E245 | How to Thrive as a Smart and Creative Individual with Eric Maisel
This week on The Melting Pot, we learned from Eric Maisel, creativity coach and trainer of creativity coaches. He writes the ‘Rethinking The Mental Health’ blog for Psychology Today, which has more than three million views, and he’s the lead editor for the Ethics International Press Critical Psychology and Critical Psychiatry series. Eric is also the author of more than 50 books covering the areas of creativity, life, purpose, meaning, and mental health.
Once upon a time, in a world filled with rules and orthodoxies, Eric discovered the power of self-forgiveness, purpose, and creativity. Growing up in a neighbourhood where the aftermath of World War II still lingered, he was instilled with the idea of being a resistance fighter against societal norms at a young age. This spirit of opposition led him to question the status quo and seek out his own life purposes. He faced the challenges of being a smart individual in a society that often sought to silence voices like his. Through this struggle, Eric learned the importance of embracing one’s individuality and passions. Over time, he developed into a creativity coach, guiding artists and entrepreneurs on their journeys to self-discovery and success.
In this episode, Eric talks about one of his books, Redesign Your Mind, and cognitive therapy and how it works on your thoughts. In his book, Eric proposes a methodology for changing your thoughts or replacing them with something else. He also about entrepreneurs and how he coaches them, as well as artists, who he thinks share many things but are also very different. He shares some tips about how to get in flow, his thoughts about burnout and how to live a better life and lower your anxiety.
Download and listen to learn more.
On today’s podcast:
- Being smart in a non-smart world
- Why are people burnt out?
- The creative power of sleep
- The trances of working
- How to redesign your mind
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How to Thrive as a Smart and Creative Individual
Eric Maisel is the author of 50+ books. His recent books include Why Smart Teens Hurt, Redesign Your Mind, and The Power of Daily Practice. His other books are Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, Rethinking Depression, and The Van Gogh Blues. Dr. Maisel writes the “Rethinking Mental Health” blog for Psychology Today, with 3,000,000 + views, and is the creator and lead editor for the Ethics International Press Critical Psychology and Critical Series. A retired family therapist and active creativity coach, Dr. Maisel’s forthcoming books include The Coach’s Way (New World Library) and Deconstructing ADHD (Ethics International Press). Dr. Maisel provides workshops, webinars and keynotes nationally and internationally, trains creativity coaches, and facilitates support groups for writers.
Being smart in a non-smart world
Eric has written several books about ‘being smart in a non-smart world’. He argues that we must believe that intelligence flows over a normal curve, just as all things do. Some people are more intelligent than others. They keep culture alive. They keep civilisation alive. They write constitutions. They’re not just different. They’re essential to our society. And, in most cultures, they’re not nurtured because less intelligent people are typically jealous of them. That’s an age-old truth, he adds. And smart people are often the first ones picked on by tyrants, the first ones silenced, because smart people are likely the ones who see through the humbug of the tyrant and want to speak out.
“But you can sense that in Iran, for instance, when a dictator comes aboard, he kills the doctors first. Now, you want your doctors, but when you’re jealous of smart people, that’s what you do. You kill your intellectuals first.”
For Eric, you are typically constrained if you’re growing up smart. You’re not allowed to be. School does not let you be smart. It wants you to know the test answers and draw inside the line.
“I think that the experience of being smart in school is that you’re sitting there just dreadfully bored, and you’re going to act out, you’re going to bounce off walls, you’re going to nowadays end up with an ADHD diagnosis for sure. It’s just bound to happen because all of this bursting life energy in you has to come out somehow.”
So, for smart people trapped in a non-smart world, Eric offers this advice: You’re not alone, and you’re going to have to fight for your individuality your whole lifelong. Something that they’re going to struggle with is fighting for their individuality. And this usually makes them oppositional or at war with their culture, which means they’re never settled in it.
“That person is always struggling with society and will be rebuked by it. So it’s not that there are answers to these questions, but rather just the understanding that by virtue of what I call original personality, that you came into the world this you didn’t do anything, that by virtue of your original personality, you’re going to be at loggerheads with society your whole life long.”
Entrepreneurs and artists often feel the need to filter what they say in front of others, as they think they will envy or be offended by them. But where does that envy come from? In the case of entrepreneurs, it might be their chance to make money. But, when it comes to artists, they have very little chance of making money, says Eric.
“99 out of 100 artists can’t live, whereas 99 out of 100 entrepreneurs can live. There’s a difference there. And so the envy is more pronounced in the arts because only a few people are making it. And also, the difference between someone making it and someone not making is so extraordinary. You paint a flower and sell it for $20; a Van Gogh flower goes for $150,000,000; both are just paint on a canvas.”
What do you want in the world?
Eric has run whole webinars where he simply asks clients what they want in the world. It could be having their prices increase or being on a podcast. And they have trouble asking for this for different reasons, from embarrassment to shame. So, Eric often works with clients to help them overcome this.
“I’ll put simple things like, let’s just double your prices. Let’s not go from two thousand dollars to twenty thousand dollars, but let’s go from two thousand dollars to four thousand dollars. Let’s see if –because buyers are peculiar people– maybe they prefer four thousand dollars to two thousand dollars. We understand buyer psychology, which is weird, and we don’t quite know why buyers do what they do, so let’s just double your price and see what happens.”
Eric talks his clients into understanding that if they’re ever going to get out of their terrible day job, they will have to make money from what they do. They’re going to have to prove the exception to the rule that artists don’t make money.
In a two-step process, Eric persuades his creative clients for their benefit. The first step is getting them to agree to the idea, which is the easier part. The other is to get them to do the work.
“But are they going to write to their gallery owner and say, my paintings are now $4,000 rather than $2,000? No. That takes a long time to happen, and it takes me noticing that they haven’t done it. They’re going to talk about something else in the next session. They won’t report and say, by the way, I didn’t change my prices yet. Over time, my clients will actually start to say that. They’ll start to admit that they haven’t done the work. But in the beginning, clients don’t want to.”
We’re all defensive, tricky creatures, adds Eric. We don’t want to admit that we didn’t do what we agreed to do. So, for Eric, it’s on him to remind them what they said they wanted when they started coaching with him. They will shame-facedly admit they didn’t manage to do it. But, before they get back to work, it’s important to be self-forgiving and self-compassionate.
Burnout or lack of purpose?
Nowadays, our days are filled with endless emails, meetings and activities that keep us busy. ‘We’ve never been busier’, says Eric. And, for him, the idea of the weekend has vanished. Most entrepreneurs and creatives are holding the 7/24 work week, so there must be burnout associated with that.
And then, all the shenanigans of the world contribute to that burnout. That is our desperate feelings about what’s going on in the world. Eric tries to present a picture to clients of a certain way of living their lives. A paradigm shift from the idea of having a single purpose in life to the idea of having multiple purposes that you get to choose. You have to pick those that are important for you. And if you don’t, you will burn out or feel depressed, and you won’t get to the things that truly matter to you.
“We have that one to-do list of the million things we have to get done, but few people have their life purposes ‘to-do list’ sitting beside their computer of, am I going to get to this important thing? And that important thing today? So I think the burnout thing is true, and I think one of the solutions or resolutions or answers to the burnout thing is to decide for yourself what’s important, and then get to those important things daily.”
Eric defends the idea of having multiple purposes because it changes over time. For example, imagine that you pick health as one of your life purposes. You want to feel healthier, but your child comes to you and says, I need a kidney. Suddenly, that’s more important than your own health. You may now undergo surgery, which is not good for your health, but your life purposes just shifted because of what just occurred. So they do change over time, and they can shift dramatically.
The creative power of sleep
A ten-year McKinsey study that looks at executives in a state of flow found that they are five times more productive when they get paid for doing something that brings them joy. To this state of ‘flow’, Eric calls ‘trance of working’.
When talking with clients, Eric encourages them to get to their creative work first thing in the morning, before everything else. There are three big reasons for this, he says. And one of them comes from a creative point of view. When we sleep, we dream. But, we also think.
“If you go to bed with a wonder rather than a worry, with a sleep-thinking prompt like, ‘I wonder what Mary wants to say to John in chapter three of the novel I’m writing’, your brain will work on that during the night. It’ll think Mary and John will have a conversation, and all you have to do is wake up, go to the computer, and take dictation in a trance-like state. You don’t have to really wake up. In fact, you don’t want to wake up because the second you turn to the new day, Mary and John’s conversation has vanished. It’s gone. It’s been eclipsed by your worries about the new day.”
So there’s a sleepy state when we first wake up that, for Eric, is the most critical time of the day for a creative person or anybody trying to get anything done. If you’re trying to dream your new business into existence, the way to do it is not to wake up and work at it, but to give yourself this kind of sleep-thinking prompt the night before and let your brain work on it. Because when we sleep is the only time we have our 100% brain during the day, he adds.
“That’s why dreams are beautifully edited films because we have our whole brain, and that’s why we do our best thinking when we sleep. So most people are not making use of that […] It’s 90 minutes, an hour, or 2 hours of free creative time while sleeping. And I’m on a mission to stop people from wasting this time available to them. They can write whole books or create whole businesses just by sleeping. You must wake up at some point, but sleeping is essential.”
Entrepreneurs and The trance of Working
Entrepreneurs and creatives look at failure differently. Entrepreneurs don’t worry about failure as much.
“They sort of rush right by failure. It’s like hardly noticing it onto the next thing, and that’s wonderful. And creatives take failure much more personally or as a greater disaster, and they start to create self-talk around I have no talent, I have no chance, they denigrate themselves.”
But there’s a truth about the process that Eric frequently reminds clients of, and that is that only a percentage of all the things they do will be any good. A creative person’s output, excellent output, will probably be a small percentage of the whole, he says. They need to live that and embrace it. That’s why Eric argues there’s a direct relationship between having ideas and showing up. It also happens with inspiration, which you only get if you show up.
Showing up to do the work is the first step, says Eric. If you can do it for two minutes, you’ll probably be there for half an hour or an hour. It’s the getting there that’s so important. And people talk themselves out of getting there because they say I don’t have an hour. So he encourages them to get there for at least a minute and then see what happens. And what happens is, he says, that they stay for longer than that.
“There’s no reason to suppose that on any given day you’re going to have that wonderful idea, but you’re not going to have that wonderful idea if you haven’t shown up on that date to your business, or novel. You got to keep showing up to it.”
Is there really a meaning to life?
Just as he believes there is more than one purpose to life, Eric doesn’t think there is a meaning to life that we’re ‘supposed to find’. Being a seeker of meaning has been a metaphor for over two thousand years.
“I’m interested in the paradigm shift to the idea of making meaning, not seeking meaning. To stop rushing off to India or someplace, looking for meaning, as if it were somewhere, but to stay put and make meaning.”
For him, meaning is a feeling. A special one that comes and goes, which means that you have to do your work even if it’s not feeling meaningful.
“And most people make the connection that, why should I work on this novel? It’s not feeling meaningful to me […] If you believe it’s important to work on, then that’s your rationale. That’s your raison d’etre for doing it, because it’s important to you, not because it’s giving you the experience of meaning.”
Eric adds that it’s a big human difference to have a feeling versus needing the thing to be something that it can’t be. He gives the example of an activist of a cause, whose job in a given week is to lick envelopes in service of the cause. They’re not doing it because it’s a meaningful activity, but because they believe in the cause.
The Coach’s Way
Eric’s latest book is The Coach’s Ways, a straightforward book about how the coaching sessions work. It’s aimed at coaches who want to know more about how to start and end their sessions and what to do in the middle of sessions. Eric adds that it’s also to help coaches relax into the understanding that they’re not in an expert profession but in a helping profession.
“Coaches don’t have to know their client’s world. They don’t have to know what it’s like to be an architect or a neurosurgeon. They don’t have to know any of that. Just have to have a sense of how human beings operate and what they need and what helps, what actually to offer a client by way of suggestions and how to co-create plans and goals.”
The coach’s work is to let the client speak, try to understand their world, ask quality questions and allow for quality silence. If you get it as a coach, says Eric, coaching sessions are a lovely place to be.
However, he adds that most coaches come to sessions a little anxious because they’re on the spot. They want to make sure they’re earning their money, or they’re not going to be criticised by their client, or they’re not going to say the wrong thing. All those worries that human beings have in interactions, if you can come not worried, then you can be in flow the whole session.
How to redesign your mind
“Wouldn’t it be lovely that instead of arm wrestling thoughts, we could change the source of the thoughts, so we could stop having to arm wrestle them, but just have different, better thoughts?”
This is the idea that inspired Eric’s book, Redesign Your Mind. He was familiar with the idea of visualising things, which is a decades-old practice that started in a Northern California’s hospital where doctors thought they could help cancer patients visualise their healthy cells fighting their cancer cells.
“I thought it would be interesting to just visualise your mind as a room, redesign and redecorate it. And by that, I mean installing some windows so a breeze blows through so that you’re not thinking the same old stuffy ideas. And getting rid of that bed of nails that most people live on, and replacing it with an easy chair and having a calmness switch. So when you enter the room, that is your mi; you just flip that calmness, and you’re instantly calmer.”
So it’s just a series of visualisations to change the way you are in the room that is your mind so that you’re calmer, comfortable and passionate there. And therefore, the ideas and thoughts that arise will become more in service of your purposes and needs.
Eric has always felt that he is in the existential tradition, a specific philosophical and literary tradition. If you have lost your understanding of that, or have never encountered it, he recommends that you read the books by Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Camus, Orwell and Kafka.