It’s not often that life goes as we think it will. And yet, we hate when it doesn’t go to plan. We hate uncertainty. It’s like an untrained muscle that we’re not sure how to train. There are lessons that can make us good (or at the very least better) at dealing with uncertainty, lessons drawn from the creative process, so that the next time the plan doesn’t go as planned, we’re not bothered, we’re present.
It’s not yet 6am when I’m told by an SAS attendant at the Aarhus Airport that my connecting flight out of Copenhagen, routed for Paris, is cancelled. My 3rd flight, out of Paris, would take me to Toronto, Canada. The woman at the desk asks that I board the 1st flight without knowing what will happen on the other side. Instructions sound like this: board the plane, pick up your bag in Copenhagen and report to the SAS desk to get your next step. I have two options at this moment and later at the moment where I will meet attendants in Copenhagen:
- Resist – fight back and try to control circumstances that are out of my control or,
- Surrender – let go and accept an uncertain way forward – that the plan is not going to go as planned.
We want there to be a plan (3 flights) and we want it to go as planned (arrive at 3pm).
I choose option 2. At KAOSPILOT we practice to pilot in chaos, to navigate in uncertainty. We are learning to let go, as we are coming into being, projects we initiate are coming into being and collaborations are coming into being. The flight disruption therefore seems like just another day in school. Maybe I won’t get to Canada today after all, I think to myself.
I realize, as I stand waiting for my next step alongside many unhappy people in Copenhagen, how generally ill equipped we are at dealing with uncertainty. We don’t like it, maybe mostly because we don’t train for it. We want there to be a plan (3 flights) and we want it to go as planned (arrive at 3pm). And yet it’s ludicrous to think that life offers us anything but uncertainty. Not all will attend a school as I have that quite intentionally, in its three year Enterprising Leadership Program, places students in almost daily uncertainty. How then, in our uncertain world, might we up our tolerance towards it? How might we practice letting go of the plan in order to be present in process? Collage, a seemingly innocent form of play, might be one way.
Flow refers to the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
It’s a few days before the flight, I enter a room where there is focus, calm and joy. There is music and a buzz, cutouts of old magazines and newspapers littered across the floor and on tables, piles of images stacked at stations, each one with an owner. It is a collage workshop. Collage refers to a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric onto a backing. The secret to collage is to let go of the idea that it’s going to be anything. The art form asks that we surrender, without any particular outcome in mind. It asks that we place ourselves at the mercy of the process — in a state of disorder and uncertainty, in chaos. These are things inherent to a creative process. The hope in doing so isn’t that we outsmart uncertainty but rather become better equipped to navigate in it when it arises in life – in a meeting where only half the people show up, in a project where new information changes everything, in an airport where a flight is cancelled. That day in the airport, I was placed at the mercy of the process – smack dab in the middle of uncertainty and instead of fighting it, I was present.
It makes sense looking back but is nearly impossible to make sense of looking forward.
If we let it, the practice of collaging moves us beyond the thinking mind and into what is perhaps best described as flow state. The term, coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, refers to “the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” In its essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption. The result is a loss in one’s sense of space and time. Think of when you last ‘completely lost track of time’, while immersed in a team building day, over a meal with friends, or while out for a run in the woods. It is in this state that I tap into a more intuitive approach to the collaging process, where I’m not thinking about how I place the next piece on the paper, or which colour scheme makes the most sense or that I want it to be a fantastic product in the end that I can share publicly. I’m just in it.
At some point I need to commit to something and start glueing things. – Veera
It’s nearly two hours later, I’m standing amongst workshop participants. On the walls behind us is the work of the last hours, the work of strangers in a KAOSPILOT workshop, bravely letting go as they entered the process of collages coming into being. “With collage, there are many pieces that I’m moving around. At some point I need to commit to something and start glueing things. Until that point it’s still changes quite a lot” reflects Veera, a participant in the workshop. At KAOSPILOT we practice to pilot in chaos, to navigate in uncertainty. We are figuratively speaking, practicing collage. The outcome of any project or of anybody’s learning journey is never entirely known, and if it was, were we ever really present to the emergent nature of the process?
What I take away from a morning spent collaging alongside strangers, each in their own messy creative process, is that there isn’t a right way. “It’s okay to let go and be in the process. There’s nothing right and there’s nothing wrong”, says one participant. Be present in what is unfolding and if nothing else, let go of the idea that the outcome should look any which way: be that of a meeting, a project, a collaboration, an artwork. My advice is to carry a metaphorical glue stick with you wherever you go. When you come across an image that resonates, glue it down and then wait for the next. Back to the flight. I ended up with a short layover and on a direct flight from Copenhagen arriving to Toronto two hours earlier than anticipated. The outcome looked different, better even, than I had expected, as did the process to that outcome, but I got there. Like most processes in life, it makes sense looking back but is nearly impossible to make sense of looking forward.