You Weren't Made to Do One Thing by Jennifer Chan

No one emerged from the womb assigned with an intrinsic purpose.

The doctor did not take one look at you and say, with confidence, “You will be a fine race car driver!” or, “I am looking at the forthcoming Youtube sensation of 2030.” Life doesn’t work that way. No baby, child, teenager, or even adult, knows for sure one thing that they are destined to do for the rest of the life, and if they say so, they are deceiving themselves.

The reality is that we make our purpose. It evolves as we get older, acquire more skills, experience more things, and form our values and beliefs.

When I was in middle school, I was insistent that my purpose was to become a writer. I carried a pen and a notepad around with me. I would write in it during class. I would write short stories at home. As sure as a 12 year-old could be, I was sure that I would become a writer.

In high school, I started hearing that there was no money in writing fiction. If you wanted to write and earn a decent living, you’d have to become a journalist. Okay! I said. I’ll become a journalist. Around this time, I began developing an interest in politics. I started writing op-ed pieces for my high school newspaper. I decided that I would major in political science for my undergraduate degree. I was accepted to the University of Ottawa. I thought I had my future all figured out.

And then, at the University of Ottawa, I found one thing that I could not control: other people. Not fitting in, despite loving the program itself, I transferred to McGill University. Being harassed by other students was certainly not within my plans. I had to start anew. I was 18 years-old in a new environment for the second time, and I began questioning everything: what was my purpose, what were my values, what sort of lifestyle did I want in Montreal, etc.

At McGill, I continued taking classes within the political science department. In my second year, I decided, without much thought, to take a few courses in Canadian politics. That led to a course on the Canadian constitution. And that led to a course on the Canadian judicial process. In my last year, I realized that I actually enjoyed studying the law and felt that I should apply to law school.

But, unconventionally, I decided to take a year off before applying to law school. I wanted to work in the “real world,” and be sure whether law school was the right place for me.

One day, while sitting on the patio of a coffee shop in Montreal, I stumbled upon a non-profit organization that was hiring. The job, however, necessitated relocating to a Cree community 10 hours north of Montreal for at least six months at a time. It involved working at the high school in the community, and creating programs to boost student engagement. “What the hell,” I said. I applied. I got the job. And two months later, I was sitting in a van that was carrying me away from everything I knew.

I applied to law school while living in that community. After my contract ended, I left feeling that my purpose was to be a lawyer for youth. I wanted to help minors navigate the legal system.

When I entered law school a year later, I realized that my “purpose” was largely dictated by market forces: who was hiring, who felt my experience was an asset, who would pay enough that I could start tackling my mountain of student loans. I ended up taking a job at a government agency — nothing that involved youth.

While I made great money there, something was missing: purpose. I didn’t feel that I was doing something that excited me. I also felt that my skills could make more of an impact elsewhere. Because I was working at a government agency that handled workplace law, I became more flexible when I was searching for jobs, but had only one requirement: It would have to involve assisting vulnerable communities.

I then noticed that a legal aid clinic was hiring. The legal aid clinic specifically dealt with representing low-income workers who have been wrongfully terminated for raising their rights at work. Despite that it was a significant pay cut, I applied and landed the job. A year and a half later, I’m still at the legal aid clinic. I received several pay increases (that restored my pay to what my old job gave me) and I can safely say that this is my purpose. Helping those on society’s fringes.

The thing with purpose is that it changes.

I never thought that I would be working where I am, but in a way it makes sense: I always wanted to work in a progressive environment that helped vulnerable communities. Through pursuing my interests, beefing up my skills, and seeing where the need was, I found a job that aligned with my values while sufficiently paying the bills. I write all the time at work; I also write on the side.

You need to be strict on your non-negotiables (values), and flexible on the outcome. You don’t know what’s out there. There might be something better suited to you that you’ve never heard about.

How Not to Become a Zombie by Jennifer Chan

Sometimes, I feel like a zombie on autopilot.

But instead of looking to feast on living, unsuspecting humans (or suspecting — a zombie isn’t picky), my sole mission is to optimize every facet of my life, as much as possible. Dead from the inside out, roaming the scorched earth in search of life hacks and self-help advice to make me better, stronger, faster.

Want to reason with me? Good luck. Convince my boss to let me take a week of vacation? Sorry, that won’t satiate my appetite. Gift a pair of tickets to my favourite band? I might blink twice to let you know that somewhere, underneath the rot of my exterior and the stench of death, a part of my consciousness is trapped inside—but that’s all you get.

The “Walking Dead,” is more than just a popular television show. It’s a real, growing fear of the collective conscious. As Chuck Klosterman aptly noted:

“Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed.”

The problem with being a zombie is that, of course, it’s often too late if you’re already a zombie. Your independent thought is gone. The chance of reasoning with yourself is zero. You are your mission, and your mission is to consume the living in order to survive.

Fortunately for us, though, we only feel like a zombie and we have not yet succumbed to such a monotonous fate. There are antidotes available that will remind us the importance of being self-aware in the present moments as we experience them.

Here are a few that work, should you take the recommended daily dose.

Good luck.

1. Wake up slow (or don’t wake up fast).

I mean it. Set your alarm 10, 15, 30 minutes earlier than you need to wake. I didn’t understand how much this improved my attitude for the remainder of the day, until I repeated this for a month. The times that I hit “snooze” instead of rolling out of bed, I felt frantic and disheveled, worried that I wouldn’t make it to work in time, hardly enjoying my sacred cup of morning coffee.

Now, I wake up an hour and 30 minutes before I have to make breakfast and take out my dog. That was never my intention, but it has become my reality.

At least four out of five times during the weekday, my morning involves some version of this: my alarm notification sounds at 5:00 a.m.; I frantically wake and race to the edge of my bed (where my cell phone sits on a nearby dresser); I turn off the alarm before my dog wakes up and demands to be fed; I awkwardly maneuver over the foot of the bed (not to disrupt my sleeping partner); throw on an old pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt; use the washroom and stare at myself in the mirror as I wash my hands; enter the office through our jack and jill bathroom; safely escape to the hallway where I tip-toe to the kitchen, past the bedroom; boil water in the kettle and pour coffee beans into the french press; feed my rabbit; pour the best cup of coffee I’ll taste all day; slink back into the office to read or write.

2. Always be in the middle of a book.

Blog posts, unfortunately, bear the risk of looking, sounding, and reading the same if you read too many in one sitting. Podcasts, while wonderful to passively listen to while cooking, commuting, or doing other routine tasks, do not require the concentration needed when reading a book that will challenge everything you once held to be true.

Books are different.

Fiction: full of winding storylines, complex characters, and syntax that can move you to tears. Non-fiction: memoirs of overcoming formidable challenges, guidance on how to become more compassionate, lessons from those who had everything and lost it all to greed. I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Lethem, authors that remind me of the power of the written word. We are no longer in school, the point of reading books is no longer to receive gold stars or an “A” in a class. It’s to develop compassion for yourself and for others — to acknowledge the common ground that we have with our neighbours. I know no better value than one receives than reading a good book.

3. Shove your phone in a drawer or in your coat pocket during dinner.

I have limited time with my loved ones. I don’t mean in the morbid sense, although that’s certainly true, but my partner works in shifts: four days on (2 day shifts; 2 night shifts), four days off. Each shift is twelve hours. As a result, we do not spend as much time together as we’d like.

The gift of undivided attention is a symbol of love and respect. Our dinners are never long — half an hour at most. But, absent the pings that light up our screensthirty-minutes is sometimes enough when time is scarce. An innocent kind of intimacy.

We need to slow down and practice small acts of gratitude is important to our health and happiness. Of course, there are hundreds of other things that you could be doing, but it doesn’t mean you should. Understand that our time is limited. It’s not about doing more. It’s about living well. And that starts with appreciating the wonderful things in our life.

4. Commit to daily walks through your neighbourhood. Use that time to reflect upon yourself, as well as the history of your environment.

I live in Toronto: a city known for its diversity, semi-useable street cars, and former Mayor, Rob Ford. I take the subway almost every day. I work a stone’s throw away from the hub of Yonge-Dundas Square. Like a good Torontonian, I lament about the inefficiencies of the Toronto Transit System, attend at least one concert each summer at the Molson Amphitheatre, engage in chit-chat about the Blue Jays (in which Jose Bautista almost always comes up), and make it a point to frequent the CNE in August despite having a negative experience every time.

Unfortunately, these rituals never gave way to a real education about Toronto’s serpentine past. The urban planning of the neighbourhoods. The design of the subway system. The bathhouse raids that led to the trepidation of the queer community on Church.

Now, in tandem with my education (thank you Shawn MicallefJane JacobsStephen Otto, and John Lorinc), I have a sense of wonder as I meander through the spaces and places so familiar to me. I don’t just enjoy the basic experience of stepping outside and walking amongst nature and neighbours to the tune of The War on Drugs, I also appreciate the historical evolution of everything I see, smell, and feel. My daily walks are no longer simply about slowing down (although that’s important). These walks encompass a sense of respect for those who came before me, who frequented the parks that I now frequent, and fought for a thriving, diverse community.

5. The Privilege of Caring for Another

The last measure of prevention is service to others. Halting symptoms of zombiehood (glazed eyes, indifference to external circumstance, unquenchable thirst for brains), requires that we look beyond our personal circumstances. Whether it’s caring for a pet, plant, or stranger, small actions of care each and every day does wonders for the spirit.

When I’m frustrated — the subway had another delay, a client directed their frustrations unfairly towards me, the coffee I just purchased slipped from my grasp on to the pavement in front of my office building— I think of my dog, who dutifully licks my arm when I sit beside him. Or, my partner, who strategically cooks her heavenly lasagna when I’ve had a particularly difficult day.

Small acts of kindness can radically improve our days. Why not do the same for others? Purchase a cup of coffee for the transient person on the corner. Ask someone who is visibly upset whether they are okay. Offer to do the household chores that your partner enjoys the least.

I am convinced that there is beauty in the every day. But it is up to us to see it.

Beholden to our mundane demands and unmoved by the box in our living room that an apocalypse is forthcoming, we fall prey to zombiehood. But fight the urge. Round up the neighbours. Furnish yourself with critical thinking, self-awareness, and a commitment to service. Defend the living like our lives depend on it.

Minimalist Living by Jennifer Chan

Minimalism comes in all shapes and sizes. For Colin Wright, that involved selling most of his belongings and travelling around the world. For Courtney Carver, it was embracing a minimalist lifestyle to improve her health (she was diagnosed with MS in 2006). For me, my focus is not so much on eliminating physical clutter - although that’s certainly something I’ve done - but also incorporating a form of mental minimalism into my life. A lifestyle that takes into account all the distractions, interruptions, and needlessly complex processes that I encounter over the course of my day. It’s about simple, deliberate living. Here’s 5 areas in my life that I’ve witnessed the most improvement.

(1) Work. I used to suffer from serious burnout. I was anxious. I was unorganized. I brought files home with me. I thought about work in the shower. I lamented about the stress of my job to others. It was tiring for my loved ones and it was tiring for me. But, once I turned my mind to living a more deliberate life, I realized that my productivity was being hindered by small distractions such as social media notifications, chatter from co-workers, and even taking calls or responding to e-mails about other work projects. Minimalism has helped me build a framework around how to do my work, regardless if I’m in the office or at home. Some characteristics include: time-blocking, placing my phone on ‘Airplane Mode,’ and focusing on doing less tasks but ensuring that the outcome is of the highest quality.

(2) Rest. I think Seneca said it best when he wrote:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

I’m a lawyer that practices in the largest city in Canada. Take one look around the streets of downtown Toronto - if busyness is a sign of success, money appears to be the prize. Minimalism taught me that this couldn’t be furthest from the truth, and that perhaps we should reject that prize altogether.

I now believe that deliberate, meaningful rest fosters productivity and visa-versa. Learning to slow down, take a deep breathe, and embrace the beauty within the present is imperative to a happy and healthy life. I now make time for “slow” activities: taking my dog for a long walk, burying my head in a good book for hours on end, and drinking a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise. I’m learning to look up and not down. I am more intentional with the free time that I have in my day, and I make sure that those moments don’t go to waste.

(3) Health. Eating healthily has been an unintended, yet welcomed, effect. In an attempt to reduce decision fatigue, I’ve been batch cooking my lunches on the weekends for the workweek ahead. This not only helps reduce impulsive spending, but also has helped me eat cleaner and simpler meals. Another wonderful by-product that it becomes one less decision I have to make each day. Of course, setting aside the time to do meal prep is not always easy, but it’s always well worth it.

(4) Finances. We tend to think that maintaining our personal finances is a complex and burdensome task. It’s really not if you declutter correctly. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with my money, I’ve created simple ‘rules’ to follow: adhere to a budget, use only debit and/or cash for daily purchases, automate savings, set aside time once each month to review my finances, etc. What once was the primary source of my anxiety, I barely give a second thought. Creating simple financial systems that run in the background help me concentrate more on the more pressing issues in my life.

(5) Home life. My relationship with my partner and our furry pets are unequivocally one of the most important facets in my life. Because of the nature of my partner’s job, we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. When we do have an evening where we’re both home, we’re prone to watching TV or looking at our phones while we’re eating dinner or relaxing afterwards. Being more mindful about these distractions, through our introduction to minimalism, has enabled us to be more present with each other (and our fur children). We understand the value in making time for activities that don’t involve technology (i.e. board games, cooking classes, spending time in parks) and having our attention directed solely at one another. It’s not only strengthened our relationship but also strengthened our teamwork when it comes to the chores associated with running a household and raising a disabled dog and rabbit.

Although minimalism is an extremely broad concept, you must develop highly specific ‘rules’ in order for it to add value to your life. These ‘rules’ are something that you will have to ascertain for yourself - what works and doesn’t work for you. For me, being more mindful about my social media consumption, forcing myself to spend more time outdoors, and creating better systems for my finances, can all be attributed to my penchant for minimalist living. It’s living with less, understanding why living with less is important, and filling the space with meaningful work.

Of Worth & Money: A Response to Jessica Knoll’s, “I Want to be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.” by Jennifer Chan

I write this as a response, not a critique.

Regardless of whether Jessica Knoll self-labels as feminist, there is an undercurrent of Sisterhood that must be respected across all women, irrespective of divergent views. What ensues is a respectful thought piece that I hope fosters a larger discussion centred around liberation of sexism. Here lies my reflection on Knoll’s recent New York Times op-ed, “I Want to be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.”

First, it must be said that survivors of sexual assault make sense of their experience differently. What Knoll went through is horrific, disgusting, and something I would not wish upon my worst enemies. Although I have not read her book, I believe that her book does a great service to survivors of violence. This post is not about that.

When I was sexually assaulted at the age of 18 by a stranger, I encountered the ‘usual’ range of emotions: from anger to isolation. I was removed from the legal process – aside from the painstaking 2-hour testimony I had to record on video at a local police station – and remained indifferent when the detective on the case told me that my assaulter would be imprisoned 2 years less a day.

Two years later, I received a copy of a restraining order that was automatically dispensed upon his release. My name wasn't even correctly spelled.

I told myself that I wouldn’t hate all men as a result – although I admit I was not attracted to them in the ensuing years – but it did lead me to question a loaded concept: power.

When Knoll writes at the end of her article, “If she can see it, she can be it. I want to be it for little girls whose parents aren’t saving for their educations, whose friends make fun of them for wanting too much from their lives,” I interpret her language as stressing the importance of agency as a mechanism for autonomy.

Knoll wants to be a role-model for those starving for hope to believe that they can make a difference. In that sense, I am in consensus with Knoll’s philosophy: agency and autonomy are pivotal to meaningful change. 

For Knoll, however, agency is instigated by financial success. Her rational is that money equates to power - which, of course, is how the capitalist economic system operates. But is that the appropriate means to the end? I am skeptical.

Although we agree on the finish line (liberation of sexism), I very much disagree with the path to get there for reasons I will now explain.

Money & Worth

My central critique with capitalist labour – which Knoll inadvertently perpetuates - is the incest of money and worth. Capitalism commodifies value: the more valuable your product, the greater of a reward you will receive from the private marketplace. The problem, of course, is that this has been largely constrained to certain products and services. I do not need to detail the history and evolution of capitalism to conclude that emotional labour or works of art are unevenly rewarded by the invisible hand. We pay our nannies and housekeepers peanuts, while those who own capital are handsomely rewarded through the magic of compound interest without lifting a finger. It’s a topsy-turvy system.

Although I claim to write about personal finance, I really write about our relationship with different forms of capital. My main message, whether it’s explicitly stated or not, is that you are not the figure in your bank account. You are not your debt. You are not your credit score. You are not the capital that you own. You do not need to buy expensive clothes or drive luxury cars to feel whole or more than ‘less-than.’ You are enough.

Marketers who are much smarter than you and I work to manipulate us into thinking that we don’t have enough. Yes, that comes in the form of a nice, suburban house with a two-car garage, but it also comes in the onslaught of e-courses that promise to help you with whatever troubles you’re experiencing in your life. Noble intentions aside, this stuff feeds into the private marketplace. I won’t even begin to mention how dangerous the glamour of entrepreneurialism adds to this.

But, in short, it is a dangerous game to play when we evaluate our worth to capital. A quick glance at the impact of the National Housing Act on Black homeowners is sufficient proof.

This is why I am such an ardent advocate of robust UBI policies. Once we are able to divorce money from survival, we are able to work wherever, however, and in whatever we want. We can create, for example, a novel that we are proud of and that brings immense value to a select audience, while freeing ourselves from the worries that it needs to sell a certain amount so we can pay next month’s rent. We can choose to say no to opportunities that are financially lucrative but are not aligned with our principles. We can explore the interests that fell victim to the threat of making ends meet.

We are complex, multi-faceted persons that deserve more than to spend most of our lives doing things that are unfulfilling. We deserve to move beyond “just getting by.”

The Commodification of Art

The dance between art and commerce has always been complicated.

For most creators - writers, painters, sculptors - the work of art is for the common good of people. It moves us to tears, it stirs the heart, it forces us to self-reflect our own biases. The works of art are a means to an end for those who freely consume it.

For Knoll, her work seems very much a means to her end:

"Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights and I want the screenwriting comp to boot...TV is where the money is, and to be perfectly blunt about it, I want to be rich. " 

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem discusses the “industries of cultural capital, who profit not from creating but from distributing, see the sale of culture as a zero-sum game,” and argues a Jeffersonian view: The commodification of culture, in some cases, can be problematic if we're not careful.

He elaborates that works of art coexists amongst two economies: a market economy and a gift economy.

Giving someone a work of art establishes a “feeling-bond” between two people, whereas a transactional purchase does not necessarily develop such a bond. He explains the gig economy as such: "Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price," Lethem explains, "The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration." 

He continues:

“A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.
I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. That is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there is a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.”

I raise the question: who is Knoll exactly writing for?

One for Me but Not for Thee

Knoll’s means (the sale of culture in a zero-sum system) to an end (increasing her power while inspiring agency and autonomy for other women) is suspect at best and damaging at worst. Part of my skepticism about these sorts of arguments is the lack of acknowledgement of the system in which she wishes to use to her advantage.

In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, bell hooks writes about this very problem in the chapters, “Changing Perspectives on Power,” and “Rethinking the Nature of Work”:

“Failure to exercise the power of disbelief made it difficult for women to reject prevailing notions of power and envision new perspectives. While feminists activists urged women to work to acquire economic and political power, they did not offer guidance and wise counsel about the exercise of that power. Women were not cautioned to maintain that political awareness that their newly gained power would advance feminist movement only if it was consciously used with that purpose in mind. They were reluctant and sometimes unwilling to admit that gaining power in the form of wealth was synonymous with supporting the exploitation and oppression of underclass women and men, that such power is rarely used by individuals to empower these groups."
[...]
“Most women active in feminist movement do not have radical political perspectives and are unwilling to face these realities, especially when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure. They are reluctant, even unwilling, to acknowledge that supporting capitalist patriarchy or even a non-sexist capitalist system would not end the economic exploitation of underclass groups. These women fear the loss of their material privilege. As more middle-class white women lose status and enter the ranks of the poor, they ay find it necessary to criticize capitalism.”

Dominance of the system will do little, if anything, for women who feel the weight of oppression of the marketplace on a daily basis. Unbeknownst to Knoll (or perhaps not), this is little more than a modified regurgitation of second-wave ideals that remain naïve to racial and classist sensibilities.

Concluding Thoughts

I do not write this to criticize Knoll, in fact her honesty is something survivors of violence crave. The difficulty I struggle with remains in her logic, which is inevitably guided by a bourgeois upper-white middle-class orientation. I am happy that her novel has received commercial success, but there are countless racialized women who have not had the fortune of transforming their experiences into products valued by the market.

For as long as the current incarnation of capitalist economy exists, I want women to succeed in a political and economic sense. But certain questions remain: Is it possible to obtain power within a capitalist patriarchy without domination of other women? And, once that power is obtained what will women do with it? Can feminists sever themselves from second-wave feminist conceptions that work, within a capitalist society, elicits liberation?

Money only shows more of who you are.

For Knoll, it encapsulates her commercial success - that she's made it, that her artwork is valuable, that she is an accomplished writer in spite of those who doubted her.

But then what?

Money may be able to afford her a "shark of a lawyer if any man ever lays a finger on [her] again," but will this actually help poor and working-class women who have gone through similar trauma? Is this the solution to sexism we should promote? Is this why we should all aspire to be rich? 

“To develop political solidarity among women, feminist activists cannot bond on the terms set by the dominant ideology of the culture. We must define our own terms. Rather than bond on the basis of shared victimization or in response to a false sense of a common economy, we can bond on the basis of our political commitment to a feminist movement that aims to end sexist oppression. Given such a commitment, our energies would not be concentrated on the issue of equality with men or solely on the struggle to resist male domination. We would no longer accept a simplistic good girls/bad boys account of the structure of sexist oppression. Before we can resist male domination, we must break our attachment to sexism; we must work to transform female consciousness.”
– bell hooks

How to Develop and Sustain Creative Thinking by Jennifer Chan

“But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.” 
— Madeleine L’Engle

Just as Madeleine described, creativity can be injected in all facets of life. Most of us don’t work, at least on an obvious level, in creative jobs. We’re sitting in cubicles. We’re working from home. We’re out in the field. But no matter how we earn our keep, I’m a firm believer that incorporating creativity into your work will not only generate better results, but also help you become more innovative, resourceful, and intentional as a creator. Here are 6 ways that have helped me stay creative in my daily life.

Pick up a book every single day.

It has never been easier to consume information. We listen to podcasts, read social media, and now have established media publications developing their own apps for readers on-the-go, but none of these are adequate substitutes for books. You’d think this would be obvious, but when it comes to the consumption of books in America, you’d be surprised: 24% of adults claim that they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year.

That statistic should trouble you. While consuming information through faster and quicker channels is easier, it’s important that we don’t side-step our commitment to deep learning. In order for us to use creative thinking as a way to tackle complex problems, we must have sufficient knowledge on the rules before we are able to break them. Although alternative forms of information sources have their place (and rightfully so), books are still the best tool to learn intimately about a narrow subject.

Read broadly across genres.

Although I’m not a fiction writer, reading fiction is an absolute must. Good literature teaches us how to become descriptive storytellers, how to work through nuances in multifaceted topics, and how to use the universality of human emotion as a way to connect readers with all different backgrounds. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”

Spend time in nature.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. I can attest to that. Every night, when I take my dog for a long walk, a sense of calm washes over me. As soon as I select my playlist and put on my headphones, life just slows down. I’m able to breathe. I’m able to reflect. I’m able to think. Seneca also agreed: “We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by open air and deep breathing.”

Engage in meaningful discussions with people who are much smarter than you.

Ideas are like babies. You need to help them grow. It’s not easy — you need to feed them, help them sleep, and, in general, advocate for their well-being. It’s naive to think that you always know best and can’t invite input from others. I‘m incredibly fortunate that I have a core group of friends — about two or three — who are much smarter than me that I can bounce around ideas with. The deeper the discussion, the more that I leave the conversation with a wealth of ideas that replenish my creative spirit.

Establish artificial constraints.

For any creative, just starting is the hardest part of the entire process. One well-known example is a writer staring into the void of a blank page. Tormented by the endless possibilities, she encounters immense difficulty when committing pen to paper. After all, the first word sets the stage for the sentence, the sentence sets the stage for the paragraph, and the paragraph sets the stage for the entire piece.This can, however, be circumvented, or at least minimized, by using constraints. Constraints give us a starting point. However, when the writer is assigned a topic, or perhaps a limited word count, the task becomes easier: You’re given rules. And these rules can be used as building blocks. This is no different than being assigned a project with a tight budget, a work task with an urgent deadline, or a group assignment that involves mediating conflicting opinions of multiple colleagues. Constraints not only demand creative thinking, but it helps foster critical thinking, self-motivation, and resourcefulness.

Set aside sufficient time for rest.

In Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, he talks in great length about how respite is a crucial element of creativity. He mentions how Stephen King, Angela Davis, and other seminal figures, don’t actually work as many hours as we think. Why? Because they believe in deep work for a set amount of hours, followed by a period of deliberate rest. Pang, however, stresses that rest does not equate to sitting in front of the TV for 5 hours every night, but rather participating in restorative activities. This includes going for challenging hikes, walking for a few hours, or napping between periods of intensive work. As Pang describes: “Rest is not this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” — Daniel Pink

Adam Grant has talked about this extensively in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Creative innovators aren’t necessarily crazy, risk-takers. In fact, most of them, such as the founders of Warby Parker, approach their creative endeavours in a calculated and strategic way. A useful example is Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream,” speech: This was a culmination of previous variations of speeches that bore a similar theme. He also was editing his speech as he walked up to the podium. Creativity isn’t something that you either have or you don’t. Creative thinking is like a muscle — and it grows stronger the more often you use it.

I think George Nelson said it best when he wrote: “You don’t think your way to creative work. You work your way to creative thinking.” While we may not all aspire to become the next generation of sculptors or painters, it is undeniable that our existing work can truly benefit from creative thinking. The world is full of problems for us to solve. And only through constantly challenging conventional wisdom can we hope to slowly solve them one by one.