The One Word
That changed my life
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
He looked at me with a hint of frustration mixed with genuine concern and when he spoke, his sober tone signaled that I’d better listen.
“Don,” he said, “if you learn anything from this weekend, I want you to add one word to your vocabulary.”
“One word?” I muttered incredulously.
“Just one word,” he reemphasized, his eyes fixed on me, “and that word is and, A-n-d.”
“And?” I repeated in bewilderment as I gazed at him.
“Yes,” he repeated forcefully. “I want you to say to yourself, ‘I am a graphic designer and a sculptor.’ You can be both at the same time.”
To this day, I get chills up my back as I remember that teacher’s words. That simple sentence would change the course of my life! Within days I would sign up for a sculpture class, launching a lifelong love affair with sculpting.
Leading up to the workshop was a confused and unhappy period in my life. This wasn’t the first such period I’d been through; bouts of confusion and sadness had plagued me throughout my life, and this was what led me to sign up for a workshop, “Doing What You Love,” in hopes that it would help me find my true life calling. The weekend included a lot of listening to the teacher, interspersed with exercises designed to help us discover our true passion. We were nearing the end of the weekend and I had discovered no new direction or answers to my problems. I’m certain that my disappointment and negativity were evident as I expressed my feelings to the teacher.
The advice he gave me in the final hours of that weekend were so simple that I could have easily dismissed it as inconsequential or overly simplistic. But it uncovered a truth about me that was hidden. Hidden in plain sight!
He could see that I was stuck in a mental prison and he offered me the key to freedom. I had built a box around myself which limited me to believing in something that was not true. The truth existed, but it was obscured by my own thought structure.
Throughout my career I was plagued with a feeling of unfulfilment at work and the thought that there was something else that would make me happy. If I could only find it! That was a prescription for continual unhappiness and depression, but I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize it then. There was always something else going on, or something in the future that would be better than where I was right now. My mind was always fantasizing about what could be. And because I didn’t have it, I was always feeling deprived, depressed and unsatisfied. It was a closed loop.
I was an artist, and I knew this from a very early age. I took an art course in high school which I liked very much and I had excelled in it. My teachers considered me quite talented and felt I had a bright future ahead of me. I chose to be a graphic designer because I felt it was my best option for making a good, secure living. Looking back, I believe it was a good way to start my career in my early twenties. Nevertheless, that decision included abandoning my passion for sculpting. Unknowingly, I planted a seed that would grow into a belief system that would limit me for many years to come.
I did only two sculptures in high school, but I knew immediately that I loved sculpting and I hoped to continue at some point in my life. Pursuing a living as a fine artist was not a realistic goal for me, however, as I had only been exposed to the stereotype of “the starving artist” at the time, and it was reinforced by my family dynamic. I made a choice, and thus began my career and the limited thought structure that would define my life.
My career moved fast and I was good at what I did. I liked graphic design and applied my talent to whatever job I took on. I met with modest success and eventually started a business with some colleagues. I’ve been in business for myself ever since, although the focus of my businesses has changed many times.
Throughout the span of many years I longed for time to spend on what I really loved to do—sculpting. I was also somewhat of a self-help junkie, always looking for the magic key to improve my life. The “Do What You Love” workshop seemed to be just what I needed, and I was very willing to dive down another rabbit hole.
Little did I know that it would be as simple and as jolting as it turned out to be. It was a profound lesson in awareness of what really goes on under the conscious level of the mind. And this development of awareness is one of the key components of promoting a more creative expression in life. We will revisit this idea throughout this book.
I will never forget my encounter with the workshop teacher, who taught me to look inward and see my own self-imposed limitations. In other words, he helped me know myself.
“True creativity flows only from stillness.
When stillness becomes conscious, the spiritual dimension
enters your life and you begin to be guided by
an intelligence far greater than the human mind.”
As a graphic designer in the advertising world for most of my adult life, I found that creativity was a necessary trait. That business requires a constant flow of fresh ideas, designs, and compelling storytelling to sell products and services. Exercising my creative muscles through graphic design satisfied me for many years, but deep down I knew my passion was sculpting.
After the workshop, my sculpting took off. I got completely absorbed in each new project I took on. I loved working in this way and knew that this was how my inner voice wanted to be heard.
But even with sculpting I felt somewhat unfulfilled or frustrated at times. I felt there was more that wanted to be expressed through my creativity than just another sculpture. I began to sense something bigger, more fulfilling—a purpose in harmony with life itself. Something wanted to be born. Something intelligent wanted to come through and I felt it as a yearning deep within my being. Thus began a long winding journey toward discovering my creative potential and understanding the purpose of my life.
What is creativity?
Where does it come from? Can anyone be creative?
How can I push the limits of what is possible?
Creativity is a big topic, and many books have been written about it from varying perspectives. Creativity can be applied to any domain of activity. I have learned from and been influenced by some of the great masters of art, science, business, psychology, and human studies. One of the best quotes about creativity is from Rollo May, the American existential psychologist:
“Creativity is the process of bringing something new into being.
Creativity requires passion and commitment.
It brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one of heightened consciousness: ecstasy.”
This quotation is like beautiful music to me. It rings so true on all levels and perfectly touches on all the major points of the creative process. Creativity is a coherent movement, not separate, but part of a whole system expressing itself through consciousness. It is bringing something new into being, something that was hidden and points to new life! The result is heightened consciousness and ecstasy! This quote describes the subtle truth and beauty of creativity in a profound way that one might miss on a first pass. We will come back to it later.
Some people think creativity is something you are born with, a gift, or that it is just for artists. But anyone can be creative, states Michael Gelb in his best-selling book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. He says it is a learned skill and everyone has the ability to develop and apply it to their own unique path.
Everyone has the capacity to expand their boundaries around what is possible, whether in the arts, business, or any other area of life. As I demonstrated earlier, it is about transcending or letting go of old beliefs, patterns, and habits and opening up to new ideas, information, perspectives, and possibilities.
Why do some people excel in their specific field of interest? Where does inspiration or creativity come from? Is it a function of the brain, the subconscious, the unconscious? Or does creativity flow from some mysterious source we don’t really understand?
As a young child, like boys often do, I used to build roads, cities, and communities for my little cars and trucks and spent endless hours playing with them. My mother liked to tell stories of how I would gather blankets, lift them in the air, and let them fall into folds that became roads, hills, and valleys for my vehicles to drive on and over. I played for hours, creating landscapes and entire worlds inhabited by make-believe characters brought to life in my active imagination.
As I became a little older, I found a love and fascination with
dinosaurs. I would sculpt them out of asbestos (long before it was known to be a health risk). I would build armatures out of wood and metal hangers, solving structural problems that came up as I constructed these large, impressive sculptures. As I think back, I don’t know how I even did it—unfortunately I have no pictures, only memories.
As I contemplate my younger self in the process of creating these sculptures and the many more creative expressions that followed, I see how I was in pure creative flow; my intention and focus were unshakable, void of any sense of doubt. I was totally in the present moment, creating, as Rollo May would say, in “ecstasy.” In this state I was fully alive, totally absorbed in drawing from my imagination, manifesting something that wanted to be born through me.
Even as a child I remember that I loved my creations. I didn’t understand it then, but I was a creator in touch with my muse, my imagination, my urge to bring something into being which was hidden. It was fulfilling and exciting and quite natural.
Of course, this young version of me had not yet been indoctrinated into the prevailing cultural norms of comparison, judgment, self-criticism, fear, and doubt. All I knew was the present moment and the flow of creative fun streaming through me. But I lost that as I grew older and adopted those fears and judgments of the adults around me. Limitations and doubt crept into my mind long before I entered high school. Role models for creativity were not reflected back to me in my immediate local environment. It was nobody’s fault; it is simply embedded into much of our cultural upbringing.
As I grew older, I developed big plans. I knew early that art would play an important part in my life and career. I think the creative joy I felt as a child stayed with me as a benchmark for the joy, satisfaction, ecstasy, and sense of purpose that life can offer. Even when I took the course in high school which introduced me to graphic design, I was aware that I wanted to find that same joy and satisfaction in my work.
As a young man starting out in life, I was eager to make my mark on the world, and achieving financial success replaced my love of being in the creative flow. Success and all its manifestations consumed me for much of my early career. I started a few businesses alone and with partners in the hope that success would give me something resembling satisfaction, joy, and purpose. There were many mistakes made and a lot of hardship endured. At times, there was measured success. Life continued and I did not give up, knowing at a deeper level that there was a better way.
It took a long time for me to return to the creative flow I experienced as a young boy. I believe that it is innate and natural for all of us to connect with and express our creative desires, and I could feel this throughout my life; but trying to reclaim that sense of joy, fulfillment, and purpose in the wrong places led me down many dead-end roads. Years of functional depression followed, yet the young boy still lived inside of me and I could hear his voice urging me not to give up. I wanted my imagination back. The workshop was my turning point.
My journey in understanding creativity was just getting started.