Does Your Context Affect Your Content?

car wash

I have an “official” office. A poorly lit, mustard yellow space, complete with mismatched furniture and boxes of supplies stacked to the ceiling, it’s my personal creative wasteland. Despite my best efforts, I rarely generate novel and innovative ideas in that rectangular box. Maybe it’s because I (and others) treat my office like a closet or due to the lack of windows, I’m depressed and stifled by the absence of natural light. Whatever the reason, I’ve discovered that my current context definitely affects my creative content. Apparently, I’m not alone. There’s a proven psychological term for what I experience when I attempt to work in my office. It’s called the context effect or the impact of the environment on an individual’s motivation.  Working in my office, I struggle to write, dream, question, make connections and visualize possibilities. My thoughts are mundane and my words are lifeless. A shot of vitamin B-12, a chunk of dark chocolate, or a nonfat latte can’t rescue me from the creative abyss. Luckily, I’ve found a few places that stir my soul. When I need an infusion of inspiration, I venture to one of them to commune with my creative self.

The School Of Rock: My son Patch studies voice and bass guitar at this hip music school. Sitting in the parents lounge, I listen to the random guitar notes and vocal choruses that cause wild images and ideas to pop into my mind. While the other moms are busy texting and chatting, I soak up the creative context. As kids lugging instruments and humming tunes pass me, I glean snippets of words and sounds that pepper my current project.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream: Though I’m not an indulger of ice cream, I’m a fan of Jeni’s. Jeni’s combines seemingly disparate ingredients into the most surprisingly, satiating flavors of ice cream. Flavors such as Whisky Pecan (perfect for Friday Happy Hour) and Brambleberry Crisp (a best bet for breakfast), tempt me as I scan the pristinely presented assortment of flavors. My flavor of the month is toasted brioche with butter and apricot jam. As I eat each splendid spoonful, I challenge myself to combine disparate objects in my world. More often than not, these odd pairings serve as the springboard for a problem I’m tasked to solve. Occasionally, I’ll pause and look up from my computer to witness several people tasting the various flavors. As they search for the right one, I’m reminded that your first answer is not always the best one.

Shur Brite Car Wash: Whether I sit inside near the cashier or outside on the swinging bench, the hustle and bustle of this busy place produces a plethora of ideas. After I exit my car, I observe the efficiency and teamwork of the employees, drawing comparisons to the effects people and their attitudes have on problems, ideas and solutions. When we work towards a clearly defined, common goal, the end result can be beautiful. With my forehead pressed against the long glass window that encases the washing apparatus, I watch it clean my dirty car and ponder what layers I need to remove to see the real problem I am trying to solve. As I pay, a customer complains that a spot was overlooked on his shiny, silver sports car. Immediately my thoughts focus on the dissenter in a room who points out the problems of an idea that, when addressed, eventually make the idea better. Waiting for my car to be dried, I sit on the bench in the sun and chat with a total stranger. Through listening to someone else, I gain new insights on my approach to life and work.

There’s a new bike shop that has opened a few miles from my house. Colorful bikes of different sizes hang from the ceiling creating a Calder-like sculpture. The words Red Kite Bikes are painted in bold, red type on the side of the building. I have a feeling that inspiration dwells there. Since I have a new problem to solve, I’m stopping by. Hopefully the visit will get a few creative wheels turning in my head.

If you’re creativity is cramped and you suffer from the context effect, dare to live, dream and create outside your “official” box. Finding new contexts will bring your creative content and soul back to life.

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