Elizabeth Gilbert: Powering Up Big Magic for 2017 HR Conference + Tradeshow


Ten years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert captivated the world with her powerful and transformative memoir Eat, Pray, Love, encouraging millions of readers to make changes, large and small, in their own lives. In the decade since her best-selling memoir, people have pursued Gilbert for further insights on how to lead a bold and inspired life. What emerged is a bold foray into non-fiction, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, in which Gilbert digs deep into the generative process to awaken the creativity within us all. Gilbert brought her magic to the main stage as the closing speaker of the 2017 “POWER UP” HR Conference + Tradeshow on May 3, 2017 at the Vancouver Convention Centre West.

Instead of depicting creativity as a characteristic, you have cast it as very much a character in its own right—as a catalyst and collaborator. How can those who consider themselves “uncreative” change their thinking?

It’s always easier for me to understand conceptional ideas when I personify them. For instance, I have much easier time talking to my Fear, when I think of it as an actual living being—as small trembling child who lives within me. Or I might think of my anger as a ferocious and dangerous dragon, threatening to wipe out the entire village. Personifying an emotional idea gives me something I can work with, and converse with, and deal with, face-to-face. So it’s always been natural for me to think of my creativity in personified terms, too—as a bright and excited fairy spirit, who wants to play with me, and who is always trying to get my attention.

As for the notion of “uncreative” people…well, in my opinion, there is no such thing as an “uncreative” human being. Creativity is the hallmark of our species. We tend to think of the word “creative” as only applying to the arts, but creativity is—in essence—any decision a human being makes that changes her own personal story or the world around her. No creative act is too small to have an effect of transformation, and every act is a creative act. Every choice that you have ever made has helped to change your life story in some way.

Where you decided to go to school was a creative decision, because that choice changed your own world. Where you choose to live is a creative decision, that will alter your life. Who you decided to marry (or divorce) was a creative decision, because that choice will have a huge effect on your own history. What you decided to eat for breakfast this morning, or what music you elected to listen to while you were getting dressed, were creative decisions—because those choice will have a lasting effect on your day.

For as long as you live, you will constantly be making choices that are manipulating and changing your world in big and small ways. You will never stop creating your own life. So to call yourself “uncreative” is to live in a mythology that you aren’t DOING anything—that you’re just robotically going through motions, on some sort of numbed-out treadmill of nothingness. This isn’t true. You have agency. You have choices. What will you make out of your time here? That’s creativity.

The best way to stimulate creativity on a larger scale, I think, is through studying your own curiosity—through a disciplined inquiry into what interests you. One thing I like to do, when I hear people say, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body,” is to ask them to replace the word “creative” with “curious,” and see how strange that sentence sounds.

Imagine saying, “I don’t have a curious bone in my body.” That’s just nonsense! Of course there are things that intrigue you. Sometimes you may think those things don’t matter—that they are insignificant—but they do matter. Curiosity is all. Curiosity is the trail of bread crumbs that will lead you to your most interesting life. That magnetic pull toward what fascinates you—that’s your fairy/spirit of creativity calling to you, asking you show up in a stronger way, and to respond. Ignore her at your peril!

What do you see as the primary roadblocks to creativity in the workplace— and what can HR professionals and leaders do counterbalance those fears?

Fear. In the workplace, just as in regular life, there is—and will always be—only one obstacle to creativity, and that will always be fear. I do a lot of creative coaching with people, and whenever they come to me and say that their creativity is blocked, I always know that it’s because they are afraid. They might think it’s because they don’t have enough free time, or they never got encouragement from their families, or they don’t have enough money, or they don’t have a mentor…but those are just surface excuses.

If you’re not creating as boldly as you want to, it’s always because of fear. Fear is a beast with many faces—sometimes it looks like apathy, sometimes it looks like cynicism, sometimes it looks like anxiety. But it’s always fear.

I think part of the problem, though, when it comes to stimulating creativity, is that people don’t know how to deal with fear. We live in a culture that is always telling people they must become “fearless” in order to succeed. I don’t agree with this. I’m not a fan of the word “fearless”, and I don’t think it’s something to aspire to. I’ve met a few people in my life who I would describe as fearless, and they were all sociopaths.

Fear is one of the most natural of human emotions, and you don’t want to leave home without it. The trick is not to vanquish fear, but to make friends with it. Expect it to always be there, and clear plenty of space for it, and allow it to live with you. This is certainly true when it comes to creative exploration. I always say that fear and creativity are “conjoined twins”—that you cannot expect to live a creative life without constantly having to encounter your fear. Creativity and fear will always be connected, because creativity will always spark fear. This because creativity will always ask you to step into new and unexplored realms, and fear never wants you to step into new and unexplored realms. Fear is afraid of anything it has never seen before. Fear thinks that every new realm will lead to your death. Creativity says, “Let’s go!”, and fear instantly replies, “No, way!”

So the trick, I’ve found, is not to try to overpower fear (it doesn’t work), but to compassionately talk to it. Acknowledge it, address it, welcome it, allow it to co-exist. As I always say, “Creativity and I are going on a road trip together, and fear will be coming along. That’s only natural. But fear has to sit in the back seat. Fear doesn’t get to drive. But fear definitely gets to be in the car.” Once you normalize fear this way, it’s a lot easier to get the road trip of creativity going.

As a leader, if you can help your people understand that fear is natural and normal, and that it’s not going away, I think you can help people walk into new and unexplored realms with more confidence that the shaky knees and the sweaty palms are actually part of the process.

With innovation providing the competitive edge across industry, what can leaders do to stimulate the curiosity factor you hold key?

Let me give you an example from my own career. I do all my work in the publishing world, which is a pretty insecure industry these days. Ever since the rise of the internet, and paperless publishing, the big old publishing houses have become, in many regards, places of nervousness and fear, because nobody knows how much longer this industry will even exist. What if people stop wanting to read books? What if people stop wanting to pay for content? What if authors start self-publishing, and then the means of production changes across the entire industry, and this whole ancient system of publishing grows obsolete? There’s a lot to panic around publishing, and panic makes people think small.

Panic makes people want to play it safe, and hold onto their security by not taking any risks. But here’s the funny thing about trying to hold onto your security—the more you clutch at safety, the less safe you feel, and the smaller and more frustrating your life will become. I’ve gotten used to encountering a lot of fear-based people in my years in publishing; fear has almost become the norm. But I recently came to work with a new publishing house, and I was struck immediately by how excited and passionate everyone there seemed about their work.

In my first meetings with them, everyone from the editors to the designers to the public relations folks were bubbling with enthusiasm, and throwing out these wild and crazy ideas about how they wanted to publish my book. They were talking about strange new promotional ideas—partnering with people outside the traditional publishing world, producing book tours in a different way, ignoring old norms about how advertising works, investing in promotions that seemed cool and different. It seemed like no ideas felt too “out-there” for them. The energy and optimism and sense of daring among these people was palpable.

Finally, I asked a senior executive why this workplace seemed so different from other publishing houses (where people seem to walk around with hunched shoulders and dark glances over their shoulder, waiting to be fired.) The woman said, “It’s because of our boss. He has one air-tight rule. He says, ‘You will never get in trouble for failing, as long as you keep failing in more and more interesting ways. But you will get in trouble for bringing me the same boring old ideas.'”

By giving his employees permission to fail—as long as their fails are interesting and EPIC—he has sparked the creativity of everyone in that workplace. Everyone’s imaginations have exploded into thousands of stars of enthusiastic inspiration. And that publishing house is so much more successful than others these days—where other people are trying to play it safe.

It’s a wonderful thing to know their secret. Don’t worry about failing, as long as it’s interesting. I think it’s interesting to see this notion being played out in business, because I’ve always applied this to my own life as a writer, as well. The only way I ever got through writing my first book was by telling myself that it didn’t have to be good; I just wanted the experience itself to be interesting. My curiosity was stronger than my fear…and that’s the only way creativity can thrive.

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