We humans are creatures of habit and deeply distrust and avoid change. My current TEDx talk is about exactly this and it has a lot of connections to our work in the internationalisation world.
Why do mobility exchange numbers start to stagnate, e.g. in the Erasmus program, why do we fail to motivate all students to go and explore the world: e.g. a meagre 1.7% US students (332,000 mobile amongst a population of 19.9 Mio) are mobile. The main reason is that mobility is one of the more drastic and large versions of change and we humans simply hate that.
Instead, we love to stick to habits – e.g. most people choose the same restaurant and often the same food when going out for dinner! We wonder why less than 10% of students become mobile across the European countries but we do wonder much less if we know that 66% of Europeans live within 25km of their parents and only 0.4% changed their country of residence in the last year. This is the level of immobility that we are dealing with!
Why are we so resistant to change? This has biological and psychological reasons. The most striking biological one is that our brain is the Lamborghini amongst our organs: not the largest (only 2% of the body mass) but the one consuming most of the energy (20%). And every change needs thinking and thus energy. Habits on the other hand do not and are therefore more efficient. Psychologically, habits are attractive because they make us quicker – no decisions to be taken, that is why we usually shave on autopilot – and most importantly, they keep us in our comfort zone. People do not move away far from home because that keeps them in their social comfort zone (parents, friends) and when you do not risk new food, you stay in your “nutritional comfort zone”. Importantly for us, most students are therefore very reluctant to leave THEIR social comfort zone, i.e. their home university.
In short, habits are very strong and stop us from changing. Now we could leave it at that, but I strongly believe we should not. Change is favorable for us in many ways: a study by Staudinger 2018 showed that the amount of gray matter in the brain in areas related to learning and attention is closely related to how much the patients changed job tasks over many years: more change -> more gray matter -> healthier brain. And also, only by change can we make new exciting experiences. So, we need to tell students that going abroad does not mean losing the old friends but rather gaining a lot of new friends!
But how do we achieve change? We need mainly time and pressure and I explain the reasons in the TEDx talk. I also give you an 8-step recipe and ask you and everybody to not stagnate by sticking to habits but elevate yourself by embracing the magic of change.
Uwe Brandenburg holds a PhD from the University of Bristol in Globalisation Studies, an MScEcon from the University of Wales at Swansea and an M.A. in Islamic Sciences from the WWU Münster. He is currently the Managing Director of the Global Impact Institute in Prague and Associate Professor for Regional Cooperation and Impact of Higher Education at the University Rovira I Virgili in Tarragona, Spain. Prior to that he was Managing Partner of CHE Consult and CHE Consult Prague. He was also Director International at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin for eight years. Uwe has published widely on the topic of internationalization such as the much debated article with Hans de Wit on the end of internationalization in 2011 in the Boston IHE. He was the head author and team leader for both the Erasmus Impact Study (EIS, 2014) and the follow-up EIS Regional Analysis (EIS RA, 2016), the European Voluntary Service Impact Study (2017). He frequently presents on international conferences around the globe. He also frequently coaches individuals in leadership positions, teaches at different universities and conducts research. Uwe is a fervent believer in the value of change based on his personal experience as well as professional and academic insights. His research interests are internationalization for society, the influence of technological developments on internationalization and the assessment of impact.
Traditions. Tradition, and the importance placed on tradition differs from culture to culture as much as it does from person to person. Recently, in the United States, we have adopted Indigenous People’s Day as a replacement for Columbus Day. And given the recent “conversations” in the United States about confederate statues and monuments, the automatic response of “you can’t erase history”, and the reply of “yes but you don’t have to glorify it” traditions are fresh in the public consciousness. As John Oliver said recently, “Books are for history, statues are for glorification”.
I’m not one for knocking tradition. It’s fun! It can be something as simple as an inter-generational inside joke, or a family game, and its purpose, to unify and humble, is certainly a worthy cause. My problem is with tradition “for traditions sake.” The idea that we are honor bound to our traditions should be a relic of the past. We must remember our traditions but we must remember how they have always evolved. When we lose sight of why we honor our traditions, it loses its purpose, in other words, a tradition becomes a habit. And there are more examples than you might think. Which puts me in mind of a conversation with a friend from the Netherlands.
Always big fans of comparing cultures with light hearted razzing, we were having the recurring conversation our respective homelands and their history:
“Doesn’t your Santa have a slave?” I asked, already knowing the answer
“No, he has a helper,” Ralf replied defensively
“I see, and what is his helpers name?”
“Which translates to…?”
Looking down, “Black Peter”
He adds, “But I think he’s a former slave that Santa freed or something… and now he’s black because of all the soot in the chimney”
“Right… so all good now. Remind me though, how do you celebrate?”
A little excited for the nostalgia he replies “All the little kids dress-up and paint their faces black and…”
At which point his excitement fades a bit, “That’s blackface, isn’t it?”
I laughed “Yeah it’s ok though, we celebrate the betrayal and genocide of an entire race every Thanksgiving, so I don’t either of us are completely in the clear.”
Ralf is able to laugh at the Dutch tradition of Black Peter, and me at Thanksgiving for their absurdity and how far these traditions are removed from their origins. But really, while people around the US defend monuments to those who upheld slavery, the story of Zwatre Piet and the demise of Columbus Day are glimpses of hope; glimpses of evolution, perspective and progress. Of course, we shouldn’t forget our history. Just have a little humility.
Which is what concluded mine and Ralf’s discourse.
“Yeah Zwarte Piet might be racist but I mean… we had slaves man, that’s like, our national shame.”
“Yeah but who do you think sold you those slaves?”
“…..Yeah, both of us DEFINITELYnot in the clear”
Alex Brenner – When he is not helping international students as ACEI’s Communications Officer, Alex puts his writing chops to work as a script doctor for Hollywood screenwriters and guest blogs for ACEI-Global. Alex has a BA in English from UCLA and has been fortunate to have travelled to many corners of the world as a child and an adult.
In writing this I realized I could write a whole post, if not a book, on each of these topics. So CLEARLY I will be writing about this more. If any of these topics spark your interest and you want to know more about them let me know in the comments and I’ll explore it more soon. Also, I host a 3x/mo Sunday evening Creative Mojo Conference Call that’s free to try out and super affordable if you decide to stay on where we discuss all these sorts of things and much more. Join this Sunday if you like! And, now, without further ado…
1. Put your muse in control of your creative flow
Let’s get to the heart of the matter straight off. You’re not creating as much as you’d like because you listen to the critic more than you listen to the creative inspirations of your muse. This is, of course, totally normal given the cultural conditioning and educational system most of us went through but if you want to THRIVE as the creative being YOU ARE, then you need to shift this around and put the muse on heavy rotation and the critic on the way far back back burner (or tune it out completely).
What keeps the critic in control is that on some level, you BELIEVE it’s judgmental criticism and instead of saying that’s an abusive pack of lies GET OUT!, you say you’re right and cower down, which is what it wants you to do. It wants to repress and silence your creativity and aliveness. It wants you to feel insecure and stuck. So, if you feel these things, then it’s a safe bet that it’s been playing you… because who you really are has nothing to do with insecurity or playing small. If there was a score card of you versus the critic, every time you dismiss a creative impulse because of insecurity, it scores. And every time you start feeling more vibrant and flowing, that’s a good indication that you’ve scored… which is unquestionably the direction to go in.
2. Free the creative child inside
I’ve taught a lot of creative classes (painting, voice, and dance) and to neutralize the playing field, I start with asking folks if they’ve ever had an artistic trauma. Almost everyone says yes. They then tell their story and almost ALWAYS, it was some self-hating adult squashing a child or young adults efforts at expression through thoughtless criticism, jabbing a rod of doubt into their vulnerable creative spirit. And, what happened? In most cases the person stopped creating shortly after, if not right there and then.
One of the first times I remember this happening to me was in elementary school. I skipped 4th grade and was put in the TAG (Talented And Gifted) Program but after awhile, I was dismissed from the program without explanation. Did I not perform well at playing chess or creating palindromes (go-hang-a-salami-I’m-a-lasagna-hog)? I didn’t understand but soon after my mom and I ran into the TAG teacher in the grocery story. My mom asked her what happened and she said “Robin didn’t sparkle”. Oh my lord, are you serious!? Yes, she was. I can gasp now as an adult but at the time I was crushed and that, combined with other challenges of the time, definitely led to me pulling myself in quite a bit.
I share this story because, crazily, it’s normal. So we have to have A LOT OF COMPASSION for our artistic selves because it’s likely that the person in you who wants to create isn’t your chronological age, but the age you were when you were shut down… or somewhere in between as it’s learning to grow up. Would you dump vile loads of silencing criticism on a child? Of course not. So you have to consider who the critic is really dumping on when it dumps on “you” and, like any good parent, you need to put your foot DOWN, create a fun, allowing, and permissive space for yourself to create, and go about it like you’re letting a kid create because most likely, that’s exactly who’s doing the creating.
3. No more excuses
Now that you get what’s going on here and you can see how the critic’s been controlling you through re-hashing your childhood traumas on a daily basis, you’re ready to get REAL and drop any lingering excuses you’ve got going on. Right? Right.
For instance, you may say that you’re too busy to create. This seems like a possibly viable reason but if you check Facebook more than 5 minutes a day, check your email more than twice a day, watch tv, cruise around on the internet, or tolerate or create any kind of drama in your life then it’s not true that you’re too busy – it’s just that you’re choosing to do something other than follow your creative impulses and dreams.
So, too busy, too tired, not good enough, don’t know how, want to do too many things how can I choose so nothing gets done, etc. are all STORIES designed to keep you STUCK. If you really LOOK at these excuses, what you see is the work of the critic. Not good enough – well, that’s obvious. But, in general, we come up with excuses to avoid actually creating because if we create, we have to FACE the critic and where we’re still hooked into it. I feel you – this is not a comfortable moment and every single time I choose to create, my critic, which can be vicious, launches a full attack ranging from you suck to you don’t know what you’re doing to you should be doing something more responsible. So, if I want to create, which I DO so deeply I crave it down to the core of my being, I have to CHOOSE to tune that tyrannical force out, connect with the creative inspiration of my muse and carry forth.
To create, to be a creator, is the opposite of victim. You are not a victim to your critic, skill level, time, financial responsibilities, or anything else. If you want to create, you can. You just have to decide to. Dr. Seuss painted from 12-4 every night while working full time in the NYC advertising industry. One of my art mentors, Shiloh Sophia, paints every morning from 6:30-8 before working a full day every day and many of her paintings are created in 15-minute intervals throughout the day in what she calls “in between moments”. Where there is a will, a passion, a twinkling desire – there is a way.
4. Show up and start
“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” -Chuck Close.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” -Pablo Picasso.
“Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.” -Henri Matisse
Almost everyone wants to start with an inspired idea. But guess what – it doesn’t always happen like that. It often happens by you showing up to create and once you start, then the inspiration begins to trickle in.
Imagine if you had a friend who always asked you for advice but never followed what you suggested. After awhile you’d stop offering your advice. But, if they starting making advances in their life, whether from your counsel or of their own accord, you might become more receptive to sharing your ideas when they asked.
It’s like that with the muse. If you’ve been neglecting this relationship, then your inspiration in-box may not be brimming with tangible ideas. But if you start, as in pick up your arm, dunk a brush in paint, and start moving your arm over paper, or open your mouth and begin making sound, or move your body any which way – INSPIRATION WILL COME and the creative flow you initiated will grow.
To be clear, this does not mean the critic is going to lay off. Many artists I read about who are quite accomplished in their fields, so you’d think they would be critic-free, say the entire time they’re creating they’re hearing you suck, this sucks on repeat but they carry on anyhow knowing that if they don’t make whatever it is, they’ll never find out what its purpose or value may be.
In my case, the vast majority of paintings I’ve made start with me only having a starting point. Like, the contrast of two colors, a shape, or a mood. If I ask for more of a beginning point than that, all I get is silence. So, I begin with what I have. And, like unraveling a spool of yarn, as I keep painting, the rest of it comes.
In general, we take ourselves really seriously. We’ve been trained to believe serious will keep us safe. It’s a tight and heavy way of living that we’ve unfortunately become so used to we don’t fully question it. But being serious cuts OFF the creative channel and fills the space with the energy of the critic.
Play is the opposite. It’s light, fluid, flexible, experimental, and fun. It’s discovery, laughter, wonder, openness. It’s kids playing on the play ground, screeching like delighting wild animals. It’s a magic fairy dust elixir of joy and permission that’s the ultimate Roto-Rooter for your creativity.
For example, when I’ve taught painting classes, I have folks do warm ups like make 10-20 minute paintings together on paper. Canvas can make people feel serious. Paper reminds them of kindergarten and it’s wild to see how much more experimental many people are on paper than canvas.
Forcing it and being serious are weapons of the critic. Play and intention (which I’ll get to in another post) is the work of the muse. Children GET this. They haven’t had the critic beaten into them yet so we have a lot to learn from them in terms of how to stay open, expressive, and in the flow.
One of my most favorite vocalists is Bobby McFerrin. In this video he talks about when he had a music epiphany and how he trained himself as a vocalist… which was 1 part focus, 1 part experimental play (aka. improvisation). VERY INSPIRING.
Viva la creative revolution!!
Robin Clark is a holistically oriented coach, teacher, and artist in the
Bay Area who’s been wearing one hat or another in the healing arts for 14 years.
Her passion, both personally and professionally, is the expansion of self,
self-expression, and empowerment that comes through waking up.
She believes we are each wildly creative, each in our own way, and
we’re here to experience the fullest expression of who we can be.
You can find her: at www.robinclark.org