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Conscious Creativity: Cut Loose from Perfectionism

Conscious Creativity: Cut Loose from Perfectionism with Michael Sjostedt
Conscious Creativity: Cut Loose from Perfectionism with Michael Sjostedt

“A blank page is a metaphor for challenges in life, and getting unstuck can be challenging amidst everything else in your mind. Giving yourself space and going easy on yourself during the process fosters a better experience. Developing the habit of being kind to yourself during activities can lead to better-than-expected results, bringing a different mindset and energy to the exercises.” Michael Sjostedt

Michael Sjostedt is a wellness facilitator who uses art-making for self-reflection, personal growth, and team dynamics. Our conversation explores how engaging in creative activities can help individuals and teams better understand their thought patterns, deal with perfectionism, manage stress, and enhance communication. Michael highlights the importance of self-awareness and the value of using creative exercises to improve our approach to work and life.

Stephen Matini: What's your earliest memory of art or art-making?

Michael Sjostedt: My very first memory of making art dates back to the early eighties during elementary school. I can't recall my exact age, but I distinctly remember sketching underground homes inspired by a science show called Omni. The show featured a segment on the futuristic concept of living underground, and I found it incredibly modern and cool.

I would take large sheets of paper and draw dome-shaped structures. I'd delineate the ground with a line and then illustrate the house beneath it, essentially creating a dollhouse effect with all the rooms visible when sliced up. The top dome always served as my sunroom, complete with a lounger for me. Looking back, these drawings were amusing, but they signaled my early interest in design, modernism, and innovative lifestyles.

In the early nineties, clay beads became a massive trend. Kids were wearing them at concerts, and bead shops were flourishing. A friend taught me how to make them, and though I started out a bit clumsy compared to others, the process itself was meditative. It had a clear start, middle, and end, allowing for creativity and experimentation within that framework.

Within a few months, I showed my creations to friends, and they were astonished at my progress. The meditative aspect of bead-making was profoundly satisfying, and I found myself fully immersed in it. People started expressing interest in buying my creations.

At the peak of this venture, when I was 19 and lacking any formal business training, I had a natural instinct for it. The timing was fortuitous, aligning with the start of summer school break. I would spend eight to 10 hours a day mass-producing beads while listening to music. Then, I'd hit the road, visiting towns with bead shops or events.

I managed to secure 14 wholesale accounts, received custom orders, taught monthly classes at an art supply store, and even vended at fairs. I recall smuggling necklaces into Lollapalooza and other concerts, pulling them out of my cargo shorts to showcase. It was an invaluable learning experience—one that can't be obtained in a classroom.

One key takeaway from that period is the importance of hands-on learning. If you truly want to master something, you have to dive in, give yourself time and space to experiment. If your passion endures, improvement will naturally follow.

SM: What have you observed while working with people and assisting them through art-making?

MS: In recent workshops I've conducted, when I introduce an exercise, participants often start experimenting casually because they perceive it as low stakes. We're cutting paper, having a good time, and just exploring.

When the combination of elements doesn't match what they're accustomed to, and they start experimenting in a way they don't like, they react dramatically. They may hold their heads and exclaim, "I can't do this!" The negative self-talk could have a perfectionistic tone, or it might simply express uncertainty, like, "I don't know how to start. This is so new to me.”

In such situations, I quickly address these concerns. I ask questions to understand what's not working for them, focusing on the tangible aspects in front of them rather than delving into their thoughts. Listening becomes crucial.

Bringing people back to the present is necessary because they tend to get caught up in their thoughts. These low-stakes workshops offer insight into our mental processes, self-talk, and narratives. If individuals can self-examine their reactions and build self-awareness during these moments, they can carry this skill into higher-stakes environments, such as their jobs. 

Applying this self-awareness helps in navigating challenges and prevents extreme reactions like wanting to quit or feeling overwhelmed. While not every workshop leads to a breakthrough or a meltdown, they can be incredibly beneficial in fostering self-awareness and providing tools for handling various situations in life.

SM: Your workshops serve as a mirror for people to reflect on themselves. What sets you apart from other facilitators?

MS: First and foremost, the workshop is named Cut Loose. The whole idea is to come, have fun, and try something new. Understand that MoMA and The Met won't be reaching out to you after the workshop, so lower your expectations. It's primarily an exercise to explore something novel and enjoyable, offering a digital break and using art-making as a contemplative, meditative process—just one of many ways to meditate.

In my classes, I provide exercises but leave room for interpretation. Some participants thrive on that freedom, while others seek clear rules. Working with both types is fascinating, as I can relate to needing expectations clarified. It's interesting to accommodate various personalities.

After completing an exercise, I select a few students with intriguing interpretations and, with their permission, showcase their work to the class. We discuss what I appreciate in their approach and engage in a conversation with the student about their thought process and feelings about the outcome.

This approach helps demonstrate alternative perspectives on using materials. I highlight elements like design, faces, or colors that stand out and discuss them in detail. Different aspects resonate with different individuals. Some participants open up about challenging experiences they're facing. 

The act of creating, without heavy expectations on how it should be presented, becomes a valuable tool for working through personal challenges. It also provides a much-needed, active break for self-care.

SM: You've mentioned using this approach in a more work-oriented context. Do the same principles apply, or have you observed different dynamics?

MS: When you're burned out, stressed, under pressure, or dealing with challenging personalities, whether they're coworkers or clients, it can be a tricky combination. Discussing what you're going through with your supervisor, colleague, or someone else is crucial. 

Don't wait until you're telling yourself, "I quit, I hate them, this stinks." Delving into negative consequences or attaching yourself to pessimistic narratives makes it harder to navigate the situation. Developing a practice that illuminates your negative narratives, especially outside the work environment with a creative exercise, is essential. 

This is where HR, wellness professionals, activity directors, and anyone working on team morale can benefit. It provides a chill break while prompting unexpected thoughts. It's essential to be ready to respond when those thoughts arise, acknowledge them, and maybe even jot them down. In my workshops, I encourage participants to note how they feel before, during, and after the session.

These workshops act as speed bumps, a pause that brings the narrative closer to the surface, making it more conscious and less subconscious. Identifying and naming the narrative becomes more manageable, and with consistent practice, your day-to-day life can become more manageable. Evaluating how you talk to yourself and understanding your narrative, whether it's perfectionism, negative self-talk, or passive aggression, can significantly improve your life. Recognizing patterns allows you to question or shift them. 

Receiving feedback can be challenging, especially if you tend to beat yourself up or struggle with perfectionism. Creative exercises help you overcome the daunting prospect of a blank page, offering a starting point and breaking the paralysis that often accompanies it.

A blank page is a metaphor for challenges in life, and getting unstuck can be challenging amidst everything else in your mind. Giving yourself space and going easy on yourself during the process fosters a better experience. Developing the habit of being kind to yourself during activities can lead to better-than-expected results, bringing a different mindset and energy to the exercises.

Working with students has shown me the importance of creating these speed bumps for self-awareness. A contemplative practice, like sitting and meditating or engaging in creative rest with a clear start, middle, and end, can be transformative. 

Examining the before, during, and after of the process allows you to notice shifts and understand the impact. If you don't take the time to stop and question how you talk to yourself, meaningful change and evolution won't happen. It all boils down to how you notice and respond to your self-talk.

SM: What insights can a manager gain from your experience as a facilitator?

MS: Change the questions you ask, especially when dealing with someone causing frustration. If your communication isn't clicking, reconsider the questions you pose, and avoid accusatory tones. Questions like, "Why didn't you do this?" or "Why isn't this happening?" can shut the other person down.

Examine your own narrative around the situation and question the queries forming in your head. Try to separate the person from the project. If they deliver something not meeting spec or the brief, focus on the work first. Ask about the start, the middle, the finish, the elements, and the components. Discuss how you arrived at the current outcome. Shift the conversation from a blaming, accusatory tone to a more constructive approach.

Even when you need to address the person, do it in a humane manner. Projects often require looking beyond individual contributions. Techniques like those used in workshops can be beneficial. They shed light on team dynamics and thought processes, providing a more authentic view of individuals who, in a workplace setting, are often in performance mode.

These workshops allow people to be real, revealing questions, narratives, and habits that might not surface in a professional environment. Understanding your team on a personal level can lead to better dynamics and energy. Consider how altering your approach in work projects could make a positive impact.

These workshops, combined with a bit of role-playing, envisions an ideal state for collaboration. Shifting workplace dynamics is essential because how you treat yourself and others significantly influences the quality of work. It enhances productivity, increases enjoyment, and boosts morale.

Exploring other aspects, such as the energy around collaboration and understanding everyone's bandwidth and mental state, is vital. Avoid expecting these workshops to be a panacea that magically solves all issues. Instead, view them as tools—speed bumps that prompt introspection and positive change.

SM: Is there a specific key takeaway, something crucial that you want our listeners to pay close attention to?

MS: When starting a new creative project, be mindful of your self-talk. Whether you write it down, say it out loud, or record it, it provides an interesting perspective into yourself—a perspective often overlooked. This becomes particularly important when you're stressed, burned out, or frustrated because how you speak to yourself impacts your energy, your thoughts, your communication with others, and your approach to projects.

Recognize the power of making as a tool to break free from habits like perfectionism or task paralysis, whether in managing a creative team or overseeing a project. The applications are vast, so approach each project with consciousness and intention. Consider what you want to learn about yourself during the process.

Be honest about your feelings during and after the project. Collage, while discussed here, is just one of many tools. You could engage in a group cooking class or take on everyday activities. Going into an activity with the intention of relaxation is crucial, but avoid putting too much pressure on the exercise to solve all issues. Acknowledge that you might be stressed or burned out, and view the activity as a way to take a break and observe what's happening.

Don't burden the act of making with excessive significance, as it may add stress. Instead, approach it with a light intention. Even a simple goal like wanting to mess around and have a good time is sufficient. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself, noting any differences before, during, and after the activity.

SM: Michael, thank you for our conversation. It feels like a “speed bump” for me today.

MS: Great!

🎧 Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Podbean, or your favorite podcast platform.

Sign up for a Cut Loose workshop with Michael Sjostedt. Cut Loose is a no-pressure collage workshop for beginners and art stars alike, providing an opportunity for creative rest.

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