In recent months, I’ve become captivated by the question: what does it take to do innovative work? I don’t mean that in the sense of required talent or technique, rather the context – the optimal working conditions. Or, to put it another way: What are the imaginative, inventive, resourceful and engaging systems that support the kind of imaginative, inventive, resourceful and engaging work that leaves the world a better place than we found it?

What does it take to do innovative work?

The answer isn’t a total mystery. There are a few things about which I’m reasonably certain…

First and foremost, the working conditions of both your outer and inner worlds are fundamentally stable.

Externally, the basics of everyday life – sleep, nutrition, hygiene, movement, housekeeping, money management, care-taking/connection and leisure – are handled in a consistent, sustainable and sustaining way. Internally, thoughts and emotions are understood and acted upon with skill, response to stress is proportionate and temporary, and the vicissitudes of everyday life are met with resilience and optimism. Without such stability, your depletion, distraction and anxiety rob you of the energy and focus necessary to seeing your creative projects through.

Achieving emotional stability is very much the domain of psychotherapists and specially-trained life coaches. I can’t speak to how you achieve it – that’s not my expertise – only that it is essential and primary. Eight years in this field has shown me that until you reduce your hypersensitivity to stressful triggers, the oftentimes challenging work of stabilizing your everyday life to reduce the triggers themselves is pretty much futile.

On the other hand, assuming your inner world is a healthy place, stabilizing one’s everyday life is something I can speak to – and have done so at length. The perspective and methodology I’ve developed through years of study, observation and experimentation are outlined in the curriculum of the S4D. It’s different, it’s thorough, and it works. I know how to create at least that element of the conditions that support innovative work.

At the same time, those working conditions are also flexible. Because I also know this about innovative work: it’s unpredictable.

Conventional project planning – in which you break down your SMART goals into phases and steps and place them along a timeline with milestones that culminate in a deadline – doesn’t accommodate or support the unpredictable nature of innovative work.

Every project of invention starts with at least one discovery phase, if not several in succession. Conventional project planning at best encourages and at worst forces you to make assumptions about what you will learn in those phases. It’s an approach that seduces you into thinking you know the answers, when all you really know are the questions.

But, as I expect you know from your own experience, those initial assumptions are often proven wrong (sometimes really wrong). And this can throw a serious monkey wrench into the works – especially if you’ve made commitments to others based on that plan. It can render a glorious wall calendar covered in color-coded sticky notes pointless overnight.

This moment sucks all the juice and all the fun out of what is arguably the most useful and satisfying part of the creative process: that discovery phase. What you learn from your first steps is gold, but only it you have a way of mining it – and conventional project planning offers no such mechanism.

But the scientific method does. The cycle of define a question, observe, form a hypothesis, test with an experiment, analyze and draw conclusions maps beautifully onto project plans for innovative work. I’ve been experimenting with incorporating such short feedback loops into my planning and working process, and though it needs some refinement, I consider it a significant improvement already.

Lastly, those working conditions are also playful – because play is essential to innovative work.

We are more creative when we are having fun. We’re more likely to learn and practice needed skills when we are having fun. And we’re more productive when we are having fun. Imagination, mastery and consistent output are essential to the completion of innovative projects, so opportunities for play are essential.

But just as conventional project planning doesn’t accommodate the unpredictable nature of innovation, the assumptions and ideals about productivity, self-employment, the arts and personal growth that we bring to our work have a subtle, pernicious tendency to turn everything into heavy, never-ending self-improvement projects – which isn’t any fun at all.

  • At its worst, productivity is an ideology of more, better, faster that becomes separated from what that pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness is intended to support.
  • At its worst, self-employment is an ideology of freedom that sees work as a burden to be minimized and leveraged, not as a source of the very enjoyment and satisfaction it cherishes.
  • At its worst, the arts – or rather the myth of the artist – is an ideology of otherness in which the status of persona non grata is sought out as much as it is lamented, and becomes separated from cultivating and honing that unique point of view that fuels creative enterprise.
  • And at its worst, personal-growth is an ideology of believe in yourself and follow your dreams – yet the inertia and self-doubt generated by emphasizing self-inquiry over action undermines its dearest credo.

Put all four in the same pot and it forms a fairly noxious brew – one that creates the opposite of the optimal working conditions for innovative work. In part because it’s all about you all the time – which at best makes you self-conscious and at worst turn you into a navel-gazing narcissist. In part because these ideals are without limits: you never really know how much more busy, independent, different and confident you need to be to be okay. And in part because these flawed ideals and assumptions are pervasive, powerful, seductive and nearly invisible. Remaining alert to and resisting their influence requires significant effort. In my own life and as a teacher, I’ve tried to keep them in perspective, to take the best and leave the rest, and to prevent them from poisoning what I’m trying to accomplish.

But I’m coming to see it as a Sisyphean effort. And a misplaced focus. As they say: what you focus on grows. The more I focus on pushing back on this stuff, the more I have to push back against. It’s hardly the path of least resistance. Or anything like play. It’s time to try another road.

Of course I remain a fan of efficient and effective systems. I still think that in order to create such systems (and simply to be happy, healthy human beings) we need to have a decently accurate understanding of ourselves. I maintain that freelancing and self-employment are often the best or only ways to realize certain types of work or lifestyles in alignment with our values and interests. And there’s no denying a creative mind and the creative process are often nothing short of weird.

Yet I believe – and many of my creative heroes regularly demonstrate – it’s possible to take these realities and challenges seriously, without being so serious all the time. I want to hold things more lightly. Mostly because I think it will be a lot more fun. But also because I strongly suspect that innovate work demands a more playful approach.

Question > Observation > Hypothesis > Experiment. Just experiments.

The conditions that support and foster innovative work include at least three things (I expect there are more, but these are a good starting point):

  • a stable outer and inner world,
  • flexibility,
  • and opportunities for play.

All that’s left to do is test that hypothesis. And I figure I might as well start close to home with my own curriculum and teaching.

Because courses are essentially projects. Think about it. Any syllabus is a set of SMART goals broken down into phases and steps and placed along a timeline with milestones that culminate in a deadline. And that would be fine if I taught a predictable subject in a cookie-cutter way to less divergent thinkers. But I don’t.

What I offer could be thought of as a big box of Legos: a distinctive and recognizable system of building blocks to be sure, but one that nevertheless can be used to create as many structures as there are people. It has much more in common with the kind of creative experimentation that leads to innovation than it does with the sorts of plans that generate tidy wall calendars covered in color-coded sticky notes.

This kind of learning involves a lot of unpredictable discovery. At several points along the way, you’re going to discover something – about the perspective, the process, or your livelihood, lifestyle or personality – that defies your initial assumptions about what you need to do to better organize your time, streamline your activities, and generally finish things.

And that moment should be thrilling! Because now you know! And when we know better, we do better. But instead we often experience that moment as the end of the honeymoon period. It’s the monkey wrench in the project plan. Eventually, we fade away and it gets added to the pile of things we haven’t followed through on. Sigh.

There has to be a better way. And I suspect that better way is to treat every course as an experiment – to bake in the flexibility and opportunities for play that are essential to all innovative work.

(Now you know why this page is titled experiments, not courses.)

It’s Alive! The Shaping Your Days & Fuel Experiments

It’s alive! It’s aliiive! It’s aliiiiive! Except it’s not. 

Recently, I’ve completed a refresh of the core curriculum of the S4D – what I sometimes call my Unified Theory of Everything. I’ve divided it into three courses that are much more manageable in size, brought exercises and techniques created at different times to serve different original purposes into alignment, replaced pseudoscience with research, eliminated a few tangents, and generally tightened it up. It was good before. Now it’s even better. Both the structure and content are a significant improvement over the first edition of two years ago and I’m pleased and proud of this update.

With one exception: it feels a little…dead (which is ironic given that it’s modeled on living systems). Here’s what I mean by that and how I think it happened.

It’s clear. In describing what you need to do to better organize your time, I try to be as specific and thorough as possible so you’ll know exactly what to do. Do this, then that, then this. Step 1, 2, 3. Easy as ABC and do re mi.

It’s to the point. This is about time and I don’t want to waste yours. Every lesson and exercise has to pass the test of necessity, either for information or ease. There’s no busywork and I don’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do (and haven’t done) myself.

It’s neutral. I have chosen to be more like Mike than Richard. Richard was my photography professor. In every lecture, he showed us as many styles and techniques by as wide a range of photographers, living and dead, as he could. Whatever you were drawn to, he validated it. Mike was my ceramics professor. He never showed us anyone’s work, including his own. He knew from experience that a student’s tendency to imitate style would keep them from discovering their own artistic voice, something that was far more important to him. There are already so many rules out there about how we should manage our time, that it has felt just as important to me to offer a similarly neutral learning space where everyone is encouraged (even forced) to discover their individual style without the influence of “what everyone else is doing.”

In striving to be clear, concise and unbiased – in perhaps over-applying Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s standard, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – I edited out learning through the example and inspiration of others. And so it feels a little dead only because it’s somewhat one-dimensional. It’s all technique and no magic. It’s a lot of words, few pictures and no sounds – words with a lot of instructions and few stories.

Which is not to say the curriculum is boring.

It has been and continues to be shaped by everyone from Einstein, Mandelbrot, Csikszentmihalyi, neuroscientists and other research psychologists to athletic trainers and music teachers; storytellers like Jason Alexander, Tina Fey, Anthony Bourdain, Anna Deavere Smith, Ira Glass, Ze Frank and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; educators like Adam Savage, Alton Brown and Bill Nye, even Sesame Street; game designers like Jane McGonigal; illustrators like Wendy MacNaughton and Stefan Bucher; and creative entrepreneurs like Sarah Bray, Jennifer Louden, Charlie Gilkey, Susan Piver and Jeffey Davis; and many more very-much-not-boring people.

Our guiding metaphors range from slider puzzles to college cafeteria food. We are constantly seeking out theme songs and tattoo material. At one point, I ask you to look through the lens of a Star Trek captain, another point a stand-up comedian, another point Rusty from Ocean’s Eleven. At yet another point, I ask you to turn off all your clocks. I even encourage you to emulate the woman who dealt with her summertime ironing by putting on a bikini, pouring herself a stiff drink on the rocks, cranking up the stereo and setting up the ironing board on her deck. I constantly encourage you to break rules.

I see your life as a thriving ecosystem, not a production factory to be optimized. Nor is it a dry, academic exercise. Your life is a rich, varied and extraordinary experience and any time management text – especially this one – should reflect how amazing it is to be alive.

The curriculum of the S4D is very useful, but it’s not beautiful in that way. For it to become the fully imaginative, inventive, resourceful and engaging work of art it could and should be, it needs the examples and stories (not just the words – it has plenty already – but also the images and sounds, even the tastes, aromas and textures!) that will bring it to life and reflect just how wonderful life is.

And that is something that only you can provide. There’s already plenty of me in this work. It needs the contributions of lives and perspectives other than my own – because far more can be built from this box of Legos than I could demonstrate or even imagine.

“Any artist creates art by drawing from their influences and inspirations and building those together into a new pattern that’s unique. We create art just like we create life by combining my genetic pattern with yours to make a new pattern. Art cannot grow in a vacuum. It can only bloom in an ecosystem of other ideas to draw from.” — Jay Smooth, HitRECord

Here’s what this collaborative experiment includes…

The full new and improved curriculum of Shaping Your Days and Fuel (described here in Steps 2 & 3) is available in our virtual studio/lab for learning and collaborating at your own pace, along with creative prompts that correspond to the exercises. The prompts list and explain what I think is needed to illustrate and bring to life that particular lesson or exercise, or simply make it more fun and engaging.

These prompts are micro-requests that are not intended to add to your workload, rather to challenge you to complete the exercises in more original and enjoyable ways. I see them as a source of collaborative play. If everyone shares a little bit here and a little bit there – a paragraph, a photo, a link – it will inspire others, build momentum, and add up to something amazing.

Note: For Shaping Your Days, plan on a total of three hours to read five lessons and a minimum of ten hours to complete the exercises and respond to prompts. For Fuel, allow about three hours to read the five lessons and a minimum of five hours to complete the exercises and respond to prompts.

You are also warmly invited to participate in the “summer camps” that further encourage you to play with the material as you put it into practice.

  • The 3×3 Club: Productivity, accountability and momentum in just three sentences three times a day or week. Because getting and giving encouragement shouldn’t feel like a second job. [open to Shaping Your Days and Fuel members]
  • The Art of the Debrief: A weekly look back and look ahead to foster focus and follow-through, refine what works and modify what doesn’t, and celebrate the good. Because what we observe is what changes for the better. [open to Shaping Your Days members]
  • Never on a Sunday: Just in time for summer! Unplug with confidence and make the most of your leisure time. Take back your weekends!  Includes bonus lesson material. [open to Shaping Your Days members]
  • Out with the Old: Declutter and tie loose ends to stay out of overwhelm and keep things running smoothly. If it’s anachronistic, boring, worn out, untidy, resented or painful, it’s gone! Bonus lesson material includes Easier Email, a guide to getting and staying out of  inbox overwhelm, and 9 coworking parties. [open to Fuel members]
  • The Systems Garden: Cultivate the systems of your everyday life until they grow into robust, resilient and supportive habits and routines. Includes 3 hands-on systems-crafting workshops. [open to Fuel members]

In addition to the bonus lesson material and live work sessions, you can also earn perks for your contributions like private 1:1 coaching sessions with me.

“Play is what I do for a living; the work comes in organizing the results of the play.” — architect/client of Roger Van Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head

The final published form of this collection will depend on the nature of what’s contributed. And whether or not the studio/lab remains open and this collaboration continues will also depend on the outcome of this experiment.

What I do hope and expect is that by the end of our time together – besides having learned a practical thing or two about time management – we’ll have this living, breathing, beautiful system that is something greater than the sum of its parts and inspires and fuels each of us to take better care of ourselves and do better work in the world.

And we will have had some good fun making it.

“We are in this (the S4D, our work, life in general) for the long haul, and we keep showing up, letting go of ideas that don’t serve us, showing each other how to see things in new ways, being inspired by each others’ flexibility and ingenuity and gorgeous metaphors, cultivating a beautiful garden of thriving systems. This community has been a bulwark for me. I have never been shamed or criticized or made to feel left out – I have only ever been affirmed, encouraged, helped, and celebrated for finding my own way. This is, frankly, a miraculous thing that you’ve created and co-created, Cairene – this incredible body of knowledge, your unique and gentle teaching style, your humour and consistency, and a communal sense of camaraderie. I am incredibly grateful for every note, insight, call, and interaction that we have shared.” – AG, writer and delightful, longtime participant in the S4D | more raves

If the idea of this collaborative opportunity delights you as much it does me, and you’re willing and able to roll up your sleeves and get dirty playing with this stuff for a few months, I’d be tickled pink if you joined us.

• • • • •

This experiment has closed.

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