I recently had an opportunity to tour Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company. Tucked in an industrial area near Seattle, with no signage divulging its name, Blue Origin felt to me like a cross between the National Air and Space museum, a state of the world design/manufacturing plant, and Disneyland.
Inside the facility, we were invited to enter a version of the shiny projectile-shaped spacecraft described by Jules Verne in his 1865 classic, From the Earth or the Moon. Elegantly furnished with hardwood paneling and Victorian-era memorabilia, the elegant four-chaired sitting room takes you back to a period when space travel was only a fantasy. Now, if company staff members want to refuel their imaginations, they can hold a meeting in the small chamber.
A thrill for me was sitting in a mock-up of the space capsule, currently under construction, which will someday take six passengers for a ride up into space and back. As I climbed into one of capsule’s six reclining, contoured seats, shaped to protect me from the gravitational thrust of a launch and landing, I had a mini-flight experience. I heard the roar of the launch, felt the capsule shake, and watched a video simulation of what I might see out of the large window to my right on a real flight. (Watch a video simulation here.)
Don’t expect to fly economy class any time soon!
Like all visitors, I was sworn to not divulge any other amazing stuff I saw at the facility. But imagine this hypothetical scenario: What if you were the second richest man on earth and had a dream, which you could personally fund, so you were able to hire some of the world’s best and brightest engineers and manufacturing professionals and support them to have fun as they designed and built a piece of the future? Without investors, you wouldn’t need to pressure staff to be profitable from the git-go, yet your staff would inevitably make some incredible discoveries as they worked at the edge of science, engineering and manufacturing. And, chances are, some of those discoveries would be useable in as yet unimagined ways.
As I toured the company’s foyers, I saw numerous displays of aerospace memorabilia as well as bold and inspiring quotes.
This one by Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, and himself an aircraft designer, really caught my eye:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” *
That phrase applies both to engineering and to art.
The art of taking away
For ten years, I’ve been a beginning student of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, “the Japanese art of flower arranging”—to use a poor but literal translation. Ikebana International calls Ikebana “a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.”
Instead of arranging flowers by filling a vase Western-style, (which I admittedly still do when my garden is in its abundance), you focus, in Ikebana, on form and movement, line and mass, and highlighting empty space, often pruning material until the essence of an arrangement is revealed.
For as long as I study, I will be training my eye to see “when there is nothing left to take away.” My amazing Japanese teacher, Nobuko Relnick, is able to see what I cannot. Even with fifty years of teaching, she continues to study and approaches her creations with a mix of humility, reverence, delight and art. For me, this is about more than flower arranging: it’s a practice for life.
Four questions for you
Last week, I shared with you that I am starting on a book project (gulp!). Thanks to those who sent encouraging words. I realize that in adding a big project to my life, I may need to simplify, and look for what is no longer essential that I can prune away.
In the spirit of paring down this post, I leave you with these questions:
What is essential to you right now?
What clear lines, patterns or forms are revealing themselves in your life?
What is happening in the invisible or unsaid (or as an artist would say “negative space”) as well as in the visible and spoken aspects of your life?
What would your need to prune to heighten the beauty and purpose of your work or life?
(*As a quote checker, I think the translation by Eric Raymond may have slightly embellished, but I’ll let it stand as it was on the wall at Blue Origin.)
Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.
We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.
Let’s add another, gentler perspective.
How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.
After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.
We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.
When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.
It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.
Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?
Midwifing the start of a book
I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.
I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:
Is my dream begging to come forward?
Do I love it?
Do I believe that it’s needed?
Is this something I feel I have to do?
It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.
Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.
How my idea started
The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.
Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher? Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.
So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:
Speak about it – with caution
It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.
I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.
Play with it and let it move
I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.
Create some structure to support me
My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.
Build daily practices that support the work
I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!
Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth
The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.
Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!
Steal if you want to, but I think Springsteen would let you drive away with any insight you’d like from his recent memoir Born to Run.
Even if you aren’t looking for your path to rock ‘n roll stardom, you may get mesmerized, as I was, by a peak into the life of this aging icon of explosive Jersey virility. I’m not into celebrity memoirs, but Born to Run hit the top ten on multiple memoir lists last year. (And besides, I’m a Jersey girl myself.) The book takes you in through the backdoor of a life that started out scrappy before veering to stardom, where the gods continued to chastise hubris by sending down big doses of doubt and depression. His writing is candid and compelling, blending a passionate love of rock ‘n roll with the wisdom of age. Full of images that stick with you, like his songs
Maybe we all have an inner-rock star in us, waiting to be discovered. If you want to know what it takes to succeed when all you have to start out with is grit, commitment and talent, listen up. Here are a few of my take-aways:
You don’t have to be good at the beginning. Springsteen knew what he wanted—to be good—and then great—at playing rock ‘n roll. He didn’t start out that way. He had talent and drive but it took a long while for his performance to begin to match his aspirations.
Practice your craft—like crazy. Start anywhere. Get experience. Lots of it. Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it can take ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Springsteen is living proof. Even though he knew he was good, he kept noticing where others were better, and used that as motivation to keep learning.
Commit. “All in” is how he describes his expectations of the commitment he wanted from band members and what he demanded of himself. They are still giving all in their 60s. Springsteen’s “meteoric rise” to stardom took years of preparation and sacrifice; even becoming a superstar with its financial reward didn’t make the journey easy. What sustained him was a ferocious commitment to his art.
Know what matters. Springsteen developed his skills and performance chops during the days when he was broke and coach-surfing around working class Freehold, New Jersey. He knew how to keep his expenses low. When he started to gain fame, he put his money into recordings rather than trappings. He lived at the edge financially for a long time, even as his record sales topped millions.
Leverage your strengths. Springsteen knew that his rough and raspy voice wasn’t the world’s greatest, even as his vocals worked well with his music. But he played to his strengths and built his success upon them: songwriting, musicianship, an ear for talent, love for his audiences, and indomitable energy, especially on stage.
Acknowledge your roots. Although he never went back to live in Freehold, Springsteen never forgot where he was from. The heart of his Americana—the run-down, disadvantaged, hot-rodded, immigrant-filled Jersey shore—gave soul to his music. And he was always willing to credit the musicians who had influenced him.
Keep control of the enterprise. When it came to his band and his music, Springsteen wanted control. He would always be “The Boss.” Yet his leadership style allowed his best music to come forward, and he was able to keep changing and developing his music over time without having to go to others for permission. His leadership style wouldn’t work for everyone; but it was right for him and his artistic mission.
Make lots of mistakes. Part of what’s thrilling about reading Born to Run, is learning about those mistakes. When he was young, wild, and consumed with getting his music to the public, he didn’t read his first contract carefully enough. Five years later that omission exploded into a disastrous fight. Fortunately, he was able to buy back rights to his own published music. Along the way, he hurt people he wouldn’t have wanted to hurt and spent too long and too much money in some of the band’s recording marathons. The mistakes didn’t stop him.
Take the time. Springsteen worked for six months on his mega-hit song Born to Run, which catapulted him into a new stage of his career. He wouldn’t release an album until he thought it was right. Those of us who feel so much pressure to get things out NOW might think about this. Not all of our projects are worthy of the kind of attention Springsteen put into this records, but we have to discern which ones are.
Play the long haul. From the start of his career, Springsteen knew he didn’t want to become a shooting star, soaring high and burning out. His goal was to keep doing the thing he loved – playing rock n roll—and growing as a musician throughout his life. He’s done that. Towards the end of the book, he talks frankly about his depression, which became more acute as he entered his 60s. Partly an inheritance from his father, partly a reflection of the roller-coaster rock-n-roll lifestyle, where the give-it-all euphoria of the big stage and adulating fans can lead to brutal post-performance come-downs. Years of therapy, prescribed medications, and his committed, loving wife, Patti Scialfa, became his anchors. Throughout it all, he continued to love fiercely: his fans, his family, the band, and the magic of standing on stage.
My biggest take-away? Springsteen has kept his passion for music pulsing for fifty plus years. And he’s still going strong. He worked hard, really hard, to make the most of his talent, helped by some good people and lucky breaks. But he didn’t hatch overnight. Just as neither do we.
Here’s the original video for Born to Run. Enjoy the energy and remember you, too, were younger once! Click here to listen.
At a time when many of us are asking, “What can I do,” I’m starting a very undercover revolution: I’m reading. I’m devouring articles and books—of all genres—from political commentary to memoir, how-to’s to fiction, serious to spiritual. I tried some science, which was a little hard for me, and I’m gobbling up funny. The pile of books near my bed, most borrowed from the library, is ridiculously huge. I want to learn how good writers make us think, feel, and laugh and how they use words.
After years of feeling I needed to hide my education, so as to not alienate people, I’m coming out of the closet! It’s time to reclaim my right to learn new words with my former childlike zeal. I read books in the bathtub and call out to my husband, “Hey Honey, what does preternatural mean?” If he doesn’t know the answer (which he often does), he’ll look the word up. (Preternatural means, out of the ordinary course of nature; exceptional or abnormal.)
Learning a new word makes me feel defiant.
Another act of defiance is raising the flag for critical thinking. It’s an endangered species that we’ve got to protect. As a former academic, I still carry a passion for helping people think. I once directed an undergraduate liberal-studies program for mid-career adults returning to school. Our students enrolled after years of making a living because they wanted to ask questions, think, and share ideas. They were the best!
So, here’s a sample of what’s on the top of my pile of reading this month.
I read the book first and loved it, too. Bryson makes us laugh at the English and at him as he travels around his adopted country. Like a favorite uncle, he’s cranky, irascible, adorable and very, very funny.
Finding George Orwell in Burma. Now that 1984 has become the IT book of the year, (top seller on Amazon last month), I wanted to read Emma Larkin’s political travelogue from her time tracing the steps of George Orwell in totalitarian Burma (now Myanmar). Larkin did research for the book when it was still considered dangerous to be asking questions in Burma. Orwell had lived in Burma at the beginning of his career and Larkin discovered that many Burmese still revered his writing—even if they couldn’t discuss it publicly in their tightly controlled police state.
It’s chilling that 1984 is so relevant today.
The Church of 80% Sincerity by David Roche (with a great foreword by Anne Lamott.) I have a fascination and attraction to works by people who are not “normal” in the packaged-up, beautiful-faced sense of the word. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (about living with a face radically deformed by cancer), is on my list of change-your-life books. And now David Roche, whose face is also severely deformed by cancer and radiation, talks about deformity with humor and grace. He’s even performed his acclaimed one-man show at the White House. In his new kind of church: “We do not try to change people by having them conform to an ideal. We try to accept people as they are. We adjust our beliefs and practices to conform to the reality of being human.” I can’t wait to read more!
Along with my subversive support for critical thinking, I’m also campaigning for the role of imagination in our lives (and trying to strengthen mine!) One of my guides will be Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe. He writes: “GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people…Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot…Enjoy the best-kept secret around—the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.”
I’m on for it! When I lived in New York City in the 1970s, I used to spend days just wandering and exploring. It’s time to reclaim my inner-wanderer.
So now to you, what are you reading? I’d love to hear. And double points for anything funny!
As a creative entrepreneur, I often wrestle with how to manage my time, get things done, and nurture my creative zeal.
I experiment with how to find the balance between creative flow and structure. As a writer, should I follow the discipline advocated by some writers to put my butt in the chair everyday regardless of whether I have anything to say? Or should I listen to those who say that trying to force a piece of writing when it’s not flowing is just pointless?
If you’re like me, you know that during the day your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re good for a creative burst of thought or work on a project, other times you’ll be best polishing your existing work, responding to problems, doing email or grooming the cat. And there may even be times that are good for meetings. (I hope this is true, given how meetings consume so much of organizational life.)
Managing the balance between flow and structure, while finding the best way to work with your own rhythms is key to productively accomplishing creative work (or really any work). I tend to err on the side of flow. I used to tell my leadership classes that my programs would be more like a sailing expedition than a motor boat ride. We’d reach our destination (the course objectives), but we’d be tacking a lot (responding to the needs and knowledge of participants), rather than driving straight ahead like a planned-by-the-minute training session. This helped some of my structure-loving engineers to relax a little. Sometimes.
Knowing that personal organization has never been my strong suit, in my first corporate job I convinced the purchasing officer to let me buy an expensive personal organizing system. Beautiful leather binder. Yummy designed pages. I was so hoping it could miraculously organize me. If I had been the kind of person who loved making lists, using them, and was already anal about organization, it would have been perfect.
Mostly I ended up affectionately stroking its binder.
My need to be organized and structured without stopping the creative flow has made me very curious about time management systems and structures that creative artists and business leaders use to stay productive.
Although I yearn for big unstructured blocks of time to do creative thought-work, without a way of deliberately organizing myself, I can end up in the eddies, feeling brain-dead about what I intended to do.
After all, a flow of water down a river needs the riverbank to guide and contain it.
How to Flow with Structure: 7 Ideas to Try
Know your chrono-type. We all follow slightly different clocks. If you’re curious about yours, read The Power of Whenby Michael Breus. Then, explore how you can adapt your days to fit your rhythm. Some people are most clear headed in the early morning; others are foggy until noon. Give your teammates a break and tailor your work to your own internal clock. (Who needs more glazed eyes or bodies keeled over in meetings!)
See your work in big patterns or clumps. Different types of work take different types of energy—and require bigger or smaller chunks of time. Some projects like my writing take large concentrated blocks of time; reading email can be fit in when I’m half asleep. I want to map my high-value creative tasks against my high-value creative energy.
Experiment. Most of us have failed repeatedly at optimizing our time. Maybe this is a game we’ll never really win, but it’s still worth playing around with whatever helps us feel satisfied as well as productive.
Leave time for deeper work. In his provocative book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport rants that our attention-sucking environments risk robbing us of the time and capacity to do our most thoughtful, important work, the work where we could really make a difference, whether it’s designing a strategy or writing a novel. We need to vigilantly protect spaces for deep time.
Make it visual. I love my computer tools — but there’s something totally cool about white boards that keep my important priorities right in my face.
Remember breaks, retreats, vacations and the fact that things will never, ever go as planned.
Celebrate small successes. A darn good idea that many of us neglect.
Back to you. What keeps you at your own energized, creative best? Do you have a system to manage yourself and honor your own rhythms and life, work and creative priorities? Tell me— I’d love to pass on more ideas here.
In the meantime, I’m off to a day that’s mine to create, adding a little structure to keep my mind focused and at the same time being curious where the muse will take me.
As I was mid-way through the Women’s March Olympia, (capitol of the other Washington), a woman near me burst into song:
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”
This gospel song from the 20’s hardly sounds like a revolutionary anthem, but it was perfect on Saturday. Soon a group of strangers, women and men, youth and grandparents, straights and gays, were singing as we marched. Those three lines of song brought us together and uplifted us, making our steps in the march lighter and our spirits more buoyant, despite the gray skies.
This strengthened my suspicion: music is subversive.
This week, as I checked into some of the research on what music does to our brains, I found this research by Stefan Koelsch, music psychologist at the Freie University in Berlin. He reviewed and presented more data on brain research than my brain could absorb, supporting his statement:
“Music listening and making activates a multitude of brain structures, the engagement of which is likely to have beneficial effects on the psychological and physiological health of individuals.”
Loose translation: Music, whether you listen to or make it, is good for the brain. It can help people come together in positive ways, and makes them healthier.
He describes seven “C’s” of music that happen when we listen to or make music (backed by voluminous research).
When people come together to make music, they have social contact, something most of us need.
Music engages “social cognition,” in other words, we get to think about what somebody else—usually the composer—was intending in writing a piece.
Music leads to “co-pathy” —a word that currently eludes the dictionary but appears to mean a kind of social empathy that spreads in a group (or, in more technical terms, “getting in a groove” together).
Music involves communication.
Making music requires coordination.
Performing music together requires cooperation.
Music leads to social cohesion. It can help us feel like we belong, which in turn leads to better health and longer life. It can also put us in touch with the transcendent.
Loose translation: music can take us from contact to connection.
Ergo: Music is subversive.
My extensive research during the march Saturday confirmed his findings: music helps us feel connected, gets us on the same emotional wave length, uplifts us and helps us feel we’re a part of something bigger, something universal, something that has meaning. It encourage us to cooperate and coordinate. And it helps our brains (a fact I could not examine while marching).
I don’t think the dark forces want to hear this: Music brings us together.
Playing for change.
Several years ago, a really neat video of street musicians from around the world went viral, put out by an organization called Playing for Change. The nonprofit started when one audio guy, Mark Johnson, took his recording equipment out to street musicians around the world and started creating amazing videos. If you missed it, watch it here.
He visited communities that were destitute and watched them come alive as people started singing. Playing for Change has been connecting musicians and starting music schools in communities around the world, using music as a tool for education.
Music belongs to everyone. It lives in the laughter of children and the minds of the very old. Our brains remember music when they have forgotten most everything else, Music thrives in the poorest barrios, where the pavements are broken, the roads gutted, and the sanitation primitive. It spreads hope in dismal surroundings and moves people to act. It inspired a revolution.
You believe me now? Music is subversive.
After the United States elections, Playing for Change musicians put out this version of Rivers of Babylon. It’s not a political statement. It just makes you feel like life is possible.
Which might be a political statement.
Communicating, Connecting. Coordinating. Helping people see each other as remarkable human beings. Lifting us up and giving us hope.
I repeat: music is subversive.
The Women’s March was great but we’ve got a long way to go. Social programs and social justice are on the line these days. We’re going to need a lot of song.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.