equate “authenticity” with “professional.” Two, they misunderstand “authenticity” as meaning something like “Just be yourself” or “Express yourself.” That framing of authenticity for branding is both incomplete and misleading. 

Unfortunately, authenticity is one of those words that has been so overused it has lost meaning. Like “natural” or “artisanal,” to label a brand or product “authentic” causes you to question the very claim. What makes an apple juice “unnatural”? What kind of artisans pre-cut cheddar for a Safeway plastic-wrapped cheese plate? What does “authentic” even mean, and how can a brand be authentic?

 I work with executives, professionals, entrepreneurs and companies from the inside-out. That is, we examine many issues of personal identity in relation to brand identity – whether it is a business brand or personal brand. So, it’s important to parse out what authenticity is and is not on a personal level and in the context of your branding and marketing.

Authenticity and Authority

The word “authenticity” is thought to be derived from the Greek “authentes,” which loosely translates to “one acting on one’s own authority.” In other words, authenticity is when one’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions are in accordance. But there are conflicting interpretations of how authenticity is enacted in branding and marketing, and whether being authentic all the time is in our best interest.

Authenticity is not the same as raw or unapologetic self expression, but the search for an elusive core brand identity can hold back our business from successful growth t. Recent research shows that when people believe that their identity and abilities are predetermined, they are more likely to experience anxiety, disappointment, and inevitable burnout. The pursuit of an authentic self can imply a singular path toward a singular self, which only discourages and frustrates the seeker the longer they look without finding it. 

Your “self” isn’t assigned; you construct it based on your personal experiences, beliefs, and values. You act on your own authority to determine the kind of person you want to be and respond to the world in ways that align with that ever-evolving self. To be authentic is to be honest with yourself and others, acknowledge the dimensions of your “self” (past, present and future) that constitute your identity, and act with integrity to reflect your core values. Authenticity is not static but dynamic.

What, then, does it mean for brands and businesses to be authentic?

How to Practice Authenticity in Brand Marketing

Authenticity sells more beer. A 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that brand authenticity significantly increased perceived value and brand trust within the craft beer market. The authors defined brand authenticity as “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful towards itself, true to its consumers, motivated by caring and responsibility, and able to support consumers in being true to themselves.” In this study (as in many others) a brand must demonstrate three characteristics to be considered “authentic:” individuality, consistency, and continuity. 

Individuality can be determined by product, provenance, or purpose (or some combination of the three). The product or service itself can be unique, as can its origin. One study showed that consumers ascribe higher value to products that come from an original factory, and origin stories lend a personal and experiential element to goods that evokes authenticity. Purpose distinguishes a brand by defining its distinct role in the marketplace. While it is increasingly important for brands to stand up for their beliefs, a brand’s purpose is not its social responsibility but rather the consumer needs it fills, and the reasons a consumer would choose it over competitors. All the better if purpose aligns with a relevant social concern, but these associations should never be forced.

Be sure your messages align with your business actions. At Tracking Wonder, we develop branding strategies according to the 4 Pillars of Integral Branding. The first pillar is Integrity. Assure your brand story messaging and persona align with the founder’s or team’s core DNA of character, virtues, genius, and values. The second pillar is Consistency. Consistency of messaging and actions is key to gaining consumer trust. With the internet and social media granting us greater access to information than ever before, brands are under constant scrutiny and consumers are quick to condemn brands they feel are dishonest, insincere, or inconsistent. 

On the other hand, 2016 study revealed that 94% of consumers are loyal to transparent brands, and 73% will pay more for transparency. 

As Patagonia has shown, brands can successfully tap into this trend to engage their audiences and build a loyal following. The Footprint Chronicles allows anyone to trace any Patagonia product to its source, and learn about the company’s environmental efforts around the globe. The project shows that Patagonia is truly practicing what it preaches. Although some people have complained about how the company could do better, the project has cultivated deep trust amongst consumers. After all, if Patagonia is willing to show the bad and be honest about areas for improvement, we are more inclined to trust the good. Authentic brands define meaningful values and deliver on them by improving their products and messaging in ways that resonate with their perceived value. 

Continuity sounds simple. It’s just continuing to uphold your brand’s principles and serve your audience, right? But in the midst of rapidly changing cultural attitudes and trends that prove to be no more than a flash in the pan, staying the course is harder than it looks, especially if your brand has staked a claim in a controversial issue. Take, for example, the backlash when Netflix backed out of its support for net neutrality after it became clear that it would affect their profitability. Or, the controversy around American Apparel refusing to recognize a contest winner in their Next BIG Thing plus-size model campaign because she didn’t “fit their image.” Pivoting, failing to follow through, and frequent re-branding all damage consumer trust in a brand, sometimes irreparably. By checking in with your core values and basing your strategy upon them, even when the going gets rough, you can stay true to your brand purpose.

Find Your Brand’s Authenticity

When you develop marketing strategies in our current marketplace, I suggest you walk a fine line between expressing a brand’s point of view and being forthright about its purpose: to sell goods or services to audiences that can benefit from them. Brand authenticity paves the way for businesses to do both in harmony. It is the overlap between a brand’s purpose and consumers’ needs. It is when a brand transcends profit to empower consumers with knowledge and principles they can support through their purchasing power. 

Finding a way to be authentic in business starts with discovering what drives your brand, honestly assessing how it fits in the marketplace, and committing to values that will guide your business decisions. The rest is learning how to communicate your purpose and values with consumers in ways that align with their needs while also delivering on your brand’s promises.

Walking the authentic path isn’t easy but it can be immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally. By branding with integrity, you can work in a way that reflects your core beliefs and in so doing, develop a loyal following that supports you standing in your own authority.

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How Deliberate Distraction Leads to Creative Breakthroughs

Imagine this: you’ve spent all day working on a difficult project. You’ve been excited about it for weeks, but you haven’t quite been able to pin down the final details. You’ve done the research, gathered the materials, bounced ideas off of your colleagues and your creative pack, and still you feel stuck in a cognitive rut. 

The goal is in sight but it seems that between you and it lies a chasm that you don’t have the tools to cross. Frustrated and bleary-eyed from staring at the computer for too long, you finally allow yourself a break and decide to take a shower (let’s say you work at home). Your chattering brain quiets as soon as the warm water hits your skin, and you let your mind drift. Trivial thoughts float like soap suds through your consciousness and you let them pass without concern. It’s only as you’re rinsing the last of the conditioner from your hair that the idea hits you. It’s like a key turning a lock that lowers the drawbridge over that cognitive chasm. It’s a eureka moment. 

We’re all familiar with those breakthrough thoughts that arise while we’re engaged in the most mundane of tasks, be it showering, commuting, or doing the dishes. But have you ever stopped to wonder why this phenomenon is so common? This question is the topic of new research suggesting that the single-minded work ethic we praise may actually inhibit innovation, and it is in fact in distracted moments like these that make room for the essential cognitive state of creative insight: wonder.

Discipline in the Age of Distraction

Let’s put the challenge of gleaning creative insight in context. We live in an age of distraction. In just the past few years, we have grown rapidly, compulsively reliant on digital devices not only for work but also for social validation. Many of us crave the dopamine rush of “likes,” “hearts,” and comments on Facebook as much as we covet that morning cup of coffee. Our minds are so ceaselessly overloaded with information that we have become naturalized to this white noise: so much so that one study found subjects would rather shock themselves than be alone with their own thoughts.

Clearly, this digitalized world has overstuffed our hungry minds and encouraged us to multitask like never before. But at what cost? A 2009 study out of Stanford concluded that heavy media multitaskers found it more challenging to pay attention, recall information, or switch gears to change tasks. We’re just not wired to juggle multiple tasks that call on different parts of the brain simultaneously, even though the manifold relationships and responsibilities of modern life seem to require just that.

Our response has been to try and discipline our brains to ignore distractions (digital or otherwise) for the sake of productivity. We set rigid schedules, put our noses to the grindstone, even block access to temptations like social media, and still we struggle with our wandering minds. Though the typical nine-to-five work day is premised on discipline and singular focus, the human brain doesn’t work that way. The adaptive unconscious (or what we might call the “Survivor Brain”) seeks immediate gratification and the digital world gives us access to that 24/7. Our Everyday Mind, on the other hand, is responsible for receiving, filtering and responding to all this input. No easy task. 

Though the Everyday Mind may hold its ground for a while, the more we try to maintain focus on a single task, the harder it becomes. We find ourselves experiencing a phenomenon known as “cognitive fixation,” or the idea that we are so narrowly focused on the problem in front of us that we cannot see other solutions. Discipline holds us hostage to that fixation, and the only way out of the rut is for deliberate distraction to create space in our crowded minds for creativity.

Deliberate Distraction

The reason that “shower thoughts” are a popular Internet trend is that our minds continue working on the problems that consume our conscious thought, even when we are not consciously focused on them. In 2012, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that the regions of the brain that handle decision-making are still active when the conscious mind is distracted with a different task. This explains why gravity, x-rays, radioactivity, velcro, the pacemaker, penicillin, insulin, vulcanized rubber, the microwave, Cornflakes, Teflon, super glue, Vaseline, safety glass, and many other inventions were created when their inventors were working on something else entirely.

Deliberate distraction, simply put, is switching tasks or diverting from your main focus, with intention. The intention part is key because it’s been proven that intentional action stimulates more portions of the brain and can lead to actual changes in our neuronal pathways. In other words, intention fosters learning. As such, putting down the pen or paint brush to do yoga is deliberate distraction. Going down a rabbithole on Facebook to avoid finishing a paper is not. 

There are three steps to deliberate distraction. First, you have to recognize the rut. Realize that you are cognitively fixated and need to step away from the task to see it more clearly. Imagine your mind has a room of mirrors that reflect and sort the thoughts going through your Everyday Mind. This Mirror Mind is not judgmental, but it can help you catch yourself when your unconscious is tempting you toward immediate gratification and escapism, which usually means you’re trying to avoid work. Second, you have to choose a single, engaged distraction. It can be reading an unrelated book, doing yoga, or washing dishes. Your should be focused on the activity, but your mind free to wander. Finally, you should set a time limit. The longer you distract yourself, even deliberately, the harder it will be to return to your work. Allot a specific amount of time to your distraction from the outset so your mind can switch back to work mode more easily. 

The next step is to incorporate deliberate distraction into your creative work, but how?

Finding a Creative Work Rhythm

We tend to feel guilty putting down a task without completing it, but deep work takes persistent time and space –  and we’re not built to work like machines. Recognizing this, Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, has argued for a shift toward a more humane way of working. As he puts it, humans are designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy, with a natural workcycle of about 90 minutes at a time. The majority of us push past our natural limits without realizing the dramatic negative effects on our productivity. Instead, Schwartz argues, we could work by our natural rhythms, recognize the value of renewal, and set clear goals to improve not only our productivity, but our creativity to boot. Run many sprints toward our objective rather than go for the marathon.

Schwartz’s work model coupled with the practice of deliberate distraction tap into the concept of shaping time, rather than disciplining it. Shaping time means cultivating awareness of your mind and body, then responding to their needs rather than trying to keep them in line. This concept conflicts with our rigid work ethic, but it allows us to stop fighting time and find inspiration so that our work can be driven by passion, not anxiety. And it produces results. 

Take the artist for example. We tend to think of artists as people somehow divinely inspired by the muses, as if every piece of work they did was the result of a eureka moment. The truth is that creativity is active: it takes practice. As a writer I commit to writing almost every day, even when I don’t feel like it, or don’t have a topic in mind because I am still honing my craft. On some days I commit to 60 to 90 minutes then move on only to find that later in the day, during a walk in the woods or while working on a presentation, an anchoring sentence or image for my writing pops into my head.  Excited by the insight, I take note of the idea so I can go back to the piece and run with it later. It’s not about waiting for your muse, but shaping time, showing up for the muse, and being aware enough to capture whatever goldfish of an idea the muse offers before it slips away. 

To do your deep work, or tackle that looming project, try finding your natural rhythm. Schedule 90 minute blocks of time to work on individual parts of your project. Build time for deliberate distraction and structured daydreaming into your work day. When you find yourself stuck, take a look into your Mirror Mind and figure out why. If thinking is the soul talking to itself, as Plato said, then listen when your soul speaks up and see where the current of creativity takes you.

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Building a Work Culture of Collaborative Autonomy

The conventional corporate office is practically a thing of the past. The “side hustle” is becoming the hustle, previously distinct departments are dissolving to create more fluid collaborations between coworkers, and increasingly, people are breaking away from the traditional nine-to-five in order to pursue freelance careers. It’s estimated that by 2020, 50% of the US workforce will be freelancers

Digitalization and the shift in focus from production to creation in a postindustrial era helped pave the way for this liberation from the workplace. But there is a deeper motivation behind the trend toward self-employment, and that is our longing for autonomy. As Daniel Pink discusses in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the secret to success isn’t the promise of wealth or fame but rather our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives. 

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Speaking Up for Your Beliefs Through Brand Storytelling

One day, my nine-year-old daughter came home upset. Her music instructor had asked the students to recommend a song they could learn as a group. My daughter, an introvert and music lover, promptly volunteered a popular song that her mother and I agreed was innocent enough. Her classmates loved the song choice so the teacher started to play it. In the middle of the song, he turned it off and decided to go with The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da. The kids complied.

Maybe the teacher felt one of the lines was inappropriate. Maybe he just didn’t like the beat or style. Whatever the case, he gave no explanation to the students and left my daughter feeling deflated. She rarely volunteers ideas at school so we discussed how she could have responded to the teacher’s change of plan. I told her directly, “When you think someone — grown up or not — is not acting fairly, speak up. That includes me. You have a voice that deserves to be heard if your aim is fairness and truth.”

She smiled, nodded, and I hope she took something away from this experience. But my daughter — like any creator, business owner, or entrepreneur — felt compromised. She shut down because her ideas were shut down, and the more we’re rebuffed, the less likely we are to speak up again.

The same is true in business. For all of you who have yet to boldly define the voice of your business or brand, who fear taking a stand and leading with your ideals, it’s essential to recognize the power and importance of leaning into the stances you’re willing to take and living the story you want to tell. Sometimes those stances may be risky, contested, controversial even. But conscious consumers won’t follow a brand that doesn’t wholly believe in itself.  (more…)

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Cultivating the Customer Experience with Wonder Gestures

Why is the Magic Castle Hotel the second highest rated hotel in Los Angeles next to the Four Seasons? After all, a room at this modest hotel pales compared to the luxury of the Four Seasons. Much of the Magic Castle’s success has to do with popsicles. Actually, it has to do with how the hotel staff creates moments of memorable – and talkable – delight. Whereas travelers might be loyal to the Four Seasons for reliable quality, other travelers love the Magic Castle – and they love to talk about it.  (more…)

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How a Questing Mindset Leads to More Meaningful Work

Maybe you’re feeling worn out, empty of ideas, or overworked and depleted.

You can’t always change your circumstances, but you can change your mindset. When we talk about mindset, we talk about attitudes – your attitude towards your work, your team, your business, your long-term goals, your family, your relationships, your vision, your future. Reframing your mindset gives you the power to reshape your life and reimagine your future. Are you eager to make your side hustle your full time gig? Is city life draining you? Are you running out of energy crossing off to-do-list items, leaving no energy for your passions? Are you in a rut and in need of inspiration?  (more…)

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Make Room to Love the Work You Do

Here’s the thing: We spend most of our hours working, and nearly half of us don’t enjoy our work. Is that lack of joy emblematic of the work or is it indicative of how we approach the work at hand?

The Conference Board conducted a study of 1,500 employed individuals and found that 51% were satisfied with their job. Meaning, 49% were not satisfied. Dissatisfaction can result from boredom, working in the wrong industry, being overworked, or simply doing work you dislike.  (more…)

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Uncover Your Story and Drive Your Brand: The Power of a Mission

Think about your favorite brands. What do you like about them? A brand is more than just a logo or a website. When you walk into your favorite store(s) or when you engage or collaborate with a company you love, you usually walk away with this feeling of satisfaction, excitement, wonder.

Creating a memorable, impactful brand stems from your purpose. Your purpose contributes to your mission – and this is what will not only attract the right audience, but also motivate employees, lead to more beneficial business, and elevate you to do your best work. (more…)

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