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Get Your Crayons Back: How to Win Over Your Inner Critic and Recapture Your Creative Self

My work requires me to be creative and confident. If I don’t figure out how to set strategy for my business and come up with great ideas for what to do next, I won’t be successful. Those of you who are in a senior leadership position or self-employed know what I’m talking about.

So how do you wake up every day and get creative? I find myself in near-continual creative crisis, which might surprise friends and colleagues to hear. I generally look like I have my business act together and take far more creative risks in life than the average person, including venturing into making visual art late in life. But keeping a clear channel open to my creativity is a big hassle in my life. Right now I have a lot of business development work to get done that requires my best creative thinking and most days feel like a slog. Days can go by with nothing important accomplished. My inner critic, desperately trying to keep me from creating and going public with something really foolish, wins.

Isn’t it easy when someone compliments and encourages you? I always have a streak of brilliant productivity. Finding external sources of motivation and inspiration is a useful strategy. I’ve created some wonderful master mind groups and co-coaching partnerships with colleagues to give myself regular doses of external inspiration and validation. But it’s a temporary fix. In the end, it’s still you sitting by yourself doing the work, slogging it out with your inner critic.

6a0112790b2c7d28a40115724b19e9970b-320piI find my inner critic leaves me vulnerable to being derailed not only by myself but by people who could potentially give me inspiration and validation—a serious flaw in relying only on external sources. Last fall a dear friend asked repeatedly if she could watch me create my metal and neon art. I think I’m not very exciting to watch, but I said yes. It was kind of flattering to have someone be so interested in my process. I’d been telling her about a piece I was working on called “The Heart Revealed.” I liked the concept – how opening our heart up can feel like tearing ourselves open to reveal tender chambers that don’t often see the light of day. But I didn’t like how the piece was coming together – the metal being peeled back to reveal a slender stroke of pale lavender neon inside a dark chamber didn’t look enough like a tear. It just wasn’t edgy enough.

I forgot to tell my friend it was all very metaphorical, so when she saw the piece she asked a logical question, “Where’s the heart?” I tried not to let the question bother me, but it snuck in through the door my inner critic had left open and took up residence. I have not been back in my studio since. After almost nine years of making art without flinching at what anyone thought, it took me by surprise.

I realize that although I successfully managed my critical voice for years while making art, I have not learned to do that as well when I write or take risky new steps in my coaching business. As a result, during the last three years of trying to find my creative voice in business my inner critic has gotten a lot of air time, which is now spilling over into my art work.

To set business strategy for a bold new direction, create a new breakthrough idea or product, or create a work of art, we have to get into a productive relationship with our inner critic.

My brother, always a great gift-giver, just gave me the perfect birthday present: the dark, cynical and quite funny Hugh MacLeod’s (gapingvoid.com) book, “Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.” This blog-to-book is the perfect read for your inner critic. It’s full of great advice and sarcastic wit that puts things in perspective for your inner critic, like:

1. Ignore everybody. You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. MacLeod’s first chapter is a great analysis of how resistance to change and power dynamics with friends and business colleagues play into how our inner critic rushes in to protect us. I often say fear is your friend; this first chapter usefully connected the dots on relationship dynamics I wasn’t fully conscious of yet.

2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours. The more the idea is yours alone, the more freedom you have to do something really amazing. This chapter does a 180 reframe on why it’s great to try stupid things no one else is doing. Put a big smile on my face.

4. Good ideas have lonely childhoods. …the better the idea, the more “out there” it initially will seem to other people, even people you like and respect. Useful insights on how and why new ideas get squelched by your boss, your team, and your close friends. Helped me remember that several great things I’ve created in my life, like my current co-housing arrangement, had most of my friends and family very concerned and skeptical at first.

6. You are responsible for your own experience. Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful, or worthwhile. The more
compelling the path, the more lonely it is.
A little chapter full of straight talk to the inner critic busy calling your latest effort stupid: generally speaking, only comfortable, familiar (aka second-rate) ideas get big applause the minute they’re born. Buck up and carry on with your stupid idea. All the best ones are.

7. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the “creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” A completely fabulous chapter on how to listen to yourself and sort out creative voices from critic voices.

There’s 35 more gems in this little book that Seth Godin calls “a work of art, a brilliant insight, a book that will change your life.” I agree. Go get your own copy. Find your “box of crayons,” whatever that is now. Let’s all go make surprising stuff happen.

With public thanks to my brother and Hugh for helping me find my way back to myself: I made a date with an artist friend to work together in my studio this Friday. I have several ideas for next pieces I can’t wait to get out and start playing with. I have not one but five new blog posts I’m having fun working on. And I am dusting off notes for a class I began creating two years ago and bringing them with me to a seminar I’m taking this weekend to get some feedback. I feel ready for whatever people have to say to me.

I hope this post has given you fresh ideas for how re-engage your creative self!

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About Jane: Jane Cavanaugh is an internationally acclaimed business leadership and career coach who has helped more than 6,000 professionals develop their career and leadership skills. Jane is creator of The Passionate Professional: How to Make Your Ordinary Career Extraordinary, a guided career transition program, and a co-author of Breakthrough! Inspirational Strategies for an Audaciously Authentic Life. Contact Jane through this web site.