Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

Whenever you want to do something extraordinary, risky, or scary in your life (something that you know in your heart that you need to do, but it would really be more convenient to ignore it and just not do it), it’s essential to surround yourself with inspiring, encouraging, like-minded people. If they’re leaders in their own right who to a certain degree have done what you long to do, even better.

I first met Gwyneth Leech a couple of years ago at my nephew’s first birthday party in Brooklyn (she’s my sister’s husband’s cousin). We were chatting idly until the moment she mentioned that she, a lifelong artist, had “accidentally” started creating art on used coffee cups, drawing to pass time in PTA meetings. I get as excited about a great story as some women get about shoes, and my story sensors started shrieking immediately.

I grabbed my notebook and pen and turned our chat into an interview (I know, this isn’t normal birthday party behavior, I do this frequently so you might not want to invite me to yours). Out of our conversation came this post about Gwyneth’s work. By the time my post went up, her spectacular collection of coffee cup art was on display in a prime space in the heart of Manhattan. Since then, her work has attracted attention worldwide, not to mention this glowing review in the New York Times and a show at the London Design Fair. Anthropologie has even come out with a line of cups using her designs. My potential for greatness radar is pretty accurate.

Gwyneth has become a close friend and a beacon of inspiration and encouragement in my life as I contemplate great leaps of faith and creation. A while ago her aunt (my brother-in-law’s mom, another accomplished artist, a lifelong dancer with Liz Lerman’s iconic Dance Exchange) handed me a book: The Creative Brain by neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen.


“Gwyneth says you have to read this,” Martha told me. Say no more.

If you’re a creative sort, this book will make you feel blissfully normal in your strangeness. It was pretty much one big sigh of happy relief and recognition for me. Here are some of my favorite highlights:

1) “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature.”

Every parent needs to know this. Every person who has a talent that they long to play with and develop, but thinks it’s silly or a waste of time or too late, needs to understand how important this gift is and understand its worth in their very cells.

In my keynote presentations, even when I’m supposed to be focusing on health I always make a point of encouraging people to explore and use their unique talents. I believe one’s health depends on it. When I was 28, I almost had a total breakdown. This was largely because my gifts for writing and dancing had been relentlessly ignored and squashed for decades by a well-meaning but treacherous educational and social system. It almost killed me.

2) Creative people have characteristics that make them more vulnerable

According to Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.

“Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation,” writes Andreasen. They sure can.

Luckily, though creatives experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population, the extremes of highs and lows tend to be brief, balanced by long periods of normal affect, or euthymia. During these respite periods, creatives frequently reflect upon and draw from memories and experiences of their darker times to create their best art.

3) “A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others.”

According to Andreasen, the creative person "may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too questioning, or too unconventional." 

"Too much openness means living on the edge. Sometimes the person may drop over the edge…"

If being creative means being odd, I would far rather be odd than be normal (proof being the fact that I do things like interviewing strangers at birthday parties if they make the gross error of telling me something really cool). If you’re a little weird too, apparently we’re not alone! Such a relief.

4) Creative brains have difficulty “gating” sensory input.

As mentioned above, creatives are at higher risk for mental illness (I can vouch for that personally) and according to Andreasen it at least partially stems from “a problem with filtering or gating the many stimuli that flow into the brain.” For this reason some writers, myself included, organize their lives in order to be isolated from human contact for long blocks of time. I love working from home and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

5) “Creative people are more likely to be productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people.”

Just having one Gwyneth in my life has doubled my creative output and inspired me to take great leaps that those overly cautious “normal” people had been advising me against. Creative people need as many Gwyneths as possible in their lives. Be really picky about who you let into your life, and especially into your creative work. Latch onto the people who make you feel like anything is possible (especially if they have done it already).

If you’re a creative, embrace your gifts and celebrate your weirdness. Hard as it can be to be me, I wouldn’t trade my creativity – or my oddities – for the world.

Can you relate to this? If you consider yourself a creative, what has your experience been like? Please share your thoughts below in the comments section.

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