I get it. When you have a million decisions to make each week that can contribute to either saving someone from hunger or not, spending any time being creative seems like the last thing you should do. Your supervisor probably doesn’t appreciate you spending time doodling or bringing up the fact that daydreaming can be helpful for your data analysis.
This pressure is so real especially for those in social impact that we forget that the secret ingredients to thoughtful and effective leadership are mindfulness and creativity.
Let me explain.
Since the 1950s, scientific researchers, psychologists, and leaders have consistently validated the importance of creativity in our professional and personal growth as well as in our economy’s growth. However, over 75% of U.S. professionals feel stuck or lack a creative outlet. That’s a huge percentage of unhappy workers. The truth is, integrating creative thinking as an employee working in a traditionally non-creative sector (i.e., in an organization or with a job title that is not art or design related) is really, really hard. This is particularly the case for entry and mid-level employees working in environments that are highly hierarchical.
I have faced this challenge myself. I worked and studied public policy for over 6 years and worked exclusively in the nuclear nonproliferation industry for 3 years. I loved my work, the field, and the people I met. However, doing anything out of the norm was also very hard for me, especially at the start of my career. Thinking differently or trying a new approach to challenge the status quo or routine was discouraged. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up and questioned whether my ideas would be well received. I found myself becoming risk-averse and permitting my potential best ideas to die in fear of being judged.
It wasn’t until I started experimenting, practicing mindfulness, and thinking creatively that I found change within myself professionally and personally. Now that I have fully integrated creativity and mindfulness, I am a more effective, strategic, thoughtful and happier leader than I was before.
How did I do it? Here are some recommendations for you to take a step closer to becoming a better creative leader.
First, schedule a regular time to unplug and daydream.
Due to digital technology, we are now constantly wrapped around devices informing us of the latest situation, emergency, and task. But are all of them as truly urgent as they seem? Do we really need to reply to that email as soon as it pops-up on our screen? We are so used to executing and staring at our screens that we forget to pause and think through our actions and their consequences. However, when we are always executing, our best ideas die. Ideas need some time to dance and explore in ‘idea land’ before they determine what they will become. To allow for this thought processing, you need to take time to pause, unplug and daydream. It’s essential especially if you are making difficult decisions. Dedicating time to take walks in nature, listen to music with your eyes closed or doodle without a plan are great ways to create time for yourself. That 10 minute recharge will help you make that next decision better.
Second, be a curious sponge who loves to learn and find what you love.
Your willingness to learn will impact your ability to grow. As children, we all had a hunger and curiosity to learn. At some point along the way, we stopped doing it for fear of being judged. This is where creatives differ. Their willingness to ask questions, be curious, and dig deeply into situations helped them deepen their expertise and merge their multiple interests to build something new. When you have this mindset, you will expand your knowledge and the opportunities to connect new dots in unseeming places. Let your curiosity take the driver’s seat next time you take on a project and dig deeply.
Third, practice observing your situations as a third party and ask yourself what is really going on here.
Third party observation and questioning practice is key to integrating mindfulness. This approach is crucial the more stressed you are. When we are emotionally exhausted it is hard to think through and understand what are the right decisions and right procedures to make a vision come true. If you still feel a bit overwhelmed after unplugging, imagine that you left your body and can observe yourself as another person. Ask questions such as what is going on here, how do I feel about it, how did this happen, what are the actions I can take, what are the constraints, and how do I feel about my potential options for moving forward? In this thought process of answering questions, the more open and willing you are to entertain random ideas, the more creative and effective solutions you can reach.
Fourth, find your allies and like-minded innovators and spend more time with them.
While not everyone may believe in your ideas, continue looking for those who do. Particularly in the face of challenge, seek out those like-minded colleagues that support “out of the box” thinking to back your positions, hold you accountable and encourage you to seek new solutions to complex issues. Allow your allies to challenge your ideas so you can develop a more thoughtful and improved idea. So before you give up, find your allies, early adopters, believers, and get a buy-in early. As Jim Rohn famously said, “we are the average of the five people we spend most time with.”
Fifth, know that this is a journey and don’t give up.
And of course, the key element to all of this is to be persistent, determined, and deliver consistently good work for your team and organization. Your willingness to learn, adapt, and stay proactive when facing these challenges and limits is the greatest stepping stone in fostering innovative thinking. It will take months or even years for some of your work to shine, but don’t give up. Don’t simply criticize the situation. Think about how constraints can help you in your next steps.
Overall, you will see the greatest impact when you believe that you are creative and have the potential to build creative insights. When you integrate more of this mindset into your professional space, it will permeate into personal space too. Creative thinking is a mental muscle that needs regular exercise to get better. We spend so much time going to the gym, but allow so little time for our minds to flow. It’s about time we change that. Be the creative mindful leader you want to be with these recommendations.