Drawing on your creativity

SharpieWhen I was at school we had a man who called himself an Arts Teacher. He certainly knew about art but he was no teacher. We all had to do Art lessons in our first two years and it was not a pleasant experience. He would wander around looking at our primitive daubing and shout “No, boy, no! What are you doing? Does sky look like that? Have you ever seen sky like that? Look out of the window!”. This would normally be followed by a clip around the ear.

Every now and then some poor creature would be dragged out the front to show his feeble efforts to the rest of the class, whilst enduring a barrage of scorn and sarcasm from our ‘Teacher’. Next, our ‘teacher’ would then grab hold of the painting and screw it up, or hit the boy around the head, or often both. He was then told he was talentless, “just like the rest of you”.

Unsurprisingly after this, most of us considered ourselves to not be creative and dropped Art as a subject as soon as we could. This is not an uncommon experience. The majority of people believe they are not creative and the majority of them ascribe it to a bad experience at school.

But we are creative. We were born creative. We have just had it beaten out of us (literally, for some of my schoolmates) by the education system. Now we have to access that creativity again, so that we can re-imagine ourselves, because imagining of any sort is a creative act.

In reality, we have continued to use our creativity throughout our lives but perhaps not as much as we could have. Most people have found creative ways to solve problems or to organise things at work. We are continually coming up with ideas and immersing ourselves in imaginary worlds. We just don’t acknowledge that creativity and we so we don’t exercise our creative muscle enough.

I have decided to consciously exercise my creative muscle by illustrating these blogs myself. You may have noticed my efforts over the past few days. Yes, they are a bit rubbish but if I persist, I will get better. And that creative energy will spill over into other areas of my work.

There are several good reasons to do this. Being creative and making physical art accesses other parts of your brain and improves your thinking. Sharing your work is an exercise in vulnerability, as you expose yourself to the comments and criticisms of others. Both of these open you up emotionally and give you the opportunity for personal growth.

It’s also fun and enjoyable. When did you last associate those words with work?

Pick up the crayons, let’s get drawing.

P.S. I want to acknowledge some people who have inspired me in this. Firstly, Doug Shaw who has been promoting art in the workplace for some years. His “Art for Work’s Sake” workshop is on in London this Wednesday, you should come along.

It’s being hosted by @Workhubs, the coworking space run by Phil Dodson. Phil has been illustrating his own blog for a few months and his improvement has motivated me to give it a go.

I also follow Liz Ryan’s Human Workplace blog. I’ve long admired her posts and found out only last week that she does the illustrations herself. So that’s the benchmark I’m aiming for.

What a Post-Executive does


If you’ve worked in different large organisations you will know that, whilst there can be considerable differences between them, the experience of working in them has many similarities. The bureaucracy, the processes, the endless meetings, the constant re-organisations, the pressure to meet the budget, the incessant stream of emails, the bewildering organisational structure … well, you get the picture. Between the best and the worst of these organisations, there are certain common rhythms and patterns that shape your life as an Executive.

When a group of executives meet, they have similar gripes, similar war stories, to share, no matter how diverse their back grounds. Certain mindsets and behaviours are common. Take an executive out of one organisation and drop her in another and there will be much that appears familiar to her. In no time at all, she will have integrated into the way the organisation works, assimilating easily into the organisational structure. (I recognise I am taking a few liberties here. Assimilation can be problematical for many, especially at are senior levels. And it would probably be a bloke. Sadly).

Post-Executives are quite different. In fact, about the only thing they have in common is that they used to be Executives. Outside the Mothership, many different paths are possible as, indeed, are multiple paths.

One of the problems that Post-Executives have is what to call themselves because they have these multiple roles and identities. This is sometimes referred to as having a ‘portfolio career’, which doesn’t really shed much light on the matter. Others prefer to say they are a ‘slash careerist’, as in “Well, I’m a coach/consultant/trainer/blogger/speaker”. Cute but not really much more helpful. Terms like ‘Consultant’, ‘Contractor’ and “Freelancer’ are no more helpful or illustrative.

The reality is that most Post-Executives adapt what they do to suit the client needs, showing a great deal of adaptability and flexibility. They also adapt to the changing environment, so they acquire new skills and abilities so that they can serve emerging market needs.

So, in fact, what a Post-Executive ‘does’ is a changing smorgasbord of skills and activities. It possible that they may have been like this when the were on the Mothership but they always had some sort of label slapped on them and were constrained in what they did to some extent. After all, that may be useful but we’ve got KPI and budgets to hit! Now, they can operate on a broader basis and follow their interests and talents.

Freed of the constraints of life on the Mothership, deciding what to do can be a daunting and overwhelming task. Simply doing what you did before is not an option because it’s probably not possible and much of it you were obliged to do as part of the system. Now you have to choose things that give you purpose and fulfilment and that you can sustain your effort at. On the Mothership you got carried along in large part by the momentum of the organisation. Now you have  to power your own journey and choose your course yourself.

This is the essential motive for re-imaginig yourself. Change is essential to survive so you should choose a change that you can sustain in the longer term, one that nourishes and energise you and gives you the purpose and fulfilment that we all seek as human beings.

What a Post-Executive really does is choose who they want to be.

Picture taken by me of “Self (Courage Within)” by Nathan Sawaya

All-round health


Quite often we are not in great shape when we leave the Mothership. The process has left us a bit ragged, stressed and unsettled, a bit all over the place emotionally and mentally. We’ve let our fitness decline as we were too tired for the gym sessions and we didn’t have time for sport at the weekends. We’re knackered, to be honest.

A couple of weeks of taking it easy and licking our wounds and we start to feel a bit stronger and livelier but now we have an opportunity to make some changes for the better. Our agenda is not being controlled by someone else, our priorities are no longer handed down to us. Now is the time to think about making health and wellbeing a priority and set our routine accordingly.

Mostly people think about physical health. We commit to go to the gym, perhaps engage a personal trainer or join a class. Or we take up a sport again and join a club or a group so that we start playing regularly. This is great but we need to tend to all four aspects of our health, the mental, emotional and spiritual as well.

In the same way that you put physical exercise in your schedule, you must add exercise and routines to address these other aspects of health. Similarly, there are many different approaches and you need to try some out and find the ones that work for you.

I’ll talk about these in more depth in future blogs and share my own experiences of what has worked. I do believe that physical health, exercise and diet, is key and it is the place to start because it is something we are familiar with. However, it is not enough on it’s own and failure to attend to the other three aspects can cause you to slide into inactivity again. It’s tough to keep up your fitness regime and keep off the comfort food if you are feeling depressed or upset, for example.

This holistic view of health is not one that I was really familiar with when I left the Mothership. In fact, I knew very little about mental, emotional and spiritual health and I certainly didn’t think they had much to do with me. (The voice in my head said something like “pull yourself together, stop blubbing and go to church” as a solution to all three). What I know now is that each aspect impacts on the others and you need to create a virtuous circle where they reinforce each other. If you don’t it can all too easily start to work the other way around and lead you into a downward spiral.

The process you have to go through takes a lot of energy and you need to be as fit and healthy as you can be to give it your best shot.

Old Dogs and New Tricks

Old dog new tricks

In adapting to life after the Mothership and as part of the process of re-imagining yourself, you have to make some significant changes. You have to change your mindset, take a different perspective on life and work, get in touch with your emotions and learn a lot of new things, which may include formally studying for some qualifications. You have some important things to unlearn too, however.

Our forebears would want us to believe this change is impossible. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” goes the old adage. It used to be the commonly held belief, even amongst scientists and educators, that once you reached adulthood you were incapable of learning new things or improving your brain function, that your intelligence and knowledge were largely fixed. Now, we are old dogs and we have a whole bunch of new tricks to learn, so this would be a big problem if it was true. Thankfully, it’s not.

We know now that we can continue to learn and develop our brains throughout our lives. Recent discoveries in neuroscience have shown that the brain is not fixed, that it has plasticity and is able to change as we learn new habits and skills. We can forge and grow new neural pathways and develop our hippocampus through learning and practice.

Carol Dweck talked about this ability to develop our minds in her book Mindsets back in 2006, when she identified the difference between fixed and growth mindsets.

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

This is good news. We may have quite a task ahead of us but it is not impossible. in fact, we have evolved to be able to do exactly this. We have to put in the cognitive and emotional effort and perseverance but it is well within our grasp. We can move towards an increasingly growth mindset over time and actually be better equipped to succeed than we were previously.

But there, just at the back of our mind, is that old trope about Old Dogs and New Tricks. We may know that we can change but do we really believe it? All the time we are trying to change this age-old, inherited doubt is subtlety undercutting our efforts.

It’s a mistake to underestimate the power of these embedded beliefs. They can make you self-sabotage, they can undermine your motivation and cause you to drop away from the task. So I think it’s important to re-inforce the fact that change is possible in a conscious and very obvious way. To acknowledge that doubt and then call it out and say ‘I know that’s not true and here’s the proof’. To actively unlearn it and replace it with a new belief.

There are lots of way you can do this. Perhaps by acquiring a new skill and practicing it regularly, like drawing, playing an instrument, or creating a practice of meditation. For me, it’s been working on my physical fitness so that I can enjoy skiing, which has improved my physique as a consequence. Not only have I had to buy new clothes to fit me but every time I train I notice that I am able to do more and the aching doesn’t last as many days afterwards!

We accumulate lots of redundant beliefs that are no longer useful to us and often hold us back from becoming what we are really capable of. It’s a conscious act to identify, acknowledge and then replace them. But don’t worry, you’ll learn how. After all, old dogs CAN learn new tricks, you know.

Now is the right time for you


People become Post Executives through circumstances or choice, or sometimes a combination of the two. In my case, I sort of fell out of corporate life and, finding it difficult to get back in, decided to try a different route. Others I have met just decided one day that they had had enough and it was time for a change. Every one will have their own story, which will be a rationalisation of what they went through.

One thing that most of us have in common, however, is that we had reached a point where it became difficult to endure corporate life any longer. It’s worth understanding why that is.

There is considerable pressure to conform to the norms of corporate life, to be business-like, to be professional. You are not supposed to bring your private stuff to work and your ideas and comments are often seen as a nuisance. We don’t bring our whole selves to work, we put on a mask and play whatever role is required of us to ‘fit in’.

This pressure to conform becomes greater the higher we go up the hierachy. I was often criticised for not being ‘on side’ as I would question decisions that I thought were bad for the business as a whole, or I would avoid implementing policies that I felt disadvantaged our people. After being hit over the head a few times, it becomes easier to keep your opinions to yourself and keep your head down, masking your true feelings and beliefs. Denying yourself in this way has a cost, however.

We also develop armour to protect ourselves from the harshness of corporate life, especially if we are in an organisation that is controlled by fear, as so many are, sadly. Bullying is all too often a management style and we are criticised and admonished on a regular but seemingly random basis. The pressure of targets, KPIs and unreasonable expectations are hard to endure and so we build defences to protect ourselves. Any vulnerability is seen as weakness and will be attacked, so we armour up and suppress our emotions.

All this pretending, carrying this armour around all the time, takes up our physical and emotional energy. It’s also debilitating to be in long-term stressful situations, on constant alert, our fight-or-flight mechanism permanently switched on, flooding our body with cortisol and adrenaline.

There comes a point where we can’t do it any more. We simply don’t have the energy. Some people go through a full burn-out, others shut down slowly and disengage.

In her book Daring Greatly, shame-researcher Brene Brown says that one of the patterns revealed in her research is that “ … all that role-playing becomes almost unbearable around mid-life. … We start to unravel.”

However you got to be a Post Executive, it is the right time for you to be here. You have saved yourself and now you have the opportunity to create an environment in which you can thrive. Now you can put aside the mask, take off the armour and be your whole self. That’s a challenge in itself but it’s one you are ready to take on.


This article uses material from the Mask of Loki article on the The Mask Wiki at Wikia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

A foreign country


The first time I went abroad was to France, on our way down to a campsite in Spain. I was excited but also fascinated by the experience. It looked very familiar in many ways and yet it was completely different. I recognised all the letters on the signs but I didn’t know any of the words. The roads we drove down were similar to home but, obviously, we were on the other side and all the cars that were unusual at home were normal here. In fact, our ordinary old Austin Cambridge was now the exotic foreigner.

The shops looked like shops but the food in them was unfamliar. The basics of buying something was the same but the way you did it was different. You had to say ‘bonjour’ when you entered, you had to do things in a different order, you didn’t know where to stand and when to give over your money. A simple thing like buying some bread became a puzzling, frustrating and sometimes  embarassing experience, but also a small adventure that could be enjoyed as an amusing tale later on. Humour and goodwill mostly got you through OK (except in Paris, as I found out years later!).

Life outside the Mothership is like that. It looks familiar but it is completely different in many ways. It’s not obvious at first what the differences are, so you blunder in like the English tourist, speaking slowly in a loud voice and gesticulating wildly. Blank, uncomprehending faces stare back at you. You stand in the wrong place, you do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Even the simplest thing seems to confound you as a mysterious set of rules known only to everyone else seems to exist.

It takes time to acclimatise, to learn the language, understand what’s being said (verbally and no-verbally). Like the newly arrived tourist, you will be confused, frustrated, uncomfortable and a little bit scared. Humour, goodwill and an open mind will get you through. It will take time but one day it won’t feel like a foreign country any more.

Living with Uncertainty


So when you leave the Mothership, you have to re-imagine yourself. Ok, that’s seems simple enough. Except you don’t know what you are going to be until you have got there.

We are not used to uncertainty. On the Mothership, there is no uncertainty. We have budgets, forecasts, plans and 5 year business cases. Our calendars are bulging with meetings and events and we can’t do anything random for the next 3 months. If you want to get something done, you just find out what the process is and follow that and it will deliver the outcome you want. We can predict the future and control when we get there!

Of course, we can’t. It’s all nonsense, especially in today’s world. However, we entered the workforce when things were more stable and this stuff sort-of worked and it gave us the illusion that we were in control, we knew what would happen next.

We cling to this illusion because we hate uncertainty. As humans were are programmed to fear it, so we create these myths, these stories and we pretend there isn’t any.

Only now there is. Everything is uncertain. You have to learn how to live with it, how to embrace it because uncertainty is where all the good stuff lies. Opportunities. Creativity. Innovation. The new you.

You can’t know who you will be until you get there.

The image, “Question Mark” is copyright © 2012 brianfallen97 and made available under a CC Attribution Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

More Working Out Loud (#WOL)


Since my post earlier in the week about Working Out Loud, I have had some very encouraging feedback (including a tweet from John Stepper) and made some new connections with people who are interested in helping. Encouraged by this, and as it is still International Working Out Loud week, I thought I should share a few more of my ideas about what this could become.

This is in addition to posting on the blog everyday, which is a way of working out loud in itself. Or thinking out loud, perhaps. In fact, it is already starting to uncover issues, ideas and thoughts that hadn’t occurred to me before. This is more from the act of hitting the publish button than from any dialogue but it is an unexpected, though welcome, consequence.

Anyway, as I have said before I would like this humble blog to develop into a bigger community for Post-Executives, as a resource and a source of help and support for, as I perceive, a very under-served and growing group of people. Some of the ideas I have are:

  • Start a monthly meet-up, initially in London (because that’s where I am), so that people can connect and develop relationships.
  • Have an online community for people to share their stories and knowledge and give and receive help to each other. This has to be a secure and trusted space that is easy to use and access.
  • Create resources that are appropriate to this audience and support their re-imagining. There is a lot of stuff on the internet for starting a businesses, doing a ‘start-up’ (which is a different thing), working as a freelancer, changing career and so forth but it is targeted at a younger, less experienced and less skilled audience who are starting from a very different point.
  • Run workshops that bring people together to work on their re-imagining programmes, help each other and create mutual support groups (i.e. mastermind groups, Active Learning Sets, WOL Circles).
  • Develop or curate online courses to support the new learning requirements that Post-Executives have. Perhaps have a ‘Re-imagining Framework’?
  • Do a series of interviews with people who have left Corporate life and have, or are in the process, of re-imagining themselves. Could be podcasts?

I guess this is my starter for ten, or straw man, or Aunt Sally. What I really want is to get people involved in a conversation and be guided by what they say they want and what needs emerge.

Finding the people to engage in that conversation is my current task, so I am asking for ideas about the best ways and places to connect with my ‘Post-Executives’.

None of this is revolutionary but if we could make some of it come about, I wonder what the effect would be? What impact could this have?

All feedback welcome!

Network novice


“You’ll get your business through networking” they said. I had no idea how to do that.

A neighbour introduced me to a local networking group (part of a well-known international organisation) and they invited me to their next breakfast. So I went.

I turned up outside a cricket pavilion at some ungodly hour (I am not a natural morning person) in my best suit and shiniest shoes. It was a bright summer’s morning but I couldn’t see anyone, so I tentatively entered the building.

Inside it was dark, the security shutters still locked down and the lighting distinctly ‘atmospheric’. There was a smell of sweat and stale beer as I noticed a large bar on one side of the room. Ahead of me were a group of middle-aged men, mostly in shirtsleeves and trousers, or polo-shirts and shorts. They greeted me and got me a coffee and asked me about my (then new) business.

My entire body was screaming to run back out into the sunshine but I pushed that urge back down. This was ‘networking’, this was what I had to do. Breathe in and carry on.

The breakfast was pleasant enough but the meeting was unlike any other I had ever been to. There was a rigid agenda, a harsh formality to the proceedings. As the guest, I had to wait until last to introduce myself, to no great interest. There were smiles but there wasn’t much warmth.

At the end of the meeting I was taken to one side by the organisers and urged to sign up there and then ‘to reserve my spot and block out other coaches’, which seemed a really odd concept to me. I didn’t appreciate being pressurised and I wanted to think about whether it was the right group for me. “OK, you can come again as a guest but you’ll have to make your mind up then”, they said.

As I stood alone in the car park afterwards, enjoying the warmth of the sun, I looked back at the doorway and into the foreboding interior. “Why couldn’t they open the blinds?’ I thought, “it would have been so much nicer”.

Bemused, confused, uncomfortable, I was a turmoil of emotions. I felt naive, inept, ill-prepared, a fish out of water. The whole experience had been unnerving, unsettling, skin-crawlingly embarrassing. In short, unpleasant and a rather depressing.

But this was ‘networking’. I had to do this. Or so I thought.

After putting myself through a lot more similarly unpleasant situations, I found out I was wrong on both counts. Now I understand myself and what works for me, I do things that suit me and play to my strengths. I have changed my attitude, my outlook and my approach but I had to go through the experience of being a beginner and getting it wrong. I had to fail to find a way that worked for me.

Everyone has a ‘networking’ story. Someone told me a similar tale just the other day, worse, in fact. He wasn’t allow to speak and was marched off to a separate room to be signed up! He declined their kind offer.

You are going to have to be a beginner and work out what’s right for you. There isn’t a short cut but I hope we can help you have a faster and smoother journey.

Who am I?

Guess WhoWhen I was on the Mothership, I knew who I was. I had a job title, I belonged to a division, I worked on a project, I had particular skills and knowledge. I had a circle of people who knew me and reflected how they saw me back to me. I didn’t really question it. I just turned up and did my stuff.

When I left, much of that dropped away. Of course, I had some perspective of myself but it was in the context of a large organisation. I certainly felt comfortable operating in that space and fitted in quite easily when working as a consultant.

However, to really be effective outside the Mothership, I was told I needed to develop a personal brand. “You are your brand, people buy you”, I was told. “Be authentic, be yourself”. Or even better, “JUST be yourself”.

Which led me to ask “Who am I?”. After all those years on the Mothership, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had spent so many years wearing my corporate mask, putting on more and more armour to protect me against the bullying and abuse, disconnecting from my feelings to defend myself against the pain, I really had lost my idea of of myself. I had become a corporate chameleon and now I had forgotten what my true colours are.

It’s not surprising, really. When were you ever asked “Who are you?” in your corporate life? How many work places value you as a person, as opposed to someone who fulfils a function or gets a job done? Have you ever heard it discussed, do you even know how to talk about it? We are not people, we are resources, employed to fit into processes and be cogs in the machine.

What I have found is that the advice was correct. You DO need to be yourself. Only then will you be able to form genuine connections and the deep relationships that will sustain you. It’s really the only way to operate outside the Mothership. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do. It’s taken me a long time to find myself and to be comfortable being seen for myself.

It seems like a ridiculous question to be asking yourself after a lengthy career but it’s completely valid. We’ve been in the corporate machine for so many years, we’ve got lost. So now we have to find ourselves again, get back to the core of who we really are. We probably haven’t done this since our days of teenage angst, so it feels awkward and we don’t really have the skills and language to do it at first. However, it’s necessary work and, with time, we can get where we need to be.

The rewards are worth it. Being yourself will not only make you more successful, it will make life so much easier. You will find you are always in alignment and can work quickly and be in flow. And you will be at ease with yourself for the first time in a long time.