Back To Basics

will never boil

will never boil

Years ago when I asked my grandmother for her chicken soup recipe, she thought back and told me her first step was to remove all of the feathers. So each winter the first thing I do when making a batch of soup is to read her instructions and skip the first step.

Through the years, starting with the basic recipe, I’ve experimented and made some improvements and mistakes. Dill didn’t really work but using cheesecloth was an improvement. While it’s easy to throw vegetables and a carcass into a pot, it’s more laborious to get them out. Softened carrots, parsnip, and celery break apart and worse – bone fragments need removing from the broth. Difficulty and finger burns have given me reasons to find better ways for making a homemade soup that just can’t be found anywhere else.

Although I thought of it myself, post-invention Googling shows I’m not the first to try my latest innovation. It’s to use a pasta insert to lift the solids from the boiling broth. Also, instead of boiling, I added vegetables to an upper steamer compartment and they stayed firmer, while their drippings fell right in making this the easiest and best soup to date.

While I enjoy experimenting, this winter, I’m looking for opportunities for improvement by getting back to basics – and I’m curious if you would like to join me. All creative expressions have two separate parts, an idea and a technique.

We all have ideas, and we all can learn or improve upon our techniques.

When we master a technique, whether its learning to use the f/stop on our camera or knowing how to format a business plan, we are better equipped to express our ideas.

Unlike plucking the chicken, sometimes we can’t skip the basics.
I’m taking a step back to work on improving technique by improving my writing, drawing, practicing pen and ink exercises, and looking at best practices in the kitchen. It isn’t about precision or perfection; instead it’s about improving our techniques. Whatever medium we practice, learning the grammar helps us express our ideas and helps others accept except our ideas.

One step back to basics may yield three or four steps ahead. As we need channels to express our ideas out from our minds, we can never go wrong by improving our techniques. What are you going to practice?

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What’s in Your Lost Parts Drawer?

missingpartsdraw

Whatever the weather, every morning while driving past the corner bank, I see an armed guard in the parking lot. The security he provides stands as a quaint relic from the days before cybercrime. Then one day, the guard was gone. Was he sick, or on vacation, or repurposed to the pasture of a cubical farm? It was only three days without a sighting when while approaching the bank through an unusually thick patch of traffic, I saw vehicles with flashing lights and a small army of police investigating a crime where the absent guard once stood. Some missing elements, even if not obviously useful, over time can show their purpose.

When you notice something is missing do you see opportunity, not in the robbing sort of way, but for creativity? By adding the right people, the right processes, or the right parts we fill vacuums to create value. An empty storefront begs the question: What’s needed here? Extend your offerings by asking, what do your customers find themselves doing immediately after they buy your product? Or, improve your dinner by adding the missing spice to your jambalaya? Tiny incremental improvements using the smallest hint of liquid smoke can have gigantic impacts.

These small droplets used in the right way can matter. Our lives are full of stray jigsaw pieces and unidentified shards of plastic that are somehow essential, although their purposes won’t reveal themselves until the next time you try to start your lawn mower or turn on your ceiling fan. Without the dream of a 3d printer, these parts would be nearly impossible to replace and make cherished objects useless.

Henry Ford said “I always had a pocket full of trinkets—nuts, washers, and odds and ends of machinery.” And continued, “There is an immense amount to be learned simply by tinkering with things.”

Tinkering or not, when strays are found, theses nuts and bolts, sketches, lyrics, photos, phrases on post-it notes, color swatches, torn magazine articles, domain names, business cards, and rhymes can be herded and horded into a lost parts drawer. This is a special place where many bits of metal enter but few ever leave – but the ones that do leave shinning like gold.

Creativity doesn’t have to be useful today. Some of our remnants gather until they reach saturation and then rain down in a lightening storm of aha moments. Some ideas are before there time, others can be used as a stepping-stone for you or someone else to leap for greater places. What do you do with your incomplete starts? Do you keep a lost parts drawer to draw from?

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2 Minutes or 2 years? Creativity on Demand!

Creative Block

Creative Block

During the next two minutes, how many alternative uses can you think of for an ordinary brick? Aiming to access our creativity, this harmful question has been asked for years. Don’t think of enough paperweights and bookends and you’re branded as uncreative and discouraged from trying again. While this inquisition certainly measures something, it misses the point that creativity is elusive, can take a context with time for reflection, imagination – and creativity doesn’t just perform on demand.

I had my own less than ordinary brick problem when Hurricane Sandy decided to transplant a hundred year oak onto my roof – toppling my chimney in a way that would have earned a Facebook “like” from the Big-Bad-Wolf. After rebuilding and cleaning up Sandy’s mess, I was left with a whole pile of spare bricks. What to do with them all? Just think of the possibilities!

Then, for nearly two years, while I was busy with writing, paintings, and photography, these unused bricks served as a towering monument to my apparent lack of creativity on demand.

This spring without the tree, I noticed sunlight on my previously shaded property.

new life for old bricks

new life for old bricks

Sun light was the missing ingredient for a vegetable garden but what could I use to raise the beds? Finally reusing the bricks completed the circle of life. The next time you are asked for alternative uses for a brick… Let them know that creativity often takes time and that you’ll get back with them in about two years.

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Birthday Call: Your Reason to Connect

Otto Calling

Otto Calling

Are you curious when you receive birthday messages from people who you hardly know? Social media seems to broadcast our special day from the highest mountain for all to hear. In contrast, how do you feel when an influential person in your life remembers and gives you a phone call?

For many people in our community April 15th has meant more than tax day but this year is different. It was Otto Kroeger’s birthday and (using his brother Bob’s expression) sadly Otto is now “on the wrong side of the grass.” Otto’s work on personality type was far reaching and we can still learn much from him. He was a great communicator of ideas and a connector of people and one simple thing he did practically everyday had big impact.

For several hundred people, on our birthdays, wherever Otto was in his travels, he would call us with his wishes. He had an incredible memory for dates supplemented by his little notebook always in his shirt pocket. He was a telephone guy – never embracing email or electronic greetings. Otto was personal and so were his phone calls. For him, birthdays were a reason to joke, to share ideas, and to catch up with friends.

This is something we all can do more of to keep our friendships from tarnishing. While calling people on their birthday is often reserved for family and the closest of friends, Otto considered so many as close friends and his yearly calls became tradition.

One year when Otto called my wife with his best wishes. I answered the phone and pretended to be surprised to learn that it was her birthday. I thanked him for reminding me while I still had time to buy a gift.

I wish I could call him today. When larger than life figures pass, they can no longer do any wrong, they can be idealized for their strengths and with the voices they leave, we can continue to follow their guidance. Otto’s voice remains strong in my mind. If there were ever reasons to celebrate or just about any reason at all, Otto would pick up his phone to call. Something we all can do more often.

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STEAM In Action: It’s More Than A Show

Electricians designing the stage lighting

Electricians designing the stage lighting

I’d like to share with you something that few people get to see. I had the chance to visit a… don’t stop reading when I say the words… opera company preparing for a show. It wasn’t particularly striking that the members are writing their own script, composing their own music, building their own set, and promoting their tickets – what’s incredible is that the company is made up of 8 year old third graders in public elementary school.

As I’ve discovered through my work, third grade may be the very time that matters most in determining our creative potential. So what seems to happen around the third grade to discourage us? Many people interviewed for my book had variations of the same story. They once enjoyed singing or dancing, building or drawing — but today, they don’t see themselves as creative. Ask why they stopped and they often confess to something that happened around the third grade.

They were doing something original and exciting — like singing a rhyme they wrote or using a purple crayon for coloring a tree — and were criticized and laughed at for the very achievement they were most proud.

It doesn’t take much for children to give up on being original. In fact the other day a retired teacher who had taught all ages said to me that she enjoyed teaching 2nd graders best because: “You can ask the students to become flowers and they become flowers — they still use their imagination and act creatively.”

Here at this critical junction in our development, in her classroom Mary Ruth McGinn, along with her adult volunteers encourages their third grade Lightning Strike Kids Opera Company to be original. Opera is both the process and the product where creativity is encouraged and academic lessons from the classroom are tried and applied in real ways.

This isn’t art for art’s sake, here every day creativity is practiced, promoted, on a schedule, and has a deliverable. On my visit, with only 10 remaining group meetings before opening day, everything had a purpose. The writers were writing dialog to be read by the performers. The performers watched a video of their scenes and self-critiqued to make adjustments. Composers were deciding where to insert sounds and songs into the script to evoke moods. The public relations team produced a press release to be sent to local school principles, legislators, and media to spread the word. Designers were creating costumes with styles and colors to suit the characters. Set builders and electricians were using tools and technology for building an atmosphere on stage with lights to enhance the storyline. Everyone was using math to count, to time, to measure, and to design. And since everyone is naturally creative in different ways, the production of an opera provides many ways to contribute.

Among some educators, there’s a shift toward STEM which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics which are seen as core subjects essential for student’s success and competitiveness. And within STEM there is a growing movement to integrate Arts. And with the “A” from Arts, STEM becomes STEAM and becomes more powerful. Arts amplify sciences by showing there is often more than one right answer and the arts provide a way to design, experiment, and apply creativity.

Many people talk about instilling creativity into learning and Ms. McGinn’s Opera Kids put on more than a show. The students are using their education and ideas by putting them into practice, learning about leadership, and collaborating with people with diverging ideas.

Studies have shown that most people believe creativity is necessary for economic growth, to remain competitive, and to improve our standard of living. 8 years old seems to be the very time that children need the experiences and encouragement to retain their creativity, whatever the product happens to be in this case a live performance – integration of the arts are essential. As third graders can learn to collaborate to produce an opera they will have the STEAM to grow into the next generation of creators to benefit us all.

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When Every Problem Looks like a Camel

When every problem looks like a hammer.

When every problem looks like a hammer.

Has this happened to you? Half asleep, starting breakfast and opening the kitchen cabinet, the door fell off its hinges and narrowly missed my bare toes. Bits of metal flew across the floor and my first thought was who is going to be able to fix this? And then sweeping up the pieces, I wondered, where am I going to find replacement parts? There are plenty of problems I know how to solve but when it comes to attempting home repair – either I cause more damaged or it results in running cold water and finding band-aids – and sometimes both happen.

Do you have a growing list of things that need to be fixed? I try to get help from plumbers, repair people, electricians, neighbors, fedex drivers, anyone who seems good with tools. Some items get quickly crossed off my list but others are added to the permanent record. When asking for help, I get to hear some clever stories with plenty of arm waving and head shaking of why these problems are simply ridicules, one of a kind, nonstandard, impractical, not cost effective, and would require an out of date, oversized, metric, no longer manufactured, rare alloy that has been banned in 43 states. Did I ask a camel to cross the desert with no food or water? “Impossible!” And even if it could be done, it would be dangerous to install and harmful to have in a place where people occasionally gather to listen to jazz. Some repair persons, with their years of experience have honed their technical ability and use their imagination to craft the perfect anecdote of why they don’t have an antidote.

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

― Shel Silverstein in Where The Sidewalk Ends

Then yesterday, a handyman breezed in and problem-after-problem was met with a low-key “sure I can do that.” Some troubles dating from the 1990s didn’t even yield more than: “Yeah I could just make a part… next, what else you got… just glue and some clamps — anything else?” And suddenly with the right attitude anything is possible.

Back in a world where every home maintenance problem can have a creative solution, even thought I don’t have a clean room and zero gravity to attempt the repair, now fully awake and inspired to try, I made a closer inspection of the hinge crumbs in my dust tray. Nothing appeared damaged and with a simple screwdriver, I reconstructed the cabinet door mechanism without drawing any blood. Today, anything is possible – by thinking positively and trying. What seemingly impossible problem are you going to solve?

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Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

The Last Mile

The Last Mile

Slightly ruffled the female sounding voice said: “YOU FINAL DESTINATION IS NOT ON A DIGITIZED MAP” – as if asked, how do you get to Santa’s house? Then, with a second thought, the GPS reluctantly gave a route to follow. When reaching the end of the paved roads, she naively said: “YOU HAVE ARRIVED!” Wishful thinking and self proclaimed success – but not worth celebrating and not exactly true — since I’m standing about a mile from the destination.

While we once unfolded our maps and plotted our courses, now our navigation systems handle all the unfolding and plotting and even re-routes us when the odd reindeer is blocking our path. And this is fine for ordinary destinations, but for those less traveled mountains, remote beaches, or arctic expeditions — we don’t exactly know how we will get there or what we will find — and that’s part of the point of going.

Creativity treks far into the less traveled, the out-of-the ordinary, and uncharted. Creating is often messy, and the muddy footprints we leave show that our path isn’t always a straight one. If we do have a map and neatly follow the path to the end, it may leave us blind to some opportunities along the way – however, on the other hand, with no general direction, we may never leave the grid — And we can’t rely on others to unfold our map and plot our course. Whether we start by planning or not, we often don’t know our final destination until we get there.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” We can make resolutions and plan for the year ahead but our final destination is not on a digitized map. I’m thankful for all your support and wishing you a creative and wonderful New Year!

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Growing Your Creativity

differences

Standing out

Farmers can’t depend on weather but they can control what types of fruit and vegetables they plant. By knowing their soil and plant hardiness zones, they sow the types of seeds most likely to thrive on their land. We can’t control our environment either, but by knowing yourself — you can find conditions you need to grow.

As farmers would be foolish to bet their harvest on crops not suited for their zone, being creative isn’t about leaving your comfort zone, it’s about finding your comfort zone. When you are most comfortable and doing what you prefer – you are most engaged, most willing to take risks, and most creative.

Shopping at your farmer’s market, you may come across a mushroom tent, bakery, stand with organic produce, vendor selling jams — and also stall-after-stall of the same produce: cherry tomatoes, multicolored squash, and peppers. How do you compare apples with apples when they all look the same? Who do you buy from? What can merchants do to stand out?

They can stand out by being creative and so could you. The way for us to do this is to understand how we are unique. We all have unique experiences, special skills, and our own personality type. There is an infinite amount of creativity that can sprout when you find the conditions that are right for you. And, your greatest strengths and most creativity come from being yourself. In what conditions do you find yourself to be most creative?

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Who are the Geniuses in Your Neighborhood? Take a Neighbor to Work day!

Otto Kroeger

Otto Kroeger

Do you remember the song on Sesame Street “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?” How much better would it be if we changed the words to “Who are the Geniuses in Your Neighborhood?”

My book CREATIVE YOU launches today and it wouldn’t have been possible without a genius in my neighborhood. About 15 years ago, I met Otto Kroeger my co-author at a neighborhood gathering. It was clear that he was the life-of-the-party and I was surprised to learn that he was also a foremost leader in the field of personality type. Soon after he sized me up he said: “I don’t have enough time, and you don’t have enough money for me to fix you.” We became friends anyway.

Otto spent most of his career teaching people to work together and collaborating on our book was a natural. New ideas often spark when wires cross and this happens when people meet too. We all have specialized knowledge in certain areas and as neighbors we shovel snow side-by-side, wave while taking out the trash, and chat about our cars — running in parallel like the overhead power lines but unfortunately without ever touching on our neighbor’s real knowledge.

It takes some kind of crossing for us to exchange and generate sparks and these sparks are where innovation happens.

In our case our wires got tangle up when, Otto, invited me to a Myers-Briggs seminar he was

crossed wires

crossed wires

giving. As an artist, I connected what he was teaching about personality type with what I knew about creativity. Of course Otto is one-of-a-kind – but it’s the cross-disciplinary concept itself that is repeatable. The best thing we could do is get to know our neighbors and ask them to teach us about what they know – about what their work is like – and in return to share what we know – I propose a:

Take a Neighbor to Work day
1) Find a neighbor who is knowledge in a field that you know little about.
2) Ask if they could use some help and if they are willing to put up with you for an afternoon.
3) Ask yourself: How does their work intersects with your work?

Widely known, charismatic, always surrounded by people, socially Otto threw huge parties, and professionally he was invited to speak all over the world — I’m extremely grateful and fortunate that he took the time to collaborate with a friend. As our book is now complete we are hoping to show a wide audience how to use their natural creativity. My suggestion is to find the genius in YOUR neighborhood and find a way to work with them – it will benefit you both!

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Finding Courage to be Yourself from Looking at Flowers

Late to Bloom

Tulip Envy?

Jogging past the Boathouse, the XM radio app on my iphone lost its satellite signal so without music to escape into, I was forced to start paying attention to my actual environment.

Opening my eyes, the first thing I noticed were the flowering Magnolias in full bloom. As they grabbed the spotlight, I started thinking about the contrast with the other plants that were refusing to participate. The evergreens remained green as ever, the oaks barely sprouting any buds and many of the tulips were waiting their turn to be next.

Those purple buds won’t open before they’re ready and the inevitable truth is: they will never become red tulips like their flashy neighbors no matter how much they may want to or how hard they try. Similarly, our own power comes without comparing ourselves to others but instead from knowing ourselves – our uniqueness is our strength. After those red tulips have gone to seed, the purple blooms may have their day and we will too.

cenralparkcontrasttreesSMJust as the plants cycle, we develop in harmony with nature and we all shine at our own times – we can make contrasts without making a comparison. This is so important with different stages of creativity, as we  are developing our talents, trying new things,  sometimes we shine and other times we see others shining.

Just as I was thinking that nature reminds us to avoid comparing ourselves to others who may be in different stages of their life-cycle – at that moment a woman pushing twins in her stroller – jogged  past me as if I was  standing still. What differences do you have that you have found to be your unique super powers? or what are your favorite flowers?

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