I’ll be the first to admit that when I started offering a songwriting experience to organizations, I completely underestimated the fear that executives have of appearing foolish in front of their peers. Creativity is something we all possess but if we’ve let it languish as so many of us do, then reconnecting with our creative side can feel undoubtedly scary. This is especially true for individuals and teams who are used to being in control and at the top of their respective games. The most effective creativity  – and innovation in a larger sense – is about accepting temporary chaos and a willingness to become a beginner which invariably takes us out of our comfort zones. That being said, the rewards for bravery in the face of these fears are significant. I’ve listed a few of these below.

1. It’s Exhilarating 

I hear “I’m not creative” so often from my songwriting experience participants that I’ve come to expect it. However, what I’ve also come to expect is that when you give smart people the tools to unlock their creativity, they simply get to work and do it. Better still, once you show someone how to access their creativity, the increase in energy and joy is contagious. I’m often faced with dozens – and sometimes hundreds – of somber faces when I explain to them they’ll be writing a song but an hour later those same participants are smiling, laughing and, yes, even singing. Sixty minutes and a willingness to face your fears can – and does – result in exactly this kind of exhilaration.

2. It’s Motivating

Carrying the weight of fear is a burden we place – often unknowingly – on our creative efforts. Imagine, then, that once this burden is lifted with just a little effort, how much better we feel and how much more willing we are to get to work on something we were previously dreading. The fear of creativity is not just for creative beginners, I’ve spent the last four decades plumbing the depths of my own creativity and I still face that little tremor of fear before I sit down to write my next song or even this article. The difference is that I’ve had years of confirmation that facing my fear results in something I can be proud of and this is what motivates me to get up the next day and do it again.

3. It’s Memorable

Going though our daily tasks to move the productivity needle is an essential part of what it means to be in business. Yet it’s also safe to say that this kind of work is not always the most memorable. But facing your fear of creativity and going on to create in whatever form that may take is behavior that leaves a mark. Not only will you be putting a small part of yourself into the world and adding to your creative legacy but you’ll have also spent your time creating a memory of which you can be truly proud. Part of deriving meaning out of our lives is about stepping away from the status quo and doing something worth remembering.

Conclusion

I want to be clear. The fear we feel about leaving our comfort zones and doing something creative is real. I don’t want to discount that a big reason most of us describe ourselves as “not creative” is because creativity simply feels too daunting. I’m not recommending that any of us start with grand, heroic creative gestures. On the contrary, even the smallest creative effort will go a long way towards helping us face and overcome our fears. I’ll close this piece with a quote from a senior healthcare executive who walked up to me after he’d successfully written and sung a song with his leadership team. His exact words were, “I thought this was going to be one of the worst days of my life but it turned out to be one of the best.”

 

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When I started my business around bringing innovation and creativity to organizations, I quickly realized that far different from my perspective around change, obstacles and failure (shaped by over three decades as a professional creative), business teams and organizations saw these three areas very differently. Having not had the benefit of working on their collective creative confidence, organizations tend to value the status quo, older, more established problem-solving methods and they also tend to have an inordinate fear of failure. What I have found, however, is that with just a little nudge in the direction of creativity, perspective on the above challenges can change dramatically for the good.

Change becomes normalized 

There is a belief that the status quo is safe which is not only incorrect but also a dangerous misconception. While it is true that the status quo can be comfortable in the short term, change is, in fact, the natural order of things. There is a long list of failed companies who  denied and/or resisted change in favor of the status quo. By exploring creativity and accepting the accompanying disorder and chaos that is a necessary part of that process, we can accept and normalize change. With that significant shift in mindset, creatively confident people and organizations thrive in an ever-changing business environment.

Obstacles can be approached with new solutions

I’ll start this observation by roughly quoting Abraham Maslow who stated, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Obstacles (aka problems) come in a variety of shapes and sizes that don’t lend themselves well to “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Creativity is designed to give those who use it a varied and effective set of tools far beyond Maslow’s hammer. Creative confidence offers a broader range of problem-solving approaches which can make obstacles seem far less daunting.

Failure is not permanent

In creativity, it is understood that failure is an inherent part of the process. Familiarity with failure has multiple benefits. First of all, knowing that failure is necessary for the ultimate success of any endeavor, serves as a powerful reminder that failure to be expected and not feared. Secondly, for the creatively confident, failure isn’t seen as an end but rather a step along the road to innovation. In other words, failure is not permanent. Knowing that this is the case goes a long way towards allowing us to take the kinds of risks that build highly successful businesses.

Conclusion

One of the many magical powers of creative confidence is it’s ability to reframe what might previously have seemed like a negative situation into an opportunity for growth and success. Change, obstacles and failure and just three examples of the above. I’d like to conclude by quoting Tom Kelley, a partner at the world-renowned design firm IDEO. 

At its core, creative confidence is about believing in your ability to create change in the world around you. It is the conviction that you can achieve what you set out to do. We think this self-assurance, this belief in your creative capacity, lies at the heart of innovation.

 

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Comfort zones are, you guessed it, comfortable. We have all the answers, we know how things are going to go and we like it that way. Who could blame us? The problem is that reality – and growth – doesn’t buy in to the idea of the status quo. In the real world, entropy reigns supreme. A quick definition of entropy is “a lack of order or predictability.” And given that entropy is the natural state of things, thriving in this kind of ambiguity begins with accepting that there are good reasons why ambiguity can lead us to successful outcomes. I’ve listed some reasons below why there is real power in embracing ambiguity.

Ambiguity is the hallmark of creativity

Creativity is all about coming up with new approaches to age-old challenges but creativity is rarely – if ever – a neat and clean process. In order to bring something new into the world whether it’s a song, a product or a business strategy, ambiguity is a necessary part of the process. By accepting that the creative process is going to be messy for a time, we can remove some of the resistance we have to our creative work. Ultimately, by living with and working through the ambiguity, we will arrive at novel solutions which would have remained unattainable had we insisted on coloring inside the lines.

Ambiguity is a necessary precursor to innovation

While ambiguity is a critical part of the innovative process, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that it is only a part of that process. However uncomfortable the ambiguity and chaos inherent in innovation may be, ambiguity isn’t the final destination but rather an essential part of the journey. By taking a longer view of the innovative process, we can come to understand and welcome the ambiguity that can lead to truly dramatic and lasting innovation. Attempting to shortcut the process by either avoiding or minimizing the ambiguous elements will only result in half-baked or ineffective innovations. It is only through accepting ambiguity that we can find our way through to the other side.

Ambiguity leads to breakthrough

Speaking of the other side, breakthrough is the ultimate goal of any effective creative or innovative endeavor. That being said, breakthroughs don’t come cheap. The fee for breakthrough ideas and strategies is the discomfort that comes from swimming around in the “soup” of uncertainty and confusion. However, paying that fee can lead to significant change and success. While it might not feel like it at the beginning of the process, ambiguity is a fee well worth paying.

Conclusion

In my years spent in the creative and innovative trenches, I’ve never found a shortcut that avoids ambiguity. I’d be lying if I told you I don’t still feel a tremor of uncertainty – and even fear – before I lead an organization through the ambiguous process of writing a song about the critical organizational challenge they’re currently facing but my experience tells me that a little bravery in confronting ambiguity goes a long way towards successful and consistent innovation.

 

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It’s been clearly recognized that teams with members from diverse backgrounds and experiences are the most likely to succeed in innovative and creative areas. That being said, this diversity can add a layer of complexity given how important it is for teams to quickly establish a common ground from which to execute. In my close to a decade of working with teams in areas as diverse as banking, computers and biotechnology, I’ve discovered several constants when it comes to bringing teams together as quickly and effectively as possible. 

1. Take them out of their comfort zones

One of the great levelers when it comes to teams made up of members not only from different organizational silos but also from different levels of seniority is to take everyone out of their comfort zones at the same time. When I explain to my teams that over the next hour, they’ll be writing (and singing!) a song, it’s safe to assume that without prior songwriting experience, everyone from the CEO to an administrative assistant will be temporarily at sea. This discomfort, albeit intentionally brief, is designed to make sure that everyone understands that they’re all beginners and working from the same blank slate.

2. Give them an “impossible” project

For almost all of the organizations and teams with whom I work, songwriting is not only “uncomfortable” as I mentioned above but it can also feel practically impossible given the lack of my participants’ musical experience. What this does so beautifully is that it makes it abundantly clear that the team members will have to rely upon each other to get through the project. When I debrief with my workshop participants after the songwriting workshop and ask them what they were most scared of when they heard they’d be writing a song, one of the most common responses I get is that they were afraid they’d have to do it alone. Team members demonstrate a palpable relief when they’re told they’ll be working together. This sets the stage for a fruitful and evenly distributed collaboration.

3. Set a tight deadline

In my experience, one of the most destructive elements to team unity is perfectionism. If even one member is dead set on making things perfect, it can either discourage or silence the remaining team members. By setting a tight deadline to complete their “impossible” task, I don’t leave room for my teams to write a “perfect” song. This allows everyone to feel like they can participate without fear that their answers won’t be perfect as they’ve only got a few minutes to come up with a minimum viable product. I’ve found that this tends to unite the individual members of the team in a way that taking a full day (or even a few hours) would not allow.

Conclusion

Teams are fickle entities. When everything is running smoothly, the results can be significantly greater than the sum of the team’s individual parts. However, teams made up of diverse members have to find a way to gel before they can hope to succeed. Even the most well-intentioned team members will always need a way to find common ground with their peers. Hopefully, by applying the above tips, your team will achieve its full potential.

 

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Over the years, my work with business teams has brought me into the realm of highly seasoned and successful executives. It’s no surprise to me why these accomplished people are where they are. They’re smart, tightly focused and in control. These are all exceptional, even critical, qualities for leadership. However in order to stay ahead of the inevitable changes that come for any and all businesses, it’s also essential that from time to time even these high-functioning leaders reawaken their often long dormant beginner’s mind. This is precisely what I do for them when I teach leadership teams to write songs in an exploration of their most pressing challenges and goals. I’ve listed some of the powerful benefits of employing a beginner’s mindset below.

Beginner’s mind prevents perfectionism

While I’m sure it would be nice to be perfect, it’s an elusive goal. The danger in striving for “perfect” is that progress and productivity are sacrificed at the altar of perfectionism. What beginner’s mind offers is a chance to free ourselves from that pressure since we’re new to whatever challenge or idea we’re exploring. Being a beginner is the ideal way to approach innovation challenges given that there’s no need to find an immediate solution. Innovation is often about the willingness to accept and learn from a chaotic situation without feeling the need to fix it/make it perfect right away.

Beginner’s mind awakens curiosity

Once we’ve been in business long enough to become experts in our fields, there’s significant inertia preventing us from being open to new approaches and ideas. We’ve worked long and hard to find approaches that work for us and deliver the expected results. While this is true, it’s only effective if the world around us stops changing which, alas, it never will.  A beginner’s mind rekindles our innate curiosity in a way that can help us develop important new skills and approaches we might otherwise have avoided.

Beginner’s mind provides new solutions by avoiding familiar approaches

One of my favorite quotes (paraphrased) is Abraham Maslow’s “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Senior leaders get to where they are by having very effective “hammers.” While, there is no doubt that there are many situations in which a hammer is the perfect tool, there are times when a hammer will cause more problems than it solves. We need to turn to a beginner’s mindset to see the issue in a new light. While this approach can be uncomfortable, leaving our expert comfort zones from time to time is not only a good idea but also an ideal way to add new tools to our problem-solving collection.

Conclusion

There is a belief that the status quo is safe. If we just keep doing the things we’re doing – which are working just fine thank you very much – then all will be well. Unfortunately, all our hard-won expertise can fall by the wayside when the world changes around us. Embracing a beginner’s mindset, in spite of all the time and effort we’ve spent becoming experts, is a strategic hedge against the inevitability of change where we’re all beginners even if it’s against our will. Better to build our beginner’s mind “muscles” on our own terms so that when we’re forced to use them, we’ll be ready.

 

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The beauty of the status quo is that everything is clear and predictable. The danger in the status quo is that the world refuses to stand still and without a willingness to embrace change, things can quickly become stale and, for example, business teams can lose their motivation. In my work with teams over the past decade, I’ve discovered several highly effective ways to break through the inertia of the status quo to recharge and motivate listlessly performing teams.

1. Scare them a little (just a little)

One of the best ways to set the table for motivating a team is to take them out of their comfort zones. When I tell a group of executives that they’re going to write (and sing!) a song, I can safely say I’ve taken them beyond what they typically encounter at work. After this brief moment of shock, however, I’m quick to set up a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels equally encouraged to contribute. The idea behind scaring people a little at the beginning is that it grabs their attention and all other distractions tend to fall away in service of the task at hand. Then once the task is accomplished and the fear has dissipated, a blend of relief and exhilaration steps in to take its place.

2. Give them a challenge they’ll need each other to complete

The power of teams is in their combined ability to achieve. When a team is demotivated, it often has to do with forgetting the inherent power of collaboration. Asking an individual who’s never written a song to do it on their own would be a recipe for confusion and likely a certain degree of resentment. However, bringing a team together to contribute their individual experiences and skills to the challenge results not only in great lyric-writing and a good amount of laughter but also in an elevated sense of accomplishment. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding a team how well they’re capable of performing when they rely upon each other.

3. Bring in someone from the outside 

One of the things I enjoy most about working with business teams is that when I’m brought in, I rarely know anything about the internal dynamics of that day’s team. This enables me, as the facilitator, to treat everyone equally without fear of straining a work relationship by not showing the proper deference. In order to get a team back up and functioning well, each participant needs to remember that they need the others to be at their best. By being immune to any and all office politics, an outsider, such as myself, can help level the playing field and improve team morale.

Conclusion

Teams are the lifeblood of productive and profitable organizations. However, they are not a “set it and forget it” endeavor. Teams need to be nurtured and challenged in equal measure in order for them  – and the individual members – to thrive. When a team’s motivation flags, it’s a clear sign that attention must be paid. Motivation, more than the skills of any individual team member, is critical to a team’s – and ultimately a company’s – success. The above recommendations are designed to help bring demotivated teams back up to their high-functioning best.

 

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Innovation and creativity are often assumed to be the domain of a gifted few who are endowed with a natural ability that the rest of us don’t have. However, I’ve made a career out of proving to myself (and now others) that we’re all creative and capable of innovation. Since I’m often my own my test case, I thought I’d mention a few of the mistakes I made around creativity – which apply equally to innovation – when I was starting out. My hope is that by explaining how these errors trip us up, I can remove a few of the obstacles that prevent all of us from exploring and developing our ability to innovate and create.

1. Waiting for inspiration

I’m going to begin this section with one of my favorite quotes by mega-successful author, Stephen King. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” This was absolutely my mistake in my early songwriting efforts. The conditions had to be just right and then the heavens would have to open up and THEN I’d start writing a song. This was just fine when I wasn’t trying to make a living as a songwriter but the moment I realized that hoping I’d be inspired wasn’t exactly a business plan, I changed my approach. I had to learn ways to go out and get inspiration so that I could create consistently. For example, I’d write down an idea for a song title every morning so I’d never be starting with a blank page. Making your own inspiration is all about small, actionable steps.

2. Trying to make things perfect

When you’re truly invested in the creative process, there’s a natural tendency to want to make things exactly right. I used to agonize over single words in a song to the point where I would bring my creative process almost to a standstill.  I believe this comes from the best of intentions. After all, if you genuinely care about your work, why wouldn’t you want it to be perfect. The irony is that the harder you try to make something perfect, the worse it generally becomes. Innovation and creativity require a willingness to live with chaos, confusion and even failure before the good stuff presents itself. If you’re constantly trying to perfect what you’re doing instead of placing the emphasis on moving forward and gaining momentum, you’ll find yourself frustrated, stuck or even worse, giving up. Be easy on yourself in the early stages of innovation and save your perfectionism for later. I love the quote that has been falsely attributed to everyone from Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce. “Write drunk, edit sober.”

3. Thinking you should do it alone

The image that often comes to mind when we think of innovation and creativity is the lone genius toiling away in their laboratory but, in my experience, this is what scares many of us away from attempting to innovate in the first place. One of the great joys in my career has been the long list of amazing collaborators with whom I’ve been able to create and innovate. The reality is that innovation and creativity are much more likely to be team-based than an individual effort. Collaboration is about playing to each others’ strengths and diversity of experiences to come up with novel and useful ideas that we could not have created alone. I resisted collaboration early in my career which not only made the creative process harder but also made my songs decidedly less inspired. Once I realized the power of a great co-writer, my songs and career improved dramatically. This is not to say that alone time to ideate isn’t valuable but I’ve found my best ideas and had my greatest successes via collaboration.

Conclusion

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “I’m not creative” from members of high-performing business teams and organizations and, yet, given the proper direction each of these participants ends up undeniably demonstrating their innate ability to innovate and create. Part of the reason is that I’m there to help them navigate – based on my own experience – the unfamiliar terrain fraught with the mistakes above, however, the simple awareness of these mistakes is a good first step towards getting out of our own way on the road to innovation and creativity.

 

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There is a moment in the workshops I lead for business teams and organizations that changes everything. It’s not when I get up on stage with my guitar because who doesn’t want to sit and listen to a little music? Instead it’s the moment when I tell my audience that they’re going to be writing and singing a song. I love this moment for the way it politely but firmly pulls seasoned executives (or scientists or accountants or attorneys) out of their comfort zones. It’s a given that the groups I work with are all very accomplished in their chosen fields but I’m there to show them that by leaving their comfort zones for the duration of my workshop, they’re going to emerge better for the 90-minute experience. Below are a few of the reasons why.

1. It levels the playing field
Team dynamics can be tricky with some members clearly deferring to others whose expertise they require for a particular sought-after solution. However, when faced with a task that no one in the group knows how to accomplish, all of a sudden the paying field is leveled. Now, it’s not about prior expertise but, rather, about a willingness to dig in and explore a new and unfamiliar terrain with our peers. This is a very powerful dynamic and one that, in the very best way, humanizes all the members of a team so they can work together as equals to achieve something completely new.

2. It prevents perfectionism
With high-achieving individuals who are already good at a particular task, it’s often not enough to simply get that task done. It becomes about making that particular job “perfect.” However, when no one on a team has ever written a song, there aren’t any benchmarks for what is perfect. Instead, the creative process is allowed to run its course without being hampered by countless edits and “improvements.” I’m a big believer in the removal of our inner editors when it comes to innovation and creativity. So when a team leaves their comfort zone and has to keep the process moving forward, there’s just enough room for ideas but not enough for squeezing the life out of the process.

3. It’s a reminder that there is always more to learn
The danger in continually playing to our strengths is that we can fall into the trap of believing we’ve learned/grown enough to get by. Holding on to the status quo might feel comforting for a while but given that change is inevitable it can be a genuinely dangerous way to approach not only our businesses but our lives. One of my favorite quotes is “change is what happens to us but innovation is what we do to them.” Taking my teams out of their comfort zones and teaching them a new approach to problem-solving is my way of showing them that there’s always more to learn.

4. It’s exhilarating to achieve something “impossible”
Finally, let’s not forget how thrilling it can be to achieve something new that we’ve previously considered beyond our capability. I get a vicarious thrill from showing bright executives who don’t consider themselves creative that, given the proper guidance, they are indeed deeply creative. It’s always a pleasure to see the faces of my participants – so somber at the prospect of leaving their comfort zones – light up with the joy of accomplishment once they’ve done so.

Conclusion
All of this to say, it is never my intention to make business teams and organizations uncomfortable for an extended period of time but, rather, just long enough to reap the benefits of exploring unfamiliar territory in a curated and constructive manner. And, of course, one of the best parts of leaving our comfort zones is when we come back, we’re stronger for the experience.

 

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When we talk about “future-proofing” something, the understanding is that we can’t predict the challenges that will face us in the days, months and years to come yet we still want to prepare. While we’d all like to think that our past problem-solving approaches will work for any future issue, the reality is that we can’t possibly know what’s around the bend and whether our problem-solving “hammer” will be ready for an issue that isn’t a “nail.” This is why developing your innate creativity is an essential preparation for the unexpected. Below are three ways that creativity can help handle unanticipated future problems.

1. Creativity allows for comfort with ambiguity

As with any unexpected challenge, there will be a period of chaos and confusion after we realize that traditional problem-solving methods aren’t helping. The creative process is about living with this ambiguity for a period of time as we explore novel approaches in search of a solution. The simple understanding that there will be a period where things are messy, goes a long way towards keeping us calm and focused on the issues at hand without our getting overwhelmed or seizing the first fix that comes to mind. Creativity makes room for – and actually thrives in – uncertainty because it is an indispensable part of the creative process.

2. Creativity encourages lateral-thinking

Creativity isn’t bound by linear or predictable patterns. In fact, it is the act of departing from existing patterns that leads to creative breakthroughs. Otherwise put, thinking “laterally” instead of “linearly” can lead to insights and perspectives that might not otherwise come to light. It is exactly this kind of non-linear approach that allows for new ways of looking at problems that don’t have obvious links to prior problems or challenges. By being willing to depart from the orthodox approach, we open ourselves up to brand new ways of solving brand new future problems.

3. Creativity involves a willingness to take risks

A hallmark of any creative endeavor is that it involves a certain amount of risk. This could be anything from risk to our reputations or even the bottom line of our businesses. However, as we develop our creativity, we become less afraid of risk for multiple reasons. First, we understand that failure is an essential part of the creative process and second, the rewards – more often than not – far outweigh the risks taken. While I’m not suggesting outrageous risk, I am saying that being completely risk-averse is the antithesis of creativity and the solutions it can yield.

Conclusion

We have no way of knowing what challenges await us. But by making the effort to re-kindle our innate creativity, we stand a much better chance of navigating towards novel and satisfying solutions. Creativity isn’t the domain of a gifted few but, rather, an essential survival skill that we all possess and need to nurture. A creative mindset is as critical as a willingness to do hard, productive work when it comes to facing whatever problems the future holds for us.

 

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My experience in working with leadership teams is that confidence, in a general sense, is practically a prerequisite for top business performers. However, there’s a difference between the confidence that comes from countless hours of work and years of experience in a chosen business field and believing in yourself creatively. My work is centered around showing bright, high-achieving individuals that creativity and the confidence that comes from uncovering – and trusting – that creativity, can yield dividends that elevate even the most productive performers. Below are three significant areas where creative confidence leads to long-term gains.

Increased problem-solving skills

In the – slightly paraphrased – immortal words of Abraham Maslow, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Problems come in all shapes and sizes and solving them all via the same approach is a recipe for sub-standard results. Given that there are problems and challenges you will face that don’t even exist yet, it’s unreasonable to think that your existing problem-solving approach will automatically be viable. With increased creative confidence, you’ll be willing to explore new and innovative ways of solving future – and even current – problems. Creative confidence adds new tools to your toolbox along with the effective but not foolproof “hammer” mentioned above.

Improved Collaborations

In order to make the most of any collaboration, faith in your own creative ability is a must. It is only with a belief in your own creative capabilities, that you can not only contribute your ideas but also comfortably make room for the creative contributions of your team members. And, just as important, the creative confidence of your collaborators will allow them to feel good about adding their insights and points of view to the mix. An environment of creative confidence and trust can yield results far beyond the individual contributions of each team member.

Willingness to take risks

Innovation is consistently referred to as a critical part of a healthy business but, again and again, there is resistance to new, creative approaches when the current business model is working well. This is simply because taking new approaches feels risky. However, it is precisely when things are going well that your creative confidence will encourage you to explore new and innovative ideas in spite of the apparent risk. There is an institutional belief that the status quo is safe but over and over it has been proven that it isn’t. As I’ve heard it put, “Change is what happens to us and innovation is what we do to them.” Change is inevitable but with creative confidence and the subsequent willingness to take calculated risks, you can successfully navigate the ever-changing landscape of your particular business.

Conclusion

Creativity is not the domain of a gifted, chosen few. We are all creative. Whether or not you choose to honor and develop your innate creativity could be the difference between feeling stuck and exploring new and exciting horizons. A seemingly small daily investment in your creativity can, over time, result in a renewed sense of creative confidence which will broaden and significantly improve the quality of your work and life.

 

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