Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs: A Book Review

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I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic and a few interesting things happened to me. First, many passages resonated with me and I kept coming back to the book. Next, I found myself sharing her message with other people. And then, I started creating. Since reading the book, I have tapped into my creativity in multiple ways. I have written blog posts, created comedy scripts, produced projects at work, painted my house, and it goes on. So I thought I would  share her message with a few more people that I love in Student Affairs, and I offered a workshop on “Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs” at our division-wide staff development day.

What is Big Magic? Think of a time when you created or finished something…and thought, “That is gooooooooood.” It may have been an assignment you completed in school or a picture you drew. Maybe it was something you built or a food you cooked. Another way to describe Big Magic is that while you were doing something you felt it flow easily from you. Gilbert describes it like being on a conveyer belt in an airport…you are being propelled. The time passes quickly. Or you are in the zone.

Big Magic is about tapping into our creativity. EVERYONE IS CREATIVE. Creativity is important because it’s the way we show our unique selves to the world. We need it to be our true and authentic selves. YOUR CREATIVITY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE REVOLUTIONARY OR SERVE A PURPOSE. According to Gilbert, there are no “creative” and “non-creative” people. There are just people who use their creativity and those who don’t.

Some people think creativity is self-indulgent. For some of us it was shut down when we were children. But, if we don’t express our creativity, it can result in resentment, grief and heartbreak. Brene Brown’s research shows 85% of people remembered an event in school that was so shaming that it changed how they thought about themselves for the rest of their lives, and 50% of those shaming events were around creativity, i.e. told they can’t sing, you’re a bad artist, your writing is terrible.

Here are the six principles I took away from Gilbert’s book:

  1. Acknowledge fear but don’t let it drive you. Gilbert says fear and creativity are like conjoined twins. This is why we cannot kill off, deny or avoid fear. Instead, we need to thank it for doing its job (which is to keep us alive) but then recognize that creativity is not (99% of the time) going to kill us. We must make space for fear – Gilbert describes going on a road trip with creativity and fear. Both are invited on the trip, but fear is not allowed to drive. Our fear can manifest itself in excuses, guilt (mom guilt), procrastination, and perfectionism. And it can prevent us from taking the leap towards creativity. IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE CREATIVE.
  2. Be open to ideas. IDEAS ARE LOOKING FOR HOSTS. That which we are seeking is seeking us. When we are relaxed enough to notice and receive clues, information, and connections, then ideas will come to us. When we let our defenses down and ease our anxiety, creativity will come to us. When we are open, we can receive the physical and emotional signals of inspiration (chills on your arm, hair standing up on your neck, feeling like you’re falling in love). When you’re about to have a big idea, there will be coincidences, signs, everything will remind you of the idea, you may wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it (like I did with my comedy script).
  3. Become partners with your idea. When an idea finds us (because it is chasing us, we are not chasing our ideas), we have the choice to join up with it or let it go. Our creative inspiration can also be called our GENIUS. Gilbert makes the distinction between HAVING A GENIUS VS. BEING A GENIUS. Gilbert describes how the Greeks and Romans both believed in an eternal spirit of creativity – like a house elf from Harry Potter, who lives inside your house and sometimes assists you. The Romans called this your “genius.”
  4. Work hard. This may seem self explanatory, but when it comes to creativity working hard is also about being creative even when you don’t feel inspired. Gilbert emphasizes that our inspiration doesn’t owe us anything. She doesn’t romanticizing quitting your day job and running off to open a night club or kayak shack. She says if we decide to take a leap of faith it should be for the ride not the landing, because we can never guarantee the landing. She also says every creative endeavor has the bits we don’t enjoy. So if you want to pursue something you must choose a pursuit that you enjoy so much that you’re willing to put up with the unpleasant parts. She asks, what do you want to do? What would you do even if you failed? What do you want to do because doing nothing is unacceptable? We must also be patient and compassionate with ourselves when we engage in creative work. People don’t stop being creative because of lack of discipline or willpower. They often stop because of disappointment or judgement. Getting back to work requires forgiving ourselves and having empathy for ourselves.
  5. Be courageous. Gilbert says, “Your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. That’s what we all want for ourselves.” She says, “You have hidden treasures in you – everyone does – and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion.” I strongly believe that statement. Many years ago I created a presentation on time management. The whole reason I created it was because my mom was diagnosed with kidney failure. I wanted to make the most of my time with my family from that day forwarded, and I then I wanted to share that message with everyone. Because life is precious. And we don’t have time to wait.
  6. Channel your inner trickster. SUFFERING IS NOT A PREREQUISITE. Elizabeth talks about the martyr vs. the trickster. There are many artists and writers who are martyrs. In academia there are many martyrs who feel we must suffer and labor, putting in miserably long hours to get published or tenured. Maybe some of us feel like martyrs in our jobs in Student Affairs. The trickster is the opposite of the martyr.

In conclusion, these are the major themes of her book:

  • Everyone is creative
  • Your creativity does not have to be revolutionary or serve a purpose
  • It doesn’t matter if it has been done before
  • You don’t need permission to be creative
  • Ideas are looking for hosts
  • Having a genius vs. being a genius
  • Suffering is not a prerequisite

Try this activity to tap into your creativity:

Fold a piece of paper into four squares.

In the first square, answer the following questions: What do you love to create? What are you curious about? How do you express yourself? What kind of maker are you? What’s worth doing even if you fail?

In the second square,  name any fears or barriers (or guilt) that may keep you from pursuing this interest. Acknowledge them. Thank them and invite them along for the ride but tell them they will not be driving.

In the third square, answer the following questions: What does curiosity want you to do? What would it say to you?

In the fourth square, name one small idea you have for creating what you want to create. Give yourself a deadline.

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Productivity Products: Trello vs. Evernote

In Student Affairs, we are constantly juggling multiple projects and deadlines. It can be daunting to keep track of all the items on our to-do lists. Fortunately, there are some great productivity systems to help us. But which products can serve us best?

I have used Evernote daily for several months and I love it! Recently our department started exploring Trello for collaborative projects and tasks. I am still learning my way around Trello, but here are some of my initial thoughts on both.

Trello

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Trello is a project management application that makes collaboration easy. It has a remarkably clean and visually appealing interface.

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Trello is great for:

  1. Project management. Map out a big project  with lists and see all your to-do items on one board. Break larger tasks into smaller tasks. The most common lists seem to be To Do, Doing, and Done, but you can also create lists like Today, Tomorrow, and Someday, or Big Ideas and Little Ideas.
  2. Event Planning. Create due dates and visually arrange them on the calendar. If you have annual or reoccurring events, Trello is a great place to archive and record tasks after project completion for easy reference.
  3. Collaboration. Add members to a board and communicate about tasks by leaving comments on notes. Notes can be assigned to members, and when a note is updated the assigned member(s) can receive a notification.
  4. Multiple to-do lists. You can easily break up your to-do list by day, week, or month, and tasks can be moved from one list to another effortlessly.
  5. Supervision. If you are overseeing a project, you can see which team members are contributing to tasks and how the project is progressing. If team members have questions, they can post the questions on notes and you can respond.

Evernote

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Evernote is a digital filing cabinet. It is an excellent tool for helping you remember everything (hence, the elephant logo)!

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Evernote is great for:

  1. Lists. I love to make lists. I have lists of words, quotes, movies, songs, memories…you get the idea.
  2. Going paperless. I still like to make notes on paper, but I can take pictures of my handwritten notes and back them up on Evernote. Evernote can decipher the text on pictures which allows me to include pictures of these handwritten notes in my searches.
  3. Brain dumping. Evernote is my backup brain. I dump everything into it, which allows me to free up my mental capacity. Once all these thoughts and ideas  are out of my head, I easily prioritize and categorize them into notes and notebooks.
  4. Storing email. Evernote gives you an email address which allows you to turn your email into a note. Just forward the email you want to save – travel confirmation information, newsletters, or tracking online orders – to your Evernote email address.
  5. Sharing notes. You can share a note with another Evernote user or a non-Evernote user using their email address.

As I mentioned, I am an avid user of Evernote. I use it throughout the day to keep track of names, blog ideas, birthdays, websites, and meeting notes. However, I am impressed by Trello’s clean interface and collaborative possibilities.

What is your experience with Trello and Evernote?

10 Tips for Getting It All Done

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I recently revisited some of my old blog posts and found this gem. I have been a hobby blogger for the past seven years, and when I first started blogging I wrote a lot about balancing my personal and professional life. Although my days are filled with different responsibilities now, I still find these tips extremely useful!

The past twelve months have been extremely busy. At the height of it all, I was working full time, preparing for a baby, writing my dissertation, serving as a committee chair for the local United Way, and running a side business. How do you do it all – balance home and work while finding meaning in modern life?

Here are ten tips for getting it all done and feeling fulfilled at the end of the day:

1. Set small goals. Most of my commitments are part of a larger long-term goal, such as finishing graduate school. It these cases, it can take a long time to reach success. Instead of measuring success by the completion of my degree, I set goals each quarter to work on my assignments each week. By setting small goals, you can benefit from achieving success more quickly.

2. Build self-efficacy. When I achieve a small goal, I am motivated to work towards another goal because it reinforces my belief that my actions can lead to positive results. This is in effect building self-efficacy – the belief that our actions have certain consequences. Remind yourself of your achievements. Research tells us that people who believe they can accomplish a goal are more likely to achieve that goal.

3. Write it down. I don’t know about you, but ideas and thoughts swim in my head all day, and every once in a while I have to “unload” my brain. Writing things down allows us to focus our attention on the important things, rather than spending energy remembering a thousand little things. By writing down everything that’s on your mind, you’ll also be able to group similar items (just like when you file papers). You may find that some items can be accomplished simultaneously.

4. Nurture your relationships. I have all my girlfriends on speed dial. If I’m having a bad day or need someone to give me an “atta girl,” I call up a friend. Relationships are like our emotional armor – they protect us from disappointment, fear, loneliness, and set-backs. Medical researchers have found that those who have friends tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer than those who do not.

5. Work it out. A few years ago, I was talking to my physician about all the stress in my life – her prescription? Exercise. In our modern world, we sit at desks, talk on the phone, and type on our keyboards all day. There is no outlet for our natural fight or flight responses to deal with stress. Over time, either days or weeks, the stimulus we take in begins to accumulate. Exercise is a natural stress reliever and a mood enhancer.

6. Schedule the “big stuff”. The best analogy for this comes from Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If your time is analogous to a bottle, and you first fill your bottle with small rocks and sand then there is no room for the “big rocks.” However, if you first fill your bottle with “big rocks,” then the small rocks and sand will fit in between the cracks. Covey’s message is to schedule the important stuff first – a date with your spouse, a phone call to your best friend, a workout, a massage, etc. Otherwise, these things won’t fit into your schedule.

7. Be grateful. No one can do it all alone. It takes many people to achieve a great accomplishment. Acknowledge the contributions of others to your own successes and show gratitude. Gratitude has many benefits as well, scientific evidence indicates that grateful people feel more inclined to share, and that gratitude is linked to optimism, better health, and positive social interactions. New research tells us what philosophers and religion have told us for thousands of years – being thankful can increase our overall happiness.

8. Be patient. When I have back to back meetings, a looming deadline, and I’m trying to catch the last bus home, it’s easy to lose my patience. In this modern world, we often find ourselves in long lines, traffic jams, and put on hold. However, without patience, we are left annoyed, frustrated, irritated, and angry. When you lose your patience, remember to be grateful. Count your blessings – you have a job to provide for your family and a house to call home.

9. Enjoy the moment. With a packed schedule, I have made the mistake of thinking my “to do” list is only temporary – that once I get through it I can enjoy life, my family, my vacation. There will always be items on your list – phone calls to make, cards to write, projects to finish. It’s part of being alive! John Lennon once said, “Life is what’s happening when we’re making other plans.” If you wait until you have checked all the items off your “to do” list, you’ll miss everything!

10. Learn to live with imperfection. Whether you have many or few commitments, no one gets it right all the time. The need for perfection turns our attention to what’s wrong with something and leaves us feeling dissatisfied. This is not to say don’t do your best, but rather try not to be overly attached and focused on how things could be different. Remember what they call the guy who finished last in his class in medical school – Doctor.

There’s one more item not included in this list, but of great importance – Keep your sense of humor!