Ways creatives bring hope and possibility to the world - and what it takes

When I meet people and they find out I'm an artist, I often hear the same responses:

  • "I don't have any artistic talent"
  • "Why do/did you choose a creative profession or this work in particular?"
  • "How did you get to where you are?"

The answers are never simple. I've learned that the journeys of creatives rarely are. I believe that, like everyone, we were told when we were young that our art was poor, self-centered, and/or pointless. Those of us who think of ourselves as creatives simply chose not to believe that. We chose to keep making.

As a social practice artist and creative entrepreneur, I've made all sorts of things and traveled all sorts of roads. I've worked as, with, or for almost all of the categories mentioned in the visual below. Most of the time I've macheted my way through the wilderness, and I'd love to share the beautiful forests I've discovered in the trees.

What I've learned is that no matter what path we take, creative work always requires dedication, discipline, and above all courage. But the path we choose will be fraught with distinct challenges and opportunities. I've described them under three themes below.


Art for art’s sake

Creatives making art for art’s sake create what most people think of as art: paintings, novels, musical compositions, plays, sculptures, performances. Their art provides pleasure and inspiration for all who witness it, and may serve as a financial investment for some patrons.

These artists exercise an expressive freedom that I believe everyone longs to. They pay for this freedom through an often tumultuous journey of sheer faith. The audiences for this art are somewhat small, increasing artists' competition with one another and subsequently the criticism they are all bound to face.

Art for economy’s sake

These are often thought of as commercial  artists. In addition to creating countless jobs, they are the source of innovation and problem solving in a wide range of industries, from architecture to cuisine to fashion to technology.

For these creators, their audiences remain at the epicenter of all they create, especially those who reap the most economic benefit from these creations. They regularly face how others interpret their work and must become accustomed to compromise, to not having complete control over the final product or even the co-creative process itself. Furthermore, they are accountable to some degree for the return on investment made by those who fund their activities.

While these artists may experience less financial stress, they may also experience a different kind of stress. Creative work consumes a great amount of energy, so there is less available for one's personal practice. Further, when one is making art to make money, the strain on energy may be more acute.

Art for society’s sake

These artists are certainly the lesser known. They may be artists who create art about social issues, or they may be art educators or therapists, or they may be part of an organization that uses the arts to provide some sort of social service. They may simply be artists who serve on a nonprofit board or government council. Their creativity sparks social transformation.

As this is the road less taken, they may struggle to find adequate direction and support, making their creative journey one of high risk. The tradeoff here is that there is also immense opportunity not only to trailblaze, but to influence others, to make a lasting mark on their community.


As much as I've tried here to simplify the twists and turns of the creative life, I imagine there are only more questions:

  • "Is one of these artists more talented or special than another?"
  • "Is one of these creative paths the right one to follow and another the wrong one?"
  • "Does one have to choose at all? Are they mutually exclusive?"

My personal belief is simple here too: No.

All that matters is that we stay on the path, that we choose to tell ourselves and believe that our art is enough, is important, and is a service to the world. No matter what our road looks or feels like, no matter whether we do it for our own sake or for the sake of others, we must keep choosing to keep making.

This blog was originally published at odessadenver.com.

How committing to co-creative process is different from producing an outcome

As a designer who's deeply interested in relationships, I value thoughtful process. I am not only used to the "labor pains" that a thorough, deliberate process requires but I consider myself fortunate to experience this labor of love on a regular basis. I know from experience that intentional process always leads to the best outcomes: deep understanding and meaningful relationships. I believe these lasting solutions can only come from thoughtful processes.

These outcomes are not always the ones that many, if not most, are accustomed to pursuing. Many are used to settling for transactional exchanges and relationships, which may be easier to come by but don't get to the root of the problems we wish to solve. Many don't fully realize the unfortunate compromise they are making when they seek shortcuts on the journey to birthing something new. 

We all short change ourselves when we rush to the destination without pausing to take in the field of flowers and the radiant sunset. We get caught in seeking a singular tree, a symbol of power, and we miss the lovely forest. Sometimes we trick ourselves by merely pulling over to the side of the road while our minds remain fixed on the horizon. We say we'll execute a process only because we want to reach a certain outcome. We ask for others to help us but only in the way we ask them to.

The different purposes of focusing creative work on process or product - and the type of visual that I think is best for each

The different purposes of focusing creative work on process or product - and the type of visual that I think is best for each

Naturally, there are times when the destination is what matters most. Sometimes we need to rush to the hospital, we need to quickly catch the bus or mailman, or we need to cease trying on dresses and just get our shoes on and get out the door. At these times, shortcuts are indeed helpful.

But there are plenty more times when we don't really know where we are going, how we are going to get there, who's coming with us, and what we need to bring or look for. The ambiguity is uncomfortable, perhaps even frightening. This journey is a leap of faith that asks us to trust ourselves and our comrades, to trust that not only will we arrive safely, but the adventure will be spectacular.

So many of the obstacles we face, as individuals, organizations, and nations, will not be solved by doing what we've done before. The outcome we need may not be one we're currently familiar with. We can't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

We can waste our energies chasing fixes and filling apparent deficits, or we can use our energies to generate insight and kindness and mutual progress. We can focus frustratedly on the ends or we can learn to enjoy the means.

Instead of seeking certain outcomes, we can commit to a process of discovery. We can be willing to experience the transformation we truly desire. And we can do it together. That way it's less scary and more fun. 

When I start sketching or creating anything from scratch, I never truly know where my designs may lead. I begin anyway, trusting that it is that very openness that will unleash fresh ideas and novel solutions. I take my collaborators with me every step of the way, and we hold each others' hands as we walk through the darkness, torches in hand, waiting and hoping to stumble on hidden treasure. 

I've been through the wilderness many times and by now know without a doubt that we are sure to find such treasure so long as we stay open, alert and together. We will gasp with relief, with surprise, and with delight as we arrive at beauties that we never even dreamed of.

Our experience tells us that our culture's preoccupation with maximizing productivity has cost us all in our health, our environment, and even our economy. Instead of feeling powerless to change the massive systems that perpetuate this philosophy, we can make choices today in our own lives to instead put people first, to commit to co-creating our shared future through trust and ongoing discovery.

Why communication planning is different for networks: How your network can re-learn communication to make it successful

Networks are able to solve problems that individuals and organizations cannot on their own. Often when we think of them, we think about coordinated resources and activities, but we also need to think about the coordinated flow of information and ideas.

After all, the reason networks are more effective at addressing large scale issues is that multiple clusters of expertise can inform one another in order to be both more efficient and more responsive to needs. Just as human organs are composed of cells and tissues, networks are made up of individuals and organizations working together to perform various functions simultaneously. To do so, they need to be in consistent communication with one another.

Communication in networks is different than in organizations. When we understand this, we can recognize and capitalize upon the incredible opportunities they present. Here are four ways communication is different for networks and four strategies for success.

1. Communication is multi-directional. In contrast to networks, the hierarchical organizations and systems we are accustomed to seek to maximize control and stability by having leaders decide what and how to share information, both inside and outside the organization. Unfortunately, these systems are breeding grounds for miscommunication and poor strategy because those who aren’t leaders also have valuable information that may not be being fully utilized.

Networks have an incredible opportunity to re-think how information and resources can be fully utilized. Instead of looking to an executive, we can look to one another and assess what our goals are and how we might each contribute to get there. Organizations that participate in networks may find that it takes considerable effort to break habits based on organizational norms such as looking for clear directions to follow. Networks that use a collective impact framework may have a backbone organization leading coordination, but this can carry with it a risk that the other organizations will easily revert to the habits of traditional hierarchies that they are accustomed to.

The solution: Develop an internal communications strategy. Sometimes networks put the cart before the horse by thinking about marketing or branding before they’ve focused on group clarity and coordination. Establishing group identity and an internal narrative will help your network progress and it will also help those outside the network better understand what you are doing and why. A strategy should include your network’s shared goals and their coordinated plan for reaching it. A discussion about how resources will be shared should also include how external communication will be supported and executed, preparing the cart for when the horse is really to run.

It is important to remember that communication both reflects and drives culture. One network I’ve worked with developed their strategic plan together but then months later when the network was getting disorganized and losing focus, the plan was sitting on the shelf. A different one continues to reference their shared vision, even sharing best practices with other networks.

2. More people need to reach consensus internally. The strength and potency of networks is not measured by the number of people or organizations involved, but rather whether there is sufficient diversity of thought and experience to create new solutions and maximize their potential for success. Having many different voices at the table can invite unique challenges such as:

  • Members feel confused, especially because they may not be yet versed in one another’s language, terminology, organizational norms, stakeholders, and/or experiences.
  • Members are not getting enough information from one another because attendance is irregular, discussions are dominated by a few members, and/or information is not consistently distributed.
  • Members feel conflicted because of culture clashes and/or competition and because their loyalties and responsibilities are ambiguously divided between their organization and the network as a whole.
  • Members’ commitment wanes because members do not feel heard, important, or that the group is moving forward.

Knowledge-based social networks are all about leveraging what who you know knows, but before we can do that we must first know what each of us knows. Sharing with other network members isn’t always easy, especially because our individual need to belong often eclipses our group need to accomplish tasks. But once many voices can learn to harmonize in unison, their volume will be difficult for anyone to ignore.

The solution: Invest in building trust. Building trust takes considerable time. Networks may have to ask themselves: “Is it more important to accomplish specific tasks within a given timeframe or is it more important to reach our goal?” Doing the latter may require sacrificing the former.

Building trust also requires leaning into discomfort and conflict, which generally we try to avoid. I have found that the simplest, most effortless way to do this is to use a visual communication tool known as graphic recording to support group members in real-time with understanding complexity and feeling included.

For example, one graphic recording I’ve created visually captured a meeting that was a turning point for two networks that had felt in competition with one another. Individuals arrived at the meeting skeptical about even engaging in a facilitated process together, but they used the visual to work through their conflicts and by the following year recognized the graphically recorded meeting as the one during which they came together as one.

3. External communication is essential. Networks present opportunities to break through former communication barriers that impede progress, but they are still at risk of becoming isolated from the input of information they need to be effective simply because our natural inclination is to associate with those we are most like.

Complex networks in nature demonstrate that long-term sustainability depends upon balancing efficiency and resilience. The hitch is that while efficiency depends upon the minimization of diversity and interconnectivity, resilience depends on the maximization of them. Likewise, communication in social networks must balance strengthening existing relationships in order to use current network knowledge and consistently creating new relationships in order to expand that knowledge.

Whether your network thinks of this as partnership building, community stakeholder engagement, or marketing, keep in mind that communication is never one-way. Networks may provide information, but they can also get the information they need, for example about the effects their activities are having or the effects they could or should.

The solution: Create new ties thoughtfully. Your network will need to apply the same patient, realistic, strategic approach that you practice internally to build relationships with external stakeholders. It is worth the careful consideration this takes in order to ensure that the work of your network stays relevant.

Respect the time and contributions of others by thinking about what matters to them. If you seek to build bridges by empowering individuals to voice their concerns, then plan to address those concerns (or better yet to give them the agency to do so themselves) so those bridges don’t then get burnt.

One network I’ve worked with is really great at using deliberate facilitative processes but is less practiced at producing early wins that keep stakeholders engaged and hopeful. Others I know can get so focused on producing certain outcomes by deadlines set by a funder, such as having a certain number of people attend meetings, that progress toward their primary goal, such as having those people inform solutions that will work, is stunted.

4. Messaging (including data) is dynamic. While the organizations that comprise them may focus on offers of services or products that solve concrete needs, networks are in the business of sharing ideas that are often complex and sometimes invisible. Furthermore, networks themselves are fluid, and as more information becomes available messages will need to change.

Networks also have to communicate with multiple audiences, which can challenge individual organizations who may relate differently to them (for example, one organization in the network may rely upon a critical partner who is a perceived threat to another organization).

The solution: Create structures for consistent learning and reporting. As their work ebbs and flows, networks need to stay focused on what’s currently happening. Through thoughtful collection and reporting of high-quality data (both quantitative and qualitative), networks can position themselves to be able to intentionally adapt.

  • Commit to integrated data collection and reporting. Using one another’s data will not only improve the network’s success, but perhaps also generate more at the organizational level.
  • Ask questions that get at the heart of what you need to understand to reach your goals. Are the network’s activities leading to desired changes and are those changes sustained over time?
  • Measure the network itself. For example, assess whether goals are clear, participation is equitable, and information is being shared effectively.
  • Remain focused on what you will be able to act upon. Data is not an ends in itself, but rather a means for thoughtful decision making. Does the data you are collecting help your network work better?

I admire the networks I work with who are willing to dedicate adequate thought and resources to this development. I am saddened by those who get distracted by feeling like they need expensive technical tools when they can start now, even with simple paper surveys, ensuring there will be some data to show change over time.

The ones that I know are guaranteed to make a difference are those who are willing to discover what isn’t working and be open to change. That kind of resiliency is the very reason networks are capable of exceptional results.

This article was originally published on The National Rural Health Resource Center's OnCenter blog.