Much of my time last week was spent beneath cliffs of sheer red rock that towered over the St. Vrain River as it snaked its way between groves of poplar and basswood trees. I was in Lyons, Colorado, to perform at an outdoor festival and to teach aspiring songwriters how to sharpen their craft at a gathering called the Rocky Mountain Song School. I’ve been a facilitator at the school for the last 15 years and recently it’s become something of a weeklong laboratory for me, a low-pressure setting where I feel free to experiment with different ways of unlocking innate creative potential. Most of the attendees have lives far outside the music business and yet, everyone who shows up is dead serious about making their songs better.
One of the ideas I sought to impart was how narrowing one’s focus — even to the point of eliminating creative possibilities — can be beneficial in generating exceptional outcomes. If you’re thinking this sounds counterintuitive you’re not alone. Most of us have been acculturated to believe that creativity exists only in some unbridled, unstructured frame of mind. We have come to accept as fact that anything, which seeks to set limits must always be a step in the wrong direction. But what I’ve found over and over, both in my own work as a songwriter, and in enabling the work of others, is just the opposite. Only by homing in on what’s essential is it possible to create urgency, a vital component in any creative endeavor.
The curious thing about urgency is that it only happens through the application of tension — whether it’s the tension of limited time, the tension of limited resources, or the tension that comes when we are tasked with making a particular idea happen in the here and now — and not at some nebulous point in the future. Only where there is real tension, can real change occur. Highly creative people are skilled at creating, and then harnessing the utility of urgency. They know that:
• Tension creates focus
• Focus creates urgency
• Urgency accelerates creativity
Give a creative person a week or a month to finish a project and see how he or she gets around to working on it only in the eleventh hour. Sounds a lot like procrastination doesn’t it? But it’s not; it’s actually more akin to gestation. That’s an important distinction. Procrastination is the willful delaying of a task, usually due to fear of creating a less than desired outcome. Gestation, on the other hand, is the meticulous development of an idea, even when that development is taking place subconsciously. What happens when we are pressured into making an idea manifest —whether it’s a song, a conversation, or a business plan—is that we create urgency around the idea. Once that happens, what had previously been dormant will suddenly appear.
Still exploring the subject of urgency, one of the more fascinating anecdotes the American journalist Sebastian Junger presents in his short but powerful book Tribe is how people in present-day Sarajevo have been reacting to a strange bit of graffiti that’s been showing up on the walls of their city: “It was better before…”
“Better before what?” you might ask. How could things have possibly been better during wartime? Was it better when snipers were murdering young lovers as they crossed the city square hand in hand? Was it better when there were severe food shortages, aerial bombardments, and daily killings of men, women and children? You might well assume that only an insane person could have scrawled that graffiti —and that only insane people could agree with its sentiment. But what was better during those years of war between 1992 to 1995 was that people were relating to one another with a sense of urgency, and more specifically, with an urgent cognizance of the preciousness of life.
Even during the horror-filled years of the Bosnian War there was a feeling that communication, whether with friends, family, or even complete strangers, went far beyond the habitual, the impersonal and the transactional. That is why residents of Sarajevo understand the dark-humored truth of the phrase: “It was better before.” Life was, in some ways, and for some people, richer and more fulfilling then. It was this same sense of urgency, Junger went on to report, that caused suicide rates during the Bosnian War to plummet —along with a record decline in incidences of mental illness, and depression.
When people relate to their surroundings with a sense of urgency, they are far more willing to express themselves fearlessly, to show love and concern more freely, and to move through the world with far less regard for how they will be judged. It wasn’t war that people missed —that goes without saying, it was the freedom from judgment and the consequent unleashing of creativity that produced the conditions that the Sarajevo graffitist so longs for.
When there is urgency we find ourselves wrestling less with peripheral considerations and more with things of vital importance. Accessing urgency often requires that we create it for ourselves, and here are three proven ways to do just that:
• Set time limits. (The less time you have for a project the more quickly you step out of what I call mulling-mode and into action-mode.)
• Create a forcing frame. (In music, examples of this would be, setting a tempo or a key signature. In business, a forcing frame might be an intensive focus on innovation or marketing strategy.)
• Redefine what’s important. (Take five minutes to list three ideas that are most important to you or your organization, and then spend at least one hour this week focusing on them.)
All three of the suggestions listed above revolve around the admittedly counterintuitive conceit of narrowing focus to create purposeful, dynamic tension. When you are able to do that, two positive things occur: First, you will improve the chances that your idea will come to fruition, and second, you will gain a more unencumbered access to both your previously developed skill sets, and your innate capacity for creative thinking.
Here’s to things being better. Not in the past — but in a very real (and not too distant) future.