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Creating 2011, Part 2: The Forgotten Tool for Creative Professionals’ Planning

Note: In Part 1 of this series, “Goals for No-Goals Creatives,” I noted how I rarely consciously set goals despite my three businesses’ growth. In that article, I offered, though, authentic ways to approach goal-setting. This follow-up article lays out a more intuitive skillful means that has guided my adult life – imagination. I risk going into personal material, but I hope it’s of interest and use. Let me know.

Creativity is a revived currency in business. The New York Times Magazine (December 16, 2010) ran a full feature on the burgeoning field of us creativity consultants and idea leaders. Advances in technology have automated numerous jobs and made follow-instructions-and-gather-information managers almost obsolete. Yet what do we entrepreneurs, micro-business owners, and hybrid artistic practitioners-freelancers do when we make professional plans and goals? Some of us complain that we’re not analytical or MBA-savvy enough and forfeit our innate creative tools. Yes, rigorous analysis of data and competition and the market are necessary, but analysis alone will not get you to the heart of your professional life and future. And for most of us motivated by meaning more than money, we must get to the core to keep our business’s heart beat thumping through good times and bad.

One oft-forgotten tool, inherent to your creativity, can help you get to your professional heart and envision your professional year accordingly.

What the Lakota Taught an Unlikely Entrepreneur

Either indulge me a little personal back story or drop down to the next section.

At 22, fresh out of grad school, I found among Lakota literature wisdom that has guided my most significant professional decisions.

Most of what I wanted then is pretty much what I want now – to live each day with as much gusto with whatever work and play presents itself. My heroes then are who they are today – Thoreau, Zen masters like Dogen, poets whose gaze cracks open the ordinary moment’s quiet splendor, bold yet unassuming innovators in all fields whose love of work for work’s sake far outreaches any survivalist or competitive needs, and the anonymous Native American elders whose words I relished as tracks to a full life worth living.

The Lakota ways particularly interested me. A Lakota man could dream of a rock, and that dream would send him off on a whole new course of life. Like other tribes such as the Cree, the Lakota considered dreams and landscape forms and animals and signs for one’s life direction to be part and parcel of the same language.

The language of imagination and intuition was far, far away from anything I grew up learning or comprehended within conventional learning institutions. I did sense, though, something kindred in making decisions more imaginatively than rationally.

And then I came across this gem from a Lakota elder:

Imagine your life richly.

Granted, that sounds like some New Age bumper sticker. But at the time I took it as part of my personal gospel right up there with the truths of Walden.

At different times in my life, imagination more than analysis has guided my critical professional decisions.

The Necessary Angel of Creative Innovation

Images are the currency of creative innovation. That capacity to take in an image from our senses, remember it, make meaning of it, and even speak of it is part of what distinguishes our species from Neanderthals, according to at least one prominent archaeologist. Designers parlay in images. Marketers know images move you to buy. CEOs like Mickey Drexler of J Crew know that images of a way of life influence decisions. Architects build on images and in turn create buildings that create images. Novelists create what John Gardner calls “fictional dreams,” whole continuous worlds that inhabit readers’ imaginations.

The Lakota way strangely reflects what a lot of new science reflects. Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, reviews what is at once a whole new way and an ancient way of viewing how we human beings make decisions. We might think we’re rational when we lay out our New Year’s Resolutions and our annual business goals, but our rationality – according to Wilson as well as cognitive scientists such as Mark Johnson – is built on a deep foundation of emotional irrationality, gut feelings, and impulses. Our rational awareness is but the tip of our mind’s iceberg.

This science ties right into other new dream science that suggests that a good night’s sleep of dreaming can help us assimilate what we’re thinking about during the day and even solve creative problems by priming the brain’s associative networks. We just might dream about a rock one night and the next day, boom!, make a decision unconsciously influenced by that dream. Researcher David Watson discovered that creative people who think in images during the day are more likely to recall dreams vividly (Ask my poor wife, who obliges my dream recollections over oatmeal, for confirmation of this finding.) But Watson also discovered these dreamers were more prone to openness, novelty, and different points of view – all essential qualities for the right-brained people successfully innovating in business. The Lakota were onto something.

So why not rally this most essential of all faculties to imagine your year – professionally and personally – richly?

Imagination will help you navigate fertile confusion and periods of deep ambiguity, whether for yourself, your work, or your business or corporation. Imagination helps you learn to live in the space of not-knowing, wonder’s province.

But images also are the currency of how we create our lives. So, I come back to that Vision Questions I mentioned in the article, “Goals for No-Goals Creatives”: How do you imagine your best self acting and being in 2011? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2011? What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel?

Poet Wallace Stevens called the imagination a “necessary angel.” He explains, “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.”

3 Ways to Engage Vision Questions Intuitively

1. Let your body answer. Run with the question. Exercise with it. Swim with it. Practice yoga with it. Immediately following your physical movement, be still for a few minutes. Then listen and watch. It’s no accident that members of Jump Associates, the successful creative consulting firm featured in The New York Times piece, perform yoga stretches before their brainstorms: Since 1999, research has shown unquestionably that exercise stimulates new brain cells and new neuronal pathways. With physical activity, you prime your mind to receive a deeper answer.

2. Go to a favorite spot, quiet or crowded. A client of mine who runs her own micro-business loves to sit in Union Square Park on a sunny Saturday when benches and lawns brim with people. She says that’s where she takes her big questions. Sometimes a sidewalk jazz quartet or the man who feeds a hundred pigeons or some conversation she overhears triggers a response. Find your spot. Sit. Listen. Watch. Repeat each day for several days in the beginning of January.

3. Dream your year. Tell yourself before sleep to dream about something, and you have a 50% chance of being a lucky dreamer. That’s the general finding of Deridre Barrett, Harvard psychologist and author of The Committee of Sleep. So you might repeat your 2011 vision question to yourself before you fall asleep during the next week.

Drop in the Hut

How do you engage your imagination to improve your professional life? To make critical decisions? To prepare the ground of your creative professional future? I know we have a lot of artists, entrepreneurs, and professionals of various sorts in this group. Share your wisdom, experiences, and perspective.

See you in the woods,


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