“Once you get the floor swept and washed, and the cooler cleaned, go ahead and create something from the flower scraps vase!”
The suggestion from my boss motivated me to work quickly in the last few minutes of my co-op so I could attempt my hand at making another corsage. Broken stemmed daisies and roses that were too short to sell … these were as gold to me. Chores completed, I would make my selections from the scraps vase, threading a wire through the stems of stray blooms, carefully wrapping them with tape to create a new stem. Then I would begin assembly. Balance, shape and colour were all considered while I attempted to create beauty from those seemingly worthless discarded ingredients.
I have always loved making something out of nothing, so the scraps vase on the counter never lost it’s delight for me – even when, like the other more experienced designers, I was eventually allowed to make my selections from the overflowing buckets of fresh flowers in the cooler. But, even while designing with long stems, unbruised and unbroken flowers, I still longed for the feeling of euphoria that I would get from turning “nothings” into “somethings”.
My boss reinforced the ‘scraps’ mentality by stating ”A great designer can create something beautiful out of nothing”. At the time, I couldn’t disagree. It made sense to me and it was a lofty and noble challenge to rise to. I have always had a knack for problem solving and designing from the scraps vase only galvanized my inherent skills. Later, I would become renowned for my “end of day” arrangements that would be fashioned from the scraps I had collected over the course of my shift. My boss was all-too-pleased to see the profit. It’s free money when you can sell scraps in the guise of design.
Looking back on those days now, I can see the flaw in the mindset that I developed twenty years ago in my floral shop co-op. Time and experience have been great teachers for me and I have formed a completely opposite viewpoint on the subject of scraps. A paradigm shift, if you will. I know it’s just scraps that we’re talking about, but bear with me as I attempt to explain my new philosophy on scraps to you.
The shift happened at a time when I was involved in a large event which required A LOT of flowers. I should have been very happy with this scenario since it was exactly what I had been striving for in my business for a long time. On this particular job, my client was amazing with great taste and a very healthy budget. The venue was beautiful and the season was setting up to offer me all of what I needed for fresh flower supplies. And on top of all of that, I absolutely loved the colours that had been selected. The bride had full confidence in my ability and didn’t hold anything back.
The world was my oyster.
And yet, somehow, I was paralyzed with fear.
When it comes to creativity, fear is debilitating. Fear comes in like a wild grizzly and tears you up from the inside out. Fear is deafening … your inner dialogue becomes hijacked by abusive language turning a happy, well-adjusted adult into a twitching, self-abasing heap of a mess.
I speak from experience as I have had this kind of fear creep into my life from time to time. The odd thing for me is that fear seems to show up when things are really great. Like this wedding where the world was my oyster, for example. I should have been delighted and excited to have absolutely no limits on my creativity. But that was precisely what the problem was.
I had become accustomed to limitations.
I felt comfort in having a budget that was a challenge or a colour palette that was difficult to bring together. There was a sense of calm when all I needed to do was make a situation marginally better.
The concept of “institutionalization” comes to mind.
“These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.” (Red, Shawshank Redemption)
I was happier with the set of confines provided by the old scraps vase.
Pointing out and naming the problem was exactly what I needed to do in order to overcome the fear that showed up just when things were going my way. I needed to find a way to move past it or through it. And give it a name.
This is what I have learned:
The fear I felt was a result of the vulnerability I experienced when all of the limitations were stripped away from me. Like a freed prisoner standing on the other side of the bars, I had a bizarre compulsion to return to my prison cell.
With very few limitations, expectations were high – both for my client and for me personally. Suddenly, I had no excuses to offer in case I wasn’t able to fulfill the dream. I couldn’t say “It would have been perfect if only I had a bigger budget” … or … “If only the colours of the bridesmaids dresses were nicer“ … or … “it’s too bad that the bride had ‘odd’ taste” .
It was all up to me now … to rise to the occasion. Or not.
At the point that the fear set in, I have to be honest, what I really wanted to do was lower the expectations of everyone around me, including myself. Lowered expectations would have quickly solved the problem and put me into a much more comfortable place. A place that I knew very well. A place void of vulnerability. Then I could go back to doing what I did best – solving problems, creating “somethings” out of “nothings”.
Lowered expectations = no fear = no vulnerability = status quo
Basically, if I lowered the stakes, I’d return to status quo (problem solving). The status quo offered me predictable results and even a chance at gaining hero status. An altogether decent option.
But there was also another option staring me in the face.
Raise the stakes.
Raised expectations = fear = vulnerability = limitless potential (or huge failure)
Here’s a nerdy diagram that I have created to illustrate my feelings:
If I was to be honest with myself, what I truly wanted to avoid was massive failure. But this fear of colossal disappointment, of BEING a colossal disappointment, was also keeping me from realizing my potential – the vast, deep, beautiful and scary potential that was mine if only I could move past the fear.
In light of my experience, I could see that the saying “A great designer can make something beautiful out of nothing” is actually a flawed philosophy. It’s just a catchy phrase which swiftly feeds the ego. A nice pat on the back, but that’s all. It’s a phrase that doesn’t suggest growth or risk-taking, as great designers are known for. Instead, it supports a status quo attitude of “good enough”.
I wish that the saying was something like this:
“An average designer can create something nice out of nothing, but a great designer can create an even more amazing “something” out of limitless potential”.
Admittedly, it’s not as catchy.
In other words, a great designer has the confidence to raise expectations and hopes in anticipation of even greater beauty. I wanted to be a designer like that.
A great designer uses the most beautiful flowers and finds the time to be creative rather than reactive. A great designer thinks in ideals rather than merely finding solutions to problems. A great designer has the confidence to put themselves on the line to move into a place of great potential. To take responsibility for their vision. Success or failure. No excuses.
After my paradigm shift, I needed an action plan to move myself forward to become a better designer. My first step was to dream a dream. Some kind of goal that I desired to achieve.
“Show people what you want to sell”. This became my new mantra. This phrase expressed my desire to take responsibility for my future – to own what I wanted to become and what I wanted to do.
That’s when I realized the pictures I was currently sharing with my potential clients showed work that I had done and not the amazing work that I knew I was capable of doing. My solution was to create a catalogue of work that showcased my potential as a designer. Something that was full of ideas, dreams and both practical and impractical concepts. All of it beautiful. All of it fun. Burgeoning with blooms. Exactly the kind of work that I wanted to produce for my future clients. In creating this catalogue, I was taking a giant leap and a big risk. My reputation was on the line. I was sticking my neck out. I was vulnerable. I was very alive!
I set about producing a major photo and video shoot. This involved a very large, very organized vision. From my own imagination.
Lots of money was spent on fresh product and props. We had models, photographers, make-up artists and cinematographers. It was biggest thing I’d ever done at that point in my career!
I was at the heart of it with my vision coming to fruition. Or not.
This is the thing with vision. It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes it bombs (as illustrated above). You become vulnerable and sometimes it leaves you wounded and bleeding. But vulnerability NEVER leaves you unchanged. On the other side, success or failure, you come out more mature, braver, stronger and more creative.
In my case, the shoot was a grand success. Now I had an amazing portfolio and video to show what I could and wanted to do.
And it worked!
My business was never the same. I was never the same. That major (and very terrifying!) project was a launchpad for design that was a game changer. Not just for my business, but also for me personally.
I learned that it’s okay (good, in fact) to have high expectations. Being satisfied with scraps and limitations was for amateurs. If I wanted to mature as a designer, I needed to create a vision that I could stand behind. And go for it. Sink or swim. Do or die.
(photos courtesy of Nataschia Wielink http://www.nataschiawielink.com) Thanks Nataschia!!
So, you may be wondering how that wedding turned out in the end. Let’s just say that this was a long lesson in the learning. I have had plenty of amazing (and disappointing) work to show since. (It takes lots of practice to build up a tolerance to vulnerability)
Now when I see that wild grizzly (Fear) who wants to tear me up from the inside and I feel that oh-so-familiar reaction, the one that wants me to protect myself, when I hear that inside voice that says “lower the expectations so you don’t get hurt”, I know what that feeling is. I know that loud, deafening voice. I have named it. Heck, I have even drawn a diagram of it!
We are very familiar, but let’s be clear – Me and Fear, we are not friends.
When Fear and I come face to face (which we often do when I am being my creative self) instead of retreating, I try to remember this language to get me through it.
Go ahead and raise the stakes.
Get a little scared. (It’s okay, you’ll survive)
Tolerate some vulnerability.
Oh yeah … and SHINE.