The Key to Making Almost Anything Better

I’m in the middle of writing my second book. I guess I should really say I’ve just started writing it. It’s going at a snail’s pace. I hope to move faster pretty soon but I’m in the middle of busy season right now. Writing the book gets pushed a little further down the list of priorities. But it’s still a priority. Another reason the process is a bit slower is because of another tool I’m using this time around. I’m finding that it’s a key to making almost anything better.

Before I started writing my book I hired a writing coach. With trepidation I sent my first chapter off to her. When I got it back she had some incredibly insightful notes for me. She suggested things to work on. She prodded better writing out of me.

So I revised that first chapter. It was hard work. But it was fun work. I had to dig down and do what I wasn’t sure I could do. I had to tell myself that I’m a writer and I can write better when I set my mind to it. Man, was it fun.

When I went back and read the revised chapter I was astounded. It was so much better than I ever thought it could be. I sent it back to my coach and she affirmed that I did what she asked me to do.

The key to making almost anything better is having someone else look at it. Want to be a better writer? Have someone else look over your first draft. Want to be a better teacher? Let someone else observe you. Want to be better at any sport? Be coachable.

We live in a world that encourages us to be Lone Rangers. But the better way is to let people in on your dreams, your projects, your goals. Let another set of eyes look at your work. Listen to what they have to say. Improve on it. Revise and edit. There is no such things as perfection, but there’s always room for improvement. Let a trusted friend, coach, or helper help you.

You’ll be glad you did. 

Then after you improve it (whatever it is), ship it (as Seth Godin says). The key to making almost anything better is to get some help — even just a little.

What will you do improve something in your life today?

Determination as a Key to Learning New Things

The other day our eight-month-old grandson, Crosby, came over to our house. We’re with him enough to know how active he is. But when he came over to our place it became even more evident. The boy never stops moving. He explores. He’s curious. Crosby can’t help himself from discovering new things. He climbs. His little legs crawl from one place to another. The magnets on the refrigerator and the steps that go upstairs are far too tempting for a little boy. Watching him is a glorious display of determination.

Our son-in-law posted a picture of Crosby online with this quote:

Determined. The one word [Ashlyn] and I keep going back to when describing Crosby lately. To him, everything is possible. Especially when he always has a toy by his side…or mouth.

Watching Crosby reminds me, on the one hand, that as I grow older I sometimes lose my curiosity. My determination sometimes wanes. Energy that I once had degrades.

But on the other hand I am also reminded to look at the world through Crosby’s eyes. I want to think, like Crosby, that everything is possible. I want to see everything as though it were new. I want to discover the way things work. I desire new energy for old things.

So here’s a challenge for today: Look at everything like an eight-month-old.

  • Find new determination
  • Consider anything possible
  • Look at something like you’ve never seen it before
  • Discover the way something works
  • Summon the energy for creativity
  • Move your eyes left, right, up, and down
  • Climb up or dig down

There’s creative power in thinking, acting, and being determined like an infant.

What does determination look like to you?


Using Chapters of a Story to Think in a Different Way

A John Mayer concert is a showcase of creativity. One could talk about the guitar playing, the lyrics, the lighting, the sound, and the visual effects. I recently had the chance to witness him in concert at the arena in Nashville. All those creative elements were present in spades. But what really fascinated me was the structure of the concert itself. Mayer presented it in five chapters.

Chapter One included the full band. Chapter Two was an acoustic set. Chapter Three was the John Mayer Trio. Chapter Five was the encore and epilog. It was a fascinating way to present a show. The way the sets were broken in chapters added interest and intrigue. It was broken up in a way that kept the collective audience on the edge of its seat.

The form of a regular concert is the band playing one song after another, until finally they end with an encore. It becomes rather predictable. But break it up into chapters and it’s a whole new ballgame, as it were. One simple tweak to a concert and the creative sparks fly.

It seems to me the same type of tweak could apply to our own creativity. Split your task up into chapters. Focus each “chapter” on a different form or function. For instance, why not split your day up into chapters. Each hour of the day could be a different one, with a different focus, or a different task. The simple variety is sure to bring new thoughts and ideas all along the way.

Another way to split a day into chapters would be to find a new place to do your work for each “chapter” of the day. Start your work in the office. Then move to a coffee shop. Go back to the office. Do some work at home. Make some notes before you go to bed. You’ll be surprised at the creativity that springs up.

How would you use the idea of chapters to be a springboard to your own creativity?


When Fame Begins With a Piece of Paper and a Pen

They say the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland. I recently had the chance to feel that heart beat when I visited the city and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the highlights for me was to see artifacts from one of my all-time favorite bands: Electric Light Orchestra. I got to see highlights of their induction which happened earlier this year. In addition, there were guitars, clothes, and other artifacts from the band that brought back memories and fascinated my creativity. It was fun to see how fame often has humble beginnings.

I was most fascinated by the numerous handwritten artifacts. Most of them were the original manuscripts of famous songs. The songwriters took pen to paper and scratched out lyrics that are now on the hearts, mouths, and minds of millions. It speaks to the power of simple paper and pen.

Jeff Lynne, the founder and front man of ELO, talked about the encouragement he received from his father. He picked up a used guitar and started writing songs. His dad saw Jeff’s potential, bought him a new (used) guitar, and told him to keep on writing. That encouragement led to a lifetime career in music, working with former members of the Beatles, and being part of a “supergroup” named the Traveling Wilburys.

Certainly not everyone needs, or even wants, fame. But we all need a certain kind of fame if we want effectiveness in our work or vocation. Every leader needs to be known well at least by those one leads. What better way to become known than by writing?

While we were in Cleveland I ran into a good friend who wants to do just that. Their kids are now all out of the house and she wants to start a blog. So she asked me about how to get started, logistics, and content. She has a great idea for her blog. I’m certain that she will attain the kind of fame she desires. She has the passion and the ability. She’s about to use her newfound fame for the benefit of others.

All it takes is putting pen to paper. Who knows where it might lead? There are all kinds of people in my life that I wish would write and put their musings out into the world. It would make this world a far richer place.

Why not you? You might even end up in some kind of hall of fame, even if it’s your own family hall of fame.

What can you write today?




How a Crocheted Taco Started a Trend That Brought Ear to Ear Smiles

The first thing I do when I speak to groups about creativity is make this statement: Raise your hand if you consider yourself creative. I’m still surprised when, in any given audience, only about half of the people will raise their hands. The statement brings smiles and nervous laughter. It’s always my goal to convince everyone in my audience that she or he is most certainly creative. Sometimes you just have to look for it.

My mom told me about a story in southeastern Wisconsin where creativity brought a boatload of ear-to-ear smiles. It started with a bus driver who simply loved to crochet. One day one of the kids on the bus bet her that she couldn’t crochet a taco. She told him she could. He told her to prove it. So she did. She created a crocheted taco for him. When she presented him the taco I’m sure there were smiles all around.

Pretty soon all the kids wanted a crocheted gift. So the bus driver went to work. She asked every child what they wanted and she produced it for them. Get a load of this quote from the bus driver:

I get joy out of seeing them smile…So when I would finish it and they’d come around every morning and see how progressed I got on their little creature or whatever they got, and when that was done, I would set it on my dashboard when I got to the stop, and they would see it and be smiling all day with it and they would take it into the school and they’d still have a smile on their face when they came back out.

Do you think that bus driver was always good at crocheting? Probably not. Was she ever a beginner? Of course she was. There may have even been a time when she would have told you she wasn’t creative. But she kept working on it. She practiced while she waited for her little bus riders to get out of school. She took a hobby and created something that brought smiles to all kinds of little faces.

Now you might protest and say she was already creative. But if you think about it, all it takes to learn to crochet is a little practice. Hook yarn, thread it through, and count. Pretty much anyone can do it if they set their mind to it. Once you learn to do the simple things you can learn to do that which is more complicated. Before you know it, you might even be creating a crocheted taco.

You are creative. Yes, you. Whatever hobby it is that you have you can use it to bring joy and smiles to others. That’s what art is. It’s something you create that changes both the artist and the recipient for the better.

What will you create today that will give joy to another person?




How Stephen Schwartz Uses the Unconscious Mind to Create

For a man I’ve never met, Stephen Schwartz has had a profound impact on my life. Schwartz is the brilliant mind behind Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and Children of Eden, amongst many other musicals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the highlights of my life was the first time our family saw Wicked on Broadway. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that it involved winning a last minute lottery for two tickets and scoring two other tickets in the twelfth row center as the curtain was about to go up.

If you’ve never seen it, Wicked is both funny and poignant, it tells a great story, and the music is more than memorable. It is the clever backstory of the Wizard of Oz, based on the book of the same title. But Stephen Schwartz has had an impact on me because I’ve had the chance to perform in more than a few of his musicals over the years. I have studied his art. I have literally acted it out. And I have read the book, Defying Gravity, that tells his creative story from beginning to end.

One of the things that fascinates me most about the man is his exceptional creativity. In an interview with he gives a little glimpse into his creative process:

For me it is a matter of doing a lot of preparation and then getting out of the way of my unconscious mind. If I have a specific assignment, I will do a lot of research, read a lot of related material and just jot down ideas and phrases that strike me. I may look at visual images — paintings or photographs. Imagine myself as the character and see what words or phrases, rhythms or sounds come to me. Just a lot of things to get my mind in the right place. Then I will let go of all of it consciously, and try to let my unconscious mind go to work. Sometimes I will do things like take a walk, take a shower, go for a drive, or even hit tennis balls or play solitaire, anything to get out of the way of my unconscious. And almost always, the creativity just starts to flow.

The key for Schwartz is to fill his mind with all kinds of related material. Then he lets it sit there. When the time comes for it to be used his unconscious mind goes to work to make connections and bring ideas together. As much as we’d like our ideas to simply come out of thin air, they often require a great deal of background work.

Those of us who want to produce creative content should take a lesson from Stephen Schwartz. The lesson is this –feed your mind with the creative content of others:

  • See art at a museum
  • Read the classics
  • Watch documentaries
  • Attend a play or musical
  • Check out an Instagram account
  • Experience the culinary arts
  • Make a day trip

Fill your unconscious mind. Your creative self will thank you.

How will you fill your unconscious mind today?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Edward Hopper and the Repetitive Way to Creativity

Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. His attention to detail, straight lines, and use of color draw in my eye. But I think what really connects me to his paintings is his exploration of loneliness and isolation. Instead of making us feel sorry for the lonely subjects, we want to know their story. We feel an affinity to them. Their loneliness becomes ours. It doesn’t feel sad or depressing. It’s more of a thoughtful and pensive kind of isolation. That can sometimes be a good thing.

I imagine that Edward Hopper had more than his share of loneliness. But his loneliness was the productive kind. It’s how he fulfilled his unique creative process. The painting you see above is one of Hopper’s most well known. It’s called New York Movie. Before he painted it, Hopper drew 54 studies of movie theaters and his wife as the model. He would spend days and days visiting different theaters and doing drawings. Then he would come home and sketch his wife.

In fact, Hopper drew more than he painted. He painstakingly sketched people and places before he painted. He said that painting was a difficult process for him and he only painted two or three paintings a year. It took him six weeks to three months simply to produce one.

Funny thing is that modern day curators now see the drawings themselves as significant art. Hopper refused to produce a book of his drawings because he didn’t think they were good enough. Apparently others vehemently disagree.

Here are the lessons for anyone creating anything:

  1. We don’t always get to decide whether our art is good or not. Others sometimes see things that we can’t. To paraphrase a famous saying: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Background work is valuable to the finished product. Hopper’s paintings would never have been as good without the all the preparatory sketches. A first draft of your work will never be as good as a fifth, tenth, or twentieth iteration.
  3. Even difficult (for us) art is worth producing. Hopper had to work hard at his painting. But it made him money and it made him famous. Art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But sometimes effort is very much worth the result.
  4. Time alone makes for great productivity. With a goal in mind, isolation is time for hunkering down and doing the work that needs to get done. It’s what Hopper did with his sketching. And he produced some incredible work focusing on isolation itself.

So do the (sometimes) lonely work that leads to great art. We will thank you for it.

What lessons do you learn from Hopper?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Beethoven’s Trick for Inspiring the Creative Process

Beethoven inspired me. I was having trouble coming up with a topic for this post. That’s when I remembered something that lit my creative fire. A couple of weeks ago I attended the Senior Piano Recital of a good friend. Incredibly, he played by heart three movements of a Beethoven piece (as well as two other compositions). It got me to thinking: What was it that inspired the great masters in their creativity? For Ludwig von B it was a very simple thing: He took walks.

Beethoven discovered that he needed the time for his ideas to incubate into something concrete. So he took regular walks through the wooded valleys of Vienna (that’s modern day Vienna in the above photo). He took along with him a pencil and a few sheets of paper. When he came up with solid musical thoughts he would jot them down.

It’s such a simple lesson, but it’s one that I so often fail to do. The whole idea is to feed your creativity by putting yourself in a different environment. It’s giving yourself time to create. Psychologists tell us that we are more apt to be creative outside of our regular work environment than inside of it.

Let’s take the example of this very post. The idea for it came while I was listening to incredible music played live by a skilled musician. I’ve been letting the idea for a series of posts on the creativity of creative masters ruminate in my head since then. Just now I came inside the house from a short time sitting on our delightful front porch with my wife. As I came inside the idea began to crystallize. Sitting outside in a different environment helped the idea take root and grow.

This whole concept of taking a walk, and “differentiating” spaces, is also true in the creative work I do in my vocation. Most every week I have to write numerous pieces for work, not the least of which is a sermon to preach. I have found that when I write my sermon in my office at church, it’s often like pulling teeth. The background work has been done, but creative ways to communicate the message are difficult to come by.

But when I write in a coffee shop, or in my quiet home, the ideas seem to flow much more freely. In these environments I see different things, I think more freely, I feel more relaxed. More ideas are hatched and they come to fruition on a much more consistent basis.

So thanks to Beethoven, I’m going to try taking more walks and writing in different environments. Why don’t you try the same. I bet it’ll get you off the creative dime. And, as I’ve said many times before, the world needs your art…whatever it may be.

What inspires your creative process?

This is the first of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters. 

When Enough Became Enough

Today’s post is a guest post by a new friend I met at a writing workshop I recently attended. Elizabeth Ivy Hawkins holds an MFA in Painting, and currently is an Adjunct Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI. Elizabeth’s artwork has been exhibited regionally and nationally, including exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles. She speaks on the importance of the artist’s voice, and coaches individuals and groups on how to cultivate individual expression as a way of being fully present in our daily lives. She writes on her blog about creativity, relationships, and spirituality. Her story, Where I Fell in Love, was recently featured on the Story Gathering Podcast, and is a contributor to the online publication Off the Page. She is a wife to the dashing and strong Bradford, and stepmother of one, and mother of two naughty and smart children. She shows us in this post that enough is enough.

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When I was completing my Master’s Degree in Fine Art, I studied abroad in Italy. What I learned there changed everything. I had come with the idea that I would encounter an ancient culture, and by ancient I mean a culture that was less advanced than what I knew. I found just the opposite. As I was walking through the remains of the city of Pompeii, I realized that we have not done things better than in Renaissance Italy. Partially because of the intelligence, the design, and the innovation. But mostly because of the hand-made craftsmanship that you see everywhere. The handles on cutlery found in a Pompeiian home are painstakingly well crafted. The quality of the marble floors and intricate detail of the mosaic walls, the expanse of the architecture, it all holds up and surpasses anything that would be made today. In a postindustrial, information saturated age, the cost of such craftsmanship is irreplaceable. We couldn’t afford it.

When St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 that, “…We are God’s handiwork…” I consider his words in the context of the culture Paul was writing in, a culture similar to what I observed in Pompeii. I am not talking about Religion or a Christianity that is overly Westernized or simplified. I am searching for what it means to be fully alive and human. The Greek word Paul used for handiwork is “poiema.” It is where we get the English word for poem. Some researchers would go so far as to say that Paul is describing humankind as God’s Artwork. In Paul’s day, artwork wasn’t in some quiet museum waiting to be observed, it was all around. A part of everyday experience. Everything was handmade, and considering what I observed in Pompeii, handmade extremely well. 

Paul was a craftsperson, financing his travel through work as a tent maker. I imagine craft would have meant a great deal to him. Considering where Paul lived and traveled, he would most likely have been exposed to Etruscan frescoes that depict beautiful landscapes and Roman Architecture with its grand and expansive columns and ornate reliefs. I wonder if Paul was thinking about a particular work of art when he wrote this passage, and if so, what kind of significance did it have to him? I do know that he asks me to remember my identity is a beautiful, one of a kind, hand-made thing. Maybe he knew something about creativity and craftsmanship that we have forgotten today. Maybe this is how we are designed, to make and invent things. Innately, just because…

I used to think my value as an artist came from what I did, but now I know that the real flesh and blood matters are found in my artist’s heart. The heart I was born with. I used to put the mantel of financial success on my work. Or how popular my work became. Or praise I got for its uniqueness. Because if I am honest I have a real fear that…when it’s all said and done that I will have missed it. That my life will pass and that I won’t make a significant contribution, that I screwed it up—my one chance—and now I will dissolve like a vapor into the unknown and nobody will notice or care. There is this primal longing within me to matter. I try to get a handle on this fear by performing. 

We live in a culture that affirms the idea that people who work hard enough, who are smart enough, invest their money well and don’t buy expensive jeans, that keep that twenty something appearance well into middle age, or who get all A’s, who exercise when they are supposed to, and who have a diet of only greens and lean protein. That they are the ones. They are the ones worth it. They are the ones keeping all the rules just right. Those who reject this social norm we label dilatants, slackers…they are shamefully insignificant. It’s probably why we don’t value our elderly like we should, or our mentally challenged, or even our children. Because when you get down to it, we find a person’s real value resides in what they do.

But we are poems. We are artwork. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like a lie that dreamers believe who don’t live in the real world where results matter. But what I have observed is this: Those who are truly doing creative work, who have the kind of lives that everybody else wants, they know this. They let this belief reside in their bones. They don’t do work chasing anything, they do work because they already have it to give. They have changed the dynamic of life from one of a transaction i.e. you do this to get that, to one that starts and ends with joy. It is life changing. It is changing me. It changes the space from which I make my work, whether it is work that supports my family financially or not. I no longer work for money, I work for money that supports a life well lived. Money is a means, not a master. It creates more opportunities to be grateful on all kinds of levels. And when I get a chance, I break bread and wine with others, and maybe cry and then laugh, and then cry some more. Because poems we are. Every one of us.

If you like the ideas I have shared and would like to take this information to the next level, sign up to my News Letter to receive a free digital download on Creativity and Finding Your Individual Voice, here

Church Is the One Place You’re Sure to Get a Creative Boost

Our son and daughter-in-law live in Nashville, Tennessee. So it isn’t very often that we get to accompany them to church. For me it’s always fascinating to visit other churches and soak in the way they do things. I always learn something new and bring back a few tips to help in my own ministry. But this time I learned a little something more. Church is a place that always seems to offer a creative boost.

On the way out of church our daughter-in-law, Emily, asked: “Why do I always seem to get creative ideas in church?” Our son agreed. He said he does, too. And I have to admit that when I have the opportunity to sit in the congregation, the same goes for me.

Emily owns and operates a very successful jewelry businessOur son is a musician. And my wife, Tammy, as you know, has just started her own business. So after church Emily started telling Tammy about an idea she had for Tammy’s business. In the car we started discussing the idea and expanding on it. The whole thing grew out of thoughts that came to mind in church.

Before you think that we missed the whole point of church, think again. I came away with precisely what I needed this week for my spiritual life. The pastor preached a sermon that spoke directly to me. The four of us who worshiped together all agreed. And yet at the same time church is a fertile ground for creativity.

Here’s why I think that is:

  1. We’re in the presence of a creative God. God gives us a creative boost whenever we’re conscious of His presence. Creativity is part of His very nature. He created the world and everything in it. To be touched by Him in weekly worship means to be touched by a creative spark.
  2. We hear the creative Word of God. God’s Word does what it says it’s going to do. It delivers and creates the forgiveness of sins. If it does that (and so much more!) it can most certainly create in our hearts and minds new thoughts and ideas.
  3. There are moments of silence and contemplation. We live in a noisy world. Church is one of the few places where there are moments of silence and contemplation. In prayerful moments why can’t the Holy Spirit introduce new and creative thoughts into our minds?
  4. We’re not distracted by (many) other things. Church is the one place we (mostly) put away our phones and focus on the things going on around us. Even the screens in church help us to focus on the topic at hand. We have common voice and common thought with the people around us. It brings clarity of mind.
  5. We are drawn out of the world. Church is a very different environment from most of the other places we frequent in our daily lives. Even the architecture points us to higher things. The art and music speak of the things of God. His Creative Presence brings creative presence into our own beings. We are refreshed and renewed.

The next time you’re in church (and I hope it’s this coming Sunday), see if you don’t find yourself creatively inspired. Being in the presence of a creative God does that.

When have you experienced a creative renewal in church?

P.S. I write about this topic more extensively in my book, Fully and Creatively Alive. You can get your own copy by clicking here.