Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Unleash Your Creativity With Steven Kowalski
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 402 of Live Happy Now. Creativity is a driving force of innovation. But have you thought about how it can change your life at work and at home? I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week, I’m being joined by Steven Kowalski, a leading voice in the global movement for conscious creativity. In his new book, Creative Together: Sparking Innovation in the New World of Work, he explains that all of us are creative, whether we think we are or not, and he tells us how to find our own creative style. Then use that to find greater satisfaction, both on the job and at home. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:44] PF: Steven, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:46] SK: Great to be here.
[00:00:47] PF: This is such a great topic to talk about because we talk about creativity in our lives, but you are really taking it into the business space and looking at how it affects us at work, at home, and all these different ways. So I’m excited to talk to you. I guess before we dive in, can you tell us what you mean when you talk about conscious creativity because this was interesting to me.
[00:01:09] SK: Yeah, super. I think conscious anything, conscious leadership, conscious capitalism, conscious creativity, we’re hearing a lot of that these days. What that really means to me is that we’re bringing attention and intention to what we’re doing. So there’s a component of self-awareness. There’s a component of being clear about what I’m aiming for, reflecting on how results are mapping to my intentions. Intention and attention is probably the shorthand.
[00:01:36] PF: Yeah. How does one start giving more thought to that? Because I do think in the past, we’ve been like either, “Oh, I’m creative, or I feel creative,” and not really thinking about our control over it.
[00:01:49] SK: Yeah. So in the book, Creative Together, I talk about how most of us are walking around with what I call an ability-based definition of creativity. What that means is we think it’s an ability that we have or don’t have or have to some degree, and we just kind of settle into – In some ways, maybe that’s even comfortable to think, “Well, maybe I’m not that creative. So I shouldn’t expect it that much for myself.”
But we all have the opportunity to move to this different way of thinking about creativity, but it’s a potential. So I talk about this in Creative Together that shift is really critical. Because when I approached my life and my work as if creativity was an ability, I may or may not realize all the opportunities that I have to bring it forward and bring it into work, into the teamwork that I do, into the business.
That’s the first part about paying attention and bringing more intention, more conscious creativity is understanding that we’re operating in this old story of what creativity is, and the first thing we need to do is to change the story. Then we can change the story of who we are as creators and then create more effectively with others.
[00:03:01] PF: Right. Because that is one thing, and you bring it out so beautifully in the book that we’ve kind of been taught, when we think of creativity, we think of artists and writers and musicians. So someone who is in a business space, someone who’s an accountant doesn’t think, “Gosh, I’m a creative person.” We’ve been told that our entire lives. So how do we start thinking about creativity differently and seeing how it is being used in our daily work so that we can tap into it?
[00:03:33] SK: Yeah. I like to think about creativity and propose this definition. Creativity is really this potential that we have to invent new solutions to problems we either face. So pandemic –
[00:03:47] PF: Oh, is that a problem?
[00:03:48] SK: Flooding, job losses, whatever, right? Problems we face or problems that we designed for ourselves. Like I have an aspiration to write a book. I’d like to start a business. When I call them problems, it’s really opportunities, right?
[00:04:03] PF: I love that.
[00:04:04] SK: That’s a big part of the switch. But creativity is just our potential to invent new solutions, new approaches, new in the face of these challenges and opportunities we might face or design for ourselves. I think that’s critical as a starting point because then, anytime we face a challenge or an opportunity and an accountant or a scientist, or an IT professional, or an HR professional, or an engineer, or anyone from any industry at all, in any domain or line of work, is going to face challenges and opportunities, some of those we’ll design for ourselves, and some of them will be impinging on us.
If we pay attention, we start to see evidence that our creativity is there every day, moment to moment, as we need it. That’s, I think, the critical piece. In the potential definition, it shows up when we need it. In the ability definition, it’s supposed to be there all the time, and some people just have less, and some people have more.
[00:05:08] PF: So what do people need to do to kind of start changing their mindset and realizing, “I am creative, and this is creativity at work.”? What are some of those little baby steps to start looking at that?
[00:05:20] SK: Yeah. In the book, I talked about the GIFTED methodology, G-I-F-T-E-D. So I’m going to use the first couple of letters as some of the answer to your question. So the G stands for greet the unknown with passion. I know I often greet the unknown with dread.
[00:05:38] PF: Yeah. Or fear, terror.
[00:05:41] SK: I try to control against it. So greet the unknown with passion, with faith in my creativity. So greeting the unknown is like one of the most important steps. There’s uncertainty. There’s volatility. There’s complexity. We’ve heard this VUCA thing for many, many years now, right? There’s ambiguity. What we need to do as a first step is not shy away from this because that’s where our creativity will get activated. That’s the G in GIFTED.
I is ignite creative potential, and it’s important to know what kinds of conditions give rise to creativity and to work those conditions. I call it the intersection of purpose, possibility, and constraint. All three of those things are essential ingredients for our creativity to show up. Maybe just at the very start is to think about like what are the unknowns in my life? Where are the arenas in which my creativity might show up? Maybe I’m getting a divorce. Maybe I’m looking for a new house. Maybe I’m starting a business. Maybe I’m recovering from a challenging illness, whatever. What are some of those unknowns, and how is my creativity showing up there or not? Or how can I bring more conscious awareness to how it is showing up and then work it a little bit more?
[00:06:59] PF: You are really a fan of actually working on your creativity in terms of it’s not just like becoming aware that I’m creative. They need to do some exercises, and they really need to do things to nurture and cultivate that.
[00:07:13] SK: Yes, we all do. It’s the most sustainable, inexhaustible resource we have, our creativity. I call it CDD, creativity disruption disorder. We’re walking around, not realizing the amazing potential that we have and how to use it more consciously.
[00:07:31] PF: Another thing that you say, and I love this, it’s once we discover our creativity, we must have profound faith in it. That was just a really powerful statement. Can you explain what you mean by that? Then tell us why we need to have that much faith in it.
[00:07:49] SK: I can and I’d also love to hear what went through your head maybe after when you read that, and it had that impact on you. When we rely on our creativity as an inexhaustible, sustainable resource, we can face these unknowns, this ambiguity, this uncertainty that where – It seems to me – I don’t know. I don’t think I’m unusual in this way, but it seems like there’s more and more of it, and it’s coming from every direction.
I don’t know how many inboxes I have now, with all the email inboxes that I have and the – Forget the mailbox. It’s like old school, right? There’s all these inboxes. There’s all this input. There are so many demands. There’s obligations. There’s things I want to do, that time is running out. How am I going to manage this? There are so many unknowns that I’m facing, and I think that’s critical. When I have faith in my creativity that it’s going to show up, it’s less overwhelming. These things are less taxing. I see them more as opportunity as opposed to trauma and adversity.
[00:08:49] PF: That makes absolute sense.
[00:08:51] SK: Was there anything that came into your awareness as you read that?
[00:08:54] PF: Yes. Because I think it’s almost like two sides of a coin because on one hand, I do take that creativity for granted, and that is doing what I do. I write. I write stories. I write books. I do a lot of things, in addition to podcasting. So I kind of take it for granted. But then on the other side, it’s almost like realizing I don’t have enough faith in that creativity that it is always going to be the thing that I lead with.
That’s what I want to get into as well. I think sometimes, I need to lead with the idea and let the creativity catch up to it. You talk about that in the business sense of we’re focusing on innovation, when we should be focusing on creativity, because that’s the spark that drives it. The way that you put that all together, it’s like, okay, I’m doing kind of the reverse. I’ve reversed engineered the way that it should be done. That is, as you said, so many businesses are doing that, placing the emphasis on the wrong thing.
So can you talk about that, why it’s important? We’re all talking about innovation and disruption, and this is how we lead, and you’re saying like, “Hang on. That’s not where it starts.”
[00:10:04] SK: Well, I see innovation as a type of creative result. It’s a creative result that yields value, new value. The interesting thing you could ask is like, okay, value for whom? What kind of value, like constructive, destructive? I don’t know. But innovation at its core is about new value, new markets, new customers, new benefits, new whatever, new value.
As a creative result, if I’m not working with my creativity and my relationship with my creativity is kind of in the closet or – In Creative Together, I say where is your creativity? Is it out in the lobby checked out? Imagine you’re in a theater.
[00:10:48] PF: It’s waiting in the trunk.
[00:10:49] SK: Out on the balcony, like unreachable or – Where is it? So I don’t have that daily connection. If I’m not leveraging it, if I’m not drawing on it, if I’m not stepping into the unknown with faith, I’m kind of disadvantaging myself.
[00:11:05] PF: So what should leaders be doing to foster that creative thinking and to really encourage it in employees?
[00:11:14] SK: First thing I’ll say is clarify the purpose, the reason why people’s creativity should show up. Because if it’s just about the routine or if it’s just about delivering business as usual, creativity won’t show up. The thing about that is it’s so sad to me when people are in jobs, or their work is sort of routine day to day, and they start to think, “I’m not creative.” The truth is the work that I’m doing, I’m not being asked for that. My manager, my leader is not being asked for that. He’s not asking me for that.
So I say the first thing that leaders need to do is to clarify the purpose, the reason why people’s creativity should come up, come forward today. Why do we need something different than the status quo? So that’s number one. The second thing is we all have a tolerance for ambiguity in our self, and I find that leaders often limit the degrees of freedom that they allow for folks to do their work.
So if I’m a leader, and I’ve got a low tolerance for ambiguity, and I don’t give degrees of freedom, I need to see results right away. Creativity needs room. There’s exploration that’s part of it. There’s prototyping and things that work out and things that don’t work out, right? If I’m micromanaging or if I’m stuck in having it done my way or the way I think it should be done, I’m not getting the degrees of freedom that are necessary for creativity to emerge. So those are two things I might answer in a short answer. We could talk about that.
[00:12:49] PF: Exactly. That could be a whole episode right there. So what then happens to the individual, as we’re allowed to use more creativity on the job? How does that make us happier? How does that make us more productive at work?
[00:13:03] SK: Yeah. I immediately go to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and I think self-actualization is kind of at the top of that pyramid. It starts out with things like safety and security and just getting my basic needs met. At the top of his pyramid is self-actualization, and I think creativity is part of our feeling like we’re self-actualizing. We’re making a difference. We’re learning. We’re transforming in ways that we’re seeing changes in our lives. So creativity is intimately intertwined with some of these processes that make life meaningful and help me connect with others.
[00:13:40] PF: Then as we become happier, we’re going to take those feelings home. There are so many studies that show if it’s not working out on the job, you’re taking that home. You’re not going to feel great when you get home. So obviously, the reverse is true. So what happens? What have you seen in the people that you work with, as they begin implementing more creativity in their work? How does that spill over into their home life?
[00:14:04] SK: Sure. I’ll share a story about an IT professional, a leader in the IT department of a company that I worked with. We were talking about the voice of judgment and how that inner critic that we have – Arianna Huffington calls it the obnoxious roommate. There are so many names for it. We were working in this concept because the inner critic can really stifle the expression of creativity. The inner critic is there to keep you safe, right? So we were talking about the inner critic, and we weren’t focusing in on business, and what are some of the declarative statements that stakeholders are making, that customers are making, that we’re making about what’s possible and what’s not possible?
Sure enough, the next time we got together, she said, “You know, I went home, and I really reflected on my relationship with my 15-year-old son, and I realized there was so much critic operating and running in my head. The stories I was telling, the questions I was asking him, that I was shocked and stunned at how this was getting in the way.” So the practices that help us access our creativity and bring it forward more effectively also can help us in our relationships, and in our communities, and the work we might be doing with nonprofits and all kinds of things. I think that’s some of the ways that people can see this interchange between work and life.
[00:15:26] PF: Yeah, because you can’t really compartmentalize creativity. Once you let it out, it’s going to take over. Let’s talk. You mentioned someone with their 15-year-old son. What is it that we as adults, as parents can do to bring up children to nurture that creativity, so they don’t have to wait until they’re on the job, and they’re in their 30s or 40s and trying to figure out their creative side? How do we nurture that creativity as they’re growing up?
[00:15:51] SK: I’ll tell a story. When I was young and I was expressing my creativity through art and I would take what I was working on to my parents. It was only partially done, or I had just started. They will say, “Well, bring it back to me when it’s done.” Now, of course, if anyone who’s familiar with agile and agile methodologies, right? One of the tenants of agile is early and frequent customer input. So in a way, I was there looking for input early and often, and I was getting shut down or like, “Don’t come to me till it’s done.”
So sometimes, we don’t even realize how we may be setting up weird assumptions and rules for our kids by just the simplest behavior or not even being aware. But I would say encourage exploration. If a kid comes to us with something that they’re working on or something, provide some input. Ask them questions, instead of giving answers. These are maybe a few things that I think we could do in response to your question.
[00:16:49] PF: I like that. Then the more you practice it at home, you’re also going to keep doing it work.
[00:16:54] SK: Mm-hmm, asking questions is one of our –
[00:16:55] PF: It’s an upward spiral.
[00:16:57] SK: It is. It is. Asking questions is one of our four superpowers that I talk about in Creative Together, and asking questions is such an important part of encouraging creativity, not just in ourselves but in others, whether it’s business colleagues or kids or elderly parents or whoever it is.
[00:17:15] PF: Yeah. We get caught up in the talking, especially we’re in a high-output society. We got to tweet our opinions. We got to make our posts on Facebook, Instagram, and we don’t ask enough questions. We don’t listen enough. So I love the fact that you really emphasize that and show us the value of doing that. That’s a big part of it.
Now, let’s talk about creative styles. I really enjoyed this part of the book because it’s fun to say, “Oh, I can see myself in that one and that one,” but then find out like, “Okay, yeah. I definitely skew toward that, over it.” Let’s talk about the three creative styles and that fourth thing with the styles.
[00:17:52] SK: That’s great. So this came out of my doctoral research at UCLA. During my dissertation, I saw in the work that I was doing in the research I was doing these different styles showed up. Because I was at the Department of Education, I was looking at teachers in a very bureaucratic school district most of them are. So how do teachers in that context express their creativity in relationship to this social system that they’re in? That’s all of us. Me and my job, I’m in a social system. Anyone in any industry, anyone in any, whether you’re a nonprofit or healthcare or corporation or whatever, we’re all in a social system. So the styles that showed up then that have stayed true over the years, the soloist, the soloist said – You’re saying – You’re putting your hands up.
[00:18:42] PF: Yeah, yeah. That’s me.
[00:18:44] SK: I’m a soloist at my core too, and soloists love to sort of create within the sphere of influence that they have and share the products of their creations. I’ll just say our creations because I’m there too. Once they’re done or pretty far along, so that other people can benefit. But it’s not really like a co-creating kind of thing. I have my space of creative in that space. I share with others. But let me do it in my space. So that’s a little bit about the soloist.
The second style that I talked about is the rebel. The thing about the rebel is the rebel’s motivated. The rebel’s creativity gets activated by the gap between what is and what could or should be. There’s this sense of like what’s right and just. So we saw this in any number of folks in the school system, and I see it in myself as well. When something’s not right or words don’t match actions, there’s a part of me that gets activated. I want to deliver solutions or help solve that. My creativity gets activated there.
But the thing about rebels is that right can sometimes turn into righteousness. If I go on a crusade, I’m going to alienate the folks I very much want to join me, right? So that’s a little bit about the rebel. The entrepreneur, there’s a lot of us that can relate to the entrepreneur, and anyone starting a business and anyone sort of initiating things inside of a business also might relate. We have this strong vision for what could be some kind of solution, a new service, a new product, a new marketing angle, a new market base.
So the entrepreneur sees these opportunities, looks kind of broadly across the system. Okay, how am I going to work politics and resourcing and investments and all kinds of things to make this happen? The trick with the entrepreneur is that sometimes the vision that I have is so strong that it’s hard for people to join me. When that vision may need to evolve or change, as it meets the real world and the realities and constraints of the real world, I may become disengaged or not lose interest.
That’s a little bit about the three styles. One of the things all three styles share in common is they believe that the ideas that they’re having are mine, my idea, my idea to arrange the classroom this way, my idea to fix an injustice, my idea to start this company. You mentioned that fourth style that I suggest in Creative Together that we all need to bring forward a little bit more. The collaborator doesn’t have the same sense of ownership of ideas. It doesn’t matter who has the idea.
From the collaborator’s perspective, it’s like, “Let’s move it forward. I’m playing a part. I’m contributing. We’re co-creating.” You’re not creating over there and then sharing it with me. We’re actually making it together. We’re jointly tangibly producing something together that we couldn’t produce alone. So that’s a little bit about – That was kind of long-winded. Sorry, but that’s –
[00:21:59] PF: No. No, it wasn’t.
[00:21:59] SK: Talking about the four styles.
[00:22:01] PF: That was great. So why is it so important for us to understand our creative style? Once we do, once we know that, what do we do with that information?
[00:22:11] SK: Yeah. So I talk about developing a practice plan for bringing the collaborator forward because that’s what I see in this new world of work, where things are so interdependent, where what I do here today impacts all sorts of possibilities for others and other parts of the system today and tomorrow. So bringing that collaborator forward is really critical, and first step is to understand my style, and maybe challenge some of the beliefs and assumptions that are behind that.
For example, as a soloist, I may think that it’s possible to create alone. But creativity is actually meant to be shared, and it’s kind of an illusion that we can create alone. Even if I’m sitting in my room, and I’m doing something, I cannot separate myself from all the influences that are around me every day, the entire world that’s around me. I’m taking fragments of ideas and fragments of conversations and pieces of information from something I read. I’m connecting them, right? So it’s an illusion that we actually create alone. It’s also an illusion that the idea is mine, right?
Okay. So maybe I realize that. I’ve come to terms with that. I want to develop some practices to you know, to help me open up, to help me join others sometimes, instead of having others just join me.
[00:23:34] PF: I like that. I like that. There’s so much wisdom in this book, and it’s also fun. I was surprised like how fun it was because I thought it would feel more scholarly. This is something that everyone can really dive into. I wondered, as the author, what is it that you really hope that readers take away from this book?
[00:23:54] SK: I think the big message is in this new world that we’re in post-pandemic, with the pluses and minuses of how we’re all connected with through technology, all of these kinds of things, in this new world that we’re working in, strength will come from creating together. But it’s not something we’re schooled in. It’s not something we’re practiced in. It’s not something we’ve been conscious about. So the book is organized as a journey to first change the story of what creativity is and who I am as a creator.
If I had left it there as the author, I would feel that it was incomplete. Because the reason to do that inner work, the reason to reflect on what gifts I bring, what challenges I face, what tests I face, what my superpowers are, all those things that are in the first part of the book. The reason to do that work is so that I can create more effectively with others in business, in life through my communities, through my social activism or advocacy. Whatever ways I might want to express that, that’s where the strength is going to come. So that’s my core message. In the new world of work, we have to get creative together.
[00:25:08] PF: That’s so excellent. Steven, I appreciate you taking the time today. This was a wonderful conversation. It’s a great book. I’ve really, truly enjoyed this book, and I think our listeners are going to get a lot out of it as well.
[00:25:21] SK: That’s great. Thank you so much, Paula.
[00:25:22] PF: Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:25:27] PF: That was Steven Kowalski, talking about how to discover our creativity. If you’d like to learn more about Steven and his book or follow him on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
While you’re on the website, I’d like to invite you to check out our new podcast channel, Live Happy Presents. This sponsored podcast sees us partnering with like-minded brands to bring you information about products or services that can help improve your well-being.
For our first episode, we talk with Megan McDonough of the Wholebeing Institute and learn how times of uncertainty often are the best opportunity for bringing positive change into our lives. We hear Megan’s own story of how such an inflection point led her to leave corporate America and pursue inner peace and how that led to creating the Wholebeing Institute.
Then we’ll tell you about their program to help you take the next step toward personal happiness. You can find that episode called Take the Next Steps to Happiness with Megan McDonough on our podcast tab under Live Happy Presents.
That is all we have time for today. We will meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.