Escaping the Creative Straitjacket

I am thrilled to feature the following guest post from writer, photographer, and creativity researcher Christian Fink-Jensen. Christian’s work has been published in more than fifty magazines and newspapers around the world. His next book is a biography of a crazy female adventurer from the 1920s and will be released in September. Christian also teaches a creativity workshop that helps people from all walks of life discover their amazing creative talents and use them to dramatically improve their lives. His website is at

The human mind is a miracle of nature. An electric lump of jelly that allows us to brush our teeth, tie our shoes, speak Estonian, and send metal boxes to the far reaches of our galaxy. Our brain can even do a multitude of things without us being aware of it: pump blood, regulate body temperature, dream, make judgments, and harbour an irrational fear of balloons.

Our miraculous mind can be our greatest ally, but it can also put us in a box that’s hard to get out of. And the box I’m talking about here is our subconscious beliefs.

Most of us like to think that, as intelligent people, we are in charge of our lives and our day-to-day actions. We are informed voters, rational consumers, competent golfers, and musically astute fans of Panic at the Disco.

The truth, however, is that our actions and opinions – even our taste in music – are overwhelmingly rooted in subconscious patterns. These patterns are themselves formed by the constellation of experiences we’ve had – experiences which we tend to classify as good, bad, or neutral.

In many ways, these subconscious patterns are useful: they can save time, keep us safe, and allow us to do amazing things with relative ease (imagine playing the piano if you had to be consciously aware of the movement of each finger at all times!) But these same patterns can also keep us stuck in the habits and worldview we had at the time we first had an experience. It’s the reason that someone who grew up being abused and ignored will find it extremely difficult to value herself in later life. In the context of creativity, negative beliefs about our abilities are toxic to our ambition and productivity. And so we play small.

Now, you may be thinking, That’s all well and nice but we can choose to overcome our limiting beliefs at any time. I agree that it is possible to change some of our limiting core beliefs, but it takes a great deal of time and effort. Not just because our beliefs are so deeply entrenched, but because our subconscious is so unbelievably powerful.

Consider this: According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, our conscious mind can process around 40 bits of information per second. That’s quite a lot of data to process in a single second. By contrast, however, the subconscious mind can process 40 million bits of information per second. In other words, the subconscious is literally a MILLION times more powerful than the conscious mind. Trying to consciously control the subconscious would be like trying to restrain an elephant with a rubber band.

It’s no wonder, then, that beliefs lodged in the subconscious can have such a profound impact on our lives and our creativity. Our core beliefs overwhelmingly determine our habits and perceptions.  As my favourite physicist once said,

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of eighteen”

                                                                  – Albert Einstein

Unfortunately for us, many of these prejudices are aimed at keeping us safe rather than making us successful (I wrote a post about that here). We try to please others, obey the rules, and generally never get too big for our britches. It’s not exactly a soul-nourishing way to go through life.

Escaping the Creative Straitjacket by Christian Fink-Jensen
Photo courtesy Hamid Najafi

So if our subconscious is all-powerful and our beliefs are hardwired, what is a creative gal or guy (or other) supposed to do? How can we bring our best and brightest selves to the task of living?

We can be creators and we can shift.

Success coach, Steve Chandler, in his very excellent book “Time Warrior” says there are two kinds of people in the world: creators and reactors. I would adapt that slightly to say that in almost any situation we have two choices: we can react against our perceived situation or we can choose to create a new one.

The implication here is that we can choose to live in the right here right now, or we can rail against some inchoate happenstance. If we are actively creating, we are doing something NOW. We have a bias toward action. But if we are reacting, we’re stuck in a past event or fearing a future we can’t possibly predict. We give away our power and choice to subconscious habits.

I have experienced this first hand. For years and years, I was stuck in a reactive mode, defending myself against a world that seemed so very threatening. Living like that carried a very heavy price. My playing small resulted in failed projects, failed businesses, failed relationships, and a catastrophic loss of self-esteem. As Steve also experienced,

“I was one of them. A reactor. Big time. I was sick, ruined, bankrupt, addicted to drugs and alcohol, lying to everyone I knew, especially the ones closest to me. A life of fear and more fear. The best I could ever feel, on my best day, was just worried.”

So how did Steve turn his life around? He found support, a recovery program, teachers, friends, and mentors, all of which led him to the most powerful discovery of all: “I found creativity.”

Instead of living in reactivity, subject to the whims of others and imprisoned by our unconscious beliefs, we can choose instead to create something new. And we do that by picking that one thing that actually matters to us (yeah, that one) and getting to work on it right NOW.

Okay, but won’t you still be at the mercy of your subconscious? Yes, of course. That’s why shifting is so helpful.  As powerful as our subconscious is, it is basically an input/output machine. It reacts to what it already knows and is programmed by what is new. We can exploit this by shifting our perspective into new territory. Doing so allows us to develop creative ideas with fewer subconscious constraints.

Try any or all of these exercises the next time you are exercising your creativity.

1. You are not you. Take a look at the room around you. Make a mental inventory, then close your eyes and recall the main features of the room. Now open your eyes and imagine you are 12 feet tall. What do you notice about the room now? You might bump your head on the light fixtures? The door would be an obstacle? What if you were a sprite, two inches tall? Perhaps you’d look for places to alight. What if you were a fugitive on the run? How would the room look then? Where could you hide?

2. A + B.  Shift your perspective by exploring what would happen if you crossed A with B. For example, what might you create if you crossed a jacket with a flashlight? Or a jacket and a refrigerator? A jacket and a window blind? A jacket and a backpack? What new thing could you invent? 

3. A = B. Look for relationships in bizarre things. What’s the same about a car and a flower? Both come in many colours. Both look best in summer. Or as my 7-year-old said, “Both have petals (pedals).”

4. How absurd is this? Look at anything you like. Figure out why it is completely absurd. How could it be different?  Take a book, for example. Where did it come from? Well, a seed fell on the ground and sprouted and grew because of dirt and water and sun. It grew into a huge thing that was eventually cut down by some guy named Ted driving a big metal machine and dreaming about buttered scones for tea…  You get the idea.                                                                        

5. Play What if? What if hair was actually spaghetti? Vice versa. What if cars could also wash your clothes or cook your food or massage your back? What if curtains could store things? What if dogs could talk?

The goal with all these exercises (and you could make up plenty more) is to shift your perspective into new territory, a place where your subconscious is less likely to have already limited your options. The result is an expanded perspective, widened creative possibilities and, most importantly, freedom to be new.

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

                                                                  – Aldous Huxley