You know that Marvel comic book hero, Cyclops? The one that emits a powerful energy beam from his eyes? Yeah, that reminds me of accountants.
Flow. It comes from somewhere deep inside. Some combination of the powers of our soul: memory, imagination, will, intellect, emotions, passions, and more. You might even think of it as a spring bubbling up from within, overflowing from wells far underground. But it’s a spring which must be fed or it runs dry. Our eyes, our ears, our mouths, our bodies, our noses – all of these are ways to feed the flow. If you’ve been keeping your Big Ideas Journal, you might recognize this as the New Stimuli section – the ways we open ourselves to new experiences, broadening the types and numbers of “dots” we can connect. I like to think of it as exercising the curiosity of a child. Looking at diagrams at the doctor’s office, interacting with kids (did you know the Polaroid was invented by a father whose son asked why he couldn’t see the photo right after it was taken?), watching public television specials, taking ballet lessons, digging deeper into something you’re interested in, even if there’s absolutely no utilitarian value. It creates a flow, which can get quite powerful actually (side note: be careful what you feed in).
But then we can get like Cyclops. (You wondered where he was coming back in, right? ) When Cyclops first met the legendary Professor Xavier, he wasn’t able to keep his optic beam from blasting intermittently, unintentionally causing damage, and being of no particular use. They then crafted the battle visor: a single, ruby-quartz lens running from eye to eye, so he had a mechanism to direct his ability. We need a ruby-quartz lens too – you and I. In her book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about her visor (though not surprisingly, she doesn’t call it that). As excerpted by Austin Kleon in his tumblelog post:
Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files.
I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.
The box documents active research on every project….
There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.
The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.
It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.
The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.
Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box….
They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap….They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff. I can write on them to identify their contents… I can move them around… When one box fills up, I can easily unfold and construct another. And when I’m done with the box, I can ship it away out of sight, out of mind, so I can move on to the next project, the next box.
Easily acquired. Inexpensive. Perfectly functional. Portable. Identifiable. Disposable. Eternal enough.
Those are my criteria for the perfect storage system. And I’ve found the answer in a simple file box.
My personal visor is Evernote. Much like the banker’s box for Twyla, it represents for me a way to gather the various and sundry things coming out of the flow, so that they’re there, storing up a kinetic energy that will get released when the time is right. The critical thing is that it is not lost, and that it is not building up pressure inside me – I’ve transferred it into something outside that I trust. While I’ve experimented with different ways to gather things in Evernote, I’ve evolved a system which is getting more and more effective for me. Essentially, I use the “notebooks” to loosely stow the seemingly random ideas that come to mind in each of the key areas of my life and business. And when I choose the next area of focus, I go back to those notebooks, and pull the relevant notes into the focus “notebook,” where they start taking shape as something, until that project is done, and they are archived. (If you’re curious, my business notebooks are Strategy, Services, Customers, Team, Lab, Admin, Trunk-external, Trunk-internal, and Single Stream. Just let me know in the comments if you’d like to know more about them – this may also be the basis of a future blog post.) My Evernote visor is a way to bring enough structure to the cacophony, so that I can separate the signal from the noise – it’s important not to have too much structure, which is perhaps a point worth reinforcing with us accountant-folks: the point is not the structure, and too much structure will squash the flow.
Which brings me to the last step: We’ve created the flow. We have a way to store the flow. Lastly, we need to focus the flow. Cyclops (yes, he’s still part of this analogy) honed his ability at the Xavier Institute, so that he could laser-focus his optic beam and thereby use it to effectively help people. We too need the ability to restrict our creative energies to a select few things at a time (or maybe even just one) and ignore all others. Let’s face it: that’s hard to do in today’s world, with everything clamoring around us. Even the good stuff by itself is overwhelming, much less the rest of it.
Which always reminds me of Seth Godin’s blog post entitled “Bring Me Dead Stuff, Please” where he says, “I love to hear about the next big thing, but I’m far more interested in what you’re doing with the old big thing.” It’s okay to stick with something for a while; we don’t need to be constantly running after squirrels. We have to go round and round a thing, sit with it a while, toy with it, tinker with it for hours and hours, before we can master it. People enjoy seeing a master at work because she’s taken the time to get deeply familiar with her art medium…like, deeply familiar. To borrow a music analogy from John Darnielle:
If you’re interested by a piece of music, you can miss the next twenty new pieces of music that’re fishing for your attention and just focus on that one. It’s really all right. You can just ignore all the big-ticket releases and focus on Jandek’s 9-disc solo piano set for half a year and that’s a totally valid decision. You can take a year to just listen to opera: that was me most of last year, opera and old Silkworm albums. Did I miss something? Maybe; who cares? What I had was not just fine but completely amazing, and I can catch up with anything I missed later, if I want to, and if I don’t, that’s cool too. Being on top of stuff, having an opinion about something when it’s new, this is just not a priority for me at all. Music is eternal, I don’t need to experience it as part of a news cycle.
So, to tie it all up: channeling creativity is about creating flow, storing flow, and focusing flow. And if we can do these things well as accountants, we may have just developed our mutant ability with which to serve others.
Adrian G. Simmons is a CPA innovating ways to put money in its place. After working as an auditor out of college for KPMG, he joined his father in public practice in 2002, and now acts as the Chief Creative Designer there. With the team, he looks for ways to help their customers become financially strong, so that they can focus on what truly matters in life. Adrian likes tech, uses a fountain pen, successfully attempted a half-marathon (and may try another) , and prefers dark over milk chocolate.