Of all the advice available to us on wellbeing—what to eat and not eat, what our lifestyle should be, how to manage stress, how much exercise we need and what we should get from our relationships—the idea that we can create our way to being well sounds too simple. But like many simple truths, it’s easy to miss and very hard to do.

There are giant, simple truths about the way we need to live in modern life that we miss because we’re so busy complicating things.  Tweet This Quote

I have felt for a long time that there are giant, simple truths about the way we need to live in modern life that we miss because we’re so busy complicating things.

If this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes gives you a sense of satisfaction, then you’re at least somewhat the same. He said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I’m looking for a unified theory – not of the cosmos, but of a way for life on earth to survive modern times. I’ve tried out a number of theories over time…

Theory 1.

If everyone spent time in nature, we would not have the scope of problems we have.

Think about the impact of that, of what we would come to feel, what we would notice. We would find out we’re a part of this extraordinary ecosystem, we would honor and connect to life on earth. We could not help but put our issues, and our lives in perspective. There is growing evidence for the truth of this. From The Power of Nature: Ecotherapy and Awakening: “A few years ago researchers at the University of Essex found that, of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey by the same research team found that 94 percent of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood. Since then, in the UK contact with nature has been increasingly used as a therapy by mental health professionals.” DUH!

But this is what nature looks like now in some parts of the world. Not everyone has access, or even a tree. This is a photo I shot at the dock en route to the airport in Sierra Leone.

Perhaps this is where it all started – the kind of thinking that has formed our mental models: Evidently one day a man took Socrates out for a walk beyond the walls of the city, tried to get him to sit down under a tree to talk. Socrates said, “You must forgive me, my dear friend. I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.”

Just imagine if he had said, “Holy cow, look at that tree. How amazing, how does it do what it does, think of all the things we can learn from it.” Maybe if it was this tree in Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico, it would have been different. But no. Many people still don’t think they have much to learn from nature. It seems we have to give ideas a “tech” sounding name and bring them up in a windowless conference room in order to appreciate them.

Oh well. But I have not given up.

Theory 2.

If everyone read the New Yorker, the world would have fewer problems. Farfetched you say? Listen to this.

It would mean that everyone could afford it. Everyone could read. Everyone would get their news not 24/7 focused on disaster and conflict and sensationalism, but once a week, filtered by reason and erudition. With time to digest, and time to reflect before making judgements and drawing conclusions.

And here’s a few facts about the average reader of the New Yorker:

  • Average Household Income – $116,807
  • Education – Graduated College+ 68%
  • Employment Status – Full-Time 50%
  • Employment Status – Professional/Managerial 45%
  • Marital Status – Married 54%

Chicken? Or egg?

But, there’s the cost, at almost $60.00 a year, and the environmental cost of production, not to mention the lack of iPads for 90% of the people in the world…

For every complex system there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. – H.L. Mencken  Tweet This Quote

Oh well. But I’m here to argue for another.

Theory 3.

If every person and organization practiced the creative process, the world would be a far healthier place.

There is a stereotype of the creative personality, and perhaps genius is close to madness, but is it more mad than the civilization we’ve built? David Orr said that, “As homo sapiens’ entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”

He’s talking about our entire civilization – the thing we’re most proud of as humans is fatally flawed from the standpoint of sustainability. So who’s crazier, Van Gogh or the rest of us? Aren’t we crazy to have designed this so called civilization? And isn’t it even more crazy that we don’t know how to stop?

Before we go any further, it’s important to define just what creating is. For that, I’m using Robert Fritz’s model, who has written several wonderful books on creativity and how to master it.

The first three steps in the process determine the quality of everything after. What I love about this model is that it is not elitist; it’s not a version only for experts. Having spent my life as a professional creator, though, I can say that it applies there too. This is creativity at a deep, universal, accessible level, applicable to everyone, necessary for survival.

  • Begin by figuring out what you want to create. Start with the purpose. It’s amazing to me how frequently people forget these essential steps.
  • Next, define the end state with as much detail as possible. What will it look like, feel like, smell like. How big is it? Bring it to life as fully as you can.
  • Then, with as much objectivity – and whatever metrics are available, map the current reality. Where are you RIGHT NOW? What is the truth, however ugly. Where do you stand in relation to where you want to be? What resources do you have or not have that you need? The vision maintains optimism – it makes the place you’re going to real. The current state keeps you honest about what you need to do to get there.

And according to Robert Fritz, structural tension is what drives it. The point is to keep this tension—to come to recognize the feeling and love it. Let it drive the forward momentum. Fritz says that artists are continually evaluating and recalculating the distance between where they are and where they want to be.

The really big difference between a technocratic approach and the creative process is that when we create we don’t pretend to have the answer before we get to it. In fact, we relish not knowing – we learn to navigate uncertainty. Which is one of the most important skills anyone can have.

Why is that so important? Because if you look at the interconnected, complex problems we face now, it’s clear, whether we want to admit it or not, that we are completely uncertain of how to change the way we live on this planet. We have lots of ideas for how to eliminate symptoms… but we simply cannot know from where we stand what the impact of removing symptoms will be on the whole system.

Sometimes it helps to understand what creating is by looking at what it’s not.

It’s not design thinking, which tries to provide a formula for something that is inherently not formulaic. Besides, in over thinking, we have lost the connection between design and creativity. There are dozens of books, programs, cases, conversations on design thinking as the “solution” and as the way to innovate. In fact, creating and design have been hijacked by design thinking. It’s been co-opted by business and for the most part, business does not reward or appreciate navigation of the unknown. Business likes to think it knows where it’s going.

Creating is causing something to come into being that didn’t exist before.
Having an idea, realizing it.

It’s not problem solving, which is making something we don’t want go away. Polluted water, poverty, disease. We need to make them go away once we have them. But we find that we make one disease go away only to fight another. Pass legislation that stops one toxin from being sold only to find another, and we are losing the fight. Bucky Fuller says it beautifully here:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.  Tweet This Quote

But problem solving is the way our society and our institutions approach the future. We are addicted to the notion of solutions. Problem solving feels logical, known, certain and predictable. Just look around at the number of companies that advertise what they are selling as solutions to something.

Because we are more comfortable with problem solving, we take on complex challenges with a technocratic approach. Technocratic approaches seek to optimize incremental improvements through efficiency gains.

Tightly controlled five year plans provide comfort. They look real, and secure. Within foundations, business and government, money is provided for solutions only because someone can create a sense of confidence in what will happen several years out. But of course they can’t.

One extreme example is New Jersey’s Relief Fund, which has gotten a lot of press for missing the mark so radically in terms of getting the money to those who needed it:

The nature of plans is that they try to predict the future instead of creating it. The Soviet Union is a good case in point. And a great example of the difference between planning and creating.

The truth is, hard as it is for some to accept, there are some things you simply can’t do in Excel.

How creating makes us healthy:

So given all that, how and why is it that creating makes us healthier as individuals, and organizations? What does it teach us? What are the benefits?

  1. We learn to clarify and align on vision and purpose. To talk about it. Out loud.
  2. We learn to communicate. We develop relationships. And relationships are the beginning and end of life.

  3. We observe the state of reality objectively and without agenda.
  4. We develop a shared sense of reality, we see what’s there, not what we want to see. We see the same things and can hopefully agree about what they are.

  5. We learn to experiment and play.
  6. We learn to be less stressed, to feel secure. Good things happen when we play – and when we are relaxed. Experiments are where new ideas come from.

    Lean Startup is an example of experimentation at work. Last May the Harvard Business Review ran an article called: “Why the lean start-up changes everything.” According to the article the Lean Startup, “… favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development.” See?

  7. We do and learn from doing.
  8. It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies. When we create, we’re doing, not just thinking, we move rather than sit in chairs all day. Living only in our brains is not natural. And not healthy. And we miss so much of life.

  9. It teaches us to make decisions based on what is happening, not a prior plan.
  10. We learn to navigate uncertainty. It gives us sea legs and better balance in uncertain times.

  11. It makes us observant, fluid, agile.
  12. Being aware is necessary for survival. We notice. We respond. Jared Diamond, in the introduction of one of his books said that the average New Guinean is smarter than the average Londoner – that the skills and intelligence needed to survive in the jungle are far greater than the skills required to get on the tube and go to the same job every day.

  13. It shifts our focus from financial resources to all the other types of critical resources needed for survival.
  14. Business doesn’t reward or appreciate navigation of the unknown. Business likes to think it knows where it’s going.  Tweet This Quote

    It gives us more to be grateful for: human capital, social capital, natural capital, physical capital. We know, from so much research and evidence, that money alone is not a motivator. According to Gallup’s calculations, “Actively disengaged employees – the least productive – cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.” And, there is proof all around us that when individual’s wills and interests are involved, when they have an opportunity to co-create, anything can be done. There is no limit.

  15. Creating can only take place in the present.
  16. Living in the present has proven benefits; we are aware of sensations, and awareness of sensations can rewire the brain. This kind of rewiring the brain through awareness of sensations is some of the most exciting work being done now with survivors of severe trauma.

  17. It gives us an inner joy, a sense of fulfillment, of self-reliance.
  18. It has the potential to fill the void we’ve been filling with junk food and consumptive habits.

Creating is causing something to come into being that didn’t exist before. Having an idea, realizing it.  Tweet This Quote

Picasso said, “The artist goes through states of fullness and emptiness and that is all there is to the mystery of art.”

Then John Baldessari said, “You have to be possessed, which you cannot will.”

We are all possessed with and by something. And we can all create. So I am sticking to my third unified theory of what we need to survive modern human life.

About the author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.