6 So-Called Rules for the Badass Creative Woman
“When a man gets up to speak, people listen, then look. When a woman gets up to speak, people look; then if they like what they see, they listen.” — Pauline Frederick
You’re at your most innovative when no one is watching, points out Jonathan Fields in his excellent new book UNCERTAINTY: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance.
He lists ‘fear of judgment’ as one of the ‘three horsemen’ of the creative process (the other two being uncertainty and exposure to loss). This could be why extrinsic motivators tend to make you less creative rather than more: incentives such as cash prizes imply that your work will be ranked and judged.
We wrestle with the questions: Is this good enough? Am I good enough?
Our fear of the answers leads “so many to either cut their creative quests short or, worse, never begin,” writes Jonathan.
Which makes me think of how Silicon Valley – that hotbed of disruptive, creative, innovative thinking – is also known for its unusually high rate of, shall we say, social awkwardness.
People who, today, would most likely be diagnosed as falling somewhere on the spectrum, demonstrate the kind of absorption (and apparent lack of empathy) that comes when you often don’t give a damn what other people think. (You’re — and I say this affectionately — maybe not fully aware of what goes on inside other people, or you maybe don’t consider them intelligent enough to count.)
It also makes me think about women. Articles like this one are quick to point out that no woman has created the equivalent of a Facebook or an Ebay. Rather than assuming that women don’t have the ability, could it have anything to do with the fact that being a woman comes hand-in-hand with being so intensely …watched?
In our culture, men gaze, while women are gazed at, and learn early the importance of self-presentation. It’s easy to deride this occupation with appearance as shallow – but when you realize that how you look has a lot to do with whether or not you get listened to, there’s more than vanity at stake. (A lot of women resent the amount of time, effort and money that goes into an acceptable appearance. It’s not “pampering yourself”, it’s freaking work.)
Add the fact that women also tend to define themselves through their relationships, and will value those relationships above almost anything else (including, sometimes, a clear sense of their own identity).
Add the fact that many women wrestle with the nice-girl thing, where the urge to please so often overrides the need to tell the truth (which leads to many girls and women feeling alienated from themselves).
Add the fact that the female brain is wired for empathy, that women are equipped to read people and pick up what’s unspoken.
Add the fact that, once upon a time in our far distant past, social disapproval could also mean social exile – which, to a woman, meant death. In other words, the nice girls survived to mate and pass down their genes and the rebels made for cautionary tales. So if some ancient part of a woman’s brain still equates disapproval and rejection with exile and death, it stands to reason that she faces a slightly different set of obstacles if she is to be brilliantly, creatively disruptive.
So what follows are suggestions that might help you come up with more badass ideas and memorable work.
Create a safe environment.
The more we stress, the more we’re conscious of the opinions of others, the less we can think and play in ways conducive to personal creative breakthroughs.
Take your work – and yourself – seriously enough to create a proper environment for it. Find or create a workspace – whether it’s a studio or a basement or a corner of the kitchen — that makes you feel safe. Find a few personal talismans or other items that connect you to your playful side — and make you feel good about who you are and what you do.
Reject the toxic.
Have a strict “no assholes” policy. Your body knows who energizes and invigorates you – and who brings you down and makes you feel uneasy, self-doubting, contaminated. Your body can tell the difference between constructive criticism (even if we don’t want to hear it) and the kind of bullshit that’s intended to tear you down, knock you off-balance, or keep you in your place (often followed by comments like, “I was just joking” or “Lighten up, you’re so oversensitive!”). Toxic people are crazy-making people, and even if you have to deal with them in other areas of your life, keep them out of your physical and mental creative space. Act and create as if their opinions don’t matter. Because they don’t.
Give yourself constraints.
The mind needs a starting point and something to chafe against. Every creative quest starts with a question or a problem. Even if you have all the time and resources in the world, give yourself some limits. Think against the box. When we confront it, we’re forced to think around, behind and above it (and evolve our own opinions in the process).
Brian Eno relies on this process when working with bands like U2. He says:
“In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you’re in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of manoeuvre. There’s a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions. This computer can contain a thousand synths, each with a thousand sounds. I try to provide constraints for people.”
Jonathan Fields warns against closing off your options too soon, out of fear and anxiety and inability to tolerate uncertainty. The key, he says, “is to hit that sweet spot, giving yourself enough time to play in the realm of possibilities before yielding to the limits and structures needed to execute on your best ideas.”
Explore your ragged edge.
I first heard this phrase at a workshop when I started questioning a participant about her beliefs and perceptions. Recognizing that the conversation was heading off the rails, the leader said something like, “Justine is calling out your ragged edge, it’s what she does, but let’s get back to the subject at hand.” Afterwards I went up to her and asked just what she meant by ‘ragged edge’.
Because I love the phrase.
Your ragged edge is your point of growth, the outer limits of your comfort zone, where the stuff you know drops off into the stuff you don’t. It’s an unsettling place to be. You will have to experiment. You will fall down, and fail, and make mistakes, and flounder around, and live with the kind of ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with dealing with the unknown. It’s where, says Brian Eno,
“….little shoots keep appearing of stuff you don’t recognise. They look promising but pretty clumsy, because new ideas always look clumsy at first. And you don’t know what to do with them, how to connect them. And I’m the one cheering for those things. ‘Let’s not do what we’ve done before, let’s do these new things!’ “
Working from the ragged edge is also a requirement for the kind of deliberate practice that pushes you to mastery.
Reframe judgment and uncertainty.
Mistakes and failures provide you with the data you need for success. That’s it and that’s all. When we can remove our ego from our work and reframe criticism this way, we don’t have to fear it or struggle to avoid it. We can use it as fuel for the creative fire.
Jonathan Fields writes:
“Judgment, delivered constructively, provides the information needed to create at higher and higher levels. And uncertainty is a signpost of novelty and innovation, telling you that what you’re creating is really worth creating.”
(Which means that if something starts out perfect, without going through the fail-forward-faster learning process, it’s most likely derivative and uninteresting.)
Reflecting on Jonathan’s book, Dusti Arab blogs:
The most important concept Jonathan discusses in his book is reframing. It’s the part that’s easiest to forget and take for granted – until you’re feeling so stuck you shut down.
If you can reframe, your anxiety transforms into creativity. Reframing can take an ugly picture and make it much more bearable. You owe it to yourself to use this on that situation you swear you have no control over right now. Because you do. You control your attitude.
Your uncertainty is the opportunity you’ve been searching for….It’s the fear that can drive you to do something crazy – and potentially brilliant.
So I leave you with the same question. “What is the uncertainty you are dealing with?”
Get it out there. Let’s try reframing the situation so it works for you, not against you.
Own your stories.
Your life experiences made you who you are today. Own them. Shame only grows in the dark. It diminishes us. It keeps us silent – and when you don’t tell your story, someone else tells it for you, or distorts you in a way that serves their own. (What is one of the first things that a tyrant takes away? Freedom of expression.)
Here’s the thing about stories: they connect us to each other. Telling your story makes you part of a much larger consciousness. It was when they opened up about their experiences — breaking the silence and isolation of the suburban middle-class housewife — that women of the ‘60s and ‘70s could reject the reality culture and ‘science’ urged upon them (that wanting anything other than marriage, children, and shiny new appliances meant you were, quite literally, crazy). When you show some vulnerability, you give other people permission to be vulnerable with you, which allows for intimacy, trust — and strength in numbers. You can turn pain to power.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser.
When you own your stories, you know who you are. You recognize where you end and someone else begins: the things in yourself that you won’t give up for anyone, and the things in someone else that you won’t tolerate for any reason.
When you own your stories, you can speak as yourself.
You can take the world and split it open.
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