So you’ve just started your creative or coaching business and you’re really excited and enthusiastic. It’s now your own business and you’ve got complete freedom to decide where and when and how you work, and of course you want to create your ultimate dream office that’ll keep you inspired. You’re dreaming of brand new stationary, a sleek desk, an ergonomically-designed chair, a zippy new Mac with big screen, a wall-to-wall bookshelf with all your favorite, most inspiring books, gorgeous paintings on the wall and pictures of your mentors and High Council of Jedi Knights, and your favorite music playing in the background…
And then you start looking at office spaces, and you find that the gorgeous offices with big windows, lots of natural light, awesome views, and sleek furnishings are pretty darn pricey, and you don’t have that kind of cash. And even if you’re going to work from home, the ideal office furniture, equipment, stationary and decor is all very expensive. By this stage, you’re sitting in your stretched-out, faded tracksuit pants at your old, stained kitchen table in your small, cheap rental flat looking at your crappy old PC and grubby stationary, feeling rather sorry for yourself…
Because as a creative, you need an inspiring workspace and awesome equipment to do your best work, right?
You’d be forgiven for having this wrong and believing that you need a luxurious environment to do your best work. We all know that initial positive emotional rush of getting new stationary (oh God, gel pens!!!) or nifty creative tools. And even Oprah Winfrey, the queen of personal development herself, seems to have fallen for this faulty belief.
Oprah recently opened up a school for girls in South Africa, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, recruiting girls from underprivileged circumstances in the townships in South Africa, in the hope of giving them the educational and life experiences and opportunities that could grow them into the next generation of powerful leaders and business women who’ll do epic shit and make a positive difference in the world. She has high hopes for these girls and is really trying to create the sort of optimal environment that’ll make the school into a talent hotbed.
One of the things she’s done to achieve this aim is that she’s created an absolutely beautiful, interior-designed boarding school and she’s spoken about how she’s specifically given these girls a gorgeous, luxurious environment because she wants to affirm them and let them know that they’re worthy of that sort of beautiful environment, and inspire them to do their best work. Sounds good, right?
What the research says about optimal learning and working environments
Daniel Coyle researched the world’s greatest talent hotbeds in a variety of different sporting, musical, academic and art contexts for his book, The Talent Code. He discovered some key similarities in the approaches used in these talent hotbeds and was able to match up these findings with neurological studies of learning and performance.
Coyle found that, contrary to the luxurious training environments he was expecting to find, all of the talent hotbeds had quite sparse, basic, even shoddy environments. Here’s how Coyle describes talent hotbeds:
“They tend to be junky, unattractive places. If the training grounds I visited were magically assembled into a single facility – a mega-hotbed, as it were – that place would resemble a shanty town. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven…”
The Scrooge Principle
Here’s what Coyle says is going on neurologically – a phenomenon that he calls the “Scrooge Principle.” Our neurology is designed to save energy. We look for opportunities to rest and conserve our energy and whenever we can, we hold energy back, just in case we need it for an emergency. When we’re in a pleasant, easy or luxurious environment, we give our neurology the message that all is well and we can relax and conserve our energy, and then we naturally shut off our motivation and attentiveness. When we’re in a shoddy environment, then we get the signal that things are rough and we need to be more alert, get motivated, and release more energy to be able to deal with our rough environment.
When I asked Coyle about this in our Bottom-line Bookclub interview (I’ll be featuring The Talent Code in the next few months), Coyle said that Oprah would have done better to have educated her girls in the underprivileged township environments that they came from, where their neurology would get the message that they need to release all their energy reserves and give it their all. And to further ignite their motivation to learn and do their most epic work, the children should be given occasional exposure to luxurious experiences, like walking them through a gorgeous, stately university or home, or taking them on holiday abroad, to seed their vision for what’s possible for them and give them something great to aim for.
So don’t despair: this combination of having a vision of something you want to create in your life, whilst slogging away in your shitty current environment is the optimal combination for accelerating learning, developing talent and doing epic work.
Using creative tension to drive your epic work
If any of you are familiar with Peter Senge’s model of creative tension, you’ll recognize how this fits with the Scrooge Principle and Coyle’s advice. In Senge’s model, when there’s a gap between your vision and your current reality, this gap creates creative tension that motivates you to solve problems and create a bridge to bring your current reality up to meet your vision. The greater the gap between your current reality and your vision, the more motivated and creative you’ll be in finding a way to close that gap, and it’s this tension that accelerates your movement forward.
Beating sneaky creative resistance
I’ve done this and I know you have too…
I have a big, creative, and exciting project I’m going to start working on. In celebration and by way of inspiration, I decide that I need to first buy new gel pens (oh God, gel pens!!!), clean my workspace, upload new software updates, fill out a nice, pretty planner with my project schedule, buy a new plant for my desk, alphabetize my bookshelf, fluff my cushions… you see where this is going?
Creative resistance is super-sneaky and it’ll use any way it can to get you procrastinating on your creative work and rationalizing your procrastination on top of that. If you believe the story that you need a posh workspace to be able to do your epic work, then not only are you mistaken from a scientific and neurological perspective, but you’re also opening the door and letting creative resistance in with a big fat welcome sign.
Now, be honest…
Have you been putting off doing and being your best because you thought you needed a better workspace and fancier equipment?
Are you spending time and money faffing with making your ideal space so that you can delay actually doing your epic work? Don’t buy that line from your creative resistance.
Your shitty workspace and crappy equipment will do just fine for your epic work. After all, the epicness comes from you, not from your equipment.