I’ll admit it. Sometimes, the well meaning queries of “how’s it going?” or “what are you working on?” are hard to swallow. And I’ve written previously about how difficult the “hope it works out for you” mentality of wishing friends and colleagues well can be to hear.
Does it seem petulant to try and dictate how others support you? At first glance, I’m sure it does. However, I’m a tremendous believer in teaching people how to treat you. 2018, thus far, has been my year of “putting things out into the universe.” I’m often guilty of holding on to a thought or idea, then getting frustrated when those I work with or am surrounded by, don’t just get it. #introvertproblems, I suppose. It’d be far more effective, I see now, to help those close to me be supportive. And, I would imagine, help other creatives accustomed to working alone and incubating ideas in their heads.
For this reason, I’m starting the year with a series of questions you can ask them when they come out of their heads and into the “real world.” Driven by my Cultivating Creativity framework, they help you address specific facets of their work- something more substantive than “what are you up to?” These questions are designed to be constructively challenging, convey their support system’s desire to help, while minimizing perceived pressure or misunderstanding. Support your local creative constructively, compassionately, and in a way that helps drive their work forward.
Allies/Advocates/Activators: Do you have anyone helping you “kick down doors”? Can I help you find someone?
Good ideas need launchpads to help them take off. Sometimes those creating big ideas have access to said launchpads, and those who guard them. But sometimes they don’t. In the event of the latter, help will be needed- and this is a part of the process where you might be able to provide it.
As a creator, I sometimes have the confidence to run with an idea. I often have the energy to do so. But when it comes to the courage and humility that comes with asking for help? That’s often less plentiful. This isn’t a rare disparity in the creative community. Which means offers for help, especially constructive and targeted (that means “let me know how I can help” often doesn’t count), make a world of difference in our ecosystem.
This doesn’t have to be a time or labor intensive process. Bruce Kasanoff advises going into interactions with the mantra “first, help this person.” Adam Rifkin is notorious for the notion of the “five-minute favor.” Even a quick intro email can make all the difference in the world. Believe it or not, your small moment of effort (when accepted by the creator- no one likes help forced on them) could be the start of something big.
Broadmindedness: I saw this article/video/podcast that your idea reminds me of. Have you seen it?
Preemptive answer: to those wondering, yes I have read Quiet by Susan Cain. I get asked a lot. But I love that people ask. Why? Because it shows that they’re trying to understand some of the work I do, and can draw connections to things they know.
The ability to draw said connections is at the heart of broadmindedness. What other resources out there in the world could enrich, challenge, or deepen my knowledge? Even being an avid reader, I’d never find them all. And I’m hopelessly behind on podcasts.
Applying broadmindedness to your local creative’s work requires deep listening when they talk about what they love and are working on. And even if nothing comes to mind right away, my heart always flutters when I get an email, text, or IM from a friend or peer saying “have you seen this?” Your suggestion could lead to a breakthrough for the person, so don’t hold back if you see or think of something that could make a difference! And even if it doesn’t, making these thoughtful connections is a sign that person can hang on to: “this person in my life understands (or wants to understand) the thing I’m working on.”
Collaboration: Do you have anyone sharing the load with you? Can I help you find someone?
There is a loneliness that comes with creating. It can be particularly important for solo creators to develop relationships with other creators- be they as collaborators, sounding boards, or even simply cheerleaders- in order to help give them peace of mind and reassurance as they set out to do something hard.
Perhaps you, as an important person in that person’s life, don’t have the skill or insight to fill that role. Think, instead, of who you know. Do you know someone who could serve as an investor? Mentor? Source of constructive criticism? Similar to the counsel shared above, one of the most important assists you provide may be introducing people who go on to make a significant impact in concert with one another.
Determination: How can I help you when it gets hard?
This is a hard question to ask, and a hard one to answer. But it matters. The reasons that questions like “how’s it going?” or calls like “let me know if you need anything” are challenging is because they are hard to address when things are difficult. No creator wants to report that things are going poorly; no one wants to feel as though they have to grab a life preserver, because they first have to admit that they’re drowning.
But by being willing to make an overture, you may be the person that gives them the fuel to keep going.
Sometimes the person may not be able to identify the answer to this question either. That’s okay. A quick note to let them know you’re thinking about them, or a nice gift that made you think of them, will go further than you might expect. I’ve gotten many a “just because” card or gift in the mail that helped me break through a creative rut; I’ve also sent many a gift to that effect. Asking the right questions toward determination means knowing those you’re supporting well enough to lift them up in the moments where they might need you.
Execution: Is there any part of the project you’re having a hard time getting your head around?
Much of the above applies when supporting someone through an execution problem. Essentially, this is being there for someone in the moment when they’re having trouble moving an idea from their head out into the world. The solution to this is often being there to let someone talk through an idea, absent judgment or even absent willingness to try and solve the problem.
As with the above, there is a tremendous bit of vulnerability involved in posing and answering this question. Honor that by being accepting if an answer is difficult to come by, or doesn’t come to mind at all. An earnest offer can be enough, particularly if you’re able to articulate that you’ve heard and understand other elements of their project.
Flexibility: Have you learned anything cool in the process of putting all of this together?
While they might be painful in the process, missteps and setbacks will happen over the course of the creative process. They will happen. But the best and most successful creators are able to transform those moments from painful to educational. After a suitable period of “mourning,” allies and supporters can be valuable sounding boards for creators by helping them find the learning from those moments.
Finding ways to articulate the learning that comes from unexpected changes to the plan at hand, can be important in clarifying the path toward the next plan of attack. Being the person who helps clear that path can be incredibly powerful.
Heart: What good do you envision your final product doing?
I’m often vocal about the idea that the things we set out to create should do the most good they can, while also minimizing the harm they do. Regularly interrogating the things we create, and the perspective of those creating them, is one way to ensure that this balance of power is preserved.
In a lot of ways, other essential elements addressed in Cultivating Creativity can help clarify how the heart of a project is reached and continually reaffirmed. Aligning creators with willing and principled allies/advisors/advocates and collaborators means that their work will be supported by people who want to do good work- and good work. Broadminded thinking hopefully means that resources will come from a number of places, but will also seek to address the needs of a diverse slate of users or stakeholders. And determination, execution, and flexibility will serve well if the scope needs to be widened after initial attempts fall short or do harm.
I’ve spoken previously about the heart question being among the most important a creative can answer; as a supporter of impactful creative work, this may be the most important question you can ask. Setting an expectation that heart-filled work is imperative, helps creators prioritize it. And being supportive while also prioritizing good work can help creators align their efforts with this essential goal.
Want to know more about the essential elements of creativity, how they impact problem solving, equity and inclusion, and career advancement, and why it matters to cultivate creativity at all? My newest book on the topic is now available!
For the creators out there: what has been the most impactful way someone has supported you in achieving a goal? And for those seeking to support creatives: what questions do you have about doing so effectively? I’d love to address them for you!