Your Brain Will Thank You, Part 2

IdeaConnection Interview with Eric Maisel, Co-author of Brainstorm, and Creative Recovery, and Author of Coaching the Artist Within
By Vern Burkhardt
"People waste their brains… A brainstorm is the full activation of your neuronal forces, an activation in support of an idea that you intend to cherish and elaborate, so powerful that it amounts to a productive obsession." Brainstorm, pages 1 and 3

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Based on your experience with your clients would you conclude that virtually everyone has an innate desire to leave a lasting impact on the world, and therefore they would do well to follow your advice about pursuing their productive obsession?

photo of Dr. Eric MaiselEric Maisel: It's an interesting question the way it's formed because you say based on my experience with clients. I think all of my clients do have an innate desire to leave a lasting impact, but I don't think all human beings do. Most human beings would not be my clients.

I don't think that most people have an innate desire to leave a lasting impact on the world at all. Their other innate desires rise much higher, like having a good steak sandwich or whatever.

We have no idea what percentage of people has this innate desire, or whether it's even innate. Or whether it's something that grows by virtue of being exposed to the literature of justice, equality, existentialism, or what have you. It might be the case that somebody without any desire to leave a lasting impact encounters some book or movie which reminds them that there's more to life than they are currently experiencing.

To make that long story short, I would say that the vast majority of people do not have an innate desire, and it's the majority that keeps culture and civilization afloat.

VB: What advice do you have for those who say they don't know what they really want to accomplish, and therefore are content to live a mediocre life – not pushing themselves to productively obsess?

Eric Maisel: It comes back to accepting that you may not know what you want to accomplish because you haven't gotten quiet enough inside for those good ideas to arise, for knowing what you want to do to arise. So the first piece of advice is to quiet the mind and do the work that cognitive therapists recommend of noticing yourself talk, disputing utterances that don't serve you, and substituting more affirmative language.

To say it more concisely, get a grip on your mind and, having gotten that grip on your mind, then ask yourself what you really want to accomplish. In that silence, in that pregnant silence of a quiet mind, what you want to accomplish will arise.

VB: It's difficult to achieve a quiet mind.

Eric Maisel: It is. It's probably the hardest work of the work we're talking about.

VB: Meditation? Other approaches?

Eric Maisel: I have a whole book on this question called, Ten Zen Seconds.

I'm not so much for meditation because it takes quite a chunk of time to do the meditating, and there isn't a built-in component that moves you to the next task, namely using your newly quieted mind for some function.
In Ten Zen Seconds I argue that all you need to do to get centered and more quiet is to use as container a long, deep breath – 5 or 6 seconds on the inhale, and 5 or 6 seconds on the exhale. Into that long breath drop a useful thought like 'I'm completely open' on the inhale, and 'I'm completely open' on the exhale. Or 'I trust my resources' or 'I feel supported' – some small phrase that fits into a breath. By doing this a few times – two or three times over 30 seconds – you can get yourself quiet enough, centered enough, for thinking to commence.

VB: Does our brain often look for excuses to be distracted, or is it mainly a matter that we haven't learned self-discipline and how to focus?

Eric Maisel: We are tricky, defensive creatures and we're always looking for ways to keep ourselves from knowing that we're not getting our real work done. We are always doing it. The two ways people most often do this linguistically nowadays is by saying, "I'm too tired" and "I'm too busy." Because these sayings have a ton of grains of truth, they naturally let us off the hook. They just sound true.

If you want to deal with your own trickiness, you have to append a big BUT and say, "Yeah, I'm tired, BUT I'm not too tired to spend 15 minutes on my home business." Or, "Yeah, I'm very busy, BUT I'm still going to carve out an hour for my novel this evening."

If we allow our tricky language to just sit there and fool us, then as you said before, ten years will pass and we won't have gotten any of the work done that somewhere in our consciousness we had hoped to do.

VB: I often wonder if the myth of multi-tasking, or perhaps more accurately, the popularity of saying 'I'm multi-tasking' is part of the problem.

Eric Maisel: No one really multi-tasks; it is a matter of quick, sequential tasking. It's all of this quickness that eats up the day – one quick thing after another.

It feels like we're not investing much time in any one thing; therefore, we think we aren't wasting so much time by checking our email one more time or what have you. Of course, the accumulation is that we have spent the whole day doing one quick small thing after another. It directly connects to what I was saying earlier about how every small thought steals neurons and every small task steals time.

VB: With practice and training of our brain can we significantly reduce our random, unwanted negative thoughts and eliminate unproductive obsessions, or are they just part of the human condition of constantly having conflicts in our "self-talk?"

Eric Maisel: We can absolutely do a better job of it, but we have to want to do it. It's actual work.

If you want to change your self-talk to manage it, or even to extinguish the self-talk you don't want, you have to do the work of constantly noticing what you're saying to yourself. You then have to dispute those utterances that don't serve you, and substitute with utterances that do.

If you let a statement like, "Boy there's an awful lot of competition out there; I don't think I have a chance of authoring a book" just sit there undisputed, you'll probably lose a day, week, or month because within a few moments of having that thought you will get the equivalent of depressed. You'll become sad that there's so much competition. You won't be motivated to continue and the meaning will drain out of whatever you've been working on.

It's your job to notice that you just said this negative thing in your self-talk, and to proceed to say to yourself, "Well, there's a lot of competition, but a hundred thousand books are published every year so it means an awful lot of authors' works are being published." You have to find a way of reframing or disputing utterances that don't serve you so that it just doesn't sit there, undisputed, and drain motivation from you.

VB: Is it possible to effectively work on more than one productive obsession at the same time, to have more than one on the go at the same time?

Eric Maisel: I think it's possible, but difficult, so I wouldn't recommend it. It's hard enough to have one. Often when people say they want to do X, Y, and Z at a high level this often means they're not committing to any one of them and, typically, they get nothing done.

However, I do think that if you have two big things to work on, two big things that you want to productively obsess about, you can call it horizontal and vertical thinking. Horizontally you can spend an hour a day for 5 consecutive days working on productive obsession X, and then shut it down and spend all day Saturday on productive obsession Y. By carefully managing how you approach these two obsessions, you can work on more than one at a time but the proof is in the pudding. If you can't even effectively manage one, you really ought not to try for two.

VB: You'll be twice as unsuccessful.

Eric Maisel: That's right.

VB: What led you to the metaphor of the productive obsession?

Eric Maisel: It came to me a decade ago in the aftermath of thinking about depression and anxiety for a book. One of the next natural things to think about was obsession in the context of the challenges that creative people face. As I thought about that challenge it became clear to me that there were two different kinds of obsessions.

There were the obsessions that I was taught to think about as a clinician, namely unproductive obsessions, but then there were productive obsessions. At the time I was reading a lot about the biography of Beethoven, and I was considering whether or not to have him stand as the 'poster boy' for productive obsessing just as I had used Van Gogh as the poster boy to talk about existential depression. In the end I didn't use Beethoven in the title of Brainstorm, or as the poster boy.

VB: Would you talk about "investing meaning?"

Eric Maisel: If you buy the idea that meaning is subjective, meaning must come from within, and we are obliged to make meaning, then you need a vocabulary that goes with this understanding. One phrase in this vocabulary that I think is powerful is the idea of investing meaning.

You can invest meaning in an enterprise. You can also invest meaning in time. This might sound like the following, "Wow, I've got a half an hour coming up and I could relax or I could invest meaning in my short story." It's the activity of taking neutral, so to speak, pointless time and decisively choosing to do something with that time.

Also you can use this language, tweak it, and think about re-investing meaning, or divesting meaning. Let's say something has self-meaningful to you, but there's something about it or some crisis has occurred and meaning has drained out of it. If this has occurred, you have to decisively think through whether you want to choose a new meaning container in life, or re-invest meaning in the thing which just became less meaningful. It's a phrase in a large vocabulary of meaning that allows people to think more clearly, and talk more effectively, about how to make meaning.

VB: And, in fact, make more meaning.

Eric Maisel: Yes, I agree.

VB: Is your basic message in Brainstorm one of optimism – we can choose and act on our productive obsessions and lead an authentic life, rather than being paralyzed by fear of the risks involved?

cover of BrainstormingEric Maisel: Absolutely. People don't experience joy, grandeur, and you can list a lot of other things which people don't much experience, but they could if they made better use of the miracle that is their brain.

We've been learning in the last several years something which is pretty exciting, and a source of optimism – namely, we have more brain plasticity than we previously thought. As we age, our brains remain pretty darn plastic, and we can still do really good work as we age.

This is the reverse of the way we were thinking a decade ago about how early brain pruning reduced possibilities and capabilities to such an extent that even to talk about the possibility of productive obsessions was not reasonable. But we're coming around to believing that the brain can do lots of good work throughout its lifetime, and that ought to be a source of optimism.

VB: You devote a chapter in the book to the general failure of the educational system to prepare young people to think critically. "…our schools function primarily as custodial warehouses and temples to memorization." Do you have a productive obsession to change this in San Francisco if not across the U.S.?

Eric Maisel: I do. In the beginning of October, the Huffington Post is adding a new section on education and inviting people to engage in the educational reform debate. I'm going to be one of the featured correspondents, arguing for the need for not just critical thinking but for thinking in our schools. I have certain recommendations and a comprehensive vision of how we could change our school system radically, but also simply.

This is one of my productive obsessions to think about, not just what is needed in schools in order for there to be more critical thinking, but also on a practical level what can be done to meet all of the conflicting needs of the different constituencies that run schools.

VB: Why are you passionately interested in the ideas of existentialism? And how has it helped you personally?

Eric Maisel: I have a degree in philosophy, and have read lots of writings in philosophy which don't feel life-like to me. They don't seem to be about real things or real human beings.

Existentialism is the only philosophy that makes sense to me, so I guess that's why I'm passionately interested in it. It's the only philosophy or body of language that talks about ideas like making meaning, taking personal responsibility for life, and being the hero of your own journey. Also, it's the only philosophy that seems to be as large and rich as life itself.

Existentialism has always allowed for the psychological component. It's the idea that people have personalities and do things for a multitude of reasons, including bad reasons and not well-understood reasons. Most philosophies don't act like there are actual human beings involved. They talk about disembodied abstract concepts that have no particular meaning for me.

The works of the existential writers have always appealed to me, whether it was Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camu, or any of the other writers we might name in the tradition. Their works interested me, moved me, and still do.

VB: Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, is often cited as an excellent existential resource. What other books or articles do you recommend for those wishing to explore existentialism?

Eric Maisel: I don't recommend Man's Search for Meaning; let me start there. I don't recommend it because ultimately Frankl opts for a spiritual-religious solution. Victor Frankl's book always has that halo effect of the concentration camp survival and people resonate with surviving, but its true message is not, to my ear, the right one.

Frankl's message is ultimately the wrong message, namely that there is some meaning out there to align with. It's the platonic idea that if meaning is out there, you better darn well find it and get yourself aligned with it. This is not my position at all. I don't believe there is objective meaning out there.

I believe there is only subjective meaning and we have to make decisions about what meaning we intend to make. I don't believe in searching for meaning; I believe in making meaning.

As to what I would recommend, there isn't a lot of great writing about the precepts of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre came right up to the edge of trying to articulate a comprehensive existential philosophy and stopped. He got scared, I think, and ended up spending about 11 years writing a 4-volume biography of Gustave Flaubert, fled the encounter of finishing the work he had set out to do, so there's a lot of work left to be done.

The books that are worth reading are the existential classics – the fiction classics – Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Kafka's The Trial, Camus' two books The Stranger and The Fall, Sartre's Nostia, and probably quite a few others. There's an existential fiction tradition that speaks better to the power and smartness of existentialism than its non-fiction writings.

VB: Would you tell us about the focus of your book Mastering Creative Anxiety, which is scheduled to be published in 2011?

cover of Mastering Creative AnxietyEric Maisel: Creative people experience all sorts of anxieties, depending on where they are in the creative process and the particular challenges they face. There's a very different challenge when facing a blank page versus trying to make a phone call to your literary agent. They cause different kinds of anxieties.

In the book I provide 24 different anxiety management strategies that can be employed. It is a menu of anxiety management strategies from which creative persons can choose the one or two which they find most congenial. The idea is to choose one or two to really own, because the point is not to have a smattering of 24 techniques. The point is to really learn one technique, and to be able to use it in the moment when you're feeling anxious, whether in front of a blank canvas or because of a need to talk to a gallery owner.

The book identifies different anxiety states that creative people experience, and then provides what I think is a pretty comprehensive menu of anxiety management strategies to employ.

VB: Is this the book you are currently working on, or are you working on another one as well?

Eric Maisel: Mastering Creative Anxiety is to bed. It will be published in the spring of next year.

I'm currently working on a book about depression in which I argue that there is no such thing as depression. What people with depression are experiencing is sadness; not a mental disorder.

Depression is a linguistic tactic. There is a ton of human sadness, but sadness is not the same thing as depression.

VB: Sadness may be because of one's plight, one's view of the world, or because of self-talk?

Eric Maisel: We all have a reason.

Not to get too deeply into this, but depression is defined by it's symptom picture in the clinical world. Clinicians don't claim to know what causes a depression because there's no "there" there. What they're doing is looking at a symptom picture, which looks exactly identical to somebody who looks sad, naming it a mental disorder when in fact it's just a "life challenge." They've creating industries around this maneuver. So that's what that book's about.

The book is trying to look carefully at how clinicians and all the others in the depression industry, such as pharmaceutical, pastoral, and lots of other industries, are in cahoots to create a mental disorder called "depression."

VB: Does this book have a title yet?

Eric Maisel: Its working title is, Is it Really Depression? and I think that might be its final title.

VB: You have written many nonfiction and fiction books that have been published. Do you still have a productive obsession to write many more books to share your ideas and advice? Where does this productive obsession come from?

Eric Maisel: To your first question, yes. I have lots of productive obsessions. I've just finished writing a mystery and my literary agent is reading it this week. I hope she likes it and wants to sell it and, if she does, and if it sells, then I'll continue to write mysteries in this series.

Also, yes to your second question. I have serial productive obsessions for sure. Where does it come from? I think it comes from an understanding that I have only two choices: to make meaning or to bore myself. I can bore myself and pass the time of day like the next person, or I can choose hard things that are also interesting. I would rather do things that are interesting. It's a choice.

VB: Which of your books do you especially recommend to our readers who are interested in creativity, innovation, and business leadership?

Eric Maisel: I'm not quite sure about that trio exactly, but I would recommend from among my books, Coaching the Artist Within for some good basic principles about manifesting and maintaining creativity.

The Van Gogh Blues is about existential depression and the creative process. Virtually anyone who is creative will also have to deal with existential depression at some time in his or her lifetime so I think that's an important book.

VB: Do you have any final comments or advice about harnessing the power of productive obsessions?

Eric Maisel: I'm not quite sure about a last piece of advice, but if there was one it might be to engage in the process. If you're interested in the idea of using your brain more deeply and effectively, make a choice about something to bite into and then don't give up on that choice at the first signs of difficulty. There will be difficulties; thinking is hard. Try to stay with it long enough so you can discover if you're genuinely interested, and if something wants to grow there.

VB: You talked about setting a month and then perhaps 6 months as targets, is that how it works?

Eric Maisel: Yes, but I would probably stay with a month as a good idea. If you think that something interests you, give it a full month of attention. Some days you won't be very interested in it. Some days you'll be very interested in it.

At the end of the month evaluate whether it has risen to the height of a productive obsession, and if you want to continue with it. If it hasn't, don't stop the process. Just go about choosing your next one and also give it a month.

In other words, keep trying to find the things that really interest you.

VB: You've been described as America's foremost creativity coach. Would you talk about the service you provide as a creativity coach?

Eric Maisel: I work primarily with self-identified creative performing artists – writers, painters, musicians, actors, and others – on all of the issues that arise as they try to live a creative life. It covers a wide range of situations such as every day existential depression, feeling the meaning is draining out of the book they're writing, not knowing how to meet the demands of the marketplace, and how to overcome ordinary everyday resistance to working.

VB: Do you mainly work with your clients online, or in person?

Eric Maisel: I do telephone coaching and email contact with my clients between telephone sessions. There is a place on my website where people can inquire about whether to become one of my creativity coaching clients. Several thousands of creative people have done this over the last decade and found it to be quite useful.

I also provide two levels of creativity coaching – "Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training" and "Advanced Creativity Coaching Training." These are program requirements for those who wish to take the Creativity Coaching Association's on-line certification program for creativity coaches. This program is for people who wish to become certified creativity coaches, and who agree to work with clients for free.

VB: Do you have an active family therapy practice?

Eric Maisel: No, I don't do any therapy nowadays. I only do creative coaching and meaning coaching.

VB: You've also been described as a "cultural observer." What does that mean?

Eric Maisel: There are certain big cultural issues, like the ones we discussed earlier about educational reform, that interest me.

I'm often a neophyte in these debates, and it's often a wonderful thing to have a Zen 'beginner's mind'. I feel like I can go into a debate where the participants in the debate have been wrangling for the last decade about minutia, and I can gain a sense of what the big issues are and then try to report on those issues. This is what I've been doing in the past couple of weeks as I start my articles for the Huffington Post on education reform.

I've been immersing myself in the debate, and because the technical debates are new to me, it's easy to get a quick sense of the positions that people are staking out and what a 'neutral observer' might have to say about any proposed new plans.

I'm interested in these types of big issues and, even if I have no previous background, I feel I can immerse myself in them. This piggy backs on the idea of a productive obsession in that I can quickly immerse myself in them, really bite into the issue, and then find something to say that's useful.

VB: You have been very generous of your time. Thank you.

Eric Maisel: Thank you for your interest. It's been great.

Author Eric Maisel talks about the 'glory of brainstorms'. "By using your brain in an intentional, concentrated way you bite into ideas and make yourself proud." (Brainstorm, page 173) His advice is that by productively obsessing on matters that interest or concern us we can enlist our brain to do intense and systematic thinking.

Reading Brainstorm should also help us recognize our unproductive obsessions which serve no useful purpose, and we are told they are "almost certainly a response to anxiety." When they are recognized it should be easier to redirect this mental energy to focus on our productive obsession.

Dr. Eric Maisel's Bio:
Dr. Eric Maisel is an author, cultural observer and is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach. He trains creativity coaches and meaning coaches, provides core trainings for the Creativity Coaching Association, and works with individual clients on issues of creativity and meaning.

Eric Maisel holds a B.S. in philosophy, B.A. in psychology, M.A. in creative writing, M.S. in counseling, and PhD in counseling psychology. He has served as adjunct faculty at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California.

He hosts two shows on the Personal Life Media Network, and writes a monthly "Coaching the Artist Within" column for Art Calendar Magazine. Eric Maisel founded and wrote Callboard Magazine's "Staying Sane in the Theater" column. Eric Maisel is currently one of the featured correspondents in the Huffington Post focusing on the debate about educational reform in U.S. schools.

He lectures and provides workshops nationally and internationally at venues like the Design Your Creative Life Conference in London, the New Shoes Creativity Day Conference in Antwerp, and the Paris Writers Workshop.

Eric Maisel has presented on creativity issues and creativity coaching at venues such as the American Psychological Association annual conference, the Romance Writers of America annual conference, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the American Conservatory Theater, the Writer's Digest Writers Conference, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and the Savannah College of Arts and Crafts. He has given the keynote address at the Arizona State University Arts & Letters Faculty Convocation, the Oklahoma Writers Federation Annual Conference, the Win-Win Writers Conference, the 25th Annual International Lettering Arts Conference, the Jack London Writers Conference, the 2005 Indiana Community Arts Conference, and many other venues.

Dr. Maisel has written on a wide variety of subjects, from handling toxic criticism and performance anxiety to living the writing life in Paris and San Francisco, and his special interests are the classical existential themes of making meaning and taking personal responsibility.
He has written more than 30 nonfiction books including:
Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions (2010)
Coaching the Artist Within: Advice for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists, and Musicians from America's Foremost Creativity Coach (2005),
The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods (2009),
Creative Recovery: A Complete Addiction Treatment Program That Uses Your Natural Creativity (2008),
A Writer's Space: Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write (2008),
Creativity for Life: Practical Advice on the Artist's Personality, and Career from America's Foremost Creativity Coach (2007),
The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression (2007),
Everyday You: Create Your Day with Joy and Mindfulness (2007),
Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve Incantations for Purpose, Power and Calm (2007),
A Writer's San Francisco: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul (2006),
What Would Your Character Do? Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters (2006),
Ten Second Pause: Transform Stress, Tension, and Anxiety with One Breath, Anywhere, Anytime (2006),
Toxic Criticism: Break the Cycle with Friends, Family, Coworkers and Yourself (2006),
A Writer's Paris: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul (2005),
Performance Anxiety: A workbook for Actors, Singers, Dancers and Anyone Who Performs in Public (2005),
The Art of the Book Proposal: From Focused Idea to Finished Proposal (2004),
The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression (2003),
Write Mind PA: 299 Things Writer Should Never Say Themselves (2002),
Sleep Thinking: The Revolutionary Program That Helps You Solve Problems, Reduce Stress, and Increase Creativity While You Sleep (2001),
20 Communication Tips at Work: A Quick and Easy Guide to Successful Business Relationships (2001),
20 Communication Tips for Families: A 30-Minute Guide to a Better Family Relationship (2000),
The Creativity Book: A Year's Worth of Inspiration and Guidance (2000),
Deep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life (1999),
Living the Writer's Life: A Complete Self-Help Guide (1999),
Fearless Presenting: "A Self-Help Guide for Anyone Who Speaks, Sells, or Performs in Public (1997),
Affirmations for Artists (1996), Fearless Creating: A Step-by-Step Guide To Starting and Completing Your Work of Art (1995),
A Life in the Arts (An Expanded Workbook Edition of Staying Sane in the Arts) (1994),
Staying Sane in the Arts: A Guide for Creative & Performing Artists (1992),
El camino del ateo (Coleccion Espiritualidad, Metafisica y Vida Interior (Spanish Edition) (2010), and
Coaching para el creativo que hay dentro de ti (Spanish Edition) (2010).

He has written two e-Books: Becoming a Creativity Coach and The Power of Sleep Thinking.

Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America's Foremost Creativity Coach will be published in 2011, as will Is it Really Depression?

Eric Maisel has produced three meditation decks. They are Everyday Creative: 30 Ways to Wake Up Your Inner Artist [Cards] (2004), Everyday Smart: 30 Ways to Spark Your Inner Genius (Little Everyday Deck) [Cards] (2004), and Everyday Calm: 30 Ways to Soothe Your Inner Beast (Little Everyday Deck) (2004).

He has also written fiction books, including The Fretful Dancer (1988), Blackbirds of Mulhouse (1984), and Dismay (1982).

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