In A Whack on the Side of the Head How You Can Be More Creative Roger Von Oech presents concepts of creativity and creative thinking. Periodically I pull a card out of the companion to the book (‘Creative Whack Pack’) and ponder its place against the background of my current circumstances. I also try to share my thoughts, and von Oech’s, for others that might be struggling in their creative process.
Today I’m thinking about the author’s suggestion to ‘Use Your Shield’. The book and card content vary a little so I’m using the portion from the book since it has at its core the concept of change and the reactions to it.
“The only person who likes change is a wet baby,” observes educator Roy Blitzer. Two basic rules of life are: 1) change is inevitable; and 2) everybody resists change. New ideas can be threatening, and they often provoke a negative reaction. For example, when Stravinsky first presented his Rite of Spring ballet with its unusual harmonies and primitive rhythms, he was met with a rioting audience. When Kepler correctly solved the orbital problem of the planets by using ellipses rather than circles, he was denounced. Be prepared for such a reaction and don’t let it prevent you from acting on your idea. As German statesman Konrad Adenauer put it: “A thick skin is a gift from God.” What negative reaction do you expect to your idea? How can you overcome it? How can you deflect it?[i]
Managing change is sometimes easier to do when the alteration is initiated by others than when you are shifting the status quo. I spent a great deal of time in my former career helping people understand and adapt to change – often change with which I was not even comfortable. Books abound on change management in organizations and I’ve often compared the change cycle to that of stages of personal grief; especially the disbelief, anger and bargaining stages.
Just because we don’t believe a change will materialize does not mean we can or should attempt to avoid it. If we accept the inevitability of a change lack of control in an environment can lead to anger. And, often, in order to gain some sense of control bargaining begins. As a manager or leader I sometimes had input into the change process but often I was simply there to assist in making the adjustment a success. As a trainer, I had less input into those decisions but more responsibility, in some ways, to ensure the people affected by it were prepared to adapt. I’ve read, used and scanned many texts on change and change management. The key ingredient for successful adjustment is communication.
Some books will group skills for successful change into various components. For instance, in Thriving Through Change A Leader’s Guide to Change Mastery by Elaine Biech the skills for a change agent (someone other than the leader but a key component in implementation) are grouped into 1) Communication 2) Generating and Organizing Ideas, 3) Prioritizing and evaluating 4) Making decisions 5) Meeting Management and 6) Teamwork.[ii] I was privileged to study under Ms. Biech when I belonged to the ASTD and know that her experience is much broader than mine and only use this segment to underline the importance of communication. Within these other segments outside the communication group skills are listed that I have found require excellent communication to achieve competency. For instance, brainstorming is rarely done alone and allowing everyone to have input requires facilitation skills which are based on effective communication. Some of the underlying skills in other categories like reaching a consensus, establishing and complying with ground rules, directing and maintaining focus, encouraging divergent ideas, managing conflict, writing team charters, identifying team strengths, and dealing with difficult team members all require a solid grounding in the communication skills of active, reflective listening, promoting participation, and written and verbal clarity.
So how does this apply to our new ideas as artists? For the majority of artists our work whether it’s a poem, painting, novel, or sculpture is an expression of our identity and world view. Due to the personal character of artists’ work it’s often difficult to be ‘thick-skinned’ if our ideas are received with negativity or simple ambivalence. The advice to ‘use our shield’ hearkens back to the days of hand-to-hand combat when a shield’s purpose was to protect the bearer from opponents blows.
Our shield, in von Oech’s approach, consists of anticipating negative reactions and, for each possible scenario, determine how we would deal with or overcome them. For instance, my style of painting varies considerably and, given the trend toward photo realism in art, production of a piece that is abstract expressionist in nature I presume there will be some unfavorable reaction. These works are not just representational works containing familiar objects or pleasant scenery. Because they are generated from a subconscious emotion or state of mind when I create them the reactions can be intense. I want that reaction from people because I desire an understanding of how my representations impact viewers. However, there are pieces I’ve avoided placing in exhibits because they are such passionate, emotional pieces I’m not sure I’m ready to shield myself from any lack of acceptance and understanding.
So I approach each situation with a different shaped shield. At times it takes the form of detachment allowing me to listen to reactions without letting it affect my opinion of the work. This requires preparation and a hardened mindset which takes me time to achieve. In other situations the form is privacy – keeping a work close at hand until I am emotionally prepared for public disdain, dislike, or disregard.
One of the best forms for artists is a circle of support. We need people who believe in our work to console, support or even reproach us in our reaction to negativity. It takes time to acquire all the armor necessary to shield us and we won’t be prepared for every situation but their acquisition is central to keeping our focus on our idea(s) and perspective. Very few artists reach broad public acceptance during their lifetimes so this ‘whack’ is one to take seriously. Strive to establish your own methods of protection that allow you to keep moving forward regardless of the blows that come your way.