A working professional's search for creativity, purpose, and peace

I recently launched my book Something More: A Working Professional's Search for Creativity, Purpose, and Peace. I'd love to share with you the author Q&A led by Majo Molfino, women's leadership coach and host of podcast Heroine.fm. The event was held on February 8, 2017 at the tea room of The Center SF with over 60 people in attendance.

This book is for you if you’re thinking about...

  • Pursuing your creative calling while working full-time
  • Exploring your many different interests, while navigating the purposeful and the practical
  • Going on an inner journey, either while working or by taking a sabbatical

After ten years of not making art, I started making art again while working full-time in Silicon Valley. My adventures took me to the bare wooden floors of yoga studios, the white walls of art studios, and even to an anarchist bookstore and the city dump. Through it all, I found the core of what was looking for all along: a true feeling of self-acceptance.

You can find the book here.

Show notes

  • Starting to feel restless after five years of working in tech. Felt that I lacked self-efficacy. Gradually realized this feeling was related to my creativity. [4:15]
  • How I decided to take a sabbatical. Responding my desire to grow and to recharge. [8:40]
  • How I worked on creative side projects while working full-time. Taking art and writing classes on evenings and weekends. Making art or writing during the evenings and early mornings. Managing expectations. [10:22]
  • As a daughter of immigrants, managing cultural beliefs that influence my decisions. [14:25]
  • Reconnecting with my body to better manage my inner critic and listen to my intuition. [16:57]
  • Recognizing privilege. Moving through denial and guilt. Recognizing that it’s possible to have gratitude and desire something more. [21:13]
  • Managing my inner critic through meditation and journaling. Overcoming perfectionism through deadlines, faith, surrender, self-acceptance, and service. [23:10]
  • Reclaiming 10 years of my life. Learning from the experiences of older women. Seeing how this questioning affects all aspects of my life, including purpose, partnership, and parenthood. Making decisions with intention [29:02]
  • Fully accepting my many interests. Being flexible about how I make money and express my creative and analytical sides. [35:40]
  • Reaching a feeling of true self-acceptance. Makes it easier to manage my many interests. [38:08]

Your personal board of directors

How I expanded my set of role models to reflect the way I want to bring creative expression into my life

Original artwork by Bernadette Cay

Original artwork by Bernadette Cay

In the words of Aristotle, “Man is by nature a social animal.” That’s why “what other people think” can become a creative block, as you saw in my previous email on creative permission

Each of us have different layers of social support. For example, there are folks I would interact with daily (friends, family and coworkers), to communities I interact with weekly or monthly, to role models I admire from afar.

I have deep respect for Silicon Valley’s pantheon of leaders, such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg. The careers of these leaders are of course highly creative and interdisciplinary, but there are a lot of different ways to integrate creativity into one’s life. 

In bringing creativity back into my life, I noticed that I needed to expand my set of role models to include people who expressed those elements in ways that interested me the most.

I remembered an unusual assignment from college: each of us had to create a “Personal Business Plan.” A business plan is usually intended to help a company with strategic planning. It includes stuff like the company's vision statement, the company’s product/service offerings, market opportunity and market risks. 

For this assignment, we had to create a business plan for our lives as if we were a company, e.g. describe our vision for our lives, our strengths and skills, etc.

Companies can have a board of directors to help lead the company. For this assignment, we got to nominate a “Personal Board of Directors” of people whose “superpowers” could complement our own skills.

Here’s the twist: The “board members” could be real of fictional. They could be dead or alive. No need to have met them before, or to share the list with anyone.

I didn’t think about this exercise for years. Now, as I encounter creative and interdisciplinary people in articles or conferences, I add them to a doc that’s an ever-growing list of virtual "board members."

When I have an idea for new project, a decision to make or I’m feeling discouraged by my “inner critic,” sometimes it helps to think about how one of my “board members” would have approached it. This practice helps me feel less alone as I navigate my interdisciplinary creative adventures and puts my fears into perspective.

How have your role models inspired your creative journey?

Nature does not ask permission

Moving from fear to creative permission, and what actually happened when I started making art again

Original artwork by Bernadette Cay. Paper and acrylics on Stonehenge paper.

Courage

As some of you may know, I had stopped making art for 10 years, before starting to make art again around this time last year. 

In examining my creative blocks, I noticed something odd about one of them: I was waiting for someone to give me permission to make art. As a “good student,” I was used to getting permission and seeking external validation before taking action.

Because making art wasn’t practical, I didn’t feel like I was “allowed” to do it. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to do something just because I enjoyed it. At its core, this was fear: fear of some kind of punishment or social ostracization.

I realized that such permission would only come from myself. Furthermore, whether or not anyone gave me permission to make art, the desire for creative expression was not going to go away.

At peace and alive

I smile when I think about what actually happened when I started to make art again on nights and weekends: Instead of pain or punishment, I felt at peace and alive. To my surprise, instead of social ostracization, over the past year I’ve strengthened existing relationships and made new ones among viewers who resonate with my art. 

This quote was one of many pieces of wisdom that helped me reframe those beliefs and start making art again. It’s also the inspiration for the above piece of art, from my latest group of work.

“Nature doesn’t ask permission. Blossom and birth whenever you feel like it.” – Clarissa P. Estés

Creative quest #1: Cycles of life and death

My approach to exploring some of life’s most uncomfortable questions and how they intersect with tech and art

“Cycles of Life and Death” by Bernadette Cay. Charcoal and pencil on kraft paper.

Creative quests

As a “scanner” with many skills and interests, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to fit art into my life. I’ve finally found one that fits: creative quests are now the foundation of my current artistic practice. 

Here’s my process:

  1. Pick a theme and ask questions. I pick a theme that’s top of mind at this stage in my life and the questions I have around it.
  2. Collect different perspectives and experiences. I collect interdisciplinary perspectives, offline experiences and tech trends around the theme to help inform possible answers to the questions.
  3. Make art. Someday, maybe later this year or even years from now, I may make art about it to share the journey with others.

The themes tend to be on the weighty side of the human condition, themes I know I’m not alone in having questions around. 

Instead of an academic point of view, I hope for the quests to be experiential and from the point of view of a working professional. How might a working professional explore these bigger questions without going to graduate school? How might the answers inform daily life?

The structure of my creative quests are a contrast to my otherwise analytical way of thinking. They are driven by process and curiosity, not by the execution of a pre-defined result. Instead of a definite “start date” and “end date”, my intuition will help inform when I’ve satisfied my interest. I don’t aim to find definitive answers to these difficult questions, but rather to consider them for myself.

Creative Quest #1: Cycles of Life and Death

Why these topics? Why explore them now?

I’m on sabbatical from the tech world and discerning my next steps. There’s endless advice available on how to approach one’s career. 

Another perspective to consider is something to the effect of, “In light of knowing I will die someday, how should I live?” Taking it one step further, how might you consider that question without living from a place of fear? 

Such thought experiments have been useful wake-up calls for me before. For example, a guided visualization of my funeral was one of many inspirations for starting to make art again after ten years.

“For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.” – Sally Mann

These words from photographer Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still describe one part of my interest in this creative quest. At the other end of the life spectrum, the beginning of life is top of mind as friends and colleagues around me are starting families and as I’m discerning my own choices around this.

Life, death and tech

In the past five years alone, it’s become much faster to create new products and services (e.g. AWS, mobile app development tools). The question is now less of the “how” to build but more about the “what” to build.

What technologies are we creating to support these important life processes? Some that come to mind are Honor (in-home elder care) and Winnie Labs (parenting).

What about technology that enables more meaningful connections and life experiences, given what matters most at the end of life? Some that come to mind are the proliferation of delivery and in-home services, 7 Cups of Tea (online therapy) and Hey Vina (Tinder for making platonic female friends).

How does the belief that you’re not going to die affect how you live? When I mention this creative quest to one engineer, he looked me straight in the eye and told me with absolute certainty that he is not going to die, citing life-extension endeavors like Calico.

How can birth and death be more spiritual and embodied experiences? Birth and death are currently highly medicalized experiences. Yet there’s a yearning for something deeper, as evidenced by the growing demand for birth doulas, end-of-life doulas, improvement of hospital architecture and more natural burial practices.

Snapshots

Here are some notes from the three months so far that I’ve been on this creative quest. The experiences so far have focused on end of life. I hope to do more around the beginning of life later in the year.

Zen Hospice Project

The Zen Hospice Project applies mindfulness to the dying process. Their Guest House is a six-bed residential care facility in the Haight. I heard about the Zen Hospice Project through BJ Miller’s TED Talk.

I participated in a workshop on mindful caregiving. We did an exercise to face our own fears around death, to avoid projecting them onto the patient. 

In addition, this exercise shifted my perspective on life and death itself, showing that as we age, we gradually lose our skills and abilities (e.g. motor skills, vision, memory). We were invited to consider the emotional impact of these painful losses and the impact to one’s sense of “self.”

YG2D Open Mic Event

YG2D” is “You’re Going to Die,” a movement to “bring people creatively into the conversation of death and dying.” I attended one of their sold-out monthly open mic events at The Lost Church in the Mission. Folks can sign up to tell a story, sing a song or read a poem in this safe space. The stories and performances, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, brought the audience to both laughter and tears. One beautiful poem that was read was The Well of Grief.

When Breath Becomes Air

At thirty-six years old, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book explores the question, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” The exchanges between Kalanithi and his oncologist were especially interesting to me. Each time Kalanithi asked about how much time he had left, the oncologist had the same reply: “What’s most meaningful to you?”

Your help

These creative quests can also help cultivate the practice leaving room for serendipity. Several of the most interesting experiences I’ve had or books that I’ve read on this creative quest came from recommendations from friends, from events I saw on my Facebook News Feed or from other unexpected sources.

If you have any related resources you’d like to share that you’ve found interesting about the cycles of life and death, such as podcasts, articles, experiences or events, please let me know.

Don't know where to start? Try a creative quest

Find the momentum, focus and permission to bring an idea to life

Detail of "Awareness" by Bernadette Cay. Watercolor on newspaper and lokta paper.

What is a creative quest?

A creative quest is a multi-day program to help jump-start your creative process. Once you’ve designed a process you trust, you show up and do it. Even if you don’t want to sometimes. Even if it seems like you’re not seeing “results” right away.

Choose your own adventure

Creative quests have played an important role in my artistic journey. A daily drawing project (similar to Elle Luna’s #The100DayProject) was the momentum I needed to start making art again after 10 years. For the full story and tips on designing this type of creative quest, read on.

A creative quest can take on other forms, including a physical voyage. “Walking artist” Hamish Fulton walked +1000 miles across the UK in 47 days and made art about it. Photographer Reuben Krabbe took a team on an expedition to the Arctic to in search of a once-in-a-lifetime shot of skiers in front of a solar eclipse

A creative quest can also be an introspective process, no travel necessary. Examples include the book The Artist’s Way, a 12-week self-guided process to unblock and deepen your creativity. You can live your whole life as a creative quest, as in Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

Benefits of a creative quest

  1. Momentum. The emphasis is on moving forward with the process and less on the results.
  2. Focus. A creative quest helps narrow focus without closing off new ideas.
  3. Permission. For some, it’s permission to make time and space in our lives for creative expression. For me, it’s permission to explore topics that are sometimes uncomfortable.

Creative Quest #1

Creative quests are the foundation of my current artistic practice. One creative quest I’m on now is around the cycles of life and death. So far, this quest has brought me to the Zen Hospice Guest House in the Haight, an open mic event at The Lost Church in the Mission and more. Read on for more about this creative quest (and how you can help) >>

For those of us who aren't 100% fearless

After years of thinking I needed to “overcome” all my fears before taking action, one observation made all the difference

When “rationality” is fear in disguise

Every step of the way, fear has cast its familiar shadow. Fear of not getting a job amidst the 2008 financial crisis. Fear of making the wrong choices. Fear of illness. And so on.

I had considered my fears entirely rational and absolute truth. Reflections of the inexorable laws of nature and economics. Furthermore, as a modern “fearless” woman, I wasn’t supposed to have fears anyway.

Whenever I had an idea to create anything or to do something outside the Traditional Life Path, I told myself, “I’ll do X when I have addressed all of my rational concerns.”

That would make sense, right? To first “overcome” all of my fears before taking action.

I’m thankful for the educational and career momentum I’ve had over the past 10 years. Yet oddly, as a result of this way of thinking, I still felt “stuck.”

Desires > fears

About this time last year, when I was discerning my next steps and had just started making art again, I met with some people whom I admired. I realized that they didn’t live in an alternate universe, where there was nothing to fear.

They lived in the same world, with the same physical and economic hazards. They weren’t 100% “fearless” either. They woke up in the middle of the night with their concerns too.

However, I noticed that one difference was that their desires outweighed their fears. They were clear on their desires. They wanted them strongly enough that they were willing to do what they could to manage their fears and pursue their desires anyway. They weren’t waiting for their fears to go away entirely.

They would take one small step and then another in the direction of their dreams, with their fears and desires side by side, forever.

This observation inspired the artwork above. Big thank you to the brave folks who contributed your fears and desires!

How I made peace with having so many interests

After years of thinking something was “wrong” with me, I finally found a model that works

Interested in everything

I have a lot of interests, as you saw from my previous message on combinatory play. In college, I was the kid who wanted to major in everything

As a product manager and product marketing manager, I’m thankful that my career experiences so far have been so interdisciplinary. I've also enjoyed making art again after 10 years, completing a yoga teacher training program, writing and pursuing a number of other interests outside of work.

For a some of my peers who have picked something and stuck with it, I’ve seen how far they've gone in their careers. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I "stick to something"? Why did I feel like I was the only one who approached life this way?

Recently I read a book called Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher. The book describes people called “scanners”. She calls them this “because instead of diving down into the depths of an interest, we scanned the horizon for many interests.” 

Expecting such a person to pick one specialty for life as his or her singular “passion” and forfeit all other curiosities is like expecting someone with wanderlust to pick their favorite country and stop traveling. 

Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin are popular examples. Related terms include: Renaissance people, polymaths and multipotentialites.
 
There are also several types of scanners. For example, some seek mastery in a subject before moving onto another one, while others are satisfied with a “101”-level understanding. 

Solace

I’ve read all sorts of career advice over the years and oddly this was the first time I encountered anything like this. It's comforting to know there are more of us out there like this.

I now embrace my curiosity and breadth of skills and interests. I also noticed that the career experiences I’m most proud of are those in which I made unique connections across different disciplines.

No matter what’s next in my career journey, I hope to incorporate such themes moving forward.

Does this sound like you, or like someone you know or manage? I’ve included some resources below. I would love to hear from your experiences and any helpful resources you’ve encountered along the way.

"Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”  ― Samuel Johnson, Works of Samuel Johnson

Resources

How to feel true mental rest

How a four-day silent retreat gave me a taste of true mental rest

https://www.instagram.com/p/0iZ00fKAOf/

I welcomed the New Year through a four-day silent retreat. This is the story of how the process helped me feel, even briefly, true mental rest for the first time.

Voracious mind, as a strength

My mind has always been voracious. As a child, I constantly read everything — even the obscure ingredients on the back of the cereal box at breakfast.

Usually you can’t tell when someone is “thinking.” In spite of this, my constant thinking is sometimes evident on first impression. Upon meeting my friend’s mother for the first time, she mentioned that I look as if “the wheels are always turning up there.” My friends would tell me repeatedly, “Just be chill” or (in the words of my Latin American classmates) “Relajate,muchacha.”

Over the years, such constant thinking has been one of my strengths. I’m naturally curious. I have a number of interdisciplinary interests. I have explored several distinct roles and industries in my career so far. In my daily life, I pair rote tasks or transportation with a queue of audiobooks or podcasts. My voracious mind has been critical in being able to digest all of this content, to perform on exams and to manage and ship multiple competing cross-functional projects at work.

This hunger of the thinking mind is a separate from intelligence or any other mental faculty. The content of my ruminations doesn’t matter— the point is that my mind was always thinking about something, without respite.

Voracious mind, as a weakness

Every strength can become a weakness. In this case, my ever-thinking mind was a big blind spot — I had no idea I was unable to experience true mental rest. Here are the three main drivers for why:

First, I didn’t know what “mental rest” was. I guess it’s something we all do but don’t really talk about. I understood the need for physical rest and the concept of a repetitive stress injury, but I didn’t understand mental rest was a thing. When a leadership coach once described something called “mental rest,” I was surprised and embarrassed to have so many follow-up questions. (I never guessed that a year after that conversation I would write this post.)

Second, “rest” was low on my list of priorities. As a daughter of immigrants working in a fast-paced industry, coupled with my many interests, unsurprisingly I was a workaholic. I had so many interests and wanted to do so much.

Finally, I thought I was already resting. For example, I prioritize sleep and I meditate daily. Once in awhile, I watch TV or movies or go on vacation. These activities can indeed be restful. Through this silent retreat I found a different quality of rest.

Silence

For the mind to be still, it helps a lot if the things around it (like the body) are still as well. For example, during a yoga class a few years ago, I was fidgeting so much during savasana that the instructor put 10 pound sandbags on each of my arms to help me hold still.

Now imagine scaling up this concept to include the limitation of other sensory input and output. As expected, during the silent retreat there was no need to talk. Everyone’s phone was on Airplane Mode. Even reading and journaling was discouraged. Cradled by a routine of meals, meditation and various other activities, our daily survival was taken care of — we didn’t need to think about what we were doing next.

For the first two days, my hungry mind continued to churn. I became acutely aware of the presence and power of my thinking mind in a way I hadn’t before. My body also felt its own accumulated tiredness, so I slept a lot.

My mind chewed on its usual topics — the pros and cons of future plans, or how things could have been different in the past. After two days of cycling through this content repeatedly, I had no more excuses: I could no longer believe that my constant thinking was 100% useful, urgent or important.

By the third day, my body and mind felt more rested. During a meditation that day, I experienced a place of stillness beyond my thinking mind.

I felt as though I had found a dial on the radio and slowly turned down the volume of the talk show of my thinking mind, until I couldn’t turn the dial any further.

And for a few minutes I experienced what remained — a stillness. A stillness that I can only describe as solid, like a bedrock. A deeper, truer state of mental rest.

Dental floss for the brain

When friends ask me how the retreat went, I call it dental floss for the brain. The week after the retreat, back among my normal surroundings, I was surprised to continue to feel so rested and refreshed. For the first time, the “thinking work” I usually love to do and can’t stop myself from doing (like reading, writing, making art or future planning) didn’t feel as urgent.

I don’t claim to be “enlightened” or to speak on behalf of all silent retreat participants. I can’t guarantee what experiences you’d have on a silent retreat. I don’t know that much more about the place of stillness than what I have described, or whether I’ll be able to experience it again.

What I do know is this: I’m thankful for this brief experience of deep mental rest. I’m glad that such a place of stillness exists. I’d be open to participating in a silent retreat again. I look forward to exploring more ways to incorporate mental rest into my daily life.