Although I have made my living for over thirty years as a songwriter and musician, I have to admit that I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with creativity. There are several reasons for this and also several reasons why creativity will – in spite of everything – always have an important place in my career and life. I thought that by confessing that creativity is complicated even for this full-time creative, I might shed some light on why as adults we’re often resistant to creativity and why we should strive to incorporate it into our lives regardless.

Creativity messes things up

Let me start by saying I truly love order. I can be described – only somewhat tongue in cheek – as the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and makes the bed. For me, creating order is not only soothing but also my way of establishing focus in my work and life. One of the problems I’ve found with creativity is that it’s messy. The act of creation involves trial and error (lots of error), tension, vulnerability and no small amount of discomfort. And for a guy – true story – whose kindergarten teacher told my mother that I didn’t want to finger-paint because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty, this is a serious challenge. And yet I’m still drawn to creativity. The way that I reconcile this is by looking at creativity as messing things up so I can then put them back together again but better.

Creativity is scary

Even though I’ve been writing songs for over three decades, I still feel a slight tremor of fear every single time I sit down to write. So I can only imagine what it must feel like for someone who doesn’t explore their own creativity with any regularity. However, leaving your comfort zone is supposed to be scary. What I mean by this is that the fear that you feel when confronting creativity is exactly what you need to break out of your old, familiar routine. Also, I’ve found not only with myself but even with business teams that when I take them through my songwriting workshops, the fear is temporary. Once you’re absorbed in the creative process, everything else falls by the wayside in service of your creative effort.

Creativity takes effort

And, speaking of effort, it’s not an easy thing to begin a creative project of any kind. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Finding Flow” refers to the effort it takes to begin any creative endeavor as “activation energy.” The difference between flopping down in front of the television and actively engaging in a creative exercise is significant and ofter enough to discourage even the most intrepid creatives. However, like getting past your fear, once you’ve exerted the effort, the rewards far outweigh what it took to get started.

So, let’s talk about those rewards…

Creativity adds meaning to life

A life built on maintaining the status quo and avoiding challenges may seem appealing at first glance but, in reality, will be almost unspeakably dull and unsatisfying. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become a painter or dancer in order to have a meaningful life but the act of having a hobby, telling a story or raising a child (one of nature’s original creative endeavors) adds meaning and texture to our lives. We need creativity to become the fullest expression of ourselves.

Creativity fuels productivity

Productivity – that coveted skill that all businesses require – is based on having something to “produce.” So without the creative act there’s really nothing to be productive about. In my experience, I’m always much more motivated to be productive when I’ve created something I’m proud of that I want to share with the world whether it’s a new song, workshop or book. In the end, productivity is in service of creativity.  It can be helpful to remember that productivity for its own sake is an empty exercise.

Creativity leaves a legacy

I’ve written about this before but it’s important to repeat that creativity isn’t the domain of a select few “anointed” ones but, rather, something that we are all born with. All of us are responsible for adding our unique creativity to the collective whole. Our reward for this is that we leave a little bit of ourselves behind. This means that a part of us will continue even after we’re gone. Whether it’s a made up story for your child or a song people sing, your creativity will outlast you and that is a powerful reason to brave the discomfort and fear that are only temporary.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across bright, motivated executives who – when asked – say they’re not creative. Similarly, I don’t know how many times in my talks, workshops and writing I have said that we are ALL creative. I believe this to be true without exception. I believe that part of the problem when it comes to people downplaying or outright dismissing their own creative ability is the standard for what counts as “creative.”

Just as it feels like common sense to say that we are all endowed with a certain amount of creative ability, it also makes sense not to compare ourselves to the icons of creativity in various fields. In other words, it is reasonable to say that anyone can tell a story but not everyone is Stephen King. More importantly, we don’t have to be Stephen King to benefit from incorporating storytelling into our communication.

The reason I bring this up is twofold. 

First, by comparing ourselves to the exceptions (the genius, full time creative types), we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and – perhaps worse – discouragement. This is an unnecessary comparison and one that doesn’t do anyone any good. On top of that, just because you’re not Steve Jobs doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to the creativity of your team. Teams need creativity – and creative awareness – at all levels in order to function at their best.

Secondly, in a business context, even if someone on your team IS brilliantly creative, that feels like a risky way to incorporate creativity across a department or entire company. For example, that brilliant creative might have a creative slump or even leave your company all together. Might it not be better if everyone were to explore their own creativity so that at the very least they can understand – and contribute to – the creative conversation? I’m not saying that everyone has to contribute equally but I am saying that putting all of the creative weight on just a few shoulders could cause problems down the road.

I’ve spent my entire working career in the arts and while there are countless ways of finding and harnessing inspiration, there are also creativity-damaging behaviors to avoid. First on that list is comparing your creativity to the creativity of those around you. Better to explore your own creativity, celebrate the creativity of your peers and idols and know that there is room for all creativity.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

The longer I spend guiding business teams through the process of learning to write songs, the more I’ve come to understand the surprising and powerful benefits. In a previous article, I enumerated some of these benefits which include learning to think differently, leaving one’s comfort zone and improving the ability to communicate concisely. This article will pick up where my last piece left off and go even deeper into the exceptional business advantages that learning to write songs provides.

1. Learning to write songs demonstrates that we are all creative

It is my firm belief that we are – all of us – creative. That being said, as we progress through life there is an emphasis placed on productivity that, unfortunately, comes at the expense of exercising our innate creativity. So much so that by the time we’re established in our careers (unless your career is in the arts), our creativity has often been left to atrophy. By breaking down songwriting into its component parts and giving clear direction to a group of obviously intelligent – if a little uncertain – business executives, my songwriting workshop simply provides a road map to access the creativity that is already there in each one of us. It’s hard to describe the joy, motivation and increased energy that comes from a business team when they emerge from a songwriting session having proven to themselves that they are, in fact, creative.

2. Songwriting teaches us how to methodically access our creativity

It’s one thing to believe we are creative and another altogether to know how to access that creativity. What songwriting provides is a clear and predictable structure to explore ideas and communicate them to others. Above and beyond the final product, songwriting is a means of tapping into our creative selves consistently and repeatedly. And, like any craft, the more that it’s practiced, the greater the results and the benefits. The ability to access creativity will pay dividends far into the future as business challenges will always require a degree of creativity.

3. Writing a song helps teams get over a generalized fear of failure

Any time a team comes together to work on a project, there is a chance that the project won’t succeed in the way they would like. This is especially true when the project – writing a song – is something the team has likely never done. That is exactly the point. By demonstrating to a team that a daunting task like writing a song is something they can do together, my workshop reinforces the idea that facing your fears can – and most likely will – have a successful outcome. This increased confidence carries over into any and all projects the team will face going forward.

4. Songwriting is a shortcut to the emotional crux of any issue

Often in the workplace, there is a reluctance to face the genuinely human and emotional aspects of the work we do. The fear is that we will appear weak or ineffective when, in fact, the opposite is true. Having the strength to include what makes us all connected as human beings (i.e., our emotions) gives a team a deeper and more robust connection. By exploring any idea through the lens of songwriting, a team adds emotion and humanity to what otherwise might feel like yet another clichéd business challenge. One of my favorite examples of this was the group of airline executives I worked with who instead of simply putting together a PowerPoint Deck about coordinating their disparate teams, wrote a song using the metaphor of geese flying south for the winter. This way, the idea of true teamwork and survival became a tangible part of the vision they were trying to achieve.

5. Learning to write songs takes seasoned executives back to a beginner’s mindset

By presenting a business team with a challenge in an area where they lack experience, learning to write songs will encourage seasoned executives to go back to a beginner’s mindset. Looking at new and genuinely creative ways to approach and solve problems is a skill that will endure long after the songwriting exercise is done. It’s a reminder of the unexpected and lasting benefits of examining challenges with a clean slate instead of the standard – and unfortunately overused – problem-solving approaches.

Conclusion

There you have it. Another five reasons why learning to write songs is a great decision for business teams. And perhaps I shouldn’t assume everyone knows this but above and beyond the clear and compelling business value, learning to write songs is also a tremendous amount of fun. 

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

As a professional songwriter for the past thirty years, I know exactly why I write songs. I can’t help it. It’s my way of making sense of the world around me and, very fortunately, also the way I make my living. However, for the past eight years I’ve been helping business teams enhance their creativity and solve problems by teaching them to write songs. Understandably, there is no small amount of reluctance by executives to do something so utterly foreign to them. To that end, I’ve put together a few compelling reasons why all business teams should learn to write songs.

1. Learning to write songs makes you think differently

I’ll begin by saying I’m a big fan of the Abraham Maslow quote, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Consider exploring your ideas and objectives through the lens of songwriting as a new “tool” in your problem-solving toolkit. By examining ideas through metaphor and the emotion-rich language of lyrics, you’re opening up a new way of approaching old or persistent work challenges which will lead to novel and innovative solutions.

2. Learning to write songs takes you out of your comfort zone

As human beings we naturally lean towards preserving the status quo. It’s comfortable and gives us the illusion of control. The reality, however, is that the “safety” of the status quo is anything but safe. We may not want to change but the world will change around us no matter what we want. Leaving your comfort zone in pursuit of a new way to solve problems and examine ideas is a good reminder that the real rewards and solutions exist in leaving the tried and true behind. On top of that, songwriting as a high challenge, high skill and clear objective practice helps business teams achieve a flow state which is, in and of itself, highly satisfying and profoundly motivating.

3. Writing a song shows you that you can do something “impossible”

For most people, the idea of writing a song can seem more like a magic trick or an impossible dream. But my favorite part of what I do with business teams is that I take smart people who don’t consider themselves to be creative and I give them the tools to explore and enhance their creativity. By breaking down the process of songwriting into its component parts, I show the team that songwriting is a craft that can be learned. When a team “does the impossible” and writes a song, there’s a tangible boost of confidence that carries forward and helps the team tackle other seemingly “impossible” issues.

4. Learning to write songs improves your ability to communicate

The beauty of the lyric writing is how it requires us to communicate only the most critical parts of our ideas and say them in a way that is both clear and memorable. While the verses of songs improve our ability to use image-rich language in the service of telling a story, it’s the chorus that teaches us the skill of distilling a message so that it not only makes a clear point but also does it in a way that people will want to hear. If communication is a muscle, then writing song lyrics is a serious workout.

5. Writing songs brings teams together around a common cause

There’s nothing quite like a challenge with a clear goal to bring a team together. Above and beyond exploring ideas and objectives, learning to write songs bonds teams around learning a new way to express themselves. The finished song (and every team I’ve ever worked with finishes their song) serves as tangible – and singable – proof that the team has rallied and done something they weren’t sure that they could do. It’s like a shot of jet fuel for team bonding.

Conclusion

It is highly likely that becoming a songwriter isn’t the reason you joined your current company. Regardless, I can promise you that using songwriting as a new way to explore ideas and improve your team’s creativity and communication will make you and your team better equipped to handle the challenges you face on a daily basis. Take it from a veteran of almost a decade of work teaching business teams to write songs. It works and it works well.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

If I’ve noticed anything my thirty-plus years of writing songs, it’s that there is nothing quite as powerful as a song to connect and mobilize people. To that end, I’ve begun offering a new service to my clients that I call the Team Theme.

This works in one of two ways.  First, I can lead the team through my songwriting workshop empowering the participants themselves to write a song that addresses an important objective or team mission statement. Or, based on a series of in-depth discussions in advance, I can write a song for the team that captures the essence of their goal or message.

Either way, it’s what happens next that counts.

Taking the rough recording done at the time (typically an acoustic guitar and vocal recorded into a smartphone), I can bring in the A-list session musicians and vocalists that Nashville has in stunning abundance and, together, we can create a world-class master recording of the clients’ finished song.

It’s not unusual that the players involved would be, for example, Sheryl Crow’s guitarist, Aerosmith’s drummer and a vocalist who goes on later to sign their own record deal or become a contestant on The Voice (and, by the way, all of those example are real). 

Here’s why this matters.

Not only does the team end up with a beautifully recorded song that encapsulates their values and mission but they’ve also invested in a tangible asset that they can use in future presentations, meetings, social media (which is more and more about video and sound these days) and countless other situations where quality audio will bring a presentation or an event over the top.

But as one of my favorite expressions states, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”  In other words, you have to hear it to believe it. 

Click the links below to hear both a “before” and “after” snippet of one of my recent Team Themes.

The Rough Recording

The Team Theme

And, finally, when the team (or entire company for that matter) hears their finished theme, it works like jet fuel for bonding and motivation.

As always, I’m happy to answer any/all questions about how the Team Theme can work for your group so don’t hesitate to reach out.

-Cliff

p.s. Team members are always welcome to come to the studio on the day of the session or, if that isn’t possible, they can access a link to the live studio stream so they can hear their song coming to life as it happens!

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

I began writing songs in the late 80s and my process then was anything but brief. First of all, I had little to no idea of how my own creative process worked so I spent a decent amount of time simply waiting around for inspiration to find me. When it did – at ridiculously irregular intervals, I might add – I would then wrestle with my song over a period of weeks and months (sometimes even years) never fully feeling like I was finished. Thirty years later, a typical writing session for me is around three hours from blank page to recorded demo. A lot has changed in my understanding of the craft of songwriting – and creativity in general – over the years. Along with this hard-won understanding, I’ve also learned how effective time constraints can be for the creative process. Below are a few of the reasons why.

Sometimes you simply don’t have more time

As much as we would all like to have unlimited time, the reality is that there are occasions when we need to create and create quickly in order to take advantage of an existing opportunity. In those instances, knowing how to access inspiration and move forward can be critical. In my world, I’m often put together to write songs with touring artists who may only be in town for an afternoon before a show. If I’m hoping to co-write a new song for the artist to record on their next album, it’s up to me to shepherd the collaborative process so that we have a finished song in the time allotted. My ability to write on a tight deadline has provided me with some of my most successful – and artistically satisfying – songs.

Moving quickly helps focus your concentration

Another benefit of knowing we don’t have unlimited time to create is that it forces us to eliminate distractions and concentrate on the matter at hand. We’re all pulled in many directions throughout our days and it’s, unfortunately, much too easy to drift away from a creative task if we know we’ll have the luxury of returning to it later. As noted flow expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has observed, the combination of high-challenge, high-skill requirements and the clear objectives in time-sensitive creative work, can lead to entering a flow state where distractions and even a sense of time fade away leaving only the process at hand. Speaking from experience, I can say that achieving flow in this way is not only highly satisfying but also deeply motivating.

Working with a limited amount of time gets you out of your own way

Take it from me, a recovering micro-manager in the extreme, finding ways not to obsess over insignificant details is critical to the creative process. There is a reason that I keep my creativity work with business teams to between sixty and ninety minutes. If I’m asking seasoned executives to leave their comfort zones to do something as seemingly “impossible” as writing a song, I don’t want to leave them too much time to think about it. Instead, by moving quickly and only focusing on big picture creativity, my business teams are able to write songs without getting bogged down in any of the less important details. In our limited time together, all of my teams – without exception – achieve a “minimum viable product” (i.e., a song) which serves as a reminder that we all have the capacity to be creative if we can stay out of our own way. Working quickly helps us to do that.

Time is a limited resource

I’ve never been an advocate of moving quickly for speed’s sake. However, it doesn’t hurt to remember that time is one of our most limited and precious resources. Learning to access your creativity within tight time parameters is an excellent way to take advantage of the time we have available.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This is a short story about two kinds of people and I’m telling it to make an equally short (and sweet) point.

The first person in our story gets up every day at 4:30am, makes the bed, immediately answers emails, reviews his to do lists, works out, eats breakfast and, coffee in hand, goes to the office to spend the day getting as many things done in between meetings as possible. Then, after work is done, has dinner, watches a little TV and is in bed and often fast asleep by 9pm. This person is a model of efficiency, discipline and, of course, productivity.

The other guy will often wake up in the middle of the night only to record an idea into the voice memo app on his smartphone, tends to skip shaving on especially creative days and can spend hours staring sightlessly at the wall looking for something inarticulate that feels just out of reach until he can finally get it down in some kind of written or recorded form. A classic “creative type.”

To the casual observer, these two people would appear to be polar opposites except that I am both of them.

As an independent contractor for the past thirty-plus years, I’ve learned that organization, discipline and productivity are the keys to keeping my business afloat. However, given that I make my living as a professional songwriter, I’ve learned to make room in my life for pure creativity without which I wouldn’t have much to produce or organize in the first place.

While I’m sure that nature had a role to play in both sides of my personality, I’m equally certain that I’ve had to nurture both the productive and creative sides of my life in order to build a career around my passion. 

Another truth that I’ve discovered over the years is that I genuinely need both sides of the productive/creative coin in order to be truly happy. Productivity and discipline on its own would feel dry and uninspired. However, staying in a creative mindset all the time would feel overwhelming and exhausting. The best way I know to describe my particular situation is that each side of my personality makes the other side more worthwhile and fulfilling.

As I said at the start, this is a short story but stay tuned for more of my thoughts about ways to make room for – and balance – productivity and creativity in your own life.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

First of all, a note of sincere thanks for receiving – and reading – my blog posts up to this point.

To say that I love my songwriting work with business teams and entrepreneurs would be an understatement.

If you’d like to know more about how I can help you and your team enhance your creativity and solve problems, either email me or give me a call at 615-320-7233.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

-Cliff

When faced with the thought of doing something outside of our comfort zones, most of us – myself included – tend to resist at first. I completely understand. So I’m never surprised when I’m met with some version of skepticism or even fear when I tell my assembled executives that they’re going to write – and then sing – a song. This response means two things. One, I’m doing my job properly and, two, the outcome of the exercise will have the powerful effect of opening the eyes of my teams to a new way of problem-solving and exploring their creativity. Below are three good reasons to write a song in spite of your initial fear.

1. Genuine growth requires leaving your comfort zone
One of my favorite expressions has always been, “if you want something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done.” In order to grow and improve, we need to take risks and push beyond our usual boundaries. This kind of risk-taking doesn’t come naturally to any of us but it’s critical not only for growth but also for any kind of innovation. Learning to write a song in spite of its unfamiliarity and potential for embarrassment is a safe and easy way to build up your tolerance for risk and demonstrate to yourself that you’re capable of achieving a hitherto impossible-seeming goal.

2. Songwriting develops critical innovation skills
Breaking down ideas and examining them through the lens of songwriting is a truly unique way to enhance your approach to problem-solving. The use of metaphor in songwriting improves your ability to think differently about any issue. The storytelling inherent in verse-writing invariably helps my workshop participants rediscover their creativity. And, finally, the writing of choruses in songs sheds new light on how to generate incisive and distilled communication in any context. All of these skills (and even a few more) are explored and developed via learning to write songs.

3. If you can innovate, you’ll stay forever relevant
Just like there is resistance to writing a song if you’ve never done it, there is often resistance to innovation as it requires exploring new approaches when the current approach might still be viable. The danger, however, is that what is working today – e.g., what you’re comfortable with – is not necessarily what is going to work in the future. Songwriting develops the critical skills of innovation necessary to keep you and your business relevant well into the future where maintaining the status quo could prove fatal.

Bonus tip – Doing something you thought was impossible is indescribably motivating
I’ve observed time and again in my workshops with executives that the conquering of the seemingly impossible task of writing a song leaves people deeply motivated and inspired. This not only makes the songs themselves memorable but the after effects also carry over into a sense of confidence stemming from the rediscovery of an often long dormant creativity.

Conclusion
As someone who, himself, was truly terrified of singing when I started out in music, I completely understand the fear that being told to write and sing a song evokes. However, thirty years into a career that has brought me endless joy and satisfaction, I can safely say that leaving your comfort zone in pursuit of something greater has profound and lasting benefits.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This “Five Questions” blog post, features the founder of Natural Born Thinkers, Sam Hunter.

1. What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?

Could I write something good and could I sing it!?  For whatever reason, being asked to write a piece of poetry or a story seems so much more accessible than writing a song.  The idea of a song seems so much more complicated as you have to put musical notes to it and then sing, pushing on all types of knowledge and perceived artistic limitations.  During the songwriting workshop, Cliff illuminated the essence of songwriting which is visual storytelling, using metaphor to bring your words to life.  As soon as Cliff shared this, I was able to get started as he broke songwriting down in a way that was accessible and personal.  At the end of the day, we all have story to tell. A song is just a new way of sharing it!

2. Can you describe how it felt to write your song?

For about a ten minute period, it was as though my brain parted and allowed the light of my song to shine through. The idea for the song really sparked a set of emotions and imagery which I knew I had to sew together in a story to share my message and feelings with others. I would not have been able to do this had I not attended two of Cliff’s songwriting workshops.

Cliff’s workshops gave me confidence to put my heartfelt words on paper.  I just had to get the story out first and from there could finesse the wording to ensure I was showing, not telling, and had a memorable hook in the chorus.  It felt so amazing and natural to write the song.  When you really have something you want to say and you have the constraints within which to say it, you have purpose and structure to get your story out. It doesn’t have to be – nor will it very likely be – perfect the first time. I suspended all judgement in that moment and just went with what my instincts said. That is what made the process so enjoyable and enlightening!

3. What was it like hearing the music added to your lyrics?

The music really lifts the words off the page and brings them to life. A smile comes across your face and you get this sense of surprise and accomplishment as you realize you have just put some music into the world! I remember both of the songs that I have written with Cliff and know that once you have written one, if you practice and try again, you will be able to write another!

4. How did songwriting make you think differently about your particular topic?

Whenever someone has a story they want to tell and a message they want people to remember, I now immediately wonder what the song for this might look like. A song helps to concisely put a message down on paper and then pushes you to consider how you can make this story connect with other people. I think there are a lot of people out there who struggle to tell a story that actually connects with others and a song is a great technique that pushes you to do this.

5. What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?

That you can do it! You have a natural born songwriter inside you. You have a story that is unique to you and have seen things in the world that are unique to memory. Your inner voice and memories are all that you need to get started and no one will be able to write the same song you can!

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.