Then the flat feeling became more and more uncomfortable, and it turned into anxiety. Then one day I found myself in a meeting and I knew I was going to cry and I had to pretend to go to the toilet and found myself locked in a cubicle having my first ever panic attack. I felt like everything was caving in around me and I couldn’t breathe and I felt sad and overwhelmed and lost. I was used to being in control and suddenly I felt very, very far away from that.
I had always been someone who got things right. I wanted to be good, to help people, to be seen as nice and competent and happy. Most of the time I was those things, but the fear of not being, the pressure of trying to stay on top of ensuring nothing bad happened, had built up and up until I was literally unwilling to take any risks. I never did anything I wouldn’t be good at. I never approached people I didn’t know were already ‘my kind of people’. I didn’t embark on projects that might fail. Somehow I had built a life where the stakes around being successful were so high I couldn’t do anything differently, and it was suffocating me.
Like most people, that’s not how I’d started out. As a kid I played games, I got messy, I made up stories, I made friends with all sorts of people. I once made an entire leisure centre out of an old TV box. It took weeks and I loved making all of the individual toilets and changing rooms (OK, maybe not every kid loved this, maybe I was just weird and obsessed with The Brittas Empire). I didn’t care about getting things right, I just had a go. I dived right in and didn’t care about the outcome or the consequences. I was fearless in my creativity.
So what had happened along the way? I don’t remember a single moment that stopped my creativity in its tracks. I wasn’t, like plenty of others, told ‘you can’t sing, just mouth the words’ in choir, or mocked for my dance moves, or told my ideas were rubbish. I was told I wasn’t neat enough in my drawing and that I was too noisy, and made to feel like an alien for having so many feelings. But it was more that whenever I was good at something I was praised, and whenever I was bad at something I felt shame. So gradually, I stopped doing the things I thought I wouldn’t be great at and be praised for and did fewer and fewer of the things I wasn’t the best at, no matter how happy they made me.
This is a normal part of growing up, finding what you excel at and getting good at stuff, but the school system and society more broadly has become so focused on life as this linear trajectory of getting things righter and righter and better and better and the stress of ensuring that keeps happening was enough to find me sobbing in that toilet and wondering where it had all gone wrong.
So I decided to go back and try and find that freedom of playing around and not knowing again. I knew it was in me somewhere so I wanted a way of uncovering it. I asked for some time off work and sent out a message to lots of my friends and colleagues and some strangers to see if they could help me. The message went like this:
I am writing to you because you're someone I think is pretty wonderful and because I wondered if you might help me out with something.
I am about to take a bit of time off from BAC ( my job at the time was with Battersea Arts Centre in South London) with the intention of giving my own creativity a bit of breathing space. It's only a few weeks but I want to spend that time just allowing myself to be creative without that having to result in anything concrete or rushing ahead to become a project or a thing that I need to be good at!
I'm writing because I would like to take on something new every day. It might be tiny and take five minutes, it might be a conversation or a task or doing or learning something that isn't time limited or a trip that takes half a day.. it might be silly or profound... it might be something I never do again or something I keep going with... but I'd like them to be suggested by other people... namely by you because you are someone that inspires me with your own creativity.
I will spend some of that time in London, some in Bristol, some by the seaside and some looking after my nieces in Birmingham so ideas can be varied! And if you fancy you are also welcome to do the action with me or have a cup of tea with me and talk about ideas (or anything else) anyway.
I would really love it if you would be up for helping me out and I promise to report back on how I find it. You can email me an idea/ challenge/ task whatever you call it or you can give it to me in person or if you really like you can post it to me.
Thanks so much and lots of love,
The responses that came back were amazing. They totally blew me away. I loved the time people had put into thinking about things. Some came in the post and were crafted into beautiful objects, some were a few bullet points on an email, some were just the suggestion of meeting up and having a walk. They ranged from getting someone over twice my age and someone under half my age to teach me their favourite dance, to writing a poem and leaving it for a stranger, growing a plant from seed, writing a rock song in an hour, doing random acts of kindness, and looking at a Rothko painting for 2 hours straight. I felt pretty intimidated but also excited and so touched that people had cared enough to spend a few minutes (or in some cases much, much longer) coming up with something to set.
I made my way through the challenges day by day and I decided to blog about it. I wanted a way of documenting for myself how it was going, and also sharing with others what I’d done. The beauty of having the challenges set by others is that it gave me an instant community and also kept me committed to doing them as I felt like I had people that I was accountable to.
Every day it was like I could feel the cells rearranging in my brain and my body. Being in the unknown and taking a risk was really hard for me. Sometimes I felt silly or frustrated or like I wasn’t ‘doing well enough’. A lot of days I woke up and I felt too tired or uninspired or the flat feeling would wipe me out. But I didn’t stop doing them, and pretty much every time I completed a challenge I would feel this rush of energy, like I was waking up. I felt like I knew myself so much better, and I felt really proud of myself for the first time in a really long time.
I quit my job about two weeks into doing the challenges. I had loved my job and the place I worked but doing the challenges made me realise how much of myself I had covered up by trying to follow a particular path to success. I was going to become a leader of an organisation, I was going to get married, I was going to have kids, all these things were what I had defined as success, and so exploring and trying and testing different things had just fallen off my agenda.
Quitting my job was a leap, and one I realise not everyone has the luxury to afford. I had reasonably cheap rent because my cousins owned the flat I lived in and I knew that I could secure part-time freelance work that could cover my expenses while I figured out what I wanted to do next. One of my challenges had been to go for a 10-mile walk with an old colleague, David, and in discussing our ideas around creativity and our frustration with working in the arts sector where so often there is surprisingly little of it around, we started to think about how we could put some of what we had learned through our own re-discovering of our creativity into practice.
We started running tests in workplaces and online seeing what happened when people took a little more time to just play and be creative. In developing the ideas around creative challenges for other people I drew on what I had learned. It wasn’t just about the doing of the stuff, but also the thinking about it and sharing it. The thing that had created such a change in me wasn’t just doing the creative challenges, it was the reflecting on what had happened and the writing about it on the blog. It was so important to spend that time thinking about how it had gone and then going out on a limb to share my random creative creations or my jumbled thoughts about them. Sometimes it was excruciating. Like, for example, the time I ‘learned’ to play a song on the guitar in a day, having never picked one up before, or poems made up in a spell of emotion that seemed great at the time and then maybe were a bit cringeworthy after. But sharing it helped me see it didn’t matter. That chucking stuff out there half done made me feel brave, not stupid. And people respected it and were supportive and encouraging. And they could see that it wasn’t about what I’d done, but what had happened while I was doing it.
Over the last few years we’ve built that initial idea into a business/ creative movement called 64 Million Artists. We use that Do, Think, Share process in workplaces, with individuals online, across whole cities and in mental health settings to support people in rediscovering their innate creativity. It’s not just about painting or dancing or singing but about flexing their ability to play, explore, try out, have a go. We’ve worked with thousands of people along the way and we’ve seen some extraordinary changes in people. We’ve seen that the Doing helps people be more comfortable taking risks or trying new things, that Thinking about it supports them to learn more about themselves and that Sharing helps people be a little bit more vulnerable in a safe way, and improves their connections with others.
So that is what this book is about. It’s a way of writing down all the things we’ve learned along the way and sharing them. It’s about how finding your creativity can help you find the bits of your life you’ve lost, how you can become a bit more of yourself, how you can take more risks, shine a little brighter. Some of the exercises might make you sad, or happy, or they might not work for you or they might be boring. You might go on great adventures, or you might stay at home. You might have a profound experience, or nothing might happen. None of these things matter. What matters is having a go, thinking about it, maybe sharing it. Let’s see what happens.