You're unoriginal and I like you that way.

There is a moment when I start pursuing a project that I am giddy with the belief that it is original. I'm excited because I think the originality of the idea makes it valuable. And there is always some time spent believing I've thought of something new before I remember that I can google the idea. That's when the scalp-tingle starts and I'm deeply embarrassed at my unoriginality.

When you realize there are 3 TED talks and 14 blogs discussing the same concept that you've passionately crystallized out of thin air, what do you do? It's tempting to hide, argue, or ignore because we've been sold the story, in part by the celebrity-ification of everyone from chefs to entrepreneurs, that value comes from the new. Value comes from fabricating an entirely unique concept, with no input. Value comes from nondisclosure agreements protecting your brilliance. Value comes from being the first, the fastest, the sharpest. 

Rafe Furst, an investor, once told me:

“If you say your startup has no competitors, you're either dumb, deluded, or have a terrible idea.”

The truth is that in this age of idea-sharing and connection, there are few new ideas. The chance that you've conceived of something without the contribution and pollination of others is low. The chance that whatever you've thought of has never been considered by someone else is even lower.

But that's great news. Because in my heart of hearts, I believe that it's not originality that matters, but authenticity. It's not newness that matters, but meaning. And it's not the knife-edge of being the only one doing something that matters, but rather creative collaboration with a like-minded tribe. 

As Audre Lorde says: 

"Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves- along with the renewed courage to try them out... For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt."

So instead of cultivating excitement and focus around coming up with new ideas (setting myself up for the ensuing letdown), I'm going to cultivate a resolute focus on meaning, authenticity, and connection. Originality can't be a tyrant without our submission. And I choose a higher master.

Creativity

One recent Thursday, the cold and cloudy afternoon blew me into the bookstore. I don't normally allow myself to be blown into the bookstore on Thursday afternoons, when there are to-do lists to conquer. But while I'm most comfortable being productive and focused and disciplined, I also know that in times of transition, you must follow your nose. In times of transition (and this is a big one for me, as I've just moved to a new city and Liga Masiva has just been joyously completed), I've learned that you must listen to the passions that tug at your heart, whether they say to take a bath, take a job, or go to the bookstore. 

Recently, I'd been following that feeling and moving towards things that felt wild and fascinating and new, but also completely disconnected: progressive education, and Lean Startup methodology, and models for collaborative organizational structures. Among my explorations, I had come across three things that had perked my internal ears:

  • Ken Robinson's TED talks on education. I wasn't so much bowled over by what he had to say, as I've been studying many of those concepts in dusty old books by Dewey, bell hooks, Paolo Friere, and Maria Montessori. But I was intrigued that he had managed to package the ideas in a way that made sense to large audiences and constructed a career around precisely that.
  • SARK. As January 1st rolled around, I was doing strategic planning in my usual medium-- colored markers and reams of white paper. Suddenly I had this déjà vu moment and I remembered a series of books written in that same medium-- colored marker journals by the writer SARK. They're the types of books you're 80% embarrassed to be seen reading but 100% inspired by, in their unabashed authenticity and tenderness.
  • Seth Godin's latest. Seth Godin has been a personal inspiration, a professional beacon, and an unfailing example of integrity. His books may be the "same old Seth Godin thing" but that thing always dashes me over with new ideas and energy for bold action.

So, back to the bookstore. I'm always a little shy to march up to the information desk and share my most recent longings in the form of books I'm looking for. But I was in a hurry, so I asked the guy at the desk if we could direct me to the different sections of the books I was looking for. After a moment's thought, he looked back at me and said "Well, they're all in the same section." I squinted skeptically at him, as I was pretty sure he must have gotten something wrong-- these three books are very different and I imagined would be in such far-flung sections as Education, Business, and Self Improvement. "Yep," he said, "They're all in our Creativity section, right behind you to the left." I was just turning away to find the section when the information guy stuck his arm in front of me. "High five?" he asked. 

Creativity. A topic I never considered an interest of mine, suddenly seemed to be at the root or nexus of what my nose has been seeking out for the past several months. Creativity? Creativity like crochet, and make-your-own-necklace kits, and finger paints? Hmm. Hopefully not. Hopefully it's creativity like Anita Roddick, IDEO, and my little niece painting something magenta-colored and indechipherable and then declaring it a "family of chinchillas."  I was at once intrigued, shaken, grateful, and embarrassed to have the thing that had been obsessing me named, so simply.

In the days and weeks following my bookstore visit, things have started coming together. Creativity is about using your ideas and imagination to make something new. It's about making art in the Seth Godin sense of the word. And looking back, it's the common thread in everything I've ever been passionate about. I feel so strongly this is important because creativity and the pursuit of creating art is precisely what has been educated and worked out of us. It's my own privilege and responsibility and struggle and act of grace to move towards this every day. And I think it's my calling to help other folks do the same.

So, the question I am living right now is: how can I create spaces for people to become more of who they are through creativity? What would the spaces that best support people in making art (again, in the Seth Godin sense that doesn't usually involve painting or clay) look like? How can I experiment, Lean Startup-style and make a prototype to understand what people want and need in relation to this?

I've got one experiment developing and I am going to share that with you all in the coming days. But in the meantime, I invite you to ask yourself the same questions I've been asking: 

If there was one section in the book store for all the books you long to read, what would it be called... and is there a way that you can pursue that thing with focus and wild abandon?

And most importantly, how can you make art today, right now, right here?

Where the heck were you when the page was blank?
— Paul Butterworth via the 37 Signals blog: http://bit.ly/fxCw2R

Violence in any form is a tragic expression of our unmet needs.
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Rumi

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
From the Gospel of Thomas

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an endless succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn
— Resistance Is Fertile: http://blog.lagusta.com/

The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” Paul Cezanne

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” - E.M. Forrester, Howard’s End
http://almajnun.tumblr.com/

Eating with the fullest pleasure- pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” Wendell Berry