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Should You Take Advice from a Cartoonist?

pencil_character_teaching.epsScott Adams is the creator of the cartoon “Dilbert” and, although he cautions his readers not to put too much faith in the advice of a cartoonist, he has some interesting things to say in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. In his book he tries to convince his readers that he failed at quite a few things before he was finally successful but I wasn’t completely convinced by his examples. Most of his failures were jobs that he wasn’t particularly good at, but in all these “failure” jobs he learned what he could, and then took those new found skills on to other jobs. Ok, his Dillberito, a vegetarian microwavable burrito never took off and he wasn’t successful in the restaurant business but both of these ideas were launched after he was making a lot of money as a cartoonist.

Despite these observations, Adam’s book is a fun read and has some advice that artists of all types could find useful. These are some of the ideas I found most helpful.

  • Every skill you learn increases your chances of success. So even failures such as what may feel like dead-end jobs (or failed creative projects) can be useful if you learn new skills. Adams used his failures at his corporate jobs to inspire his “Dilbert” characters and dialogue.
  • It is okay to take creative risks but make sure your basic financial needs are taken care of. This may mean holding on to your job while you develop your ideas on the weekends and evenings. Adams worked for many years while he was writing, developing and selling his “Dilbert” cartoons. He notes how his cartooning skills needed time to mature before they really took off.
  • He encourages people to work with systems rather than goals. A system would look something like getting into the habit of doing your creative work first thing in the morning, every morning, before you start your day. Or perhaps it is writing 1000 words a day on your novel. Or maybe showing up in your studio every day from 5pm to 6pm right after work. A systems is a pattern that does not depend on being in the right mood.
  • Adams claims that goals are for losers. Goals keep you looking to the future instead of getting down to work now. When you don’t reach your goals it can be depressing and discouraging. Systems help you to do the work no matter what the outcome. It may not be as exciting as setting and reaching goals but it is more sustainable.
  • Eating well and doing regular exercise is important to keeping up your energy.

What skills have you gained in your life that might contribute to your creative practise now?

Take time to think about your creative practise and whether or not your approach is one of using systems or goals. “I have a goal of painting 6 paintings this month” may not be as valuable as saying “I am going to commit to painting every day, at this specific time for the next month.” The results may end up the same, but by putting a system in place, you are developing the habits that can keep you going and producing for many months and years to come. You may not get six paintings done but you may do one that turns out to be your best so far, one that takes you to a new level, one that may not have happened if you had been too focused on your goal.

Make sure you attend to your financial needs so that you can relax and enjoy your creative practise and be less pressured to focus on how much you produce and how “successful” the work is.

Remember to look after your physical need for nourishing food and exercise so that you have the energy to keep at your creative practise and live a healthy life.


Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep ~ Scott Adams

Make Something!

Go Ahead photoSeveral years ago I read a blog by a woman who called herself “The ‘Fly Lady” (flylady.net). Since her mission in life was to help people clean up their homes I wasn’t sure if the “fly” part of her name was related to flying around cleaning up the house or having a sense of flying once you cleaned up the house or what gathers in corners if you don’t clean up the house. I must have been in one of my seasons of despair about the state of my housekeeping when I stumbled upon her site.

The Fly Lady had lots of good suggestions but I thought the best one was intended for the really desperate. The ones who couldn’t see the floor for the junk or couldn’t find room on the kitchen counter to make a sandwich. Her suggestion was that you have one goal. That goal was to clean the kitchen sink. This goal may require some prep work, such as washing the dishes that were in the sink, but if that was too much you were even allowed to stash the dirty dishes under the sink. However, at the end of the day the sink had to be sparkling clean and the faucets gleaming. Every night you could go to bed knowing that at least the kitchen sink was taken care of.

The assumption was that if you can accomplish this small goal you are more likely to be able to accomplish another small goal. And then another small goal. The consistency of accomplishing cleaning the sink every day builds hope and momentum. We get into trouble when we look at what we want to do and get so overwhelmed that we don’t do anything.

Stephen Guise addresses the same subject in his book Mini Habits. He tells the story of when he wanted to start an exercise program but was just not motivated to stick to it. So he decided to do one thing that he couldn’t fail at. He decided to do one push-up every day. He reasoned that if he could get himself to get on the floor and do just one push-up, he might feel like doing two or maybe since he was down there, 10 or 15. However, he always told himself he didn’t HAVE to do any more than one push-up but that he had to do AT LEAST one.

Sure enough, once he got over the hurdle of starting, he was much more likely to keep going. And he always reasoned that even one push-up was better than no push-ups at all. Some days he did one but most days he did a lot more.

When you are blocked as an artist it can be difficult to get started again. Or it may be just as hard for you to finish a project you have been working on but have set aside for so long you don’t know how to get back to work on it.

In her book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert talks about “lightening up” about how we think about our creative work. She suggests that we create difficulty for ourself if we are “writing a best seller” or “painting our best work yet”. These thoughts make the creating very serious indeed.

Gilbert says that she would rather think that as humans we all delight in making things. We have made things since we came out of Africa and continue to get delight out of making things. We have made practical things, decorative things, entertaining things and things that make us think. We make things. It is good for us to make things. It is fun for us to make things. It is interesting for us to make things.

When you are having trouble getting stated again you can try combining these two ideas. Make something, anything. It doesn’t have to be big or important or useful or even successful. It can be related to your creative work or it might not be. Like doing just one push-up or just cleaning the sink, think of just making something, but do it every day. Make a card, scrapbook your last holiday, make an apple pie, knit a scarf, grind down a Dollar Store screw driver to make an awl.

Whatever you make, it may delight you enough to send you creeping back to your studio and saying hello to a new creative project and another opportunity to fulfill your destiny as a human, and make something.

Your Creative Expression is Unique

IMGP0871There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” Martha Graham (1894-1991)

Martha Graham spoke these words in 1943 to an artist friend who was bewildered and worried about her acting career. Martha spent her life as a modern dancer, acquiring many awards and honors for her work and transforming the way dance is taught in America. She has been call “The Picasso of Dance”.

After her retirement in 1970 Martha became severely depressed, staying close to home and drinking too much. She was eventually hospitalized and spent time in a coma. Fortunately she survived and in 1972 she quit drinking and went back to dancing. She reorganized her dance company and went on to choreograph ten new ballets and other works. She seemed to take her own advice before it was too late and continued to work for another 21 years. She died in 1991 at the age of 96.

Her message to her friend is one we all do well to listen to. How often are we discouraged by our creative work, thinking it isn’t good enough or unique enough? I often tell my clients that once they are finished a work of art they should picture themselves in the act of letting it go into the world. The work has a life of its own and none of us can predict what that life will be. Perhaps it will go on to achieve noteriety. Perhaps it is a stepping stone to better and more mature work.

Recently I visited a friend who showed me a painting she had bought at a garage sale. The seller said it had belonged to her mother who owned several works by this artist. This one she didn’t like as much as the others. My friend couldn’t make out the signature but I recognized it as an original Tony Onley painting, one that had a note saying that it was done as a demonstration in 1985. Tony Onley is a well-known Canadian artist who painted watercolours of the Canadian north and coastlines. This particular painting has had a life, first in a home on the west coast of Canada and now in a home in Edmonton. It was bought because my friend liked it but now has added value because she knows who painted it. The painting will be treasured as a valuable addition to her growing collection of original art.

Each of us has a unique voice. Each of us produces our own unique work. As Martha Graham says so eloquently, “If you block it, it will not exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”

Try to disengage your feelings about your work from the work itself. Keep leaning from your experiences. Keep showing up, moving forward and producing the work that you know is in you.

Warm Weather Creative Plans

I have been out at our lake property for nine days now. The purpose of the holiday has been to work on our cottage. Since we are at the stage of getting the foundation finished, which requires a lot of leveling and a considerable amount of backfilling done with a wheel barrel, I have found my main contribution has been making and cleaning up after meals. We have had the delight of friends and family visiting and providing physical help to my husband, Larry as he works.

The good part about this is that it has left me with a nice amount of free time to do what I want. I have had some great birding days, with dozens of birds dive-bombing our feeder and giving me another lesson in the aviary pecking order. It was also nice to see two young fledged Bald Eagles along with an adult at the far end of Lake Isle when we found time to go canoeing.

The time has also allowed me the opportunity to do some painting and some writing. I spent the first days here reading and writing out quotes for future use. Some of the books I have been reading have been pretty heavy in subject matter and others, like the short story Runaway by Alice Munro have been riveting.

Just being out here with a limited agenda has allowed me time for the kind of creative thinking that is often squelched when I am too busy. Austen Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist says “Take time to be bored. One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.”.” He goes on to say, “Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.”

Interestingly, summer is often the time when those of us who live in northern climates are happily engaged in activities we can’t do at other times of the year. Summer is relatively short here, made up somewhat by the longer daylight hours. Still, many of us want to be outside, enjoying nature, having barbecues, going on family holidays, tending the garden, biking, spending time with friends, anything but sitting down and getting to our creative work. We postpone that for those cold winter days when we can’t do any of this fun stuff. Yet at the same time, getting outside and being in nature can facilitate our creativity.

How do summers work for you? Is summer the time you put your paints away until the days grow shorter and the yard takes up less of your time? Or is summer when you sit in your backyard and write or paint? Is it a time when you schedule plain air painting times with friends or do you retreat to your summer property for solitude? What kind of an impact do the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer have on your creative practise? Why not post a comment and get the discussion going.

Note: Check out this article on tips for plein air painting at Swinton’s Art in Calgary

Creativity and Chocolate

If you are anything like me, sometimes my creative practise is like chocolate. That is, I mentally turn my creative practice into a treat that I reward myself with after I have done what I consider my real work, or my responsibilities. Just like chocolate, I know my creative practise is good for me but the problem comes when it becomes a reward. While I like the term creative practice because it implies a process rather than a product, when the word work is associated with creativity, it sets up a different mental image. When I do my creative work it isn’t a reward it is work, just like all the other work I do in a given day. And I for one like work.

I like chocolate too, but I know I should not have too much of it. In order to reach my creative goals it is not helpful for me to think of my creative work as chocolate, a treat. It is more helpful for me to think of it as work, a responsiblity I need to attend to every day.

Chocolate can be my reward for doing my creative work. I like that idea!

How about you? Is your creative time a little bit like chocolate that you use to reward yourself once you have fulfilled all your other responsibilities? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Drop me a comment!

Thanks for reading!

Creativity Coaching – The Myth of Creative Genius

As a Creativity Coach I was interested this morning to listen to Anna Maria Tremonti’s interview with author Kevin Ashton on CBC Radio’s “The Current”.  Ashton explores the idea that we tend to associate creative inspiration with a sort of magical “aha moment” in which a person gets an idea that changes the world or brings something into being that has never been seen before.  Ashton’s idea is that all of us are creative and that all of the innovations that we might atribute to one or two very smart people are actually built on the work of many, many people, even if only one or two get the credit.

Dr Ashton suggests that the idea of creative genius came about to allow certain people to hold an elitist position in society.  The myth surrounding creativity helps make the majority of people think that they are not creative and therefore allows only a few to claim that they are set apart from the rest of society.

This is an interesting idea and has both merit and influence on how we ordinary people conceptualize creativity. If we believe that creativity is the domain of the brilliant and talented and therefore not available to the ordinary person we are likely to feel limited in what we can do.  As soon as we are stymied by a problem, we may begin to doubt our own talent or brilliance.  If we believe that really successful creators got their ideas in a flash of insight, we may not connect with the reality of creativity which involves a great deal of trial and error and building on the work of others.

This is not to say that successful creative people don’t have good ideas and don’t work very hard.  It is to suggest that any one of us have the potential for success but it is more dependent on hard work than on some nebulous idea of talent or brilliance.

These ideas can also free us up from the illusion that we need to come up with something new and innovative in order to be creative. All of our creativity rides on the backs of those who have come before us.  Since all of us are creative, we are free to both create and to encourage others around us to be creative.

If you want to listen to the interview here is where you can find it:


Kevin Ashton dismantles creative genius in ‘How to Fly a Horse’

Are You Feeling Stuck Creatively?

I thought you might enjoy this interesting interview with Dr. Eric Maisel, the well know Creativity Coach and the founder of the coaching specialty of Creativity Coaching.  He has been a Creativity Coach for many years, writes about it and also teaches courses in Creativity Coaching.  I have had the joy of taking three courses from Eric; two Creativity Coaching courses through the Creativity Coaching Association and also his Life Purpose Bootcamp.  In fact I was in the trial group for his very first Life Purpose Bootcamp on which he based his recent book by the same name.  The book is available through Amazon.ca.

I hope you enjoy this interview and if you want to know more about my Creativity Coaching Practise please contact me by email at marj@coachingthecreative.ca or call me at 780-463-2603.  I am currently accepting new clients.

If you can’t get the video to work, click on the link below to take you to youtube.


I Haven’t Been Painting for Awhile

The last five months have been filled with activity and pretty much devoid of painting. As a Creativity Coach I am loathed to admit my failures! But there it is. Now you know. Notice though that I said I have done little painting. I have however been using my creativity in other areas of my life. Although I am not entirely satisfied with what my creative practise has been in the last five months, it has been chugging along all the while.

Most of what I have been busy with has been family stuff and health issues. Nothing really serious with the health issues; nothing more serious than getting older and needing to deal with more things. Nothing more than having to pay attention to things like exercise, eating well and getting enough rest.

The family stuff included helping alter bridesmaid dresses and a wedding dress for my daughter’s wedding in Mexico in December, the busyness of Christmas and then a new grandchild born last month. There have also been quite a few deaths that have touched me in the last five months. An uncle died in September, an aunt in October, a close artist friend in November and another artist friend in January. All these deaths have reminded me that we only have so much time on this earth to accomplish what we want and need to do.

Now I face the challenge of getting back to my painting. I have lost my momentum and don’t know where to begin. It is important to realize that there is no easy way to begin again. Just knowing that can be helpful in lowering our expectation of ourselves. Here are some ideas:

  • Go into your studio or work area and ‘hang out’
  • Put on your favorite motivational music; music has a huge affect on our moods
  • Spend time cleaning up your work area or rearranging things more efficiently
  • Don’t get bogged down in cleaning up but use it as a place to start
  • Set up your materials and replenish what you are short on
  • Take a look at unfinished projects and see if they still have merit
  • Give yourself a little treat for whatever you accomplish
  • Plan to return tomorrow and keep doing what you love to do

I hope you get back on your creativity horse in the very near future. If you never got off, I hope your ride continues to bring you joy. If you have any ideas that have worked for you be sure to share them with us.

Planning for Flow

In his classic work Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the importance of having flow experiences in our lives. These are experiences when we are so involved with what we are doing that we seem to lose track of time and even of ourselves. We leave the cares and worries of our life behind and become engage with the activity we are doing.

Much has been said about flow and artists. Many artists do their best work when they are in flow. This may be true but I am one artist that often finds it hard to get into flow. I am intrigued to read what Csikszentmihalyi has to say about artists and flow.

“The goals of an activity are not always as clear as those of tennis, and the feedback is often more ambiguous that the simple “I am not falling” information processed by the climber. A composer of music, for instance, may know that he wishes to write a song, or a flute concerto, but other that that, his goals are usually vague. And how does he know whether the notes he is writing down are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? The same situation holds true for the artist painting a picture, and for all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all exceptions that prove the rule: unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.” 1

That puts a different bent on the idea of art and flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it can be more difficult for artists to get into flow than for other people engaging in physical activities such as playing a sport or rock climbing. He includes reading, which is not a physical activity, as flow because it has clear cut goals and immediate feedback.

Csikszentmihalyi is saying that in order for creativity to be a flow activity, artists need to set clear short-term goals which provide them with immediate feedback. “I think I’ll paint a picture today” may not be as affective as having clear-cut steps to the process of painting a picture.

Here is a list of things a painter might consider:

      1. Decide on my subject
      2. Gather reference material
      3. Gather my supplies
      4. Prepare my ground
      5. Develop design
      6. Decide on values
      7. Chose my colour palette.
      8. Decide the steps for painting this subject

“But this really puts a damper on spontaneity”, you might say. Then ask yourself, “How often has a completely spontaneous work really turned out?” Even fully abstracted paintings require thought in the area of what supplies to use, what ground to use, the design, values and colours to use. So even what may in the end seem spontaneous is dependent on some planning.

The point here is not so much that everything has to be planned but rather that, by setting out small steps to accomplish, we set up a goal/feedback system that will help us to derive more pleasure out of what we are doing.

Once the painting part starts, perhaps taking photos of the painting at the end of each painting session may provide some feedback that is enjoyable and valuable for future work. It is something to think about.

1. page 55 Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Your Feelings Will Change

Happy New Year to my readers and all the creative people who stop in to read my blog.

It is overcast and snowing here in Edmonton and although we had beautiful, moderate weather leading up to and through the holiday season, it looks like winter is ready to set in.  How easy it is to forget the mild, sunny days when things deteriorate.  Change is always happening.  Kelly McGonigal said that in her opening statements of her book, “The Neuroscience of Change.”  Because change is always happening, then even this nasty weather will change.  It may get worse but it may just as likely get better.  All we know is that it will change.

Maybe you have just finished up a great year with your creative practise.  You set yourself some goals and you reached many of them.  You are feeling really good about the year and looking forward to a new year and all you will accomplish in this year.  Take the time to savour those positive feelings.  This is important because we are often so goal oriented that when we reach our goals we don’t take time to savour that good feeling but are quickly on to the next goal.  I agree that to really feel fulfilled we will find it helpful to be more focused on the journey than the goal.  However, in order to feel successful we also need to reach some of our goals.  If we aren’t reaching our goals, our goals may be too unachievable or too broad.

Today we may feel happy or sad about what happened last year.  If you are happy, take time to enjoy those happy feelings.  If you are sad, that is okay too.  We all feel sad or discouraged at times.  These feelings, just like the happy ones will change with time.  Change is always happening particularly when it comes to our feelings…and the weather!

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