How To Create What Matters Most—With Whatever Life Gives You!
Crafting the Life, Work, and Relationship You Truly Want
"Those who do not create the future they want must endure the future they get." — Draper L. Kaufman, Jr.
"The best way to predict the future is to create it." — Alan Kay
Success: Simple, Rich, Integral, and Sustainable
Why, you might ask, do I single out these four criteria for success?
Because they are the four elements my clients tell me they seek in success.
Although they are not always (or even usually) on the surface of clients’ minds when I begin to work with them, as they clarify what they want and why, these four success criteria inevitably surface.
So what do they mean?
Simple, for most, has much the same meaning given by the Oxford dictionary: “easily understood or done; not compound; consisting of only one element or operation.” To simplify means to make things easier to understand or do, primarily by organizing them into an integrated, meaningful unity.
The simplicity my clients seek is not a problem-focused simplicity. It does not avoid the messy complexity of life, work, and relationships. It is a kind of simplicity that embraces life's messiness, and transcends it. It is the simplicity Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
This kind of simplicity is not achieved by merely getting rid of things you don't like and don't want. You create it by focusing on what you do like and do want, and bringing it to being, often in spite of great difficulties, with much work and effort. But, in the end, like a winning Olympic performance in figure skating, it seems simple, effortless.
Creating this kind of simplicity means you can do more (often much more) with less effort, energy, and complication. It means you are able to integrate diverse desires, choices, and actions around a small number of results that truly matter to you.
Integral means “of a whole” and “made up of component parts which together constitute a unity.” An integral life is an undivided life, a life in which all the parts are integrated around a simple, coherent focus. Although it is made up of a multitude of parts, an integral life has a unity—a oneness—to it. And in that unity, that oneness, it becomes simple and whole.
Rich isn’t primarily about money. By rich my clients mean full, engaging, satisfying, and fulfilling lives. Rich, to them, means having an abundance of what truly matters. Although everyone I work with wants sufficient money on which to build the life they long for, rich is more about mastery and meaning than it is about money.
Most of my clients long to be good at things that are important to them, and that bring meaning and purpose to their lives. Today, clients also want the results they create to be environmentally sustainable, low footpring, and aetheticallly pleasing.
Sustainable means they want to create results in ways that harmonize with the natural systems on which all life—and our own health, wealth, and well-being—depend. Sustainable means being able to work within the natural limits of the Earth's basic ecological systems. It means giving back to life in equal measure to what we take.
Simple. Rich. Integral. Sustainable.
Although they don’t always use the same words, and some have difficulty articulating these desires, nearly every client I work with ultimately wants the results—and the lives—they create to embody these four criteria for success.
Here are some examples of folks who made significant strides toward creating the simple, rich, and sustainable lives they long for, and continue to do so.
Dawna and Richard
Five years ago, Richard and Dawna were a young, well-off urban couple. She managed a branch of a regional bank. He trained teachers. Together they made $170,000 a year and spent it all. They lived well in a gated hillside townhouse complex, and owned a cabin on a rustic island. Dawna drove an expensive European sports car. Richard prized the rugged Japanese SUV he claimed was for "off-road trekking," but rarely saw mud or dust. The couple both traveled for business, and took frequent vacations to the Caribbean, Europe, and South-East Asia. On the surface, all seemed to be going well.
To family, friends, and colleagues, Dawna and Richard seemed successful and happy. But beneath their surface contentment lurked deep resentments, unfulfilled longings, and a growing sense of desperation.
“We can’t keep up this pace,” Richard said when he first contacted me.
In an early coaching session, he and Dawna said they both worked too much, were apart too often, and no longer felt connected. They wanted kids, but couldn’t see how to fit them into such busy lives. They liked urban life, but longed to slow down, simplify a little, and maybe live in the country. Both wanted to work less and enjoy life, and each other, more.
“We’d also like to be more environmentally responsible,” Dawna said. We’d like to live a more local life, one that’s less dependent on oil and imported resources that have to transported to us over long distances.” But, their problem was, they told me, they didn’t act on such desires because they felt stuck.
“We’re mired down by our mortgages,” Dawna said. “We’re trapped by jobs and obligations. We feel held back by our own and others' expectations. We know we shouldn’t be, but we are. We try to do too much, and end up scattered, unfocused, and frustrated. We’re afraid to stay the same, and we’re afraid to change. We’re not really sure what to do.”
As I worked with this couple, I noticed Richard tended to blame others for his and Dawna’s fear and anxiety. Dawna took it all on her own shoulders. She said she felt guilty they had not reached their “deeper, realer dreams.”
Both were astute enough to realize simplifying their outer life without simplifying and stabilizing their inner life would not produce the real and lasting results they most wanted. They knew merely clearing out clutter, selling off excess, and moving to the island would not produce the results they longed for.
But what would? What, they pondered, truly mattered to them? What did the future they wanted to create together look like? And how could they bring it into being?
Dawna and Richard examined those questions in a Creating What Matters Most workshop and a follow-up coaching program. Working with me provided a safe space in which they could open up, and share their deepest longings and highest aspirations with each other.
Coaching helped them refine fuzzy concepts in to clear compelling visions of results they wanted to create. It also helped them see where they were, and what they had in relationship to the results they wanted to create.
Both programs helped them increase emotional mastery. Their language shifted and their stories changed. Problems, obligations, and obstacles became challenges instead of threats. Pessimism about the future, and fear about their inability to create it, gave way to realistic optimism and a growing sense of adventure and experimentation.
As they developed their capacity to create and co-create results —independent of current circumstance, problems, and external events—Richard and Dawna's confidence in their own creative process and each other grew.
Most important, a strong commitment to practice helped them apply what they learned. They capitalized on mistakes and successes. They built momentum. They created small results, alone and together. Then they stretched and created larger results. They learned much from their own experience.
Gradually, they clarified what they each truly wanted. Then they shaped a mutually shared vision of the life they wanted together. With that as a guide, they began bring their new life into being, piece by piece, creation by creation.
Today, Dawna, Richard, and daughter Ashlee live on a small acreage in a rural valley outside a small but cosmopolitan city. They sold their condo and cabin, traded sports car and SUV for a Japanese Hybrid, and bought a cottage they could fix up. Together, they retrofitted it with beefed-up insulation, solar panels, a wind generator, composting toilets, roof top water collection, and grey water systems.
Now, each works 50 to 100 days a year, mostly teleconsulting with former employers and similar organizations. They earn less, but their simpler lifestyle lowered their costs. They have time and energy left for each other and for Ashlee. Their new life is simpler, they say, yet richer.
Dawna summed up their success, saying, “We feel free now. We are able to be true to ourselves and to what really matters to us. We no longer feel scattered; our lives feel unified and flowing. We are creating rich, happy, healthy, and successful lives that are (mostly) in harmony with our environment. We feel blessed.”
Pat’s story is different in many ways from Dawna and Richards, yet similar in the kind and quality of its outcome.
When I met her, Pat was a single mom on welfare. Her husband left her without a cent. Her one pre-teen and two teenage children dabbled in gangs and drugs. She struggled to provide on the meager welfare cheque she received each month. But it was never enough. She felt overwhelmed and scared.
“Cornered by a shitty life,” was how she put it, “with nowhere good to go.”
Pat came with a friend to a free Creating What Matters Most intro session I offered. “It was just for something to do,” she told me later. “I knew couldn’t afford a workshop or coaching, but my friend wanted to go, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
Pat learned fast. She used what she learned at the intro to get clearer about what she really wanted. She wanted to get off welfare, get a job, get her house back, and get her little family on a solid, stable path. Her heart told her she should take the workshop and learn how to create what matters with whatever life threw at her.
To test her newfound knowledge and turn it into skill, she called me and negotiated deferred payments to cover the workshop and coaching fees. I was happy to accommodate her, and agreed to take 10 post-dated cheques for $50 each. She turned down my offer to let her attend the workshop for free.
During the workshop and follow-up coaching, Pat jumped joyfully into learning to create results, in spite of the "shitty" hand she'd been dealt. Within six months, she took her husband to court and secured sole ownership of the family house in lieu of on-going support. As soon as title was in her name, she sold the house and bought a more affordable one. She used money from the sale to let her kids decorate a rec room and their own rooms.
When her middle son came back excited after a school-sponsored program at a YMCA environmental education center, he convinced the whole family they could live better, save energy and money, and help the environment by taking part in a 1-Tonne Challenge program to reduce consumption, waste, and emissions.
Working on this challenge, Pat’s family came together like never before. The kids took on responsibilities they had previously shunned. Pat got off welfare, worked full time, and took classes at night to upgrade her skills. As part of their environmental program, they gradually shifted their diet to more natural, local, and organic foods.
"I've had my ups and downs," she told me a year later. "But since I shifted my focus from solving problems to creating results I want, the trend has been steadily up. We don't make a lot and don't spend a lot. But what we spend goes toward what we really want. We're pretty happy and content. Much healthier. All the parts feel like they are connected to what matters. That makes me feel good."
Daniel, a conflicted doctor, did an extended coaching program with me.
For his first practice creating project he chose (in spite of my reservations) to create a Porsche convertible. However, when this result didn't seem to work for him, I asked why he wanted it. After all, a car wasn't something he was really going to create; he was just going to save money and buy it.
After blustering about performance criteria and superior acceleration, Dan finally confessed the Porsche was really a fancy success symbol to park outside his house and show his friends and mother-in-law, “Dr. D. is doing okay!”
When I asked him if he was doing okay, he shook his head slowly and said, “No, I’m a mess."
He told me his marriage was failing and he hated his work. He’d wanted to be a biologist or a naturalist, and work outside, but his mother pressured him to become a doctor like his father, uncles, and grandfather. He acquiesced, did well in medical school, but said he now felt trapped by his profession. He felt sick, tired, out of spirit, and worried he had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
During a year of coaching with me, Dan made progress. He ended his marriage by mutual agreement. He shifted his practice to preventive medicine and wellness counseling, and began to build a new client list—and a new life. As he did, he started to feel alive again—healthy and full of energy.
He bought a low mileage, second-hand VW Golf with a sporty handling package. He spent his Porsche money on a mountain cabin where he retreated on weekends to hike, ski, and explore the natural world he'd loved since boyhood. When I last saw him, Dan said, "I’m finally creating the kind of success I’ve longed for. It’s real. It’s meaningful. And it’s integrated. Most of what I do is aligned with what I most deeply care about and want to create."
Dawna, Richard, Pat, and Daniel each harboured longings and aspirations that went far beyond conventional material success. However, for various reasons, they had not felt free to pursue those dreams. They all felt trapped by circumstances, and limited by the results of earlier decisions and actions.
Another client, a 20-year professional who said she was “terminally bored” in her work, summed up this common dilemma succinctly. "I feel trapped,” she confessed, “in a job chosen for me by a naïve 18-year-old."
Still another, a youngish corporate executive, told me his life, which revolved around a fast-track career he stumbled into by accident, felt like an out-of control freight train. "I'm hurtling toward I-don’t-know-where," he said, "and scared that when I get there, I won't like it. Sure, I'm making money, and some of that is okay. But it's not what matters most to me. I'm pretty sure there's more to success than salary increase and promotions in a job you don't like."
What Most Clients Really Want
Although they are already successful in many ways, most of my clients share common feelings of being stuck, trapped, or drifting in their current reality. Although good at what they do, they long to rise above their current situations and create what truly and deeply matters to them.
But, all too often, they don't know or can't articulate what truly and deeply matters. And, even if they did, they tell me, they feel stuck because they don’t know—or don’t think they know—how to bring what matters into being.
As they get clearer and more concrete about what matters, clients tell me they want to create mastery and meaning in their life.
They want to do work they are good at and that returns enough income on which to live a simple yet comfortable and fulfilling life. They also want to work in ways that leave them time and energy to enjoy the whole of their life.
They want time to pursue leisure activities that engage, challenge, and stretch them. They want to learn and grow. They want to immerse themselves in that elusive sense of flow that positive psychologists tell us comes from taking on meaningful challenges that match our skills.
They want purpose and direction, a connection to things and causes bigger than themselves. Many recognize, as G.B. Shaw did, that the true joy in life is serving a mighty purpose, not sitting, stuck, wondering why the world won’t make you happy.
They dream of safe, healthy, happy, and fulfilling family lives. They want to spend more time with their partners and children, do more things together, and interact more with their extended families.
Single clients dream of connecting with friends and colleagues in meaningful and engaging ways. Many talk about becoming part of a "tribe" of folks with similar interests and desires.
Almost everyone wants to be fit, healthy, and active throughout their life. Many are entering or about to enter the second half of their life, and see it as a great opportunity, a second chance, to truly live freely and fully. Some want to be "younger next year," to be able to ski better at 75 than they did at 40. As one client put it, "I want death to catch me ALIVE!"
Each year, I work with more clients who feel drawn to help create healthy, harmonious, and sustainable neighborhoods, communities, and cities. Most want to create their own experiences rather than consume packaged experience.
But, for many, such success remains illusive, merely dreams without substance. That’s why they come to me for help.
Over and over again, people tell me, because of limited circumstances and a lack of resources, they fear their true desires are beyond them. Current reality, they lament, is just too difficult to overcome.
Reality Is Not Your Enemy
When clients tell me they fear they dreams are beyond them, I politely ask, “So, what?”
Most of our dreams are beyond our current capacity. That's what makes them dreams. Not being able to create what you want with your current capacity does not mean you cannot make your dreams a reality over time. It just means you can't create them yet.
To bring dreams into being, you have to stretch. You have to learn, develop, and deploy new skills. You have to practice those skills and learn from your own experience. Doing so builds your capacity to create what matters.
Besides, it's not so much reality that prevents people from creating what truly matters to them. It's more how they deal with reality.
Dreamers, for example, often get stuck in problem solving. They mistakenly judge their inability to create their dreams as a problem to solve. So, instead of focusing on the results they do want, many focus on getting rid of what they don’t like and don't want—i.e., the negative feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety, and sadness over “failed” dreams.
Why? Because that's what they know how to do. That's what they've been taught. It's what society reinforces. So they focus on problems.
But problem solving all too often brings only temporary relief from negative feelings. It doesn't lead to real and lasting results. And, because they don’t know yet how to transcend problems by consciously creating what they most want, non-creating dreamers feel trapped by circumstances and events. They become cranky, uptight, frustrated prisoners of their own current reality.
“Scratch a cynic,” says my colleague Peter Senge, “and you’ll likely find a frustrated idealist.”
But reality does not have to be your enemy. It can be your ally!
The inability to create what matters is not a problem to solve. It is just the way things are, right now. It is an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop your creating capacity.
Moreover, you don’t have to fix or get rid of your current reality to bring into being what you want. By developing your capacity to create what matters—with whatever life gives you—you can start where you are, with whatever you have, and learn to create the success you most want.
When you start to consistently create the results you want, you realize you’re not trapped. You’re free, and have always been free.
One of the most important keys to creating what matters is understanding the difference between freedom from and freedom to—and how they relate to problem solving and creating.
Freedom From and Freedom To
When people think of freedom, they often think about what they want to be free from: mortgages, dead end jobs, bossy superiors, bad habits, failing relationships, and other obligations and restrictions they think limit them.
When you focus on freedom from, you focus on things you want to get away from—things you don’t like and don’t want. Your choices and actions are designed to get rid of those things, or to get relief from them.
Sometimes, this is appropriate, but focusing only on freedom from puts you smack in the middle of problem solving, viewing reality as an enemy rather than an ally. But freedom from is only a part of true and complete freedom. Being free from constraints, restrictions, and obligations may sometimes be a condition for true freedom, but it is not nearly as important as freedom to….
Freedom to is a different kind of freedom than freedom from. It is the version of freedom the Oxford dictionary defines as, “the power of self-determination; independence of fate or necessity."
Say, for example, you are standing at the top of a high cliff. No fences, regulations, guards, or other constraints restrict you from jumping off. Standing there, you are free from such restrictions and constraints. But, unless you're equipped with hang-gliding skill, experience, and equipment—i.e., capacity—you're not really free to jump off (at least not without killing or maiming yourself).
Freedom to create comes from having the capacity—the tools, skills, and experience—to successfully do what matters to you. True freedom comes from being able to create what you want in all aspects of your life, work, and relationships—independent of fate or necessity.
Developing the emotional mastery to see that reality is not your enemy enhances your overall freedom to. Emotional mastery allows you to embrace reality as the given you have to work with. Seen that way, current reality becomes the raw material out of which you create results that matter to you.
By mastering your own creative process, and developing emotional mastery, you will be able, as true creators have always been able, to create results you want, regardless of the circumstances you face, or the feelings you feel.
Rather than focus just on freedom from, on what you don’t like and taking action to get away from it, you greatly expand your sense of freedom and power by shifting your focus to what you truly do want.
That way, you can accept current reality as just the way things are, for now. You can begin to take small actions that teach you what you need to know and do to move consistently in the direction of your dreams.
7 Skills and A Structure for Creating What Truly Matters
Creators use seven essential skills to create what they really want. I'll describe those skills shortly, after I outline the structure of the creative process in which they put those skills into practice
The seven creating skills do not comprise a formula for success, but rather a form—a dynamic organizing framework common to all acts of creating. A formula is rigid and prescriptive. It is often overly restrictive.
A form provides a guiding structure, skills, and principles, but the process—the actual doing—is left up to you. You make it up as you go, much like musicians improvise within the jazz or blues forms.
The creating form includes a set of of creating skills and an organizing framework that ensure your choices and actions support your vision and values, and lead to the results you most want to create.
Just as creators have long created works of art, literature, music, architecture and other creations, you can use the skills and form of creating to bring into being the results you most want to create in your life, work, relationships, and just about anything that matters to you.
The Form—and Framework—of Creating
The form of creating is driven by vision, grounded firmly in current reality, and focused on actions that lead to learning, feedback, and desired results.
As you work your way through the skills and structure of this framework, you will see that the creative process is a powerful system for organizing and taking actions that support desired results — independent of current reality.
The framework for creating almost anything has seven main components integrated within a dynamic system. The components are:
• Vision: a clear picture of a desired result, clear enough that you would recognize it if you created it.
• Current Reality: a clear, objective and accurate description of the current state of the result.
• Creative Tension: the energy arising out of the gap between vision and reality, which creators use to power and guide their actions
• Action/Learning: Choices and action that supports the completed result in accord with the specifications of Vision.
• Evaluation and Feedback: Ways to determine the effects of your actions and measuring their effectiveness—and updating current reality.
• Build Momentum: Creators craft results, slowly shaping reality into the form specified in the vision. They create and adjust, create and adjust … The wiggly line in the diagram below indicates the process of making up the path as you go.Small steps lead to small successes. Patterns of success lead to both competence and confidence, and they lead to momentum. Momentum is a powerful source of energy that creators use to complete results.
•Completion: Strategies for finishing fully and moving on to produce other results using the momentum and energy of completion.
The Creative Framework
By embracing the whole process — vision, reality, and action — you are able to simplify, clarify, and harmonize the process of producing results.
Because the creative process embraces and transcend problems as part of current reality, it is a far better framework for creating the simplicity on the other side of complexity than is problem solving.
Working within this creating form enabled Richard and Dawna, Pat, Daniel, and thousands of others to create their versions of success. Mastering both the form and skills of creating can enable you to do the same.
Seven Skills for Creating Almost Anything
The following seven skills or practices, when integrated within the form of creating, allow creators to create results that matter to them—with whatever they have to work with.
1. Create A Clear and Compelling Vision of What You Most Want.
Creators focus on what they love and want to see exist.
Then they get clear about where they are and what they have to work with.
When vision and reality—and the gap between them—are clear, they take action to close that gap, and bring their desired results into being. So can you.
When you shift your focus from solving problems to creating results that matter, a problem-driven process such as, "lose all this extra weight," becomes, a vision-driven result such as, "a healthy, fit, well-toned body that is strong, energetic and attractive, and fits into size “x” jeans.”
“Quit smoking,” becomes "Create, clean, strong, fit, healthy lungs.”
"Solving pollution," becomes "Creating, clean, healthy watersheds and clean air in my community and region."
It’s fine to start with concepts such as "health," "simplicity,” “success,” or "sustainability." To be effective, though, fuzzy, general concepts are best focused into clear, compelling visions of completed results that motivate and guide you to action.
So, step one in crafting an effective vision of a desired result is specify the result you want as clearly and compellingly as you can. Here are a few examples of desired results taken from clients I work with:
“Full-time children's book writer and story-teller, making a comfortable living doing what I love."
"A 2000 square foot retail store in Manhattan, selling high quality ecologically and organically sourced clothes, accessories, and home products.”
“An organic fruit and vegetable market gardener, providing food for 500 local families and earning $50K a year, after taxes.”
“A values-driven coaching business that enables me to help make my community healthy, livable, and ecologically sustainable."
“A fit, healthy, flexible, and energetic body. Able to ski all day and dance all night—even when I'm 80. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit, too. Deep connections to my family, my community, and the natural world from which I draw so much energy and inspiration."
You'll notice some of these visions are clearer and more specific than others. A vision of a desired result does not have to be perfectly clear, but it does have to be clear enough that you would recognize it if you created it.
Besides, visions get clearer when you ground them in current reality, and act on them. Vision tends to grow in the doing. As you learn from your actions, your visions get clearer and more compelling.
A clear, compelling vision gives you focus. Focus generates energy and power. You use that energy to take actions to bring your vision into being. With focus, for example, the concept, "A better car,” becomes a vision of, “A 2-door, candy-apple red, Honda Jazz Hybrid, which gets 70 mpg, has a navy blue, natural fiber interior, and a 4 speaker Alpine CD system.”
You generate more creating power if you envision your desired result as if you already created it. “My body is fit and strong. I can hike all day without stiffness the next morning. I’m full of energy and enthusiasm. I feel terrific and people tell me how healthy and vital and attractive I look.”
It is important to understand this is not positive thinking, or affirmation. You are not telling yourself you will get what you want, only that you truly do want it. You still have to commit to your vision of what you want—by choosing to bring it into being —and take action to support your choice.
Also, throughout the creative process you ground both visions and actions in accurate, objective assessments of current reality. But, for now, don't worry whether your vision of a result you want to create is realistic. Don't worry whether you have what it takes (time, money, talent, resources, etc…) to make it happen.
A vision does not have to be realistic; it only has to be what you truly want.
The heart wants what the heart wants. “Your vision will become clear,” said psychologist Carl Jung, “only when you can look into your own heart.” When you craft visions of desired results, it is most important to honor your heart's desires.
You, like the Wright Brothers or Sharon Wood (1st North American woman to summit Mt. Everest, and my first coaching client) won't know if your heart's desire is realistic or even possible until you bring it into being. And when you do bring it into being, other visions, other summits will beckon to you, often with deeper meaning and more compelling purpose for you.
A vision, as Rosa Beth Moss Kantar says, is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to your better self, a call to become something more. So look into your heart. Let your aspirations soar. Be visionary. Go for what truly matters to you.
Grounding your visions in reality is the next step.
2. Assess Current Reality Accurately and Objectively
Vision not carefully grounded in reality is merely wishful thinking.
To create anything, you have to start where you are, with whatever you have. To get where you want to go, you need to know both your destination (vision) and your starting point (current reality).
If, for example, you want to go to Boulder, Colorado and think you’re in Boston, but are really in Seattle, you will head in exactly the wrong direction. You and your spirit will also get a bit damped in the process.
To ensure they work from a stable and solid platform, creators carefully assess and objectively describe where they are and what they have in relationship to their visions of desired results.
Unfortunately many non-creators tend to misrepresent current reality to themselves. Instead of describing reality clearly, they judge it. They say things such as, “Everything is wrong”, when a small part of their life might not work.
Or, just as inaccurate, some say, “Everything is great”, when it really isn’t.
They distort, exaggerate, and leave out what they don’t like. They exaggerate and add to what they do like. Then they try to act on those distortions. They try to act on a made-up version of reality. Doing so is like thinking you’re in Seattle when you’re really in Boston. It greatly decreases the likelihood of creating the success you want.
As my mentor Robert Fritz drilled into me, the key to accurately and objectively assessing current reality is, “Describe it; don’t judge it!”
Describing reality objectively takes the emotional charge off it. Without an emotional charge, it is easier to see reality as it really is. It easier to change reality, and to move toward the results you want to create.
Try this little exercise:
Think of something that's difficult for you to do or create. Something you care about and would love to bring into being but can't do, yet. Then say, "It's hard," and notice how you feel.
Next say, "It's so hard," and notice how your feelings change.
Finally, say, "It's too hard," and notice your feelings.
All three statements are judgments about reality. They are not objective descriptions of the task you thought about. They are opinions about the difficulty of the task in front of you.
The first judgment distorts because it judges the task as hard, rather than describing your feeling that it is hard. Imagine doing the task with someone you are deeply attracted to. Does the focus on difficulty shift? Do you feel different?
When you add "so" and "too" to “It’s hard," you increase the level of judgment and up the intensity of negative feelings associated with the statements. The statement, "It's too hard," has a strong emotional charge, which quite possibly would prevent you from taking any action.
Take it one step further. After judging the task to be too hard, conclude, "It's impossible; I could never do that." Is such a statement going to move you closer to or farther away from the result you want to create? Not likely!
The stronger your judgment, the more intense the emotional charge, and the harder it becomes for you to create what you want to create.
The more you develop emotional mastery, the easier it will be for you to accurately and objectively assess current reality relative to your visions of desired results. When you learn to manage your language, stories, and moods, the easier you will find it to create results that matter to you.
All the mood-managing skills I outlined in earlier chapters can help you ground your visions of desired results in accurate, objective assessments of current reality. When you do, you set up a solid, stable foundation on which to make choices and take action in favor of your vision.
You also set up a useful creative tension between your vision and your current reality. Such tension is a powerful source of energy and guidance.
3. “Creative Tension”—The Engine and Container for Creating
To successfully create results you care about, hold vision and reality in dynamic tension. Tension sets up a tendency towards movement. You can learn to direct that movement in the direction of your vision. But only if it is creative tension.
The tension I'm talking about is not emotional or psychological tension. It is an engaging tension that feels more like excitement, or attraction. It feels good, motivating, and empowering. When you set up creative tension, you want to move toward your vision.
To set up creative tension, hold a clear picture of a vision you want to create in your mind.
Then add a clear picture of your current reality.
Finally, hold both vision and reality in mind at the same time, as if you were viewing them on a split screen.
I put vision at the top and current reality below, and a space between them. You can play with it to find what works for you.
Holding a clear, compelling vision in mind together with an accurate, objective picture of current reality sets up a discrepancy—a gap—out of which the engaging, useful, and creative tension arises.
Creative tension generates energy you can use to close the gap—to take action and move from where you are to where you want to be.
To get a sense of how creative tension works, imagine a rubber band stretched between Vision and Current Reality. The tension in the rubber band wants to resolve. It wants to move, to go somewhere. There are only three ways it can do so.
1. Let go of your vision, and give up your goals.
Quit. Give up. Let go of your vision. When you do, the tension resolves toward current reality, towards the status quo. You’re back reacting or responding to circumstances, solving problems and trying to avoid negative emotions.
2. Move part way toward vision, but stop if it gets uncomfortable.
Compromise. Camp. Take some action but settle for less than you truly want. Because such compromise is not satisfying, here too, the tension will eventually resolve to current reality. You’ll be back reacting to what happens to you, not creating what you want.
3. Commit to your vision, honour current reality, and take action.
Keep climbing. Use the energy of creative tension to take actions. Learn from experience, adjust your actions, and gradually change reality until it matches your vision.
Only this third approach consistently produces real and lasting results.
As well as generating energy, creative tension also provides you with the guiding framework—the container for creating—in which your actions are more likely to support the results you want to create.
The relationship between vision and reality sets up the creative framework. it also sets up a container for creating—an organizing framework—in which you explore, experiment, innovate, try out new things, and tap into your deep intuitive powers without getting sidetracked from the result you set out to create.
Energy in such a framework always seeks the path of least resistance. By setting up, holding, and resolving creative tension in the direction of your dreams, you set up a path of least resistance along which your energy flows more naturally toward the creation of the results you want to create.
Although the framework is usually tight—constrained by vision, reality, and creative tension—the process is usually loose. It is open, playful, exploratory, intuitive, inventive, and innovative. “In the house of the creator,” says Robert Fritz, “invention takes precedence over convention.“
So, as a creator, you will often make up your process, or path, as you go.
Doing so within the framework and container of creative tension is key to consistently making choices that support your vision and honour current reality.
4. Choice Is Essential In The Creative Process.
As part of their creative process, creators make several important kinds of interrelated choices.
Foundation Choices: First, creators make the foundation choice to operate in the creative process—to be a creator. Formally or informally, they choose to be the predominant creative force in their own life. They take ownership for results—creations—they want to bring into being. If you want to create your own life, you want to make this same foundation choice, and others.
Personally, I make the foundation choices to be healthy, to be free, to be true to my whole self/Self, to create what matters to me in a way that matters to other people, my community, and the world, and to live simply and in harmony with the systems of life on which my life, and all health, wealth, and well being, depend.
Others make foundation choices such as to live in peace, to practice compassion, to work for the enlightenment of all beings, and to live by the values and tenets of their faith. You can make up your own choices based on your deepest and truest values.
Although you don’t act directly on foundational choices, they create a context for other choices. They establish a kind of internal compass that ensures your choices about results and actions are aligned with what matters most to you.
When coaching clients report they have stalled or begun to backslide, the first question I ask is, “Are you making your foundation choices? Do you have them printed out and tacked up above your desk, or on your fridge?” The answer is usually “no.” So I suggest they start conscientiously making those choices again. That’s usually all it takes to get them unstuck.
I make my own foundation choices every morning in a ritual that includes a walk along the harbourside boardwalk, followed by stretching and other wake-up-the-body/mind exercises. After that, I feel focused and ready to approach my day as a creator.
Primary (Results) Choices: Within the context of foundation choices, creators also make primary choices. They choose—and commit to creating—the specific results they want to create.
Out of all the possible visions you could work on, you make a specific result (or several at a time, but not too many) primary by choosing to create it. To make such a primary choice, say, “I choose to create “x” by (a specific time).
I have files full of ideas I’d like to write about. It’s impossible to work on them all at one time, so I elevate some of those ideas to primary choices. I choose to create a specific article or a book or a newsletter piece.
Great power is generated when you shift from merely thinking about results you want to create to actually choosing to create them.
The Power of Commitment
W.H. Murray, a Scottish mountaineer captured the essence of this power when he described a critical point in the 1950 Scottish Himalayan Expedition. The expedition had encountered many difficulties and setbacks. Doubt and uncertainties surrounded it. Team members were unsure whether to go or stay. Yet, in the face of that uncertainty, they decided to make the trip to Everest a primary choice. They committed to it.
“We put down our passage money,” Murray said, describing the moment of choice, “booked a passage to Bombay”.
“This may sound too simple,” he added (in a paragraph you may have seen mistakenly attributed to Goethe), “but it is great in consequence. Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.””
Secondary (Action) Choices
Having committed to their primary choice, the expedition members then made a series of secondary choices. They ordered supplies, developed climbing strategies based on maps and reports from previous expeditions, arranged for overland transportation, and began to train to get themselves fit for the challenge ahead.
Later, on the mountain, they had to make many more secondary choices, all of which flowed from their original decision to commit to Everest as a primary choice.
Secondary choices are action steps you take to bring your primary choice — your creation — into being.
A painter experiments with colour tones so she can capture the subtlety of her vision. Athletes get up at 5:00 AM to train because it supports their vision of a gold medal. Participants in a Simplicity and Success program track their daily expenditures so they can know where to cut expenses and increase fulfillment. Supporters of environmental sustainability buy unbleached paper and organic cotton clothes, grow organic vegetables, and recycle as steps toward a sustainable life and community.
The primary-secondary hierarchy makes organizing daily choices and actions much simpler and easier to manage than randomly reacting or responding to external forces and circumstances.
When you are clear about and committed to your primary choices, it is simpler to make strategically supportive action choices. You make them not because you have to, but because they support what you truly want. In the creative process, secondary (action) choices are always made to support primary (result) choices.
You put 10% of each month’s cheque into savings bonds because doing so supports your vision of a modest, regular income from interest on those bonds.
You jog five times a week because you’re focused on your vision of a fit, healthy, athletic body.
You make an extra trip to the local food co-op for bulk granola instead of going to the big box supermarket because doing so supports the kind of life and community you most want to live in.
When I am clear about the results I want to create, I make a series of secondary choices about actions that support my primary choices. Viewing a task such as, “Write for three hours each morning,” as a secondary choice that supports my primary choice— “An internationally successful book”— enables me to see it as a creative challenge, rather than a chore I have to do. Making it a secondary choice makes doing it easier and more enjoyable. Although the task may be arduous, I choose to do it because it supports my primary choice.
Understanding primary and secondary choices helps you manage your time by managing your priorities. At any time during the day, for example, I can ask, “Why am I doing this? What primary choice does this task serve?”
If my action does not serve one of my primary choices, I can choose to do something that does serve such a choice. I don’t force myself to do it. I just clarify the connection between primary and secondary choices and, nine times out of ten, the choice to act in support of the primary choice makes itself.
The other time? I slack off a little, give myself a break, and hope it leads to some serendipitous discovery.
Choice Points: Throughout each day, we face moments when we have to choose between competing, even conflicting, courses of action. These choice points are strategic moments. They are critical in the creative process.
Choicepoints are the decisive moments in which the envisioned becomes actual, moments in which we actually shape the lives, families, relationships, work, and world we most want.
Choice points are those moments of decision in which, Paul Tillich says, we become most fully human.
They often result in pivotal decisions that can make or break your creative process. However, they often happen so fast, there is no time to invoke the formal choice making processes; you have to make them on the fly, in the moment.
By aligning foundation, primary, and secondary choices, we ensure that we always work from a place of choice. Being motivated by choice is far more empowering and effective than being motivated by problems or obligations.
From a place of choice, we (almost) always take actions we want to take.
Rarely, if ever, do we feel forced to do things we don’t want to do. And if we do, we are usually very clear what primary choice such action supports.
Thus, we are free from the limits of circumstances, and free to follow our own star. We are free to let our energy flow along a path of least resistance arising out of the creative tension we consciously set up and work within.
Making choices and taking action within the framework of creative tension enables us to consistently create the results we most want—simply, easily, and effectively—regardless of the circumstance, adversity, and problems we encounter.
5. Action: Take Small Steps. Create and Adjust,…
“Fail fast,” advise innovative business experts, “ and learn lots.” The practice of rapid prototyping in business is much like the practice of writing drafts or making sketches. Do lots of them. Do them quickly. Create partial results and learn from each what works and what doesn’t. Then keep what works and scrap what does not. Create and adjust, create and adjust…. Gradually, finished results begin to emerge.
Too many of us, though, have perfectionist tendencies. We are afraid to fail even once, let alone lots. A common mistake that prevents those with such tendencies from getting started in creating is insisting their first steps be perfect.
Such perfectionists desire high levels of success but are afraid to fail. Their fear cancels their desire. Because they don’t want to make mistakes, they don’t try. But, mistakes are a necessary part of learning. To paraphrase an old saying, the sooner you make your first 5000 mistakes, the sooner you will learn anything.
So, a key to getting started is taking small, easy steps.
Take steps that are so easy there is almost no chance of failing. Moreover, if you do make mistakes, they are almost inconsequential. Doing so removes a great deal of the pressure of perfectionism and makes it easier to create.
In my coaching process, clients learn to break large creations down into smaller, sub-creations, each with small, easy-to-do action steps. They also learn to see each action step as an experiment that can teach them what to do next.
The word “experiment” comes from the same Latin root as “experience,” and “experiment,” prier, “to try.” In the creative process, if you don’t like results, adjust your action and try again. If you make a wrong decision, try another.
When you’re creating, failure is simply feedback, useful experience. And remember what Schweitzer said about experience being the only teacher.
Small experiments teach you what you need to create small creations. Small creations add up to larger creations. Eventually, a completed result emerges out of the many linked small and medium sized creations you bring into being.
Taking easy first steps gets you started. It also builds confidence. Several small successes form a pattern of success. In practice, "I did it," becomes, "I can do." You feel good about doing well. You feel competent and confident to stretch for larger creations and larger successes.
To get to easy first steps, try this technique I learned from Barbara Sher, author of WishCraft. To work backward from a vision of a result you want to easy, non-threatening “first steps,” ask, "Can I do this today?"
If you can't do it today, ask, "What must I do first?”
If your vision of success, for example, is to be fit, healthy, and energetic and you can’t walk upstairs without getting winded, you surely can’t do it today. So what must you do first? Using the question, work back to small steps you can do.
You’ll probably find the steps you uncover are beautifully simple, such as, “Call the rec center and see if they offer a fitness program for people like me.” And, before you can that one, “get the phone number for the rec center.” Hey! That’s simple. I can do that! Great! You’re on your way.
Identifying first steps overcomes inertia and fear. Taking several steps creates patterns of success, enhances confidence, and builds momentum toward larger steps and results. As Barbara Sher says, "great deeds are made up of small, steady actions".
Good Enough Works Better than Perfect
Finally, in the creative process and in life, it helps to strive for good enough results, not perfect ones. Research into sprinters’ performance, for example, shows when they try too hard—“give 100 percent”—they tense up. They run against their own muscle resistance, and produce slower times.
When told to give it 85 or 90 percent, they run faster.
Psychologists have developed a “good enough” approach to parenting that helps harried parents lower the demands they put on themselves, and increase their effectiveness. It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.
Zen Buddhists have a saying; “Perfection is 85 percent.” I use this saying like a mantra, repeating it to myself when I’m pushing too hard and creating resistance for myself. When I back off a little, choose in favor of what I want, I usually regain the flow and sense of momentum that comes from working with the path of least resistance as I create what matters.
Build Momentum—Turn Problems into Opportunities
Momentum, along with creative tension, is another major force you can use to generate energy and bring your creations into being. Momentum is as important or more important than motivation.
Momentum—“the impetus gained my movement”—can get you through times of no motivation better than motivation can get you through times of no momentum.
Creating patterns of small successes generates momentum. So do mistakes and wrong turnings. It is easier to change direction when you are moving than when you are at a dead stop.
Think about pushing a stuck car out of mud or snow. To get it to move forward, you first rock it backwards, building the energy of momentum, which helps you push it forward.
Watch professional tennis players waiting to receive an opponent’s serve. Their feet are in constant motion, building momentum, ready to respond as quickly as they can.
You may also be aware the Chinese use the same ideogram for both “crisis” and “opportunity.” Any time things go wrong during the creative process can be a choicepoint, a “creative moment,” an opportunity to clarify vision and reality and reform creative tension.
I use the following “Creative Moments Technique” to help clients learn to use mistakes and unwanted circumstances as occasions to re-create tension, take new action, and build momentum toward the results they want.
The “Creative Moment” technique includes six simple steps. When things go awry:
1. Notice what happens and what you say about it. Also notice what you say about yourself and any others involved.
2. Ask yourself, Is what I say true? Really true? Don't judge what happens, or yourself, or others. Just describe reality as accurately and objectively as you can. Just facts; no opinions, no emotions. Make your thoughts rational, and make reality a neutral force.
3. Also ask, Is what I am saying consistent with what I truly want?
4. Then ask, "What do I want?" Envision the result you want, fully completed.
5. Formally choose that result by saying, “I choose…” and fill in the result.
6. Move on. Take whatever next step occurs to you, or do something else, such as go for a walk, garden, or juggle. Come back to your creation when an appropriate next step does occur to you.
With practice, this creative moments technique becomes a simple yet powerful technique for quickly increasing your perception of control in difficult and adverse situations. It helps you take greater ownership for the result you want. It helps you contain the reach of adversity, and realize it, too will pass. Most of all, it gets you unstuck, and moving again. It builds momentum in the direction of your desired result.
Use the Creative Moments technique whenever you are angry, frustrated, depressed, anxious, or any time things don’t go the way you’d like them to. It can quickly shift your focus from problem solving to creating, and your mood from pessimistic to energetic and realistically optimistic.
As will as building momentum, applying this technique builds competence and increases the confidence that comes from a growing sense that, "I can create the results I want—even when things don't go the way I'd like them to."
If you are too upset to do this exercise in the moment, remember neurophysiologist Candace Pert’s advice to go for a brisk ten minute walk—just enough to break a sweat. Just that small amount of exercise will clear your brain/body of thought-paralyzing hormones and replace them with feel good neurochemical such as endorphins and dopamine. You will be able to think clearly and act effectively.
Also, if you find steps 1 and 2 difficult—if you find it hard to get clear, honest, and objective about what you say—practice the ABCDEs using the practice sheets in the Appendix or by doing Active Journaling. [See the full version of Emotional Mastery, from which this article is excerpted, at http://www.bruceelkin.com/emotional-mastery.html]
Again, emotional mastery skills help you ground visions and actions in accurate, objective, and emotionally neutral assessments of current reality. Doing so greatly improves your ability to create what matters.
So try the Creative Moments technique. It works wonders for me.
6. “Oh, no! Not the ‘P’ word again!”
That’s what a client said that to me as she rightly anticipated my answer to her question, “I read your book. I read Fritz’s book. I think about this stuff all the time. Why can’t I do it when I need it?”
That’s a succinct summation of the academic fallacy, the notion that with insight and understanding alone, you can create desired results. Most of us suffer from this mistaken notion to some degree. Few of us have the skills and talent to achieve our visions without practice.
But, we are all natural learners. We can try things, correct mistakes, and practice until the new becomes natural. Practice, as I’ve said before, might not make you perfect, but it does make you better. And the road to good always runs through better. In any area of life, we can increase our capacity to create what matters through regular, consistent practice.
Alisha, for example, wanted to be a guitar player, but had perfectionist tendencies. She tried to play jazz guitar, but was put off when she discovered it was harder than she thought it would be. She wasn’t “good,” which she defined as able to play in a jazz band with friends. She didn’t like not being good, so she didn't play at all. Obviously, she didn’t get better.
One day, in spite of her reservations, a friend showed Alisha how to play a simple, three-chord country song. After a little practice, Alisha could play a passable version of the tune. She wasn’t good, but she was better. This simple success excited her so much, she got her friend to show her more 3-chord country tunes and practiced them.
As she picked up the basic techniques of fingering, chording, and keys by practicing country tunes, she kept her vision of playing in a jazz band. She focused on getting better at the guitar, instead of “being good.” The creative tension and momentum she created allowed her to have occasional "bad" practice sessions and still keep moving toward the result she desired.
In no time, she was playing well enough to play duets with her friend. Doing so further increased her enjoyment and her technique. Eventually, the friend eased her into more complex jazz arrangements.
Alisha still has a way to go, but she’s keeping her eyes on her vision, accepting where she is, and looks forward to improvising jazz riffs in a trio in a year or two.
Creating, Alisha discovered, is a step-by-step process of patience, practice, and perseverance. Trying to make success an all-or-nothing leap usually leaves you with nothing.
7. Know When You Reach Your Goal, Then Stop.
Without clear, recognizable criteria for recognizing results and judging them as successful, you are like a dog chasing its tail. You don’t know when to stop creating. You don't enjoy your completed creation, or move on to your next.
To access the full power of creating, you must invent your own standards of measurement. You must lay out success criteria with which to measure progress, and recognize your creations as complete.
As well as visionary goals such as, “a best-selling book and appearances on the Oprah show,” or "a Gold medal in the 10K at the Masters Running Championships,” creators also set realistic goals as part of their action steps.
Writers, for example, set standards such as 1000 words a day, or three hours each morning. Runners strive for 50 miles a week. One coach I know says he’d recognize success if he earned $50,000 a year working three days a week, ten months of the year, i.e., $5000 per month.
Being able to match your results against your standards helps you know where you are relative to your vision. It also helps you know when your creation is complete. Without some way of recognizing completion, you can waste time trying to improve or change something that might already be good enough.
Completing a creation and living with it generates new energy, which you can use to take on new creations. When Picasso, for example, was asked what his favorite painting was, he answered, “My next one!”.
So, finish fully, acknowledge your results, celebrate success, and use the energy of completion to begin your next creation. Success builds on success.
Manage Your Moods; Create What Matters Most
When applied within the framework of creative tension, these seven practices will enable you to create almost any result you want—regardless of the reality you face.
While almost all my clients produce significant results, not all of them produce such great results as Richard and Dawna, Pat, and Daniel did. These folks stand out among many coaching and workshop participants who increased their capacity to create results that truly mattered to them.
What set these standouts aside from others who had more difficulty creating and sustaining results? I imagine you know the answer by now.
Yes, practice. Practice, practice, practice!
The clients who produce the most outstanding results are those who diligently practice both their creating and emotional mastery skills daily. Those who do the very best understand that emotional mastery is a subset of creative mastery, and see how the two interact in a positive feedback loop. They realize that success in one increases success in the other.
Emotional Mastery <------>Creative Mastery
They recognize that emotional mastery arises out of the ability to create what matters—with whatever life gives you to work with. That insight spurs them to practice as a master practices yoga, or a professional practices piano.
Those who adopt creating as a daily discipline and invest time and energy into mastering the seven creating skills for creating almost anything are able to produce and sustain real and lasting success in all areas of their lives and work—independent of circumstances, problems, and adversity.
Mastering the principles and practices of creating can help you invent your own ways to realize your highest aspirations, and express your deepest longings.
It can help you create—and live—the life and work you most want to live.
It can help you become the person you glimpse, as Abraham Maslow says, “in your most perfect moments.”
So, to begin creating the life and work you most want, let go of your focus on what limits you, or getting rid of what you don’t like and don’t want. Focus instead on what you truly do want.
The key to success is getting started. Even if you can’t do all of what you want, yet, you can start to develop your capacity to create, and apply it daily.
As Goethe urged, “What ever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
If you are leery of starting on your own, or have questions along the way, don't hesitate to contact me to explore whether my coaching approach could help you. I'd be happy to help you clarify what you want to create, and to see if there is a fit between your desires and my way of coaching.
Because both emotional mastery and creating are skill based, it often speeds up the learning process to have someone teach you those skills, coach you in their application to your life, work, and relationships, and then give you feedback on your progress and success. Feel free to contact me if you’d like such help.
I wish you great success in whatever you love, and choose to create.
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