Ways You Are Hurting Your Own Creativity

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Whenever I hear someone say, “I’m not creative,” I call BS.

“But I don’t [draw, write, play a musical instrument, make red-carpet clothes out of used water bottles].”

The word “creative” isn’t limited to the arts. Everyone is creative. The medium of expressing it is just different. Some use pigment and textile. Others use food. Some use code and strategy.

Creativity does not discriminate. But you can hinder it with habits you may not have thought about before.

You’re Not Making Restful Sleep Your BFF

Working too much and not getting enough sleep? You’re only doing yourself harm, as sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health problems.

You may think you’re hustling it by riding the adrenaline of a caffeine boost or sheer force of will. But just like all living (and even non-living) systems, continued and heightened activity without rest will only lead to a system failure. Your body is a system of systems that need time to rest and reboot to operate well.

A couple years ago, I attended a writing workshop led by Delacorte Press’ Krista Marino, who has edited such books as The Maze Runner series. She mentioned that when she ran into a challenge and couldn’t figure a way around it, she noticed it helped if she stepped away from the problem for a day and slept on it. More often then not, when she came back to the same problem the next day, the answer would just suddenly “click.”

“So, I’m a big believer in naps,” she said.

Sometimes the best thing to boost your creativity is to do—wait for it—nothing. Take a short rest instead.

You Are Not Eating Enough Nourishing Food

You know the old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”? Researchers have suggested a correlation between junk food and kids’ lower scores in math, science, and reading.

It logically follows that the same goes for adults. If you’re taking in food that is void of the nutrients that your body needs to work, then (surprise) your body—including your brain—won’t function optimally. Your creativity will suffer as the lack of nutrients makes your body go into survival mode.

So, the solution is to eat better, right? But how?

Everyone has different requirements. You can check with a trusted nutritional counselor, but solutions don’t have to be drastic or huge, depending on your current state of health.

A pretty common sense start can be to cut out a serving of junk food (like a dessert or chips) each day and replace it with a serving of a healthier alternative (like a piece of fruit or some lightly salted nuts). Do it for a week, and if you like how you feel, swap out something else.

Small and manageable victories are better than going all out and risking withdrawal symptoms that would just lead back to problematic habits.

Your Space Is Sucking the Inspiration Out of the Air

Research has suggested that bland architecture can have a negative affect on the health of humans, including increased stress levels.

Is it any wonder why some of the best companies to work for have really interesting office designs? Headquarters like Google’s and Intuit‘s popularly sport unique and inspiring spaces designed for cultivating creative thinking.

Take a look at your space. Is it boring to you? Maybe something as simple as adding an interesting piece of wall art, opening a window, or cleaning out clutter will help make your space more welcoming to creative thought.

You Are Working in a Bubble

I do a lot of writing, so I understand needing quiet (or the white nose at a café or hotel lounge) to concentrate on the physical work of getting the words onto the page. But as I mentioned before, creativity does not turn off. It’s always on, gathering experiences and working out problems in the back of my mind as I go about doing non-writing things.

Last year, I spent five weeks in the UK, France, and Italy. I did a few touristy things, but most days I spent simply walking around and watching people. I snapped a lot of pictures and jotted down some notes of what I thought about the things I saw and how they made me feel.

Everything I absorbed in those five weeks may not materialize into any future projects. But some of it might. One thing that’s for sure is that I wouldn’t have had those experiences at all if I’d stayed locked up in my house with just the Internet as my window to the outer world.

You don’t have to fly across the ocean to get out of a bubble. Even just going for a jog in the park or having coffee with a friend can be enough. If you’re under deadline, then yes, shutting the door and turning off the phone until the task is done is effective. But the inspiration that builds creativity muscles lives out in the wild, and you have to be willing to get off your duff and find it.

You Are Being Too Harsh on Yourself and Your Work

“Art is never finished, only abandoned” is a popular quote of unclear origin (sometimes it’s attributed to Pablo Picasso and sometimes to Leonardo Da Vinci). Regardless of who said it, it’s a good one to remember.

If you do any type of creative work, then you know that your work is never actually finished. You can tweak and edit and redo a piece to death and it will never be exactly perfect.

And that’s okay.

At some point, you’ll either hit a deadline or a dead end, and you will have to let that project go. No, it will never be perfect. Nothing you ever do will be perfect. But if it gets the message across clearly and it does it with flair, then you’ve done your job. Time to turn your creative energy to something new.

Ten Things I Would Tell My Graduating Self

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Graduation season is underway, and a new crop of former college seniors are about to learn that being an adult is a lot harder than it looks.

Just over a decade has passed since I made it out of my university with a newly minted diploma in hand. Since hindsight is 20/20, here are ten things I’d tell my graduating self if I could:

1. “Ditch the ten-year plan.”

You were an ambitious little snot with the best of intentions. But you expended too much energy in working hard, rather than being more strategic by working well. It’s great to have goals and some direction. But just go in understanding that if things don’t work out how you expect, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means the beginning of a new one.

2. “Take a gap year to go abroad.”

I know, you had just graduated with college debt up to your ears. You were anxious about taking any job so that you could start paying those bills. You did what you had to do.

But if it had been possible, I would’ve recommended a gap year abroad. I don’t know if it would’ve made you more hirable, but it definitely would’ve cured some of that wanderlust. Maybe getting a glimpse at how much bigger the world was would’ve helped with some of that anxiety as well.

3. “Have faith in people, but don’t be surprised if they disappoint you.”

People are human, so their capacity for doing stupid things is limitless. Don’t hold it against them. It’s not worth it. There will be times you’ll need to find some grace, too.

4. “Don’t buy the first iPhone.”

5. “Or the first 3-D printer.”

6. “Beware of the entitlement ladder.”

In his book Start. author Jon Acuff warns of the entitlement ladder. It’s a short cut that you think will get you to where you want to go, but it only leads to disappointment. Surer foundations for your career (and life in general) only come with experience and are tempered by time.

7. “Be patient.”

Especially with yourself. Things are not going to work out as planned, and you’re going to make some mistakes. It’s okay. Learn, grow, and roll with it. You’ll have a much better time than beating yourself up over what could have been.

8. “Sleep well.”

Unlike what others may say, losing sleep is not sexy. It’s unhealthy, and your body was not designed to go without restful sleep for long. The deadlines aren’t going anywhere. Get the rest you need, and your work will not suffer for it.

9. “In 2015, Dad will find out he has cancer.”

In 2016, he’ll get the official report that he’s cancer-free.

10. “Go through the fear.”

Acuff called it “awesome.” C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Whatever it is to you, there’s usually a nasty chunk of fear standing between you and it. Don’t be afraid to go through the fear and get what belongs to you.

Solo Travel Does Not Make Me Brave

Cloudy day at Lake Como a couple weeks ago. Image Credit: Christine Dao

Cloudy day at Lake Como a couple weeks ago. Image Credit: Christine Dao

I am currently in Rome and on the second to last leg of a five-ish week long trip through Europe. Over the past few weeks, I’ve met some fun people (both locals and other travelers), and one thing I’ve heard repeatedly is: “You’re traveling alone? Wow, you’re brave!”

While I am quite flattered at the comment, I have to be honest—it’s completely inaccurate. I’m not a brave person by nature. That’s not humility. It’s the truth. I like things a certain way, and when they get disrupted, I don’t like it.

But that’s kinda how life is all the time, and I’ve seen some big disruptions in the past couple years. Like, I lost my job in 2013, 20 days before Christmas. That dominoed into losing my apartment and sucking down my pride to move back in with my mom and dad. Shortly after that, several disruptions hit my folks, including my dad being diagnosed with melanoma.

So, there have been some sucky times that have happened recently. Really sucky. Like, I’m-not-seeing-the-light-at-the-end-of-this-tunnel-sucky. But just because I couldn’t see the light doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It just meant that I was not looking up.

I got over the losing of the job thing and started my own business. My dad is healing. He and my mom are actually in Cancun right now taking a much needed break.

So far on this trip, I’ve had to change hotels a couple times because of mosquitoes getting into my room and tearing up my face. I’ve had an owner on HomeAway send me a harassing email about a three-star review I left about her property. I’ve been nearly run over multiple cyclists despite my best efforts to look all ways before crossing a street.

None of that really matters. I didn’t get run over. I ignored the emails. And when I was switching hotels in Rome and getting a little upset (Okay, very upset. I was crying. All my cool points were gone by then.) when I couldn’t find a taxi stand, a bunch of really nice guys at a café helped me find an off-duty taxi driver, and he offered to get me to my new hotel (on the other side of town—which in Rome, is freakishly far) for FREE. (Of course I still paid him. Because he was awesome.)

Before coming to Italy, I was warned that Italians could be very rude and not friendly to Americans. While there has been a rude bug or two at a ticket office or cafe here or there, most of the Italians I’ve come across have been very patient and very kind.

In Milan while at Sforza Castle, I met an architect who was extremely passionate about the Renaissance structure (I LOVE talking to people like that!). In Florence, I stayed at the Casa Secchiaroli, a charming guesthouse with an extremely helpful and kind staff, and ate way too many sweets at the Vecchio Forno Firenze (they don’t have a site, so you’ll just have to Google them), an amazing bakery with the friendliest ladies behind the counter you will ever meet. And then there were the sweet gentlemen at La Petite Fourchette Bistrot in Rome (just outside the Piramide metro station) who helped me find an even sweeter taxi driver.

Solo travel hasn’t made me brave. Not in the least. But it has made me thankful. Thankful that I could go on this trip and have these experiences. Thankful for the kindness of (most) Italians. Thankful that my parents made it through all that crap and are coming out of it with their heads up. Thankful that I even have parents still who were more than willing to take me back under their roof when my own was being taken away.

This trip is also forcing me to be okay with asking for help. Back home, I know where to go and what to do without having to really talk to other people. Here, I’ve had to ask for help (in broken French and even more broken Italian) and rely on the kindness of others far more than I am normally comfortable with. And while the past few weeks have not been perfect, they have been perfect for me.

I have a couple days left in Rome (visiting the Vatican tomorrow). Then I’m off to Venice. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Venice. Here’s hoping they are all wrong, too.

Live Like a Local?

Image Credit: Christine Dao

Image Credit: Christine Dao

I am currently in Florence (Firenze!), on the fourth leg of a five-week-ish long trip through Europe. I started in the UK (to see family), went to the South of France, then Milan, now Florence, and then on to Rome and Venice.

So far, I’ve stayed in a mix of lodgings, including an apartment, a two-star hotel, a four-star hotel, and a guesthouse in a turn-of-the-century (but renovated) Florentine casa. Some have been close to the main tourist areas while others have been in areas where mostly locals live. So you might say I’ve had a very tiny glimpse into living “like a local” for a short time.

I know a lot of travel shows and websites like to promote the live “like a local” thing. And I think there is value in that. When you’re a tourist staying only where the tourists stay, eating only what the tourists eat, and doing only what the tourists do, then there is a level of authenticity to the place that disappears. It really depends on what kind of travel experience you’re going for, I suppose.

But there are things that a tourist sees that a local may not. Back at home, a friend from The Philippines is staying in Dallas for a while, and he posted some pictures of Half-Price Books and my mom’s home-cooking on Facebook. To me, those are ordinary and everyday things, but to him, they are extraordinary and awesome.

On the flip side, when I was in Paris a couple years ago hanging out with my cousin and his girlfriend, I rambled on a bit about the amazing history of the city and the monuments and impressionism and so on. My cousin’s girlfriend then said to me something along the lines of, “You know, I know we have these great things, but I guess I don’t see it because I’ve always seen it. But now that you’re talking about it, I see how great these things are.”

So in a way, sometimes living like a local can blind you a bit to some of the awesome things about the place you live. And it takes someone from another place to remind you of the wonder that surrounds you every day. And while I think there is some value in “living like a local,” I think there is more value in “exploring like an explorer,” where even the ordinary is new a fresh and wonderful.

I have about ten more days of exploring Italy before heading back to the US. I have a feeling, however, that after spending five weeks in Europe, things will look a little different to me when I get back home 🙂

Cash or Card? Money While Traveling in the South of France

Image Credit: Christine Dao

Image Credit: Christine Dao

Doubling up on posts today, since I missed one last week. I’m currently bumming around the South of France, about a third of the way through a five-week Europe tour. I started in the UK and I’ll make my way through Italy later.

This is my first time spending this much time abroad. My first Euro trip to the UK lasted about 10 days, and my second one to France lasted a little over a week (it was supposed to be two weeks, but my grandma had passed away and I had to cut the trip short to make it back to Texas for her funeral).

This is also my first solo abroad trip, so I have to figure out some things on my own that I used to rely on others for—like how to pay for stuff.

Cash Is King

During a day trip to Eze Village, I met and chatted a bit with two ladies from the US who were in the South of France for a couple days. They asked me where I was changing my cash, and I said I wasn’t.

Taking a cue from Rick Steves, I’ve mostly been getting cash from bank ATMs (not random, stand-alone cash machines that appear shady). I had checked with my bank before leaving the US, and they have a much better fee (less than 1%) than the money exchangers. Plus, I’ve noticed (at least in Monte Carlo) that bank ATMs are more plentiful than money exchangers, and they are accessible all the time.

Not only has it been simple to get cash, it has been worlds easier to pay with cash and coins than with cards. Most stores, especially grocery stores, have limits before you can use your credit card. Coins have been the best way to pay for bus tariffs as well (bus drivers will glare at you with contempt if you try to pay with anything larger than a 5 Euro note–and if you speak to them in French when they happen to be Italian).

As an odd and added “bonus,” since I am paying for basically everything with cash, I am acutely aware of how much money I’m spending every day. It has been helpful to plan my day based on whatever happens to be (or not be) in my wallet at the time, rather than mindlessly swiping a card everywhere. (This may or may not be a practice I maintain when I return home.)

Credit Card Travel Notifications

Something else I’m figuring out about money and traveling in another country is credit card travel notifications. I’ve never set one before, and I didn’t know until a couple days ago that I could do it easily online.

For this trip, I brought with me Debit Card (for cash at ATMs), Favorite Card (my credit card I use at home, but since it charges 3% on foreign transactions, I brought it as back up), and Travel Card (my credit card that does not charge any foreign transaction fee and that I was going to use primarily for this trip).

I checked with my bank before I left the US to see if I needed any travel notifications to use Debit Card in the countries I will be in. They said “no” but that I should check my balance frequently and call them right away if I see any suspicious charges or withdrawals.

I, however, did not check with my credit cards. And that was a mistake. I used Travel Card at a coffee shop in Surrey and to buy a museum ticket. After that, the card stopped working. A couple days passed before I could get Travel Card’s company on the phone to let them know that the international charges were from me. But they had already elevated the case to their fraud team and were in the process of canceling my card.

Talk about a pain. But I suppose they were doing their job at trying to keep my account safe, and I can’t really fault them for that. But I had to cut up Travel Card right away and never use it again. And since I was traveling, I couldn’t tell the company where to send my new card while I was abroad. So, I just had them send it home, where it should be waiting for me when I get back.

Fortunately, faithful old Favorite Card was still with me, and I hadn’t used it for anything yet. I went online to set a travel notification and (since I am a little paranoid by nature), I called customer service to make sure that they knew I was out of the country. While cash is great for paying for just about everything, places such as hotels will only deal with credit cards, and I had to make sure at least one of mine was fully functioning.

So yes. For future reference, I must make sure to turn on credit card travel notifications before leaving home and to have at least one back up card just in case.

Still No Guaranteed Paid Time Off for US Workers

I am currently in the South of France on the second leg of a five-week jaunt through Europe. I found an apartment near Monaco through HomeAway.com that has a not too horrible view.

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Image Credit: Christine Dao

This is a trip I’ve wanted to do for a while. When I had my Salary and Benefits, it was immensely difficult to get any time off (let alone a month or more). I suppose when you have a job with loads of tight deadlines, you pretty much don’t have a life outside of work (unless you just don’t sleep).

But now that I have a tiny business, I have more flexibility to live life beyond work. I started this trip about two weeks ago in the UK to visit with my cousin and her family. She used to live in Australia, and we started talking about work practices in different countries. And we agreed that workers in the US work far more than people in other parts of the world. That can be both a good and a bad thing.

Without a doubt, many (though definitely not all) Americans know how to hustle, how to put in the extra hours, and how to give 110 percent. That drive and ambition can be really constructive—in the proper context and the proper timing. But not always.

Everything, from a car to a plot of farmland, shows that any system under continuous stress WILL (not may) fail if not given the time to rest and receive proper maintenance. And yet the US is still the only developed country that does not require employers to guarantee paid time off. It also doesn’t require guaranteed paid maternity leave.

I’ve never really understood why this is. I don’t condone laziness (obviously!), but I also saw first hand in my own working experience how quickly someone can burn out if he or she isn’t able to just get away from the grind once in a while. And anyone knows that weekends are never enough, what with all the catching up on things that had to be put off during the regular week.

I understand that private business wants the government to be hands off. But with so many regulations on health and safety and what not, shouldn’t insuring that workers have a certain amount of time off out of the year be a no-brainer? Of all the things our government requires of us, I would think that it’s the least that can be done.

But I guess that doesn’t really affect me now, except when the post office is closed for an observance or holiday—like today for Labor Day.

Do you get paid time off from your employer? How do you spend it?