I read a blog post this summer that changed my whole perspective on what it means to be truly creative, as well as what it means to be a parent, and a leader. Sounds like a high order, and indeed it is.
The post was by a woman named Mica Angela Hendricks, an artist and illustrator. She told a story on her blog, Busy Mockingbird, about how she learned an important and surprising lesson in creativity from her 4 year-old daughter. The lesson was this: You can increase your creativity by letting go of control. By letting others in to collaborate, even those youthink might not have something to add, you may be surprised and delighted with the results.
You can increase your creativity by letting go of control.
Mica’s story started with her purchasing a new, high-end sketchbook and sketching beautiful faces of actors from old movie stills, as she loves to do. Then, in a somewhat stressful turn of events, Mica’s 4 year-old daughter asked if she could sketch together with her mom. While at first Mica was hesitant, and thought to herself, “I’ll go back and draw on my own again later,” what she saw amazed her. Her daughter drew bodies on the heads Mica had created – imaginative, creative, wonderful bodies – that Mica, herself, could never have envisioned.
It turns out that Mica liked the result of these collaborative drawings not only more than she thought she would, but also more than she liked her own artwork by itself. By letting her daughter collaborate, even though initially uncomfortable, the outcome was more creative and more original than what she would have created alone. As Mica says in her post, “Those things you hold so dear cannot change and grow and expand unless you loosen your grip on them a little.”
An added benefit of this collaborative process, and one I really relate to as a mother, was that by inviting her daughter in as a equal participant, Mica showed her daughter that her work was truly valuable, which in turn increased her confidence and made future collaborations even better. And, it likely sets up Mica’s daughter for a lifetime of believing in herself and her work, something all kids could benefit from, especially our young girls.
Mica’s daughter, boldly adding a beaver body on to one of the faces Mica drew.
After reading Mica’s post, I realized that so many lessons from this story apply to my own life as a colleague, a leader and a mother.
At work, this lesson has taken time for me to learn. In typical Silicon Valley style, I am oriented towards speed and fast decision-making, which means that I am often tempted to gather only limited input before making decisions.
When I first arrived at Change.org, which is a much more collaborative culture, it took me some time to adapt to the idea that adding more voices to the conversation could actually help us reach better outcomes. While it can sometimes take longer to involve more people, it is clear to me that we come up with stronger and certainly more creative ideas with diverse voices participating. And in the end, I’ve found we actually save time since these ideas are often easier to “sell-in” across the company, given they come from within.
One example of this creative collaboration was the articulation of our company values, which we did last summer. It would have been easier and faster if our executive team had just planned an offsite and finalized the values among ourselves. Instead, we chose to run a longer and more collaborative process, starting with a survey of our entire team, followed by a deeper dive with our whole global leadership team, and ending with just final “word-smithing” by our executive team. Although it was initially uncomfortable for me to think we’d spend several months on this process, the final outcome was so much better than what I could have initially imagined – in the same way that Mica’s drawings with her daughter were better than she imagined they would be.
By using this inclusive process, we were able to get really strong buy in to our values from staff across the company. And, by including staff more deeply in that process, we now have a steady stream of creative ideas coming from employees who feel empowered to contribute to other strategic areas, from recruiting to partnerships, and everything in between. I learned the same lesson as Mica in this process – the outcome was better when I let go of control.
I could write a whole separate post about the lessons I’ve learned on this front as a parent. Suffice it to say that I regularly cede control now to my two daughters, who nearly always do things more creatively and more thoughtfully than I would.
If you wonder what happened to Mica after her blog post, she received an incredible reception to her story (with over 1,300 comments on her post). In fact, there were so many comments from people asking where they could buy these drawings, that she set up a website where you can buy her prints. Her next step is to start a Kickstarter campaign to create a book of the drawings. Mica has been able to leverage this lesson in creativity into unexpected new career directions, and into a stronger relationship with her daughter. What a wonderful result of letting go of control.