Creativity and Failure – You Can’t Have One Without the Other

Just like cookies and milk, creativity and failure are inseparable. And, like it or not, and most of us fall into the ‘not” category, the lessons derived from our failures are often responsible for our best creative works and innovations.

There is no magic wand to wave, no secret to uncover and, surely, no one person with advice that can keep the creative individual from failing. In fact, it is the creative individual’s ability to fail fearlessly and without apology that places them head and shoulders above others – for whom failure is a sign of inadequacy. So, don’t get it twisted, it is our failures and relentlessness, as we try and try again, that make the final product of our creative efforts so fulfilling.

Let us consider creativity as the final product whose process consists of many components. Those components are the love and nurturing that we experience (or don’t) as children, the safety and security of our environment, and the belief that we can bring about change through our thoughts and actions. These components impact our response to failure. Failing is merely part of the process that leads to discovery of the unforeseen. And isn’t that where the creative individual wants to go? The unforeseen is where something unique awaits. Where something untested lurks. Where something that makes people stand up and pay attention, hides. And that something is worth all of the pain and effort that come with failing.

Rest assured, true accomplishment is never without its fair share of pain. Perhaps, it is this pain that keeps many people from ever pursuing a creative endeavor. Talent alone is not enough. Courage and fearlessness are required to step off the ledge and lay your heart on the line. But even the hurt that comes with failure can lead you right back to your creative self, providing kindling for the passion fire that burns within.

While it is not where I find my inspiration, I have encountered artists and creative folk in non-artistic professions, who are motivated by deep hurt and anger. They are relentless, driven, and I must admit, I have sometimes marveled at their uncompromising single-mindedness. They have climbed to great heights and accomplished great things. Their turmoil, the denial of love or the need to prove themselves to the doubters, can be a powerful motivating force. But as we say in my neck of the hood, “I ain’t trying to go out like that.”

I prefer finding my inspiration in joyful places, places where my failures are forgiven as part of my process of discovery. I guess I am just happy that even in failure, there’s an opportunity to try, try again, until I get it right.

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Seun Kuti returns to Los Angeles – a creative voice for change

Last summer I reviewed Seun Kuti’s triumphant performance in Los Angles… After seeing him again last Friday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall, and because of the wonderful response to the previous article, I thought I’d run it again. Enjoy!

Seun Kuti – a creative force and political voice
One week ago Nigeria’s favorite son, Seun Kuti, took flight amidst L.A. skyscrapers whose construction costs could feed his nations poor for a lifetime. The high-hat danced on top of a rock steady groove as horns blasted harmonic phrases like a boxer delivering a knockout combination. The guitars, percussionists and rhythm section laid an Afro beat foundation for Seun’s two, hip winding dancers and we craned our necks, awaiting his appearance. Then, just as the crowd could take no more, Seun leapt onstage and everyone present dance for the next 3 hours.… Let me say right now, I love Seun Kuti almost as much as I loved his father, the renowned Nigerian provocateur and political activist, Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997.
Seun moved about the stage like a cat, or more accurately,like an Alvin Ailey dancer. His arms are like limbs on a tree, bending in whichever direction he chooses, as his legs – attached to non-stop swiveling hips, stretch before him, pump up and down, and prance from one end of the stage to the other. And no movement is wasted as he uses his body to illustrate the stories he sings about. Illegal imprisonment, corruption, war and poverty – in africa and around the world – Seun is a master storyteller and an inspiration to watch.
I had the honor of interviewing Seun Kuti in Nigeria when he performed at the 2006 Independence Day concert. Beyonce, Busta Rhymes and Jay Z shared the bill but it was Seun I most wanted to see. Of course, the performance was spectacular what I remember most is walking into Seun’s tent a few hours before he hit the stage. Several dozen people lounged comfortably about, like family. A baby or two was passed among them and it was clear that these were not the groupies of MTV and VH1 bios. Although Nigeria’s powerful elites hate to admit it, Seun is Nigerian royalty and these were his people, united by a cause.
In the tent we talked of Nigerian politics and the music of Fela. We talked of Seun’s music and its unrelenting cry for change. I lamented American music’s lack of purpose and he mentioned commitment. Like his father before him, Seun is committed to both his music and his Nigeria.
I stand watching five years later and Seun, shirtless like his father before him, is surrounded by his band Egypt 80 and its stage full of musicians. He’s in perpetual motion. Lean and agile, he is a scarecrow with hinged arms and legs, sweeping across the stage with every part of his body stretched in a different direction. He’s reaching with fingers and toes, with voice and facial expressions. He reaches to touch us and make us pay attention. Seun is a living, breathing call to action as leans one way and dashes another, grabbing his saxophone for a few staccato riffs before prowling again. Seun fully embodies the characters in his songs with gleeful abandon. Seun is the consummate storyteller in the African tradition with stories of love, war, political hypocrisy and unity. And like the African folktales about Anansi The Spider, he mixes humor with African values; moral indignation and ethical aspiration.
So last Friday I watched Seun Kuti hold his California fans captive and I was transported to that tent and my time with a young African man of music, words and politics. A true creative force. Long live the storyteller.

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A Hard Life: Creativity and a Gang Member’s Reality

It was a morning like most others for twelve-year-old Jay (not his real name). He left home with no intention of going to class and by 10:00 a.m., he and his fourteen-year-old friend had begun the daily ritual of drug dealing and chillin; sipping cheap wine and smoking PCP. No one noticed the carload of PJ Crips from Imperial Court until they opened fire, leaving two Grape Street Crips wounded.

Moment’s later; Jay’s friend drove off with a Tec-9 across his lap. Jay rode shotgun, slumped low with a 357 Magnum, a purple bandana left only his eyes revealed. They found their target.

“Soon as my homie stopped I raised up and they was right there, five or six of ‘em, on 114th street. We blasted ‘em. I was loaded (high). They was eighteen, nineteen-years-old,” Jay told me.

Within two months Jay was a convicted murderer, spending his thirteenth birthday and the next seventeen years inside the nations most dangerous maximum-security prisons. There, he learned to kill with precision and go undetected. That was his job, sanctioned by gang leaders who ran their illicit neighborhood enterprises from behind prison walls.

When we met, Jay had been out for a few years and was attending a life skills and job training class. He was quiet, self-examining and, I hoped, on the road to changing his world.
I contemplated the factors that contributed to his poor judgment and deadly actions. Family dysfunction, institutional failures, flawed community and religious systems, Jay’s own inexcusable culpability and more; each played a part. However, Creativity and Imagination, or their absence, also had a role in this tragedy.

It takes creativity and imagination to aspire to a better life and act accordingly; such aspirations or transcendent thought enables us to believe we can rise above present conditions and move toward a promising, though as yet unseen, future. But you cannot have one (transcendent thought) without the other (creativity/imagination). Perhaps that is why Webster’s defines Creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”

Jay’s ability to transcend and rise up and beyond the gang life was undoubtedly crushed by, among other things, his mother’s crack addition, his father’s absence and, among many other factors, his brothers’ gang activities in Watts’ infamous Jordon Downs housing project. He was merely unable to see that far outside the box of his own experience. So, why are we surprised when he, and others like him, struggle to redefine themselves and take actions leading to a brighter future?

Today, he remains shackled to an image of himself as gang-banger, bad guy, and loser. Still, I now it can be done. I have seen troubled men and women free themselves from old self-concepts and the imposed rules of others who mean them no good. I’ve watched as they’ve imagined new possibilities and instituted new behaviors. But it never happens without help and support.

I stood to leave. “What about dreams for the future,” I nudged.
“I just want a job. I want my kids to have it better than I did,” he said as he wiped his sweat-dampened forehead, “But it’s hard man. It’s hard.”

Jay has not attended the life skills meeting for the last six month’s and my calls have gone unanswered.

This is part of a larger paper on Creativity to be posted soon.

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Who Is She and What Is She To You?

Yes, I have twisted the title of the classic Bill Withers song to suit my needs, but it’s for a worthy cause. The SHE I refer to is CREATIVITY and like a wonderful lover, spouse, friend or significant other, a healthy relationship with it, requires nurturing and attention.

So often we wonder where the love has gone, without considering the mount of energy we have given (or not) to that love. Our creativity is like love – you get what you give -and although it can sometimes leave us feeling like there is so much more we need, unless you make some deposits there will be nothing to withdraw when you need it.

So I asking… Is the relationship between you and your creativity a good one, or nonexistent due to a lack of attention? Do you take time to simply let your mind drift and allow your inner voice to rise above the noise and whisper sweet words of inspiration in your ear? Life sometimes gets in the way of what may appear to be an exercise in self indulgence, but I hope the answer is yes.

Relationships require the involvement of all parties or they just ain’t gonna work… Creativity requires your attention and will disappear if neglected – but don’t worry, her infinite patience with us mere mortals means she will reappear, once we wise up and give her the time and attention she (and we) deserves.
So, spend time with yourself and your muse will appear… Then get busy and CREATE something wonderful.

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Pan African Film Festival: an Instrument of Change – an Instrument of Joy

I have just spent the past two weeks at the Pan African Film Festival where I had the pleasure of moderating an amazing panel on The Art of the Pitch… but I’m not here to talk about that. I am here to talk about what I saw from a host of international filmmakers. While most of the filmmakers were Black, representing their experiences from every corner of the globe, there were filmmakers of all races and ethnicities presenting films on the black diaspora. And, with fewer Black themed films and television shows being produced in the United State, the need for these images has become more pressing than ever.

There were standouts like Toussaint Louverture, a French television mini-series starring the mesmerizing Jimmy Jean-Louis as the Haitian General who led Haiti to independence; and an assortment of romantic comedies, gangster flicks, dramas and coming of age stories; but it was the wide range of documentaries that inspired me to comment on film as an instrument of change and joy.

Using one’s creative gifts to illuminate social issues is not new and in years past we have seen many a powerful documentary impact the way we think about the world around us. Several come to mind. The 1987 PBS broadcast of Eyes On The Prize, presented a deeply insightful look into the Civil Rights Movement and its roots, giving context and focus to what was a vast and complex moment in history.

Similarly, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness, about the great boxer, Jack Johnson’s rise and fall from grace, revealed the struggle of a proud Black sport’s figure in a time when beating a white man in the ring could be grounds for lynching. And many preceded these. Yes, filmmakers have used their imaginations to impact social movements and promote change for as long as there have been… well, filmmakers.

This years PAFF provided a creative soapbox (in the most positive sense) and springboard for the filmmakers and their stories. Films such as Slavery by Another Name, by director Sam Pollard, looked at the use of Jim Crow laws as a means of replacing the labor lost, when the slaves were freed. Pollard questions where African Americans would be today had this brutal system of illegal imprisonment not been allowed to thrive for 75 years; and adeptly uses his creative vision to hold up a mirror to the past, the present and the status quo.

White Wash, by director Ted Woods, is another myth busting documentary and wonderful application of filmmaking. In choosing a seldom-covered topic, Woods’ “out of the box” thinking shatters the perception of Black folk as historically uninterested in, and incapable of, surfing. For those of us who grew up thinking that surfing was the domain of the blond haired, blue eyed Malibu set, this is not only eye opening, but opens up surfing to today’s young men and women of color who may have otherwise denied themselves, yet another, means of expression and enjoyment.

It is thrilling to see creativity and art can play in bringing new ideas and new perceptions to our world, and “documentary” need not be synonymous with serious and heavy. The Story of Lovers Rock, by Menelik Shabazz, provided a reprieve from some of the heavier subject matter, but was no less informative and impactful. Shabazz tracked the emergence of Lovers Rock, a sensuous 1970’s precursor to Reggae, a Black Jamaican-British hybrid that rocked England and continues to have a huge influence on international contemporary music, to this day. With thoughtful and lighthearted interviews and skits featuring familiar comedians from the British-Caribbean scene, Shabazz captured the energy of the sexy Lovers Rock groove and highlighted the genre’s innovators; all with a wit and innovative approach that made the audience laugh with delight. Yes, documentaries can be fun too.

This year’s Pan African Film Festival brought a wealth of talent, from around the world, to Hollywood’s doorstep. They made us laugh and even cry, and further convinced me that creativity, in any form, has the power to inform and transform all of our lives, for the better. For that, and their 20 years of hard work, we owe them our gratitude.

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Happy New Year World

I spent the better part of December 2011 and the beginning of January 2012 trying to come up with my year-end blog. Why the delay?… Okay, you got me. I admit that there was a little too much holiday cheer (code for spiked eggnog) and procrastination for my own good, but by-and-large, the slow arrival of my New Year blog was because I was paralyzed by the idea of wrapping such a big package in such a tiny box. Then it occurred to me, “keep it simple stupid.”

So, for the sake of simplicity, I decided that the tried and true Best and Worst format might be my best shot. If you’re looking for the best and worst of film, fashion, wine, restaurants or any other possible assortment of categories you’ve come to the wrong place. No, this is MY best and worst list; paired down from dozens of possibilities, to only a few of the things I found personally pleasurable or troublesome. But first, I wanted to touch briefly on a concept that was key to my 2011 goals and accomplishments. Here it is…

Small steps lead to big gains! All right, I know it may not appear particularly profound or even original, but that’s it! I thought it was worth a mention here because I constantly see people who are frozen in place by the perceived enormity of the GOALS they have set for themselves. The goal is set and they can envision themselves living their BIG DREAM. THEN nothing. They don’t know where to start. Soon, inaction turns to frustration, disappointment and self-criticism. The goal is abandoned, the dream forgotten, and time and life move on.

I am reminded of a commercial that ran when I was a kid. I remember little of its specifics except the tag line, which was uttered as a mother watched her son gobble down his dinner. She popped him upside his head, a gesture that would get her arrested nowadays, with the reprimand, “take human bites!”

You see – the problem isn’t the size of the dream or goal. No dream should be too big for us. The problem is that, after we have that big dream, we can’t wrap our minds around where to begin. Perhaps we need to relax, look at the dream or the task-at-hand, and take human bites. The small steps and incremental actions we take will inevitably move us closer to the goal, until the mission is accomplished and the dream finally becomes reality.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, here are a few of the Best (experiences) and Worst (revelations) of my 2011.
BEST (experiences) OF MY 2011
– Returning to the old Brooklyn neighborhood with my wife and son, and showing him where she and I met and fell in love. And feeling that love renewed.
– Enjoying a great glass of wine while sharing laughs and ideas with family and friends who make my life richer every time we are together.
– Sitting amidst individuals who have been silenced by circumstance and their own poor decisions, and watching them emerge to find their way and their voice.
– Introducing creative thinking into the lives of university students and corporate executives alike.
– Getting my college diploma after dropping out many years ago, and being inducted into the National Communications Honor Society (Lambda Pi Eta).
– Seeing my sons face light up as we walked amidst the neon lights of Broadway on New Years Eve. And no, we didn’t spend New Years in Times Square?

WORST (realizations) OF MY 2011
– Reality television continues its death march across the airwaves, feeding its celebrity obsessed audience a steady dose of vapid wanna be’s whose only accomplishment is the attainment of five minutes of fame. No talent required.
– Large sectors of the working class ignore their own self-interest because they would rather cling to old notions of sex and race, than align themselves with the “others” with whom they have so much in common. Dah!
– Politicians have no problem ignoring the needs of the country, as long as they get “win” at the end of the day.
– Education is failing millions of kids and we’re spending more on building prisons that building schools.
– The Kardashians will be a constant annoyance for the foreseeable future. Yes, I know I’m harping on this reality thing but I can’t get over the ridiculousness of it all.

Although it’s not exactly my usual creativity focused blog, I thought this was an important principle to share as we launch ourselves into 2012. Thanks for joining me at Write2live.org in 2011… I know 2012 is going to be even bigger and better. Much luv and stay creative, Kim

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“Stuff I’m going to do….”

“Stuff I’m going to do….” Those words appear near the end of the wonderful movie UP. The wife in the film, dead and gone, left a photo album behind for her husband, Ed Asner’s character, Mr. Fredrickson. As he explores the album we see picture after picture of the loving couple experiencing EVERYTHING she had ever dreamed of. She DID it all and left the planet with few regrets. My hero… my muse… my animated creator of dreams. Mrs. Fredrickson knew what she wanted to do in her life, and she did it.

Isn’t life about DOING? Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of distractions and legitimate excuses for NOT doing the things we would like… but where does that get you? I can make excuses or I can DO. I can live out loud or I can sit quietly by as others scream and shout with joy, letting themselves and the world know they’re alive. I can create something amazing or I can languish in the limbo of inactivity.
Perhaps if I were the retiring or quiet type, that might be enough, but I’d rather DO. I’d rather CREATE. I’d rather DREAM. How about you?

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Creativity… reclaim it and take flight

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “creativity” as “the ability to TRANSCEND traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”

Great thinkers such as Aristotle once deemed Creativity as important to individuals and society, as science and mathematics. Unfortunately, today, creativity – with all its mind expanding possibilities – has lost much of its support in our schools, homes and society-at-large.

Public schools have made drastic cuts to all arts programs. Music, theatre and dance, once subjects that enriched the lives of young people regardless of their social standing, have all but disappeared. As a result, there are now several generations of adults who have never held an instrument, seen a well produced school play or been introduced to the world of dance.

Let’s reclaim, for ourselves and those who follow us, the creativity and imagination that enable all of us to fly.

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What Motivates Your Productivity and Success?

Motivation is a key component to our PRODUCTIVITY and SUCCESS… Some folks are motivated by the love and support they received as children and young adults. They feel free to try, fail and try again. I call this motivation by LOVE & NURTURING.
Other folks are motivated by the opposite (feelings). Instead of love and nurturing, they received harsh judgments and rejection when they failed or attempted something new and bold. Their success is the product of, what I call, motivation by STRIFE & NEGLECT.
These polar opposites can drive individuals to great heights and accomplishments, influencing not only a desire to excel, but the ability to enjoy and relish those accomplishments.
I recently encountered a young man who was motivated by strife & neglect. He had a very difficult childhood filled with the kind of emotional neglect and hardship that stifles a child’s creativity and imagination. He was involved in gang activity and spent time in jail. Fortunately, he turned things around with the help of some very good people, who showed him a DIFFERENT WAY TO LIVE.
He embraced a new LIFE-CHANGING VISION of himself and recently passed an important test that got him into a union job – a great accomplishment to be sure. Happy Ending Right? Not quite.
When I asked him how he felt about passing the test, he said he felt angry.
“Why aren’t you happy?” I asked.
He replied that “angry” was the only feeling that motivated him to continue on the right path. “Happy”, he feared, would not drive him to succeed. He associated happy with a state of mind he could not fully endorse.
How sad was that? This man, who had managed to turn his life around against all odds, had not yet figured out how to embrace his goodness and celebrate his hard work and good fortune.
Yes, he was motivated to succeed but he was motivated by the STRIFE & NEGLECT he experienced as a child. Though I understand how this happened, it’s a shame that anger is the driving force behind his success. I can only hope that, with time, anger will be replaced by contentment and he will be able to smile and truly enjoy the new life he worked so hard to create.

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“Seasons change oh so quickly”… blah blah blah…

I can’t remember where I read that line but don’t you love it when poets make aging sound like a dreamy and benign stroll in the park. Let me be clear – I’m not exactly aging, not like say, our parents. I’m more like ripening. But I’m here to tell you, call it what you will, I am stunned and concerned about the all too quick passing of time and there’s nothing benign about it. I know I shouldn’t complain. I “have my health”. Ouch- I just sneezed and strained a muscle in my neck.
Ok, you’re right – I have my loving family, who I just caught glancing at my will and whispering about my shelf life.
My hairs going white, my son’s friend asked if I was his grandfather, AND the fuzz on my back would make a chinchilla jealous. At least I have my own teeth….
I’m reminded of a few years back… Oh yes, the times, they were a changing. I was working out at the USC gym amidst a gaggle of undergrads. Feeling good and particularly limber, I was doing some stretching. No aches or pains. I still had good muscle tone and the confident swagger that comes with “maturity”. I’ll admit, I wasn’t pulling any canoes across the waters from San Francisco to San Quentin ala’ Jack LaLane, but I could take a glance at myself in gym’s mirror and think, “not bad for Forty-five.”
“Excuse me SIR, are you finished with that matt?” came the voice behind me, from a stunningly young and beautiful co-ed.
Sir – Sir – Sir -Sir! The moniker hit me like bullets from a machine gun and when the smoke cleared, I knew I had crossed over. Not into heaven but into that undeniable and irreversible moment in every man’s life where he is not quite as young as he thinks he is and anyone under twenty-nine starts to look like they need diapers and a binkie.
Truth is told I am a happy soul who is embarking on new adventures. Change might not come easily but you can be sure, it will come. I am heading into my third career, teaching the stuff I learned from my first two careers. No one seems to question my competence, silly them.
Speaking of change, did I mention that it’s my birthday? That’s why I’m writing this. I’m in shock. I’m in denial. I’m in … Where the he’ll am I? I can’t remember. You see, the memory is the first thing to go.
Nevertheless, when it’s all said and done and I take stock of my life, I am extremely happy to have another year under my belt. I’m making plans for a bog celebration AND a nap. I’m prepping my first corporate seminar, with a bunch of European hairdressers – don’t ask. And my son informed his friend that the graying gentlemen who picks him up from school is NOT his grandfather but just his mature dad. In the meantime, I’ll suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous middle age with a graceful bow, and turn a deaf ear to anyone that calls me SIR!!!

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