Living (or not) the Creative Life

“Growth is much more than a strategy. It is a complex change process that involves the right mindset, the right processes, experimentation and an enabling environment.” ~ Edward Hess teaches business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Ed got it right. For the last eight years my professional growth strategy has not been, first, to produce new businesses; but instead to focus on my personal growth in ways that honor who I really am. In my prior intertwined string of businesses I didn’t understand how important, exactly, it was to do that. The creative mind connects everything in life it sees (clearly) together. At the time, I didn’t listen to myself, so my creative mind went about its work winding tightly together, figuratively and literally, a life that was squeezing the creative life right out of me. There are indeed many (creative) ways a creative mind can die. Something so alive needs constant feeding and care.

I decided in the blink of a moment- one evening, when I was 17, to launch a small business- a clarinet shop. I thought it would be a cheap MBA. I saw it as a way to get the rest of the training I needed to put my creativity to work for me. I never though that my decision would result in a 20+ year journey. A journey that took me a long ways away from the little voice inside of me that kept telling me I wasn’t going in the right direction.

There was only so long that the challenge of going from a small store front into a flagship 10,000 square foot store, with other smaller locations, along with designing store display window dressing and digital catalogs creatively could fill me up- despite the huge learning curve at the time.

Especially when the business keeps on growing. I did not have a plan for that. I had a mediocre 4 year plan riddled with experimentation and failure, so I thought, that would lead me to the big next thing.  And by 5 years in, I was now earning a living wage while my peers struggled with part time jobs and clarinet auditions and borrowing money from parents and relatives to buy expensive instruments.  The rational person within me said ‘You are lucky. You are playing the clarinet and making a honest living with the degree your family told you would leave you starving.’

Except that I wasn’t in the right profession. I had used my imagination to dream something up to do with it in 24 hours that I thought, when I picked it, would last a few years not a lifetime. I had not (yet) realized my own powers as a creative person- the strength of my abilities to generate sustainable ideas, and my ability to execute from the discipline I had developed from it equally. And as a result, I set myself up to let my greatest strength- my creativity- wither on the vine unknowingly-subconsciously. And to compliment that blind spot, I wasn’t good enough at anything I did, so I told myself ( thanks Mom). I was, however, teaching others (my employees) while building my own competency, in different subject matter, and loved the challenge (thanks Dad for your leadership skills).

And I wasn’t detached enough from my business to recognize that I had options. I could not see, at the time, that in fact I could sell it and let it all go. My surprise of not birthing a stillborn but instead an alive screaming baby who wanted more food, was overwhelming to me.  How could I sell the first real thing I had made in the world and move on?  Everyone told me I was nuts to even say that. I should be grateful. Not everyone was as lucky as I was in the creative industries. And so the thought I could do anything better than what I had done, so far, I allowed to terrify me as my own creative spirit sank.

Others told me it was all about building more professional skills. Getting consultants and advisors to help me master my growing business. That would ease my mind and abate my growing depression and fears. But the truth was, I wasn’t listening to that little tiny voice we all have. I was simply finding more logical rational one’s to help me bury my own.

You know the voice I am referring. The one that bears your soul to you. The one that says to you ‘ I don’t like the direction you are heading- this isn’t what you are here for.’ I didn’t listen and I didn’t listen and I didn’t listen. After all, I was defying the odds. I was a working artist- a self-sufficent one- pretty much right out of school. So I wore that badge proudly for another 5 years. The consultants came in. And so did the advisors. I won awards and was on magazine covers. And I felt increasingly more dead then alive. It took me another 10 years- after my business was rubber stamped, fully inspected by ‘the experts’- to realize the creative person inside of me was barely alive.

And so I divorced my first husband, sold off a huge portion of my 12 million dollar business, paid alimony, and went back to the sweet spot of where I first found my spark- the idea of launching a clarinet shop. I went back to the thing that sparked me into a new direction and took me out of my comfort zone filling me with life initially. And that was the moment I set myself free honestly. Free to realize that my emotional response to life was up to me; I after all had finally dumped my excuse. That my fear of the unknown could either eat me or feed me. That my crazy ideas were worth more than nickels and dimes. And that I had to brace myself for a human terrain that didn’t understand the creative mind.

This time around I have honored and respected the development of my own creative mindset enough to spend my time developing the right framework for it to flourish inside of. I have learned that the right framework matters. And retail was not a deep enough dive for me. I needed to find something that could become a constant but was rich with continuous experimentation. And while the petri dish (the risk of continuous failed experimentation) is no place for anyone not willing to risk everything for his or her heart to choose to live; I can tell you it is one amazing experimental place rich with fresh insights, perspectives, new knowledge and loaded with happiness– if you choose it as your vehicle for growth above all else.

Everyone-needs-a-laboratory-amazing-things-come-from-experimentationIndeed everyone does need their own laboratory because it is true: Amazing things really do come from experimentation. Things that you cannot imagine- like I was unable to see with my ‘mediocre riddled with experimentation and as a result, failure’,  so I thought, first 4 year business plan. (But of course I would think about my first plan this way. I  had learned well the brow beating mindset of a relentlessly focused music major and simply transferred it without recognizing the excellence it instilled in me.)

In my laboratory, I am presently learning that accounting for a company is a lot like research. I learned how to love numbers in my first business and the story they told. And I am finding the same correlations in research now. While both record the facts of what has transpired, research has its own unique signature- a form of poetry- on what it reports.

In this calendar year, and into 2015, the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship (iaeou) will have published several different academic papers on our methodology, philosophy and pilot program. They will discuss, examine and put under the microscope the places my creativity has taken me. I am learning an incredible amount about learning, experimenting, and writing. I am writing with design thinkers and interdisciplinary specialists about the value us wacky creative thinkers have the potential to bring to the world.

I am also learning about the joy and world of possibilities that flow from continuous experimentation. It’s a form of creativity that multiples its potential to produce endless productivity. No wonder scientists find solutions in labs to heal our world.

If there is only one lesson I can teach a creative person it would be this: Think of everything you do for the first time as nothing more than a starting hunch. Hunches are not theories and are not strong enough to become careers. They require exploration- no matter how potent. Hunches offer you the potential of growth and if you have any capacity to grow, as a creative mind does, you will grow right out of whatever framework you built in your mind for that thing you fell in love with the very first time. This is the nature of creativity.

The creative mind can make huge leaps forward in minutes when it would take others years of their time. As as result we are seen as different. As Loners. Individualists.  We are not well understood and truly stand out in a crowd- uncomfortably so. It’s hard to stand alone. And yet, we need to learn how to get more comfortable showing our face to the world because we are the future leaders of it.

Experiments have found fewer than thirty percent of us are willing to assert our own ideas when they run counter to a majority view. This minority of people who judge issues for themselves and assert their judgment are among the most successful and well-adjusted members of society. We select our leaders – in all areas of life, in industry, fashion, politics and science – from this group, people who resist being easily persuaded and who try to draw out what is best from the sum of the conflicting views that others present to them.

Leaders who stand out from the rest as strong individualists may tend to isolate themselves from the opinions, interests and tastes of others even to the point sometimes of being ineffective at organizing support for their lives. Many strong individualists have been forced to the margins of political or scientific life as cranks or misfits, only to re-emerge as major figures when circumstances permit.

Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s great leader in World War II, was for years considered too eccentric, too unpredictable and too belligerent for high office by key figures among those controlling political power in Britain, and did not become Prime Minister until a charismatic leader was needed.

Charles Darwin, the first major contributor to modern theories of biological evolution, was considered a failure in early life. His reluctance to seek a conventionally successful life in the Church or in medicine, as his family would have wished, was partly due to his being absorbed in unconventional ideas which he kept mostly to himself. He only published them when he was middle-aged, and friends and circumstances finally persuaded him that he could no longer delay.

Without such exceptional individualism, it is probable that the human race would make little progress.

~ excerpt from Glenn Wilson’s Self Discovery: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Your Personality & Well Being.


 Lisa Canning 09About Lisa Canning

“Vowels are to words what creativity is to the world~ basic and necessary.”

What motivates you to explore your creativity?  Email me and tell me:

For daily inspiration and creative education join me on Facebook:

Need a magic creativity wand? Let’s start with the clarinet and see what it inspires you to dream and do.

Lisa Canning is the founder of Lisa’s Clarinet Shop, IAEOU, the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship (IAE) and Entrepreneur the Arts.


Living (or not) the Creative Life

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