What to do before saying "yes"

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Last Friday, my new friend Sarah told me her mother, Joan Chamberlain, had diagnosed herself with “left arm syndrome”.

Coined by Joan herself, “left arm syndrome” is the tendency of the left arm to shoot up whenever someone asks for a volunteer or helping hand. Joan found herself automatically saying yes a lot—before seeing whether she could.

When Sarah shared this, I responded three-fold:

First, I laughed. I 100% relate to Joan; except for me, my right hand shoots up (I’m left-handed, if that matters).

Second, my heart warmed. Joan and her funny diagnosis reveals something true: we all want to contribute. We have within us a desire to make a difference, be of service, and make things a bit better or easier for a fellow human or creature of this planet.

Third, I sobered: this is how frustration, burn-out, overwhelm, and anxiety can spike.

Saying yes before considering whether we can authentically offer up the energy can cause a lot of frustration.

For me, saying yes on impulse often necessitates I then need to:

  1. take time and energy away from other things that are really important to me (family, friends, creative and spiritual practices) OR

  2. rescind my ‘yes’ and ultimately not follow through on what I said I’d do.

Both suck energy out of me, because usefully, frustration can burn. It can be a signal to pay attention.

When you tell a requester “Let me think about it”, it’s a win-win.

To them, it demonstrates you’re taking the ask seriously and want to show up clear and ready. To yourself, it communicates respect for your physical vitality, time, relationships, and creativity.


Why "use it or lose it" is a myth

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Do you ever worry that someday, your creativity will… run out? That you’ll wake up one quiet Tuesday, and learn that are no more stories, films, beautiful and smart solutions, or contemplations left in you? Or maybe you’re convinced this has already happened.

Welcome to the party of being a creative! Can I get you something to drink?

These are some ideas about creativity that are loaded metaphors and myths, but seem particularly sticky for our psyches:

“Use it or lose it.”

Writer’s block

“I’m stuck.”

“Conditions have to be “just right” or nothing will happen/come out.”

“The creative process is painful.”

I paraphrase the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson in his awesome TED Talk “Do schools kill creativity?”,

“Point at the moon to a dog, and the dog will look at your finger. Point at the moon to a baby, the baby will look at the moon.”

That’s because humans are the only species on planet Earth that possess imagination.

Creativity is a human drive—nothing and no one can take it away from you. It’s always there, waiting to outflow.

Sure, if you haven’t prioritized being creative in a while, it can take some time and effort to get into that juicy flow state. But creativity isn’t like a tank of gas that runs out.

If you’re worried about this, chances are your soul has been a-knocking for some time—asking you to make a specific thing, or just… anything!—and maybe you haven’t honored it yet.

The minute you take action and sit down to tap into your creative energy, this fear will start to dissolve.

▶️ What are you seeing now about your situation, and what might be a small, satisfying step forward for you?

Why creating is painful sometimes

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This idea applies to whatever your craft may be.

I used to think there was 1 role I played whenever I set out to write something. Namely, “Writer”. Here is a snow-white, blank space with a blinking cursor in front of me and “Writer” would somehow, often painfully, write.

There are actually 3 roles to play in successfully publishing a piece of writing:

1. Contributor: Decide on a topic that will support others.

2. Writer: Allow yourself to just write what comes, unedited.

3. Editor: Check for concept, clarity, contribution, and coherence (grammar!).

Play your roles in order—it makes a difference, just like the steps of a recipe matter.

Each role needs its own time and space on your calendar, because you are showing up 3 very different ways.

Diving in without clear intent can make any creative process painful.

General appeal is so over

One of our primal instincts is to be seen, heard, and accepted by the tribe. Tribe acceptance equates more safety and more resources.

The de-centralized tribe today

Today, our tribe can be scattered across the globe, in person or virtually, with people who share our core beliefs but have never shared a meal with us. Our globalized, inter-connected lives confuse that instinct, and can cause us to seek general, mass appeal. Acceptance from everyone.

Actually, tribe members focus just on their immediate tribe. They don't worry about far-off tribes full of strangers.

There might not be such a thing as general appeal anymore. Each of us contains multitudes and can be part of many distinct, separate tribes or communities around the world.

Not everyone needs to love your work; not everyone even needs to like it. In fact, that just won't happen. But there will be quite a few people who do, who get what you're trying to put out into the world. Those are the people that matter.

Work for those people, and trust that everyone else will be served by someone else's work.

Compassion is an investment

When you're in flow

You don't need a ton of self-compassion. A flow state is kind of magical: you find yourself in a timeless space, empty of your ego and fear.

When you're not in flow

Self-compassion is your life raft. Your fear, anxiety, and self doubt can feel like a small trickle of water in one moment and swell to an ocean in the next.

Each flow state you enjoy is the culmination of choosing your life raft instead of swallowing a lot of negative self talk and sputtering to keep your head above water.

Every time you choose self-compassion, you put money in the bank for flow.

A chair for fear

Stuffing down your fear never works. It will simply re-surface later, in full force.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my creative heroes. She talks about how fear is allowed to have a seat in the car, but it's not allowed to drive.

One of her readers, Charlotte Murphy, teaches art to fifth graders. Her students suggested they make a Fear Chair, where fear is allowed to sit, but not allowed to run the creative process.

P.S. Aren't kids the most amazing creatures?

Asking "what" you should do is overrated

You can spend years swirling around in the world of "what" you should do, "what" your purpose is, "what" career is best.

Simon Sinek illustrated very clearly in his most famous TED talk "Start from WHY. People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it."

Ways to think about your "WHY"

It's your North Star. Instead of starting your sentences with "what", start them with "I believe..."

Write down your beliefs that excite you, drive you, fill you with energy. Start from there, then move to the "how" you will do that, and then "what" you can do will appear.

A short concentrated difficulty vs. long pervasive difficulty

I haven't danced since November. So tormented about it. 

Every week that goes by, it gets harder to get back to a class. I'm scared of silly things, like being out of shape and feeling pain in my body. Secondly, I've been in a state of rest for months, and objects in rest want to stay in rest.

The persistent false story I keep telling myself: The more time that goes by, the harder it's going to be to dance. This is false.

The truth

Going to dance and dancing is essentially pushing an object in rest (me) into motion (currently not me). It's a short, concentrated burst of energy and therefore only as difficult as putting clothes on and getting myself to a class. Granted, it takes more steps than staying in bed or sitting on the couch.

Each time I choose to work against my interests than for them, I feel worse. This is a long, pervasive difficulty that persists as long as I choose to do the "easier" thing.

It's not easier though. It's infinitely harder to feel bad and guilty about NOT doing something than to do it.

Fighting with an ally

"I'm fighting hard on the 6-inch battlefield," he said, pointing across the length of his forehead.

I coach someone who said this to me the other day. It's a sticky, compelling concept, for sure.

If you're reading this, chances are your life is pretty great. You have a roof over your head, you know where your next meal is coming from.

You probably have the capacity to spend time thinking about living a purpose-driven life doing work that matters to you. It's a pretty good spot.

There's a dark side to it sometimes, when you're fighting. Fighting to stay positive, fighting to think of good solutions, fighting to stay relevant, fighting for more certainty, fighting to catch up, fighting to keep up, fighting to get ahead, fighting for peace and quiet.

The frame of "6-inch battlefield" puts us in opposition to the mind, which is arguably our greatest asset in navigating life.

Maybe it's time to stop fighting with the best friend and ally we've got.