Cross Training for Creativity

My dear friend and fellow runner Megan released a post yesterday about her most recent job search, an unexpected one, and how it’s similar to the marathon she ran last year. As I read her piece, I was so impressed with her ability to constructively encapsulate a difficult time (I’m definitely not always equipped with the grace to do that!), but I found myself having an interesting reaction to her words. As she mentioned having the right fuel and recognizing that both processes takes time, I audibly muttered,

“Mention cross training, mention cross-training, mention cross-training!”

And she did (yeah girl!). For the unfamiliar, cross-training is one element of a training plan for a distance event, which allots time for building endurance in a manner other than running. Swimming, biking, and weight training are all excellent examples of this. Her take on cross-training as a professional concept fit in line so well with my ideas on the topic:

Cross-training is a great way to let your mind and body refuel, and to find that next great functional area for you to fall into. Nothing says you can’t do this, and with the right support, this could be what helps you take that next step from marathon-finisher to PR-breaker.

Ultimately, she is of the belief that training for the task at hand is helpful and needed, but it’s the cross training that gives you the little extra that could get you across the finish line. And in matters of career and life, I’m inclined to agree. A few comedic/entertainment examples:

  • Jonah Hill in Moneyball or The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Jim Carrey in the The Truman Show or The Majestic
  • Will Smith’s turn in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and then in Six Degrees of Separation
  • Andre 3000’s role in Four Brothers
  • In extreme cases, you can get athletes like Sean Avery interning for Vogue magazine, or Blake Griffin interning for Funny or Die

Some of these transitions were career defining- think of how it must have looked for Tom Hanks to get two consecutive Oscars for dramatic roles, after bursting onto the scene via roles in Family Ties, Bosom Buddies, and Turner and Hooch. Others were an interlude in a life otherwise lived in their chosen profession (more the case for Avery or Griffin). But in either case, they are forever changed for the time they spent off the beaten path. When I think of Megan, and how running has become an integral part of her life and how that has affected her work life, it only strengthened my belief that these pursuits have value.

Wanna get started? As with most types of workouts, there are levels. I broke it down a little, don’t worry.

Beginner: Reading/Studying

Deciding to cross-train starts with the understanding that other areas of work or life have value for the one that you’re in. It could be something that you readily apply to the day job, it could be a source of inspiration that indirectly affects you later, or it could simply be a structured form of the time away that you require to be fulfilled. One of the easiest ways to do this is by reading outside of your normal stable of literature or news. For higher education, we have our go-to sources of knowledge: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other “trade publications.” The first challenge I would set for anyone seeking to cross-train? Break free from that reading rut.

Once I said “Breaking Free,” the High School Musical song came to mind. Couldn’t help it. Sorry. IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

What will that extracurricular exploration entail for you? It really depends- what interests you? Where do you draw inspiration from? What other interests are you cultivating? Seek out publications that address these interests. For example, a friend of mine in grad school always got particularly excited when there was a case in the news that allowed us to talk about college sports. His understanding of the concepts as they applied in that arena, aided his understanding of the concepts in other ones. I certainly don’t want to prescribe your supplemental readings, but I can tell you some of mine and why I selected them:

99U: Scott Belsky’s site devoted to creativity has given me tips on how to keep myself organized, while also pushing me to think differently

Brainpicker: Maria Popova’s in depth examination of creative inspiration from literature, art, science, and entertainment reminds me that there are other domains in the world that I enjoy, ones that can inspire a new line of thinking

ForbesHarvard Business ReviewInc.: all business sites whose blogs apply business theory as well as creative practices

It’s unlikely that these publications would cross my desk otherwise, but I incorporate them into my cross training routine for precisely that reason. Cross-training is about doing something different, and building strength in areas that aren’t exercised by our normal routine.

Intermediate Level: Volunteering
What do you do outside the bounds of your standard work? Bigger question: what do you do outside the bounds of your standard work that helps others? In my mind, volunteering is the next logical level of cross-training because it encourages you to stretch yourself in an activity, rather than just exercising on a theoretical level. At first glance, volunteering doesn’t always seem like a means to exercise creativity; most volunteer opportunities lend themselves to rules and regulations, and need to be done a certain way. But I find it to be a creative enterprise because it puts me into a setting outside of the one I’m accustomed to.

Whether it’s the work I’m doing for a professional organization, or the time that I try to spend regularly at my area food bank, it introduces me to new people and gives me a look at the way other people work. It pulls me out of my comfortable world of thinking differently, and pushes me to do differently. Megan echoes this in her post:

Perhaps you are in residence life and want to make the change into orientation, but have no other previous experience working with new student programs. That’s okay! Take advantage of resources on your current campus, make connections, and talk to folks who currently are in that area about what they would be looking for in a new staff member. Do they have an opportunity for you to volunteer some time with them? A sort of internship, even as a professional staff member? When I was leaving my position in Texas, I was looking at orientation as a new functional area – mind you, without any direct experience in such an area. I was fortunate enough to work with our Orientation department for a few months, sitting in on student staff interviews, group interviews, and to learn more about what their program looked like. I couldn’t have asked for anything better!

Seeing others work, helps me examine how I work. Some days that step outside my normal routine is enough to help me crack a problem I’ve been seeing, but was too blinded by the everyday to see the solution. As an example, I recognized the power of volunteers training one another after working at two different food banks- one that encouraged it, and one that didn’t. It has changed the way I aspire to run my student employee training, and I never would have thought of it if I had stayed in my office for that few extra hours.

I strongly encourage volunteering as a means to take you out of your typical thinking. Extra points if you volunteer in an unfamiliar area or doing something you’re not sure you’ll like. Who knows where it could take you?

IMAGE CREDIT: behappy.me

Advanced: Dedicated Hobbies + Side Hustles
Ready to make different thinking a part of your regular routine? Awesome. Make it a regular thing! I’ve been lucky to be able to do that with writing gigs that are largely unrelated to my 9 to 5- first with Demand Media Studio, and now with Talking Points Memo. But I’ve been lucky to surround myself with people who do this in a variety of ways.

I think of my friends who regularly compete in athletic competitions, play on intramural teams, and compete in endurance events. I think of my friends who consult on the side. I think of my friends who act or perform after work. These people have two things in common:

(1) Their work rarely consumes them to a dangerous extent, because they’re constantly reminded that there’s more to life; and

(2) They are regularly able to find value at the office in the pursuits that carry them outside of their work hours.

These pursuits provide dedicated time to think differently. They regularly challenge the brain and body to think and do something that is outside the norm. Creativity thrives on that change in gears, and some of the best solutions come in the throes of these extracurricular endeavors. How far can you take these side hustles or dedicated hobbies? Some are content to keep them as secondary projects (I may never be a full-time writer, but I’ve been bitten by the paid-writer bug and I’m hooked!), or, in extreme cases, could open the door to another act of your professional life.

However, I dispense this information with a pair of cautions:

First, know your medium. While many of the lessons that we learn from our creative cross-training will apply in our primary work, not all will. In the same way that you aren’t allowed to Rollerblade a 5k, some of the ideas that you hit upon truly won’t be appropriate for the professional effort you’re attempting. That’s okay. Change in many organizations is an incremental process; stick with it, finding ways to use the existing thought pattern to justify your thinking. It may take knocking at the door for a while, but hopefully/eventually someone will answer!

And second, don’t save cross-training for injury! I had to smile when Megan mentioned that she rarely cross-trains in her athletic life; I’m very similar! For so many runners, cross-training becomes something that you seriously consider after an injury forces a change in training. We bike or swim after we injure knees or toes. But creativity is not to be used as a secondary method after our primary resources (time, money, manpower) have failed us. It is best utilized when it’s part of an everyday routine, and is most powerful when drawn upon regularly. Places that draw upon unconventional thinking day to day can be more nimble when addressing the needs of their target audiences. Those that don’t, struggle to adjust when a true sea change happens. Which enterprise do you want to be a part of?

How do you cross-train to get creative? What enterprises are fueling you these days?

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