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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Oct 3, 2011

34 comments · Add Yours

oh how i love this blog post. thank you for writing about such crucially important stuff. i haven’t read Uncertainty yet but clearly it’s in the cards.


Wait …. wasn’t eBay’s CEO a women? Didn’t she run for governor?

“Meg Whitman served as President and Chief Executive Officer of eBay from 1998 to 2008. During her ten years with the company she oversaw expansion from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenue.”


The Good Men Project…

I grew up on the Cowboy Code, watching John Wayne movie, reading Louis L’Amour and talks with my dad that is how I learned what was expected of me and what it ment to be a man.
Now we have our own Cosmo….

Hmmm… I hope I don’t fall into the *Asshole* category. If I become disruptive let me know, and I’ll stop posting. When pushing boundaries sometimes you fall off.

As always thought provoking.


The most relevant part for me was reframing. I tend to shut down if I don’t know how to do something “perfectly” so I have to reframe the situation so that my failing doesn’t look so scary and then I can split my world open. Off to edit the splitation. :) Thanks!


PS I know I’m not your target audience, but I feel it’s always good to hear and get another point of view that’s why I like reading your blog.


@Josh A. Kruschke Whitman was the CEO but she didn’t *create* Ebay. And no, you’re not an asshole, at least so far as I know. :)


Explore your ragged edge. OMG that’s so delicious a phrase! Whenever I see your blog posts, I slow down and expect to read slowly and be amazed. Thanks again.

Hope Clark


@ justine, but was she the creative mind behind what eBay became?


….wasn’t she…. sigh.


These are such powerful words. Thank you for speaking such truth! So inspiring.


Yet another great post Justine – thanks! e


Excellent points and happy to share.


@Josh A. Kruschke Josh, in Silicon Valley there’s a difference between being the founder/creator and being the CEO who gets brought in when the company has already reached a certain size. Kind of like the difference between being the mother and the nanny. It’s not that Whitman (or a nanny) isn’t creative. Being the *founder* of a successful company has huge status, which is why guys will battle, sometimes publicly, over who gets that credit.

There’s also a difference between disruptive innovation and incremental innovation. The latter makes something better bit by bit, without changing what it essentially is or does (this toothpaste makes your teeth whiter!); the former utterly transforms the category and changes the very way we think and live (iPod, iPhone). The former is why Steve Jobs, for example, is so discussed and analyzed and revered: he was brilliantly disruptive, he changed the culture, he saw things in a revolutionary way and brought us along for the ride. Whitman hasn’t done that; Ebay was Pierre Omidyar’s baby (Pierre, incidentally, is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and his wife Pam is awesome).


I really loved this one. Needed to read it today as I’m pushing to make some changes. This was the bit which particularly resonated: “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…”

Yes-yes-yes. I used to fight my body on this until I recognized it was my best ally.


Only so much I can tell from the outside, and having really looked into it.
I wasn’t sure if it was her vision or if she was just implementing the vision of the board.


I really should prof read things before I hit submit.
…not having really…


Ahhh, but don’t we need the mothers and nanies?
Maybe, the mad genius creative gets all the credit, but how many times the lab get blown up or a Frankinstein’s Monster the result.
I find it’s easy to creat something, but hard to nurture it to fruition.
I know we all want to be the next Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, so the question is;
Is being creative a mind set, a learned set of skills, a little bit of both or nether?
Buy the way what did Steve Jobs create… nothing… His genius to me was in the exicution of an idea that being; Clean, Efficient Design that ‘Works’ and get it out the door before the other guy.
By the way guys are looked at. Not leared at, but we are watched and judged be the competition. ‘Performance Anxiety’…..the Steve Jobs of the world use it as motivation and know failure is just a learning opportunity.
Also, if someone is stupid enough to judge someone on looks alone, let them underestimate you, beat them over the head with it.
I didn’t like ‘The Man Project’ article, because every on is different; no need to label us and stick us in a box.
Is what
Hmm… I guess I’m trying to say that I want to know the best Justine as measured by an against Justine, not against Steve Jobs or any one else.(That goes for anyone.)
What worked for him might not be what works you and might only lead to an inferior imitation?
Exterior or interior answers? Or little bit of both? Or nether?
I like the blogs that make me think,
Josh :-)


I guess I can’t get past the definition of what does it mean to be a bad ass creative.



It’s a solid connection you draw between female survival and the risk of rambunctious creativity. I’m aware that I absorbed a fear of true brilliance through my ancestral line: when standing out could get you ignored, bullied or even killed.

It’s high time to recognize it, face it down and rise up glorious – because we’re blessed to live in a time and place when these demons are mainly internal and self-inflicted.


I love this post SO MUCH and I don’t have anything smart to say about it otherwise because I am officially in the home stretch on my deadline but I just wanted to say something. :hugs the post:

So much resonates with me in this one.


I love meeting a good badass. Howdy, Justine!


Sunday was my 69th birthday and the beginning of my BADASS Era. Thanks for the inspiration!!


Thank you so much for this post. Adhering to a strict a “no assholes” policy is key.


Great post- as I’m coming closer to self- publishing my book I needed the reminder to be a badass and stop worrying and all the what ifs and fears!


I’m sorry to have to say this, but when an article or post boosting one population reinforces stereotypical beliefs about another population, it really gets to me. “People who, today, would most likely be diagnosed as being on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s, demonstrate the single-minded absorption (and lack of empathy) that comes when you just don’t give a damn about what other people think. (You’re — and I say this affectionately — maybe not aware that people possess inner lives of their own, or you maybe don’t consider them intelligent enough to count.)”

The part in parentheses is *not* affectionate. It’s dismissive and condescending. Autistics and people with Asperger’s are not always lacking in empathy. This is one of the most insidious and nastiest beliefs about them. Many people on the spectrum are, in fact, oversensitive to other people’s feelings. And yes, that means they understand them. Not giving a damn what other people think is good or bad depending on the context. If it goes along with a lack of empathy, it’s bad. Very bad. If it means that you’re determined to do what’s right for you regardless of what other people think about it, then it’s usually good. After all, isn’t that what, in a sense, you’re talking about here?


@Catana Catana, I have two children who have been diagnosed with mild to moderate autism, and was in a long relationship with someone who most likely had some degree of asperger’s.

I was talking about theory of mind — the person’s understanding of another person’s internal state, ability or willingness to pick up or tune into social cues, facial cues, etc., and then relate accordingly. Please note I qualified those sentences with the word ‘maybe’ — I wasn’t implying all people on the spectrum lack empathy, although I do think it’s more complicated for them to get there (I’m thinking of Temple Grandin, a noted autistic who writes about how she had to approach human communication from outside in rather than inside out, taking an effort-full and intellectual approach to things that most of us learn so instinctively we don’t even think about it). I thought the character of Mark Zuckerberg (as opposed to the *real* Mark, whom I do not know) in the movie SOCIAL NETWORK was a really good example of this — he couldn’t quite connect some of his actions to their consequences — other people seemed to be a mystery to him — but unlike Grandin, he didn’t care to apply his formidable intellect to cracking that social code. That ‘…not intelligent enough to count’ comment was directed at personalities like him: men (usually men) who value a certain kind of intellect above all else and evaluate people through that filter.

What I didn’t say — and maybe I should have — is that I think there’s a point where asperger’s, intellect, and narcissism run into each other — take someone with asperger’s (and so is not naturally empathic — at least in the way we understand empathy),and then reward him for his intellectual accomplishments in a way that heightens his sense of superiority and invincibility, and I think you’ve got a breeding ground for narcissism. And I’m not sure narcissists entirely lack empathy either — and they certainly care about how they appear to (some) other people — but I do think it’s a lot easier for them to shut it off whenever they find it inconvenient. Which makes it a lot easier for them to pursue their creative vision despite skepticism, doubt, ridicule, etc., from others.

I think independence of mind is a great thing. As is a deep sense of compassion. When those traits come together in one person? Awesome.


I agree that some trait combinations can be quite unpleasant even while they lead to awesome intellectual work. But if there’s one thing people on the spectrum try to get over to people is that there is *no* typical autistic or aspie. There was a time when Temple Grandin was considered THE model for autism. Now, even she recognizes that her own traits aren’t necessarily typical. Each of us is very different and it’s unlikely that any person is going to exhibit all the traits that supposedly belong to the spectrum or exhibit any of them to the same degree. As for TofM, there is a great deal of theoretical work that is increasingly being rejected as biased. Anyone who’s ever spent time on autism forums or read blog posts and articles by people on the spectrum knows that the majority have a very good grasp on a theory of mind. One reason a belief in the lack still persists is that all the original studies and many that are still being conducted use children as their subjects. And the assumption is that those children will, unlike other children, never mature mentally, will never be capable of developing a theory of mind as they grow older.

I realize now that you didn’t intend to offend or come across as promoting outdated ideas about people on the spectrum, and I apologize for perhaps sounding off too vehemently.


Just the kick I needed today – I meant that in a good way :)


Thank you..The quote that resinated most with me this morning is, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser.


Thank you so much for writing this piece. I am in the beginnings of a couple of new creative endeavors, and self-doubt has held me back from fully giving myself over to them. This was exactly the push I needed to move forward.


Thank you for this. It is exactly what I needed today, and basically every day…


I just stumbled upon your blog, actually via Dan Blank, and I must say that your entries are a great read—very entertaining and full of humor and thoughtful jewels. I am a nature freak (author, photographer, sound recordist, videographer) and I’m moving as quickly as possible to embrace the new media (I’m even working up my first multimedia eBook for Apple’s iBookstore). Your rather intimate rambles have won me over and I’ll visiting your blog regularly in the months to come.


@Jaz I am 63 & so very glad to meet a fellow “Golden Years” Badass. My badass daughter brought me here-she rocks, too!


I just found your blog through a link on Google+, and I am so glad I did. This post is so spot on with what I’ve been dealing with lately. I literally sat back in my chair and went, “Whoa!”

I’ve found that many of the points you presented are ones I know with my soul, but my head (and conditioning) talks me out of the path I know I need to take. I feel like you just gave me permission to listen to myself, in a very visceral way.

Thank you.


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