I am a creative director at an advertising agency, and I have been managing teams of people forever. I was the darling of the advertising world when I started, and developed a reputation for hatching brilliant ideas—in fact, you would recognize some of my work. It is a fast paced business with crazy hours. I just barely manage to juggle a household, two elementary school-aged kids, and a husband who works equally nutty hours. This job, which always has been kind of nuts, is now just a 24/7 slog.
I am a good manager. My people love working for me and I attract the best talent to my projects. My problem isn’t with managing people. My problem is that I feel as if I have lost my creativity. Kids in this business are innovative and quirky and fun, and I just don’t have any good ideas any more. I am worried that I am going to be found out, and that stress is really taking a toll. —Am I washed up?
Dear Washed Up,
No. But where you are right now sure is unpleasant, and for that I am truly sorry. To get to be a creative director at an agency you must have started out with amazing ideas and kept it going for a long time. So, fundamentally, you are a clever and imaginative person. But here is the thing. Creativity is a little like a water well, and it isn’t so much that yours has run dry; it is more that you need to prime the pump. Your life sounds exhausting and I am pretty sure what you are experiencing are classic symptoms of burnout. This is tough but reversible.
I have a few ideas. Some may make you roll your eyes because they are obvious, but others might be new to you.
- Remember. Look to your past life and former self for clues. What did you used to do regularly when you were at your most creative? I guarantee you will think of some activities you did on a regular basis that you no longer do, whether it’s because you simply don’t have time or because something has changed. For example, when asked this question one client realized that she did her best thinking in the bathtub and had recently moved into a new home with a cruddy tub. She re-prioritized the planned renovations and got to work on the bathroom first!
- Put yourself first. Howard Gardner, one of the foremost researchers on creativity, examined creativity through the lives of some of the great creative geniuses like Stravinsky, Einstein, and Picasso. He found one of the hallmarks of these people to be that they were very good at taking care of themselves so they could do their work. Not only that, they were particularly good at getting other people to take care of them so that they were freed up to think and create. What this would mean for someone like you would be so radical that you might use the label Extreme Self Care. What would this actually look like? Delegating mundane tasks someone else can do, for starters. If you can’t afford help at home, make your kids empty the dishwasher while you meditate for six minutes. Instead of doing laundry, drop it at the Fluff and Fold. Ask yourself, of all the things that suck the life out you at work, what might some of your direct reports be able to do? Your problem may very well be with managing in that you are not giving away enough tedious stuff and keeping some fun work for yourself. I have found that many people will put up with all kinds of overwhelm until they realize that the cost is too high. Sometimes it is a big health scare. Sometimes it is the death of their creativity.
- Walk. Most people go to the gym so that they can stay in their skinny jeans. But a pile of evidence now shows that the part of you that really needs exercise is your brain. A study from Stanford shows that walking, even for short periods, increases idea generation and problem solving capability. So get up out of your chair and walk. Have walking meetings. Walk around the block for 15 minutes. Just walk.
- Write morning pages. These next two ideas come directly from Julia Cameron, who wrote a book called The Artist’s Way that swept New York City, and the world, by storm in the early 1990s. “Morning pages” is a practice that involves grabbing a notebook upon first waking and writing 3 full pages of stream of consciousness. That’s it. No censoring, just free flow writing, for 3 pages. It doesn’t have to take more than 15 minutes. I can’t tell how or why it works, but I have used it myself in times of crisis and many clients have used this practice to get through rough spots in their lives, and magical things happen.
- The Artist’s Date: Also from Julia Cameron, is the concept of the Artist’s Date. She recommends that you take two hours every week to do an activity that involves experiencing, sensing, and observing, with no real agenda other than to simply be in the moment. This can mean a walk in the park, a visit to a museum, listening to music. (I just heard you laugh out loud at the idea of taking two hours a week. To be fair, as a working Mom I feel pretty pleased if I do this two or three times a year, but even that makes a difference.) For more detail on Cameron’s work: http://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/
Finally, Breathe. Is that annoying? It probably is, but too bad. I’ll bet on a regular basis your shoulders are up around your ears and your abdomen is tight—and not in a good way—with anxiety. Take a deep breath in, and release your shoulders on the exhale. Take another breath in and think about what you are trying accomplish, and with the release let go of the judgment you have about your own creativity. The third breath will bring the idea, the word, or the solution. The spirit comes in on the breath. Always. You haven’t lost your creativity forever, I promise. But you will have to fight hard to get it back.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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