Empty Mind

The reason it's so hard for some to be creative is that the act requires emptying the mind, not filling it.

—Alan Weiss

Most of us have probably had important insights while doing something that didn’t require a lot of thought, like weeding or vacuuming. And we’ve probably also had the opposite experience of being unable to come up with any good ideas when we have too much on our minds. It’s not that we’re unaware of this reality, it’s that—for most of us—reliably creating the conditions where we can empty our minds seems unattainable.

But if creativity requires emptying the mind, we have to figure out how to do this. A July, 2010 article in Newsweek presented research indicating that American creativity is waning and what the consequences and solutions might be. The article cited a poll of 1500 CEOs who identified creativity as the number one “leadership competency” of the future (Bronson and Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, 45). Creativity is absolutely essential for successfully addressing the complex challenges we confront as individuals, families, communities, and whole societies.

At the same time, these complex challenges themselves play a part in our inability to muster creative responses. Overstimulation, too many sources of input, demands for faster and faster action all contribute to being overwhelmed and work against creativity (see http://web.mit.edu/mitpostdocs/documents/OverloadedCircuits.pdf for an excellent article on the physiology of this phenomena).  While we may not be able to change the conditions themselves, we can examine our response to those conditions and the underlying beliefs we hold about what behavior will work to manage the conditions.

  • For example, when faced with an important deadline, do you try to “power through stuckness” even though you have a headache and you haven’t had a fresh thought in an hour?
  • When faced with more work to do than time to do it, do you respond by multi-tasking, even though you can barely remember the conversation you’ve just had or the email you just sent?
  • Do you tell yourself, “Once I finish this project, I’ll take a break” even though you’ve been at it for 9 hours straight without even using the restroom?
  • Do you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have time to…” (Hint: eat, exercise, plan, clean out my in-box, take a day off…anything that might contribute to emptying your mind)?

Each of these responses only serves to fill the mind rather than empty it, thus making creativity extremely unlikely. And yet these are the strategies many of my coaching clients use to attempt to manage complex conditions. And, to be honest, until recently, they were the strategies I used as well. But they don’t work. Being able to empty your mind is the most effective way to creatively meet the challenges posed by these complex conditions.

In my next post, I’ll offer some suggestions about ways to empty your mind without giving it all up and going to live in a meditation center.  In the meantime, try noticing your go-to ways of managing complex conditions. What kinds of results are you getting?