Flow: Where Creativity Lives
December 2, 2013
by Tammy Sachs, Chief Executive Officer, Sachs Insights
"Going with the flow allows for ease in movement; the river current glides you down without much effort on your part except perhaps to guide your way and avoid obstacles."
I am a researcher – listening to people, finding patterns, connecting the dots, making sense of data is what makes me tick. My first boss said in disbelief, “Is there any topic you aren’t curious about?” That was during the rise of the PC. The stuff I research – how technology shapes people’s lives and their relationships with brands — has only gotten more interesting, nuanced and global. I’ve never thought I ought to have taken another path. This one is incredibly exciting, more so than I ever imagined. I’ve begun to notice, however, there may be a downside to incredibly exciting.
The Left Brain Goes Into Overdrive
Not a day goes by that doesn’t start with, “Have you read that article?” “Did you hear what so-and-so blogged about?” “Are you following xyz?” “Are you guys using Pinterest for your social media?” “Did you catch that Fast Company article about Apple being dead?” “What do you think of Gladwell’s new book, Dan Pink, Apple’s strategy for iPhone 5c, Nexus 7?” About half way into each day, my brain — that over-active, curious place — begins to shut down. “Why don’t I know that?” “Why can’t I find time to read that article, activate our Pinterest boards, follow so-and-so?” …the list goes on. My left brain goes into overdrive; judging, critiquing, measuring and, on occasion, coming up short.
Then there are my clients. They have a 9:00am, a 10:00am, an 11:00am, a 2:00pm, a 360 review, a software release at 10:00 pm followed by an offsite all next week and then 4 days of research. After that, they get to go home and do “real” work: thinking, writing, strategizing, and if they are lucky, some time to reflect, ideate and innovate.
So here’s the downside. The net impact of all of this is, plain and straight: a left brain which is tapped out on logic, judgment, measurement and massive amounts of information. And a right brain struggling and relying on muscle memory to do its thing: create and intuit. The only exceptions, for me anyway, are the shower where no digital device dares to go or, on vacation in some far-away place where connectivity just isn’t – and where epiphanies tend to happen. These breakthroughs that just don’t surface when I'm at my desk — in spite of all the devices at my disposal where I can research any topic, read what thousands of others are thinking and catch up with a steady stream of texts, emails, and IMs; often the last things I look at late at night and the first I see in the morning.
Unplugging From the Grind
The recent surge in "Technology Fasting" brought back memories of a time when I used to draw, weave, and design stage costumes, tapestries, ceramics and jewelry. It got me to thinking about how my unconscious mind led me into an artist’s studio two years ago and guided me to observe two classically trained mosaic artists work. They don’t know about market share or ROI or UX or Agile or Instagram. What they do know is how to teach without judgment, share their love of materials and surround their students with unconditional support in the belief that there is an artist within each of us waiting to emerge. It is fascinating to observe lawyers, doctors and business people sitting for hours with only the sound of glass and stone being scored and cut. Occasionally there’s an utterance of, “I just am not in the flow today.” “Nothing I’m doing is right.” “I’ve lost my mojo.” I notice that those involuntary left brain attacks on what is an incredibly peaceful experience soon disappear. No technology – only your hands, the material, an artist’s guidance and your imagination.
Recharging the Right Brain
This experience has transformed me. I love the apprenticeship of working with artists and learning their way, of not being in a hurry to meet a deadline – rather being at one with the process. Within an hour of whatever adrenaline induced activity I came from, I’m peacefully in the rhythm of cutting tiny pieces and moving them around until they form a beautiful pattern. I’m often shocked when I stand up and look at the work and see grass that is flowing like it does in the wind, flowers that look like they are in bloom, and my latest creation, a dragon that looks like it will leap off the frame. I often think, "How did this come out of me – rational, analytic, focused, logical me?”
In Buddhist thought there is something called "pushing the river". It relates to going with the flow. When a flowing river moves rapidly and with force, going against the flow is not suggested; you use up all your energy fighting the force of the current and don’t get very far. Going with the flow allows for ease in movement; the river current glides you down without much effort on your part except perhaps to guide your way and avoid obstacles.
I read in my mosaics books that if one tile (what mosaic artists call “tessera”) is out of alignment – a piece that you force fit – all subsequent pieces will not flow. It is akin to pushing the river. Somehow, when I get into my “mosaic trance” I go where the material takes me. The wind-blown grass, blooming flowers, piercing dragon’s eye and melding of colors that emerge seem to come from someone else. One of my creative friends suggested that we are just vessels for the art that emerges.
What is most wonderful is the incredible peace that comes with the process. Focusing only on the next tiny piece of glass or stone enables me to suspend judgment, criticism and that constant barrage of intruding thoughts.
A day each week is an apprenticeship, an immersion into the Artist’s Way, a meditation and a journey into a place where logic, analysis, evaluation and measurement of success just don't enter the picture. Three hours in, moving around hundreds of tiny shards of glass, this amazing thing happens. My brain is completely empty. No thoughts or criticisms, simply being at one with the material and figuring out what color that blade of grass could be, what tool could help the next piece of tessera turn the corner.
Freeing Your Mind For New Ideas
And, what is most delightful is that when I have that “empty brain” ideas begin to flow — ideas about new products, new places, possibilities, solutions to things that have been eluding an answer. Slowly, that right brain muscle memory is strengthening. Colors and textures are more vivid. I see shadow and contrast and light. Problems that arise are less catastrophic. They too become part of the flow.
Right Brain Muscle Building
I highly recommend a practice like mosaics to those of us steeped in deadlines, analysis, logic, to-do lists, fire drills, release dates and other aspects of daily life that squash creativity. Finding a place where flow naturally happens unleashes the possibilities that were always inside, giving them permission to flourish, opening us to the creative spirit within. Here we are in the office taking a break from the grind to recharge our right brain:
I am grateful to my teachers Yakov and Angele Hanansen who are brilliant world renowned mosaic artists. If you are a New Yorker or have been to New York City's Penn Station, you have most likely seen their work that decorates the train station at 34th St. If you feel inspired to learn more about mosaics or take classes, their contact information is below. This video shows some of their amazing work: