As children we get caught up in systems thinking; believing that we should do things in a certain way without questioning why. We learn that we should not day dream. We are told not to waste time on our ‘inner world’ of play, imagination and creativity when we should be paying attention to details of the Russian Revolution and wild life in Tanzania. When our parents and/or teachers mock our dreams of becoming an astronaut, deep sea diver, opera singer or portrait artist and encourage us to think of more sensible roles such as a nurse, teacher or accountant – we obediently wrap up our fantasies with a label that reads ‘This is an impossible dream’ and fail to make our dreams a reality. This is partly what happened to me, since the age of 11 I had huge, burning desires to go to Central Saint Martins and study fashion like my idols John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and be a avant garde designer. As a child I loved that I could make clothes as art that told a story and expressed my unique perception of the world. With this vision, I spent all my free time designing mini collections, reading books on art and fashion, attending art and design evening classes and learning to sew but deep inside I lacked self-belief that I was good enough for my dream. Then when I was 17 and getting ready to apply to university my fashion design teacher said ‘Being an avant-garde designer wont make you money and you wont gain the skills needed for work at Central Saint Martins. Go to Manchester University instead and then you can get a job in Topshop as a pattern cutter!’ This was not my dream at all but her words mirrored my own fear of failure and lack of conviction in my dream, which I held close all through my teenage years. Though I did end up going to Central Saint Martins, I studied a completely different subject because I thought that’s better than risking failure in what I was so passionate about. In hindsight it made no difference what I studied and I don’t think I was destined to be an avant-garde designer but I wished I had not so easily wrapped up my dreams with a label that read ‘This is an impossible dream’.
I know now that it is the child that refuses to abandon her dream, who stubbornly persists in believing that she will explore the depths of the amazon, become a deep sea diver or an Avant garde fashion designer that will achieve her ambitions.
Our daydreams help us build our future. Nothing is realised unless its dreamed first. We get what we concentrate on.
But how do we go from being creative beings with a technicolor imagination to trapped in the impossibility mindset that limits our success and happiness?
One reason is that we get caught up in systems thinking. Our schooling and teachers model how we thought we should act at work, what we can achieve at work and what work means to us. Work is never thought of as our calling but something we ‘have to’ do. By remembering and understanding that our early schooling models our perception of work and it is the system problems that limit our creativity that we can start to re-imagine how we react to problems and remedy it.
Practise One: Wake Up and Smell The Coffee
Below is an exercise to help us think about where our systems thinking came from:
Dig deep inside and challenge yourself with the following questions:
1. What attributes about work did I get from my schooling?
2. What did I dream of being when I was at school?
3. What did I feel work meant?
Practise Two: Visioning Our Limited Beliefs
Before you start, read through the whole exercise and plan how you will do it.
It will help you if you plan to be in a safe, comfortable space where you wont be disturbed. You can prepare for this by making sure unfinished tasks will not intrude on your thoughts.
Allow 10 minutes for the first part of the exercise, which is a breathing exercise that is a common meditation technique. Sit comfortably upright with the soles of your feet flat on the floor, your spine straight and your head slightly bowed. Close your eyes and begin to consider how you breathe in. Work towards evening your exhalation and inhalation, and slow your breath down by slowly taking longer. Place your hands on where feels comfortable in your body and just ‘be’ for the remainder of the 10 minutes, and then just come round so that you are comfortable and aware but not alert. Do this part before reading on.
In the next part we are going to explore how you came to be who you are and what systems problems were imbedded in you during your early schooling. In this practise we will go back to your early schooling and reflect on the foundations of your school career. Below are some questions to reflect on:
· What did you think about school?
· What did you dislike about school?
· Was interacting with the other children easy or difficult?
· How did adults interact with you?
· What did they teach you about school as a community?
After the meditation take time to reflect on your answers. Your responses inform the start of how you shaped your personality to cope with the world. Now consider how it feels. What do you feel when you imagine yourself in those situations?
Practise Three: Reflecting Our Story
Think about an event or an incident that happened when you were a child and its outcome. Here is an example from my childhood, I was highly imaginative and had a very expressive sense of creativity specially before the age of 6 so one day I decided to take a full pad of paper tape it on the wall and cover a section of our living room with it and re-design the wall paper. I took all my felt tips and re-designed the section of the wall paper in a young Basquiat fashion, full of colourful marks, flower doodles and cartoons and child like text. I was only four years old! Looking back I had such imagination as this was one of many memories I have where I got creative in a extreme way. However, my parents were so cross with me as it was a rented house and they were worried the tape I had used to stick the paper on the wall would damage the wall paper and that I had wasted a whole pad of writing paper. As a four year old I felt quite ashamed that my creativity had caused so much upset. Looking back as an adult I refrain from showing my creativity as unless its part of a team. I often feel embarrassed showing my creativity. The feelings I have in my work life are very similar to the feelings I had as a young child being told off for being too creative.
Like my story, now think about an incident or event at work where you were left unhappy with the conclusion. It is a safe bet the the same feelings you had in your early schooling are being mirrored now.
Practise Four: Turning Work Into Creative Play
I believe the school system we have in the west was invented to create compliant factory workers for the industrial revolution. Large scale educational programs were created to create worker bees, to churn out adults who would fit into the system. We must remember that our purpose is to grow, to be free and to feel joy. The system that is used to organise us socially can be the same system that ties us up until we realize it is in our own best interest to break free and turn work into play.
Society creates systems to organize people within it e.g. educational systems, cultural systems, our work environment is no different. For example, in some jobs, it is entirely possible for the work to be structured around the person’s life, but the employer might dictate that the people’s life is structured around the work because the system cannot adapt. As a startup the wonderful thing is that you can design the system.
Ask yourself are some system problems in your work that can change? Are their system problems that cause your unhappiness and what steps can you take to shift them?
The more we create our own systems and make our work fit around us and our desires and ‘calling’ the more our work life becomes sustainable and our happiness elevates. Ask yourself is the work system you are engaged in really fit for purpose and how chained are you to the system. What can you change today and how? How can you imagine your work so its creative play? What if our work was our calling? What would you do?
I like the below activity to help me re-imagine what is my calling and what work means to me:
· If you had $100,000 to spend on your calling what would you spend it on?
· If you had $1000 to spend on your calling what would you spend it on?
· If you had no money, but all the time in the world to spend on your calling, what would you spend your days doing?
Then think how you can pivot your work so you spend as much time as possible doing the things that give you joy an are aligned with your calling.
Photo Credit ‘Starry Night’ by Vincent Van Gogh at the Tate Britain. I chose this painting because for me Van Gogh is the epitome of the youthful visionary.