Painting a Gourd

All of us were made to make things. During my studies, I found out a surprising piece of data: There is no such thing as a creative or noncreative person. Every single human being is creative. Every research participant could recall a time in his or her life when creativity brought him or her great joy. It was usually childhood, and the creative expressions ranged from coloring or finger-painting to dancing, singing or building. What was most fascinating was that the participants never talked about learning how to be creative—they just were.

As adults, what keeps us from being creative—from painting, cooking, scrapbooking, doodling, knitting, rebuilding an engine or writing—is what I call the comparison gremlin (a close cousin of the shame gremlin). People say, "I'm not good enough," or "Why am I the only one with dangling modifiers?" or "I'm not a real sculptor...I'm a total poser." In other words, we shame ourselves into stopping. While we may have all started creative, between ages 8 and 14, at least 60 percent of the participants remember learning that they were not creative. They began to compare their creations, they started getting graded for their art, and many heard from a teacher or a parent that "art wasn't their thing." So we don't have to teach people to find joy in creating; we have to make sure not to teach them that there's only one acceptable way to be creative.

I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side. Unused creativity is not benign. It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame. Before I turned my life around, I used to dismiss people who spent time creating. When a friend would invite me to go to an art class or something, I'd respond: "How cute. You go do your A-R-T; I'm busy with a real J-O-B." Now I realize that was my fear and my own frustrated need to create.

To kick things off, I went to a gourd-painting class with my mom and my then-9-year-old daughter, Ellen. It was one of the best days of my life. I'm not kidding. I still paint, and now I'm having a serious love affair with photography. But start with something easy. Why not start with a gourd? Put a silly face on it. Make it smile.

Practicing Calm

None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down. We get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation. We're listening and understanding. We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.

Calm participants in my studies all have a few things in common. They breathe when they're feeling vulnerable. They ask questions before they weigh in, including the three most important questions—ones that changed my own life. The first is, Do I have enough information to freak out? (Ninety percent of the time, the answer is no.) The second is, Where did you hear the upsetting news? (Down the hall? From a trusted source?) The third is, If I do have enough reliable information to freak out, and if I do that, will it be helpful?

When my daughter, Ellen, comes home and says, "Oh my God, Mom, the school moved my locker, and now I can't reach it!" I stop. I remember what I used to say: "Oh that's it! I'm furious! I'm going off to school tomorrow, and you're going to get your locker back!" Now I say, "Tell me more about it." And 15 minutes later, I find out that the guy she likes has a locker down at the other end of the hall; what she really wants is to have a locker nearer to him.

This is real change. Four or five years ago, I was the least calm person you have ever met. And when people describe me today—people like my co-workers, friends and family—they say, "You're the calmest person I know." Well, it's because I practice it, the same way you practice the violin. We become what we do.

Next: Making room for playtime


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