To tell the truth.

A story about the creative process and the art of being true.

About five years ago I found myself drawing a tree on a bit of paper and writing the line:

“Being truthful is the root of beautiful projects.”

One of those things where I don’t know where it came from, but when it shows up, it feels like it will last forever.

About three years ago, I found myself on stage in a Dutch forest, improvising a story about being a chameleon. Later that night, a stranger came over to me and said he thought he knew what the message of the story was. I said that was good, because I didn’t know what the message of the story was.

“Stay true. I think that was the message. Stay true.”

About a year ago, I was in a workshop in Waterloo (Belgian battlefield, not London underground). After introducing myself, someone I’d only just met insisted that I could sum up the whole of my work in one word:

“True.”

I think he was right.

About ten years ago, I was sitting on my lounge floor in Brighton, surrounded by post-it notes, index cards, scraps of paper — several years of brain emptied out in front of me. There were notes on improvisation and The Way of The Fool (introduced to me by Floris Koot). And money and identity (courtesy of Peter Koenig). And the creative process (from working with The KaospilotsIdeo and Matt Weston). And storytelling (from one eternally inspiring one-hour lecture by Ron Donaldson, from my time as features editor at The Face, from collecting the Storyteller book-and-tape series aged six).

And something happened where all these different threads came together. Where I could see how these different theories and different practices wove together into one. That — somehow — they were all pointing at the same thing. I felt it. I knew it to be true. And I had absolutely no way of articulating what it was.

You know when you have something to say and it’s on the tip of your tongue - you can almost physically feel it there? Nearly becoming speech, but the connection from brain to mouth hasn’t quite been made. This was like that, but instead of the unexpressed idea being just a moment away — almost articulated but not quite — I could sense in that same almost physical way that the idea was in there, but about ten miles back. Way, way back in my mind. Like I could see landscapes — neural pathways and hillsides and rivers and streams of consciousness and blue skies obscured by clouds — and way beyond, somewhere near the furthest horizon of thought, just hidden from view, there was the answer.

It was a great relief to feel as if, in some hidden way, I’d managed to make sense of all these disparate parts. Even if I couldn’t put it into words, somewhere a knot had been tied. And it was strange, also, that I knew from that first moment that the answer would make its way towards the front of my mind at its own pace. And that ‘its own pace’ was very, very slow. Like in a film where the camera — unmoving — watches someone walking all the way from the horizon.

I carried on exploring improvisation and money and identity and project design and storytelling. And I started exploring meditation and dharma and what makes a good question and what it means to take the initiative. And I’d check in on that idea in the back of my head and watch its progress towards the front. And it would make me laugh — that it was so intangible and nothing-y to track the progress of an unnamed idea, but at the same time it felt like the essential and persistent factor in the course of my life and my work and my thinking. And it would make me laugh — that I felt so entirely helpless in the face of its uncompromisingly unhurried progress.

“Who has time for that now?
Waiting for a natural path to open up
Only acting when the moment arrives?”
 — 
Poem Fifteen, I thought I was on the way to work, but I was on the way home

And I developed a systematic way to clarify ideas. And I wrote a new version of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. And I attempted to articulate the fundamental nature of money in a ten minute stand-up talk in Amsterdam. And I spent hundreds of hours unravelling the knots that were stopping people from pursuing their vocation.

And in the end, all of it comes down to this.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.

In this very moment, there is a next step for me to take that is true.
And if I listen inside, with care, without prejudice, I know what it is.
And if I take it, then I am being true to myself and to the world I am in.

And if, having taken it, I can look back and say — in that moment I was true to myself and to the world I was in — then there is no space for regret.
Because what more can we ask of ourselves than that — in one moment — we might manage to stay true to ourselves and the world we are in?

I look across the table at her. And she asks what I see. What we might do together. We’ve barely met, but we’ve promised to speak truthfully to each other this evening, either side of this little restaurant table. And I go to say a selection of usual responses, of projects we might undertake, of visions we might bring to the world, but I hear another voice in me, somewhere deep inside. And I laugh. And I take a number of deep breaths. And I try to climb out of my chair without climbing out of my chair. And I tell her. I see us doing everything. Together. For years. And she says: ‘Woah.’

It’s not magic. Being true in the moment doesn’t mean that what you hope will happen will happen. You might get a ‘woah’ when you thought you’d get a ‘yes’. But whatever you get, you’re still living truly. Truthfully. And, whatever you get, you don’t end up walking around with an ‘I wonder what would have happened if only I had…’ as your dispiriting inner companion.

It might be difficult to say what ‘truth’ is. One of those big philosophical questions. But it’s easy to say what being truthful is. And we know when we are lying. And it’s easy to say what it means ‘to be true’ to someone or something. We know when we are being unfaithful. Disloyal. Duplicitous. Deceitful.

Because being true is about listening. We always know what we’re meant to be doing. We don’t always know we know. Sometimes the information is deeply hidden, behind fear or superstition or prejudice or conditioning, butsomewhere inside, we always know. And if we listen — in the moment — and we listen carefully enough, then we have the chance to be true. In thought and word and deed.

And it’s an art.

When you improvise, it’s the art of being true. Anyone who has stood on an empty stage with no plan, but with full faith that inspiration will arrive to save you… anyone who has had that experience of inspiration arriving exactly on cue and providing a live feed of genius to mind and mouth and body… anyone who has been there, knows what it means to be true.

But it requires faith. And it requires surrender. And it requires listening. And it requires love.

It’s the most beautiful thing.

And anyone who has read a poem or heard a singer or seen a play or watched a speech knows the difference between true and not true. The job of the performer is to reveal something true. And when they don’t — when they dissemble and protect themselves from exposure — they break the deal. And we know. And we feel it. The difference between watching a singer being true in their singing and a singer not being true in their singing is the difference between something that is alive and something that is dead. (It’s the difference between being torn in two by Adele singing “I heard that you’re settled down / That you found a girl and you’re married now”. Or just being bludgeoned in the ear by her yelling “hello from the other side”.)

“In the early days of the Little Review people used to tell me that I had no critical sense, that I didn’t know one thing from another. I always answered: I know the difference between life and death — in everything.”
 — Margaret Anderson, Little Review founder and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses

And we have a language for talking about working in this way. In a way that’s true. And it’s a language of the present moment. It’s the language of impulse, inspiration and initiative.

When we’re talking about feeling, the first moment of feeling our way towards doing the right thing, that’s a moment of impulse. Where you know something, but you don’t know quite what it is you know and you might not even know that you know, but you find yourself subtly directed by some inner intuition.

When we’re talking about thinking, the first moment of making that inarticulate impulse conscious — being able to look at it and enquire into it and make sense of it — that first moment is a moment of inspiration.

And when we’re talking about doing, then there can be every reason in the world not to act. Every doubt and fear may raise its head. But if we succeed in walking through those doubts and fears, and we actually act — then that first moment of action is the moment of initiative.

And each step — from impulse, to inspiration, to initiative — each step depends on listening. Each step depends on being clear, on being true. And if we succeed in clearing that path — all the way through from feeling to thinking to doing, then the action that we take in the end is animated by the vivid energy of the initiating impulse. The action has life in it, because the action is true to the impulse. And that’s what we want to see on a stage, on a page, at work.

And this is the knot that I tied in the back of my mind sitting on my lounge floor surrounded by post-it notes and index cards and the content of my thought laid out in a hundred handwritten scraps.

That it is possible for the things that we do to be true. 
And when we are true in the things that we do, then the things that we do have life in them.
And it requires love. And it requires listening. 
And there is an art to it. And it is possible to learn it.

Learning how to improvise is learning how to listen to the impulse and how to not stand in its way. How to not be afraid, but accept the present moment as it is — with love — and find in it the potential for something that is alive.

Learning how to tell stories is learning how our minds make sense of these impulses. And it’s learning how to articulate those intangible hidden movements so we might share the truth of our inner lives with others. So that we might understand this creative movement.

Learning meditation and mindfulness is learning to listen to the feeling and the thinking. They are the practice of staying in the present moment listening to what is true now (not what you wish were true or what used to be true). Not listening is the enemy of work that is true. And it’s the easiest thing in the world: to be doing one thing and not paying it the slightest attention, as our focus is entirely on something imaginary and elsewhere. To be caught in a story of who we are or who we are meant to be, rather than listening to what wants to happen here and now.

Learning how to work with identity — to understand and engage with that festering nest of stories we carry around with us about who it is OK to be and who it is not OK to be — that is learning how to clear the path for something alive. To see clearly how stories about money and society and self can play like a broken record, bringing a dead past to bear on a living present.

We call it ‘the creative process’ because it’s meant to produce something alive at the end of it. Like a seed becoming a flower. Like birth. Like nature.
And if we are true in each step of what we do, then what we do is creative and something alive is born from it.

And it is not the same as going through the motions. If we go to work in the morning and check emails or lay bricks or serve coffee or sing songs, if it is not built out of the living force of impulse and inspiration and initiative, then the only output is something dead.

So now, when I go to work, this is what I do. I try to stay true to this creative process and I try to illuminate the path for other people. Whether I’m improvising on stage or talking about money or writing a poem or uncovering someone’s purpose or finding the story that unlocks someone’s creative potential, it’s always only ever this one thing. The art of being true.

The idea that I had ten years ago… that took its own sweet time to cross the vast landscapes of the mind to make it here… the idea walks up to the camera lens, takes out a cloth and wipes it clean — crystal clear, in focus, bright — then puts the cloth away, turns and starts a long walk back to the horizon.

 

Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com

Stand for love

Easier said than done
So say it first
Then do it:

Stand for love.

Easy to do what’s easy
And forget it
But don’t. No.

Stand for love.

For it is our gift
To know in any moment
What love wants.

Stand for love.

And it is a duty
To listen for ourselves
And everyone and

Stand for love.

Abandon nice.
Don’t do the right thing.
Listen harder. And

Stand for love.

And it is a fight.
Against every easier call
Against it all -

Stand for love.

For it is only in standing
That we live.
So let life begin

And stand for love.

A vision for getting everyone clear

Being clear is a simple art.

It’s one of those things that is very simple — but takes a lifetime to master. Like cooking or painting or yoga. There are some basic principles to understand. There are steps to follow. There are things that work and don’t work.

It’s one of those things where if you practice, you will improve. But before you practice, you need to learn the basics. When I teach people to be clear, I teach the basics. And then we practice. And then we share the tips and tricks we learn along the way.

It’s one of those things where we can help each other. I find it really hard to be clear — to keep clear — when I’m only relying on myself. But I find it easy to help other people be clear. And I find it easy when other people help me.

I know some basic principles of how to be clear. I know the steps to follow. I know some things that work and don’t work. But the real challenge is to practice: to remember to practice, to take the time, to stay motivated.

It’s easier to practice when there’s a community to support you. It’s easier to practice when there’s a culture that’s supports the work. A community that understands the basic principles of how to be clear and wants to practice. A culture that values clarity and seeks it out — where it’s easy to ask for and offer help with being clear.

And this is my vision of getting everyone clear.

 

A clear morning in Northern Ireland. Summer 2017.

Being clear is nothing special

Everyone knows the difference between being clear and being unclear. It’s nothing clever or complicated.

It’s the difference between knowing exactly what you want or not exactly knowing what you want. It’s the difference between being able to explain something truthfully so someone else understands it or not being able to. It’s the difference between having an idea and effortlessly turning it into reality or having a vision and stumbling and straying and getting lost in the fog.

When I talk about being clear what I’m really talking about is clearing the way for creativity. Clearing the path so that creative potential turns into creative expression — whether that’s as an artist, an entrepreneur, an inventor, or a cook — or basically anyone who is alive and feels things and wants to do something. Another way to say it is that being clear just means being able to live and work in the world in such a way that we are able to understand our needs (and other people’s) and act in such a way that we are able to meet them.

 

Three ways to be clear

I have for a long time helped people get clear: talking them through something that’s stuck until it flows again. But years and years ago I decided that I didn’t want that process to depend on me being in the room. That’s why I developed the Very Clear Ideas process: to capture a way of getting clear that people could go away and use for themselves.

Now I have three tools. When you want to be clear on what you’re doing, use Very Clear Ideas. When you want to be clear on how to get it done, use Initiative Mapping. When you’re clear on what you’re doing and how to get it done, but it’s just not happening and you don’t know why, use Identity Yoga.

And I want to make these three tools so popular that they are everywhere. Not out of some self-aggrandising desire for fame and recognition (well, not only that anyway…). I want them to be everywhere because I want to be part of a community that understands the basic principles of being clear and wants to practice. I want to be supported by a culture that values clarity. And I want that because it will help me to be clear.

There is magic in being clear

When I’m clear about what I’m doing, it actually happens. When I’m able to clear away the things that stand in the way (normally in my own head), then work becomes effortless. When I’m able to make clear deals with the people I work with — and come to an understanding of what each of us needs and how we serve each other — then working relationships become enriching and enjoyable.

I love it when people want to get clear on how everyone contributes to a piece of work (and how everyone benefits from it), because it means the right people end up doing the right things.

I love it when people want to clear away bias and prejudice — because it means that what needs to get done might actually get done.

I love working with people who have clear ideas, because it means I know what they need and how (or if) I might help them.

A clear vision

I want there to be a shared culture of clarity. I love that you can find people in Holland and Ireland and France and Australia and America and all over who use the same steps — the same set of seven questions — to get an idea clear. I love being able to show up at someone’s office and, if I don’t have my Very Clear Ideas cards with me, being able to use theirs.

I want there to be a shared language for talking about being clear. It’s so helpful to be able to talk about how ideas turn into reality in a way that is simple and useful. There is a little vocabulary: talking about needs and ideas and authority and authorship, talking about ‘who is helping who with what’, talking about the source of an idea (thank you Peter Koenig), talking about initiatives and identity.

Again and again and again I end up working with people who are stuck and who are suffering because they are trying to talk about work as a personal and creative endeavour, but they’re trying to do it using an opaque, industrial set of words that don’t actually help to illuminate the process of bringing an idea into reality. Words like CEO and vice-president and productivity and performance and…you know, all those words.

I want there to be a community — communities — that support the work of being clear. If I want to learn yoga, I can go to a class. I can buy a mat and a book. I can watch a hundred thousand different teachers on YouTube. If I want to learn how to cook or paint or mend my bike — evening classes, Google, bookshop… I want the same for being clear.

Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com.

What do you long for?

“Every work of man should have the nature of a love song.” — Eric Gill

What do you long for? 
Can you tell me? 
Do you know?

What is it that your heart sings for?

If we leave behind the afternoon chat — 
of what shall we have for dinner
or where shall we go tomorrow.

If we forget about to do lists
and appointments and that
and listen out for what’s beyond them —

What do you long for.

There is a quickening that comes
with gathering up your life
and handing it over to devotion.

What is your gift? 
What is in you that longs to be given?

I am asking because I want to know. 
And because the answer is holy. 
And because, underneath everything, 
everybody knows.

The something that you stand for. 
Long for. Wish for. Dream of. 
Your calling. Your life’s work. 
Your allotted task
on these few turns around the sun.

And it’s always easier not to say it. 
Always easier to put it to one side. 
Always easier to say we get along just fine
and we’re all sort of muddling along
the same sort of path to somewhere.

Easier to ask “What did you think of this?” 
and “Did you see that thing that somebody did?” 
To live in a world of affiliation. 
Of likes and dislikes. 
Of preference as reference.

And it is harder.
To listen deep.
To be still enough — 
To sink as a stone dropped in a well.
To be able to talk
Not of how this fits with that or what might happen if
But of something that is yours and cannot be moved.

It is this that I stand for. 
It is this my world will always turn around.

And it is harder still
Not only to talk of something that is yours and cannot be moved
But to act upon it.

To wake up this morning and gild every shining moment
With the intent and loving attention of one who is devoted.

To see the washing and the car
And the road and the house
And the shopping and the table
And the things that must be done

And bring to every thing
The truth of what is yours

That your life
In every word and deed
Might sing its song of love.

Flood

May your heart be a flood
And fill you with love
Unmooring every broken vessel
Drawing ocean anchors from their holding -
Offering no path but
To surrender to boundless powers
Of forces that know no fight
But are mighty
By their very nature.

The Fundamentals of Creative Work

In order to look at the fundamentals of creative work, we have to check what work is and how it works: we have to understand it as a creative process.

And to understand work as a creative process, we have to start from looking at the nature of creative processes: how things come into existence, how things grow and transform, how things end. We have to understand the creative processes of nature as a whole — rather than limiting ourselves to the specific culture of work in human society in our lifetime.

And to do that, to look at work in that way, we need to put down all the usual furniture of the working world — looking past the superficial norms and forms and illuminating the fundamentals. What is essential about work and how work works? What is natural?

Not 9 to 5. Not job titles. Not promotions. Not limited companies.
Not inboxes. Not lunchbreaks. Not business plans. Not personal brands.

We have to drop below all those things and think and feel our way to what work actually is at a more subtle level. And that also means dropping below the self-help how-to’s and the seven habits of highly effective people. And it means dropping below inspirational quotes about meaningful work on Pinterest. Because, for all their seductive, feel-good ‘do it this way’ prompting and t-shirt friendly insights, they don’t actually get down to what work is. They don’t actually articulate what work is for.

What is work? And what is work for?

Think about trees. 
Think about grass. 
Think about bees.

Think about a pack of wolves hunting. 
Think about a bird building a nest. 
Think about squirrels collecting a winter stockpile.

Think about building a shelter.
Think about finding food.
Think about raising a child.

Walk through a forest and see and feel life at work all around you.

These creative processes that we are surrounded by and that we engage in every day — they are so natural that we don’t even see them. But if we stop and look it’s clear: they follow rules, they have structure, they have properties in common. A bird builds a nest so that… the eggs don’t roll away. The need defines the work. The need dictates the form. A nest is the shape it is because eggs are the shape they are. And when a bird has built a nest that will protect the eggs — it stops work. Because the point of the work is to meet a need.

It’s a natural way to work. Noticing something is needed. Working to understand that need — and what is required to meet it. And taking the steps that are necessary to meet that need — and then stopping when it is met.

It’s how we work naturally. We eat until we’re full. We sleep until we’re rested. We travel until we get there. We listen for what we need, we do what is needed — and then we stop.

Some of our stories about work have gone astray. Superstitions have crept in. That it’s ‘bad’ if a company closes (rather than a sign that the need has been met and the work can stop). That working harder, longer, more is ‘good’ (rather than the amount of work being in proportion to the size of the need being met). But those superstitions only serve to separate us from the real potential of work.

We eat so we don’t die. We build shelter so we don’t freeze. We learn to speak and sing and dance so that we can communicate with each other and understand each other — and learn to live together without killing each other.

Work is creative. Work is life ensuring the continuation of life. Life ensuring the expansion of life. Whether it’s animals collecting food for the winter or me collecting food from the shop — the appetite arises from life’s own urge to sustain itself. And that appetite provides the direction — and the energy — for the work. And in order to understand the fundamental nature of work, we need to understand that appetite of life in us. That creative impulse that isbeing alive, that is being a part of life on earth.

When we work in that way, with an awareness that we are alive and that we are a part of a vast living system, then work is natural. When we work with an awareness of the rules of that system, the demands of that system, the constraints and possibilities of that system, then work comes naturally.

Sometimes it feels to me as if we treat work as something imaginary. Where we can just invent rules of work and say that’s how things work. And we treat the world as imaginary — where we pretend that all you need to succeed is to listen to a motivational talk or get up earlier. As if there were no context, no cause and effect, no environment. And we treat ourselves as imaginary — where we pretend that people and jobs are just interchangeable — swapping out one person and swapping in another. As if there were no such thing as individuality, or personal history, or personal relationships.

But we are actual creative beings living in a specific creative system. And there are definite principles that we can learn about how to work creatively within that system. And we have to take into account who we are and where we are and what we need.

And that means not only knowing what work is and how work works and what work is for, but also feeling those things. So that when someone says the word ‘work’, you don’t think of offices and desks or money or shovels or timesheets or teabreaks, but rather you feel your place in a vast creative system. You feel the appetite for life inside you. You feel the direction and the information and the energy bound up in that appetite.

When someone says ‘work’, the antennae inside you activate and tune into here and now and start listening for what actually needs to be done.

When someone says ‘work’, you remember your capacity to empathise with others and intuit what’s going on — and respond in the wisest and most compassionate way.

When someone says ‘work’, you think of all the vast miraculous projects mankind has undertaken — of mapping genomes and building cathedrals and inventing alphabets — and you think of the infinite complexity of countless mundane daily miracles happening all around us — as seeds are planted and dinners are made and paths are cleared and people are healed.

And, with this as our starting point, we can look at how we work and find ways to work more effectively, more creatively, more naturally. Not by learning lists of rules or by trying to turn ourselves into someone we’re not — but by developing a profound and intimate understanding of ourselves as creative beings.

Find out more about how to be clear at howtobeclear.com.

Wild flowers

Wild flowers.
My heart.  
My wild heart flowers.