The book “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert is pretty woo woo. But the themes she shares are important to explore because many changemakers look outward. We focus on the big goal we want to achieve or the complexity of the problems to solve. Without necessarily exploring the inner narratives that can hold us back or divert our energy.
We’ve talked in the past about dealing with fear and scary systems, avoiding burnout, and shifting your personal portfolio of work so that you “die empty.” Gilbert asks us to embrace a creative life, which she describes as “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” The pursuit of that existence leads to results that she calls “Big Magic.”
As a writer herself, Gilbert is mainly talking about embracing creativity for creativity’s sake, without necessarily having a target or outcome in mind. But enterprise transformation is partially a creative act. Transforming a complex system involves imagining something that doesn’t exist and bringing it to life. There are examples and frameworks to look to, but every system and organization is different.
Innovation and change at scale involve play, being open to inspiration, nurturing ideas, and sticking through the messy and less glamorous parts, without losing faith. A mental journey not that different from a writer or an artist. The book “Big Magic” offers some interesting insights for our path.
Be driven by curiosity instead of fear
This is probably one of the most important characteristics of a changemaker. Fear prevents action. Curiosity drives us forward and helps us uncover new angles to understand the problem or find solutions. It causes us to ask questions like, “How does this work? What do other people think? Why? What could be different?”
Fear is the same all the time, for everyone. A constant stream of the word “stop!” In contrast, creativity leads to what makes us original, to a life of variety. Rather than ignoring fear, Gilbert asks us to pursue bravery instead. Because a pursuit with unknown outcomes (aka creativity) is always going to spark fear. She advises making space for your fear and completing acts of bravery every day instead. Fear is still there, but creativity handles decision making.
Your ideas are not about you
Gilbert thinks about ideas as something external to all of us. They’re all just looking for a human partner that will bring them to life. The Greeks and the Romans also believed in an “external genius” that would aid humans in creative pursuits. Around the time of the Renaissance, we switched from saying that people had geniuses to stating they were geniuses.
She says that framing genius as something external helps to separate the idea from our ego so that praise and shame have less harmful effects on our future work. A good or bad idea doesn’t mean that you are a genius or a failure. Neither outcome means that you should stop pursuing creativity, but unfortunately, our egos like to get in the way. Success or failure in one change scenario doesn’t dictate whether you’ll be able to guide the organization to the ultimate vision.
The creative journey is entirely up to you (for better or worse)
Gilbert asserts that no one needs permission to pursue a creative life. You don’t need to be ordained by anyone. You already have more knowledge and value to share than you might think you do. There are plenty of ways to fund your life and continue your education. So stop complaining that you don’t have what you need to get started.
Because creating things is difficult, otherwise, everyone would do it. And complaining just drives inspiration away, making it even harder. Gilbert shares how she sidesteps self-pity by telling herself that she enjoys her work. All of it, including the good, bad, and ugly sides of creative endeavors. She chose this path and can determine how much time, practice, and education she puts into it.
Pursuing change is difficult. It’s possible that no one will recognize your efforts. Or that your boss won’t give you the extra training or promotion you were hoping for. So design your own journey because most likely other people are too worried about their own lives to even pay attention to yours. You’re in charge.
Ask for the journey to be interesting, not easy
Interesting work will keep you moving forward. It will drive you to take consistent action, especially when the work is not easy. The creative process has ups and downs, but it takes pushing through multiple cycles to recognize where you are in the journey and to remember that just sticking the course gets you to the other side. It might take years of disciplined action to hone your skills. Gilbert expresses that learning how to deal with disappointment and frustration is part of the job.
“Holding yourself together through all of the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert
So pick something that’s interesting or worthwhile enough that you can deal with the bad side effects. Because any pursuit is going to have them. Be disciplined about delivering work, but don’t ask for it to be perfect, or you might not end up releasing anything. The final outcomes are important, but devotion to the daily work is the only thing we can directly control.
You don’t have to be a martyr to be effective
I’ve watched many people tackle complex problems and they usually start out as idealists, with a fresh perspective and lots of ideas. Then they hit some major obstacles and either burn out or switch to a martyr mentality. The martyr is fighting a painful war against “the man” or “the system.” Every engagement is a battle. The system is rigged against her. If the solution doesn’t look like what he originally imagined, he hasn’t succeeded.
Gilbert talks about the martyr mentality in creatives and contrasts it with the trickster. Tricksters employ creativity and play to find alternative solutions. They trust themselves, their abilities, other people, and the universe. They’re playing a game with the universe, not fighting a war. They find ways to complete serious work with lighthearted processes. They pursue curiosity like following clues in a scavenger hunt. The products of their work aren’t sacred. Anything is fair game to change.
While pursuing complex change, it doesn’t hurt to have some “Big Magic” on our side. The journey is a lot more fun that way. How will you make room for more creativity in your work?