In the Heat of Flow


As mentioned in my post Finding Flow last week flow—or being in the zone as it is often called—is that inspired freedom of creativity when you lose yourself completely in artistic activities. Time, stress and artist’s block melt away, resulting in a unique voice and fully realizing your creative potential. Being in that state of flow in many ways resembles a trancelike state of mind. As Susan K. Perry writes in her book «Writing in Flow»; «you feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. … [When] in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself—or of the universe—that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state».

«Writing in Flow»—as I mentioned in the post—is based on a scientific study that Susan K. Perry conducted of more than 75 best-selling and award-winning authors. In the book she describes how the writers experience the state of flow; she dwells into five key elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative process and finally she writes about specific techniques writers use to make flow happen.

Although the book is about writing in flow, the general concepts and mechanisms behind creative flow is very much adaptable to any creative activity. I certainly found her ideas and suggestion very useful for my photography. As I am writing, too, I know the feeling of being in flow is similar when I experience it as a writer and when I experience it as a photographer.

It’s not possible to go into depth of her book in a post like this, but I will try to at least give an idea of what Susan K. Perry has found out. First, the five master keys that have an effect on the creative flow are partly a part of whoever you are, your whole self and the way of relating to the world. Partly they are concurrent to the actual creative process itself and come into play very near the time you begin the process as well as throughout the whole process. Having a reason to write—or if taken in a broader view; having a reason to do whatever creative work you do—is Perry’s first master key. On its simplest level it means you need something that motivates you to do whatever it is you are doing. It can be both external and internal reasons, although the latter often works as a stronger incentive. For instance I photograph because I want to tell stories about how people live in various layers of the world and the societies. I want to show both the beauty and the cruelty of human existence, and in so doing maybe be able to change if not the world, hopefully one or two persons along the way.

The second master key is to think like a writer—or an artist in any vocation you are working in. As for me, in all my professional life I have tried to learn and read about other photographers and how they think. The point is it’s possible for you to strengthen and bring to the forefront of your personality those aspects that will contribute to making your creative life more gratifying. It may be opening up yourself to new experiences, it may be trying to take more risks, it may be trying to get yourself fully absorbed by your work and it certainly has a positive effect if you are able to build confidence in what you are doing.

The next three master keys are more directly related to the creative process itself and in some ways more self descriptive. Of course there is more to them than that; based on the study that Susan K. Perry did she offers a lot of insights to the hows, but let me just quickly mention the last master keys here. One is loosening up, another is focusing in and the last is balancing between opposites.

Let me end by saying that «Writing in Flow» is a book that inspires and explains. If you are interested in other creatives’ take—and certainly writers’ take—on working in flow, or would like to know how to enter this state more often, this is a must-read.


Finding Flow

For all artists the ultimate creative experience is when you lose yourself in your work, when you immerse yourself so much in some creative activity during which time cease to matter, when you forget yourself and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when you are in flow. I have compared this experience with the feeling of being in a tunnel (se my post Tunnel Vision some time ago), while others call it «being in the zone» or just «in flow». As a matter of fact flow is a term used in psychological studies, of which University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to examine. I briefly mentioned him in the blog post last week.

According to the science, flow happens because we make it happen when our mind or body is voluntary stretched to its limits, in an effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. The question is—especially for those who have yet to experience flow—how do we make it happen. In workshops I teach, I often talk about this feeling of flow, but I always find it hard to give concrete advice how to make it happen. My recommendation has been to work hard; that flow will eventually happen if you do the work. I think that is true, but it’s not necessarily a very satisfying answer. And just doing the work isn’t always enough for everybody who is seeking flow, neither. Last time the question came up for me was in a comment to my post Diving into Unconsciousness. I wanted to answer with more than a mere description of experience itself. I really wanted to come up with some thoughts about how to get there.

Imagine my excitement when just afterwards I came across a book investigating in depth what being in flow means. The book «Writing in Flow» by Susan K. Perry is based on a comprehensive study she did on 75 best-selling and award-winning authors for her doctoral dissertation. As indicated by the title of the book, it deals with being in flow while writing, but a lot of what Perry points to is valid for any kind of flow-experience. I certainly recognise her thoughts and recommendations for my own work as a photographer.

«Writing in Flow» is a book that gives an exciting glimpse into the creative process. Even more so it gives concrete input and ideas about how to get into flow. Her and now I just want to mention six requirements she believes is necessary to be able to be in flow.

First your activity must have clear goals and give you some sort of feedback. You need to want to do whatever you do for some reason which can be as simple as wanting to show the beauty of nature if you for instance are a nature-lover. In addition it needs to give you some satisfaction of some form, it could be nothing more than just being able to accomplish the task or being praised by the work afterwards. Secondly for flow to happen sensing that your personal skills are well suited for the challenge is necessary, giving you a sense of potential control. Thirdly you need to be intensely focused on what you are doing. Fourthly when in flow your sense of time is altered, with time seeming to slow, stop or become irrelevant. Lastly the experience needs to become self-rewarding.

I can recommend «Writing in Flow» – even if you are not a writer.

Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity

Thank you for using my affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and really appreciate your support.

Get Offline—Lose Track of Time

In these days of social distancing and less work—for many of us—we ought to have more time than ever to be creative and put energy into our artistic work. However, at the same time and for the same reasons, we are more online connected than ever. We are on our phones all the time and constantly hooked up on internet. Good for keeping some kind of social life when regular social life is almost nonexistent but less so for giving our mind liberty to be creative.

I have had to have a discussion with self. Consciously step down. Despite more time than ever, it’s been hard to concentrate and getting into a good flow of creativity. My prescription has been: Put my phone away when I want to do creative work.

The beeps and boops of our electronic lives keep us unnecessary busy. We live in a world of time management apps, hacks and tips. Anywhere you go, you might hear a cacophony of alerts sounding, tweets twittering, and the frenetic tip-tap of fingers typing off one more email or text in order to check that one last thing off the to-do list. Or being social. We are so busy—our devices tell us so. Best not to let a single step or typed word go uncounted or not answer the social call.

Even in these times of more time available, we are increasingly becoming micromanagers of our days, dividing our time into increasingly tiny chunks all in the name of progress and productivity. The result is less time to be creative, less freedom to settle our mind into the flow of creative work. Flow requires time uninterrupted.

Many of you I bet have heard of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow states as most conducive to deep creative work. He describes flow as a state in which people become so absorbed in their work that “nothing else seems to matter.” It’s in such states that we are most creative, when innovative problem-solving takes place and great ideas are hatched. What we have taken less seriously as a tech-obsessed culture, however, is the degree to which the electronic productivity tools, the frantic pace of work activity, and being constantly social on social media might be eroding our ability to engage in this most productive work. Particularly now when we are more online than ever.

Business school professors Forbes and Domm noted in an article published in 2004 that it can often seem as though creative flow and task-oriented efficiency are at odds: “Curiosity is open and playful, while drive is serious, competitive, and achievement-oriented,” the authors write. The apps in our lives tend to emphasize the latter (achievement) at the expense of the former (creativity). After all, how does a phone know whether an idea is truly original? How can a step counter track whether the stroll was one during which the walker had a brilliant insight?

Now that we are more online—and paradoxically have more time than ever—it might be important to create strategies for protecting those flow states in which we lose track of those seconds and minutes that our apps are so happy to report on. Here are three such small tweaks to decrease tech disruption and recapture flow.

1. Release your inner child
Work one day or afternoon a week with some creative production and away from any time-keeping device. Even better if you can work in nature or solitude. Be childlike and sprawl out on the floor—or on the ground. Give yourself the opportunity to have your work be an immersive sensory experience, with the tactile experience of doing something physically, spreading your ideas out in physical space to look at them. Get into it.

2. Lose time
If giving a whole day over this way seems scary, set out a specific chunk of time you can “lose.” Use a timer and decide that whatever happens within the hour or two you set for your creative task will be fine. Do not look at the timekeeper while working. Stop worrying about tracking your time in the security of knowing that the ding will let you know when you’re done.

3. Box out technology
Put your phone physically away, whether in a drawer or zipped into your purse or backpack. Turn off sound notifications on your computer. Use an internet-limiting tool such as Freedom, Self-Control or Focus. As the names of these apps indicate, these products limit the user’s access to distracting and disruptive sites creative workers so often go to when ideas are hard to push through, rather than staying in the moment of creative problem-solving.

At the end of the day, being in the flow is where we do our best work and are happiest. It might not always look like productivity, but in a world where everyone else is obsessively measuring and counting, maybe losing track of time is just the right kind of different.

Listen to the Creative Flow

The act of creating is closely related to the ability to listen. Listening to our unconscious mind, or listening to the muses, or listening to the creative power of the universe that we are part of, or listening to our inner artist—whatever you prefer to call it.

We create not in a vacuum or out of our little self. We create in an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. By listening to what is always flowing through us as an underground river of creativity, we are able form work of art that expresses a deeper truth or communicate a universal human experience. It doesn’t matter whether we photograph, write, dance, perform, paint or sculpture or express ourselves through other kinds of media, by listening we create with strokes of unknown potency as if we are vehicle for a creative power must stronger than ourselves.

I think we too often forget to listen. Because of that, we often end up with a writers block or aren’t able to break through a barrier of mental obstacles that holds our creative back. We yearn to create something unique or something that expresses who we are, and in so doing, we try to wrestle it out of our conscious self. That’s not how it works, though. We need to listen instead of speaking—figuratively speaking.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes; “Art is not about thinking up. It’s about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.”

If we are trying to think something up, we are striving to reach for something that’s just beyond our reach, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives,” as Cameron puts it. On the other hand, if we try to put something down, there is no strain. We are not doing, we are getting. Something outside of our conscious self is doing the doing. Instead of trying to invent, we are rather engaged in listening.

The great Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” said Jackson Pollack. If you have been in flow, you know the feeling, that whatever it is you are creating already exists in its entirety. Our job when creating is to listen for it, watch it with our mind’s eye, and write it down, photograph it, paint it, sculpture it.

I think it’s nowhere easier to understand this idea or concept than in photography. As photographers, we are not creating a new world to photograph (well, if you are not a studio photographer that is). We take what is, we see—or we listen, figuratively speaking—and transform what we discover in this process into a photograph. We often talk about “taking” a photograph, which I find to be a somewhat imprecise phrase. It implies that the photograph is our doing, rather than we see and received what is offered us. The American documentary photographer Charles Harbutt often said that he doesn’t take photographs, photographs take him. The New York photographer Jay Maisel has a similar approach. He doesn’t look for specific photographs. Rather, he’s open, perceptive, and ready for what comes to him unexpectedly.

The thing is, in the act of creating, we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express. The making of art is like dropping down in this underground river of creativity. It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like this underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap into. By listening.

I have a good friend of my, a colleague in photography, who is staging his photography meticulously. He is in full control most of the time, and don’t let anything be formed by coincidences. Yet, he often shoots his most brilliant imagery when for a split second he let go of the control.

When you learn to trust the process, you will see that inspiration—whatever that is or whatever word you want to use for it—will come to you. You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right light for your photo, discover your David in the clay or hear the right tones for your song.

We must learn to listen to the creative stream. The more we practise the better we become at it. In the beginning, it might be difficult to quiet the mental noise that we impose on ourselves. One way is for instance through free writing or through free photographing as I wrote in my post Free Shooting a couple of weeks ago. That is, to create without thinking, just letting go and flow with whatever comes to mind without trying to modify or reshape whatever comes to you as you think it ought to be. This way of creating you can do in all works of art.

Listening is imperative in the creative process. Like in the good conversation, the one with the ability to listen will learn, while the one, who only speaks, inevitably will keep repeating him- or herself.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Nikon FinePix E900 with the lens set at 28 mm (the equivalent of a 128 mm full frame). The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

A Delicate Balance

A photo without emotional content is a dead photo
A photo without emotional content is a dead photo

No photo truly succeeds unless it triggers strong emotions. The same holds true for all visual arts. However, photography is special in that its very creation is very much technically depended. So much in fact, that many photographers don’t venture beyond the technicalities of the photographic process. It might even be what draws them to photography in the first place. A technical perfect image is for them an absolute requirement. With this approach they miss the point, though, which is that a captivating photo needs more than technical perfection, it needs the emotional connection more than anything.

Photographs that we find most meaningful are those that ooze human endeavour and symbolize the meaning of our world and our lives. Images that hold the most power for us tend to focus on loved ones, those who inspire us, those we detest, tragedy and beauty. Whether they are completely sharp, properly exposed or perfectly composed is of less importance. Of course, we use those technical variables to tell the story as best as possible—as part of the visual language, but in and of themselves they are completely uninteresting. An emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

The fact that the photographic process is so technically depended can get in the way of creating those strong images we all aspire to capture. This goes even for those of us who are less attached to the technical side of things.

Because photography is such a technically depended art, at least some technical considerations are always needed before taking the photo. The way our brain works makes this a problem. If you have to focus your attention too much on the settings of the camera, you may not be able to connect with and capture the emotional content that triggered you to wanting to take the photo in the first place.

Let me use an illustration to make this clearer. One of the most famous illustrations shown in psychology books appears to be either a vase or a pair of faces in profile (see beneath). A person not familiar with the illusion sees only one aspect at first. When the other aspect is seen, the first one disappears. Though it becomes ever easier to go back and forth between the two apparent realities, no amount of familiarity will allow both subject to be seen at the same time.

Exactly the same process is at work when we try to juggle between the technical aspect and the emotional aspect of taking a photo.

When our attention is drawn to technical aspects, we disconnect from the emotional content as surely as we stop seeing the vase just as we see the face. As we begin to see a subject in terms of shutter speed, depth of field, light and other technical considerations, our brains shifts gear. We lose the emotional power of the process in that instance. We lose the ability to see and capture the emotional content.

That is why the technical handling of the camera must become instinctively. Given, this doesn’t come by itself. It’s something that will only happen after long practise. The more you photograph the less you need consciously be aware of how to capture a subject that has triggered your curiosity. At that point, you are better able to connect emotionally to whatever you are photographing, and make this radiate through the final image.

This goes back to the fourth stage of learning, what I called unconscious competence in the post The Rollercoaster of Learning here on my blog last November. At this stage, you are at a point where the tools in your hand no longer get in your way.

Imaging you are a writer—or maybe you even are one. If you had to search out every single letter on the keyboard when writing, it’s not hard to imaging what that would do to your flow of writing. Only when you don’t need to think about where you fingers go on the keyboard can you write fluently, right out of your mind. Only then will you be able to enter the state of being in flow.

So it’s is with photography. When you need to concentrate your mind with technical considerations you won’t be able to enter the flow. Your camera literally gets in the way.

Let me end this post with a quote by the great, now diseased, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph». He knew that thinking about technical aspect would pull us off from what is most important in the actual moment of capturing a photo.

En klassisk illusjon som ofte brukes i psykologi-bøker

On quite a different note: Last month I announced I would admit one person free of charge to my online workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» starting up at the end of May. Quite a few people signed up for the draw, which has now been carried out. However, instead of drawing one, I decided to admit two of those who sign up for the draw, to the workshop. The winners of the draw are: Ann-Christine Påhlson and Colleen Briggs.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 16-35 mm lens set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/250 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop with the plug-in Nik Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversion.

Horror vacuii

Some time ago I ran into that big space of emptiness we all encounter from time to time. I had been through a stressful and extremely hectic period of time working almost day and night for various clients. I knew I needed some time for myself to wind down after I was done with the work. Thus I set aside four days after the last job was delivered to do nothing but photograph some personal work.

I had no idea what I would do, only knew I needed to work on something that mattered for myself and absolutely not in accordance with any demands of my clients. As I was busy all up to those days of personal freedom, I had no time to think about a project or even consider if I wanted do something else. Something would emerge, I thought. But when the day finally arrived I was blank as an empty box and no ideas had emerged.

The world was open to me—or at least the world I could reach within those four days. I had all the time for myself and no practical limitations. I could practically do whatever I wanted. But that unlimited universe of options got me all numb and restrained.

Almost every artist in almost every medium—not only photographers but also novelists, painters, musicians, sculptors and any other kinds of artists—has confronted the so-called horror vacuii, which is Latin for fear of empty space. It stifles your creativity or even kills it. It all starts when you desperately search for something to do—anything. The unlimited amount of possibilities almost imposes a mental constrain, makes you think you have nothing to photograph.

Part of the problem is the vastness of the blank page. When you can write anything—or photograph anything—why is a particular subject worthwhile? And where do you start? At least I started to think I had to doing something special now that I finally had a chance, something that would matter and something grand, maybe. And of course that made my creativity all curl up into itself.

The very vastness of the array of possibilities can be paralyzing. Throughout the ages—in whatever medium—artists have confronted empty spaces, blank pages, white canvases, and just trying to figure out what the heck to create. This is no different with photography, except maybe even a bit worse because it is so easy to simply press the button.

The universe is a big place. A photo is a two-dimensional representation of a «chunk» of this vast visual space. Paralysis can set in when you think of all the possibilities. The full range of possible captures using the equipment in an average camera bag is far beyond the capacity of the human mind to visualize all at once.

An answer to this «analysis paralysis» is that it doesn’t necessarily matter so much what you choose to shoot. But you don’t want to spend time staring into space or gazing at your navel. So get out there and start photographing! As difficult and as easy as that. It doesn’t matter what you choose to photograph so long as you are photographing something.

That’s exactly the prescription I followed myself. I just began photographing kids in the neighbourhood and did that for the next couple of days. It was liberating to limit myself and just begin with anything that came to mind. It will not be a project that will change the world, but then, hardly any do, do they… This was anyway for me, first and foremost.

How do you deal with horror vacuii? I would very much love to have you share your experience and dealing with the vast emptiness.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 16-35 mm lens and the zoom set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/4.0. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Tunnel Vision

When we engage in the creative process – if we are lucky or have experienced how to do it – we enter a state of mindful connection with the subject we are photographing or with the situation in which we submerge ourselves into with the intention to photograph. It’s like a breaking point when it happens. Suddenly everything seems to come forward, things happen almost naturally and very brightly. And your own awareness reached a level that almost surprises yourself. You become a participant more than a spectator.

When this happened for me first time, I was studying in New York, and I went down to cover the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown. Suddenly I lost myself in the event. I became one with whatever happened on the street, and my camera became an extension of my senses. In a way it was as if the camera became my seventh sense. My reactions were canalized through the camera – both ways. I literally got so engaged that I lost track of everything but the celebration in the streets – even myself. I was no longer in control of myself, but was lead around by the eventful activities happening all over Chinatown.

The result – photographically speaking – was different than anything else I had done up till then. Despite the fact that I was completely unconscious during the photographic process; the pictures were fully loaded with my soul and at the same time showing the event with a detachment that made them interesting for others, too.

In his The Widening Stream, the photographer, teacher and writer David Ulrich says: «In spite of our conditions to the contrary, we must try to give our full attention in the process. We strive to be present, to stay in touch with the relationship between our inner energies, those arising from our bodies, mind, and feelings, and the work itself. As we begin, it feels flat and lifeless. Something is missing. As we continue and try to bring a quality of attention to both ourselves and the activity at hand, something begins to open, a fluidity emerges, and a deepening connection to the process begins to take place. We enter the flow».

That’s exactly how it felt back then in Chinatown. I started out photographing without any focus, I didn’t get involved and I felt I wasn’t able to make anything with my photographs. I was rather thinking about my own photography – and rather badly so – instead of putting my attention to what was happening around me. I was about to give up. But I still kept shooting. And then suddenly something changed. I entered the flow as it’s often called or got the groove as a jazz musician would say. I got involved. Instead of focusing on myself, I started to focus outward. I actually started to focus in the moment. It was all now in this very moment. I got a sense of timelessness, a sense of vital energy and a sense of freedom. Everything – life, myself, the event, the universe – felt important.

Again according to Ulrich: «Like the moment in athletics when endorphins are released, entering the stream of creativity vitalizes us with a sharp inner clarity and buoyant feeling for ourselves and our activity. We feel a spacious inner joy, a vibrant inner stream, which as it begins to flow, attract more of the same much like a river slowly widens its course. Yet, to avoid dispersal of these energies, we must contain them, nurture them, and focus them. Again, as in athletics, the great pay-off of entering the zone, the flow, can only take place through energies that are connected in a desired direction».

For me that afternoon in Chinatown was a leaf turner. It changed my way of photographing, brought my soul into the creative process for the first time. And I learned that I could enter the zone, the flow or get the groove when I was photographing – even when I started out feeling disconnected. Still today my intention is the same whenever I go out shooting. Find that breaking point and loose myself. Back then what happened to me felt like being absorbed by a tunnel and spit out three or four hours later, completely wasted, but intensely happy. And that’s always how I have pictured that part of the process. Entering the tunnel. The pictures from the Chinese New Year celebration probably don’t hold up today, but personally I have a special relationship to them. They showed me how to connect with my creative well in the moment of photographing.

Finding Purpose


I don’t want to say that I have found the purpose, or meaning, of life – my life that is. Nevertheless, I have found what makes it worth living – again for me. I deliberately emphasizes for me, because what makes sense to me won’t necessarily – or most likely – make sense to others. This much I can say, though; if we were all able to live out our passions, a lot of us would certainly feel happier and more fulfilled.

As I wrote two weeks ago in my post Pursuing Passion, I have done exactly that, pursued my passion for photography, journalism and travel. When I combine the three, I lose myself into a different and much more intense way of living, I feel alive and vibrant; I am almost constantly in flow. Of course, it doesn’t only happen when I travel or photograph or produce a story, it can happen when I am listening to music, or I may find flow when writing or when reading – or it may occur in encounters with people I connect to. The point is we find flow when we do things we love to do.

In the before mentioned post I referred to the book The Element by Ken Robinson. Robinson is kind of a creative expert – an English author, speaker and advisor on education in the arts, and he often challenges the way we are educating our children. One of his main points is that the educational system should encourage the students to pursue their passions, more than just follow a prescribed and – for many students – boring curriculum. If students could find their passions and be encourage to pursue them – professionally, a lot more people would feel they are living a meaningful life, not only when off from work, but all the time; indeed, their work would be a fulfilment of its own, not just something to make a living of. Robinson’s argument is that there is a powerful driving force inside every human being that, once unleashed, can make any vision, any dream, a reality. That is The Element, which he writes about in his book. Robinson uses it as a term that describes the place where things we love to do and the things we are good at come together – as I mentioned in my post Pursuing Passion.

Some people may feel passionate for a range of activities and may be really good at them. Others may have a singular passion they can thrive with, that fulfils them far more than anything else does. No matter what, when people are in this place that Robinson calls the element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of self-revelation, of defining whom they really are and what they are really meant to do with their lives. This is why many of the people in The Element, who Robinson writes about, describe finding this element as an epiphany.

The big question is; how do we find this element in ourselves? How do we discover the passion that, if pursued, will make us good – and will give us this fulfilment I am talking about?

I quoted this in my before mentioned post from Robinson’s book: «The Element has two main features, and there are two conditions for being in it. The features are aptitude and passion. The conditions are attitude and opportunity. The sequence goes something like this: I get it; I love it; I want it; Where is it?»

I Get It. An aptitude is a natural capability for something. It is an intuitive feel or a grasp of what that thing is, how it works, and how to use it. Our aptitudes are highly personal. They may be for general types of activity, like math, music, sport, poetry, or political theory. They can also be highly specific – not music in general, but jazz or rap, just as an example. But how do I get or disover what I could be good at? This is maybe the hardest part of finding this place that gives fulfilment in life. Anyone who has been in the state of flow, though, know something about his or her natural aptitude. Some discover what they good at as kids. If you don’t know yet your aptitude, maybe looking back into childhood memories can unleash it again. Or maybe someone who knows you very well, can point you into a direction. An important point here is; it’s never too late to pursue one’s passion. There are plenty of examples of people who find their call late in life.

I Love It. Being in your element is not only a question of natural aptitude. It needs something more. Passion. People who are in their element take a deep delight and pleasure in what they do. They do it because they love – and couldn’t imaging doing anything else.

I Want It. Attitude is our personal perspective on ourselves and our circumstances. People who love what they do, often describe themselves as lucky. People who think they are not successful in their lives, often say they have been unlucky. According to Robinson, high achievers often share similar attitudes, such as perseverance, self-belief, optimism, ambition and frustration.

Where Is It? Without the right opportunities, you may never know what your aptitudes are or how far they may take you. There aren’t many bronco riders in Antarctic, or pearl divers in the Sahara Desert. Aptitudes don’t necessarily become obvious unless there are opportunities to use them. Often we need other people to help us recognize our real talents. An often we can help others discover theirs. I found my aptitude for photography because a good friend of mine purchased a camera when we were in our teens and got me infatuated with photography as well. Another friend made me subscribe to a photo magazine, which eventually spurred my interest even more.

What are you passionate about? What kind of activities makes you feel most alive and in touch with yourself? I would love to hear more about it.

Let Images Reveal Themselves

En ensom mann nyter en varm høstsol ved Elliot Bay Marina

Sometimes I find myself running around frenetically searching for images, searching for the muse that seems to having hidden somewhere around the next corner. Or maybe the next after that again. It most often happens when I arrive in a new place, I have an assignment and limited days available before I know I will have to fly out again – and bring back those images that the client has asked, and not the least paid, for. It’s like my body gets all geared up and almost aimlessly runs wild. And the more I frenetically run around like that the more the muse will hide for me.

Then I know I need to stop. I need to let go. And I need to sink into the situation rather than keep running. Really let go. The photos will be right where I am – and not around the next corner. If only I let myself open up to what is. The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «I’m not responsible for my photographs. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to the coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.»

I don’t know why we photographers always believe the gold is around the next corner – or at the end of the rainbow. Why we go to the far corners of the world hoping to find that one photograph that will for always give us peace in mind? Is it something with the process of collecting snippets of real life? That craving after what we don’t have, believing the grass is always greener on the other side, which manifests itself in the photographic process? Or do other artists do the same?

The thing is what we might be looking for is where we are. And if we are already there, there is nowhere to go. We don’t have to look around the next corner. You have all that you will ever need – right here and right now.

I do love to travel and go to new places. I will openly admit that, but I have also learned that going to remote places, doesn’t make me see better or capture better photos. While travelling is great fun and can be a source of inspiration, we need to be careful that we are not just caught up in the endless need for novelty. What is required to grow as an artist is not running around to one place or clinging to another. The fullness of experience and the richness of treasures are only discovered when we realize they are within and when that within is being in balance with out. Creativity and vision are available to all who are willing to listen to the wise words of Lao Tzu: «Be still and let the mud settle.» Our work is to drop the burdens that obstruct seeing, and, yes, to be still. Let go. Breathe. And allow yourself to sink into the situation. More times than not, images will reveal themselves.

I think I learned the lesson as a kid. We were always on the move. From one place to another, not staying longer than one year at most in any place. I learned a valuable insight – without being consciously aware of it at the time: It is possible to bloom wherever you are planted. Later in life I put the experience from my childhood together, realizing that we don’t need to be somewhere else than we are. That insight has also completely changed the way I go travelling. It’s not for the thrill of experiencing something new and «better» but to learn more about life and myself.

«Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.» – Joseph Campbell

A Path to Creative Life


Creativity is something to be uncovered. This I wrote in my blog post Uncovering Creativity last week. I also stated that I believe we all have access to creativity, that we all have creativity within us. As a continuation of the post I want to raise the question; how do we uncovered our inherent creativity and connect to what I often call our creative well (by the way an expression borrowed from Julia Cameron and her excellent book The Artist’s Way)?

A lot has been written and said about creativity and the mechanisms of the creative process. One thing that recurs in most of the literature – and one of the most important factors in my opinion when it comes to the creative process is passion. Passion is the connection between you and your creativity. If you want to become more creative and be able to develop beyond the ordinary – if your want to find your personal artistic voice – your need to approach your creative work with passion. For me this is where all true creative work starts – no matter what you do. Without passion for your work and through what you are trying to express the process will be nothing but an exercise. Passion ignites the creative process. In this I am not only talking about passion for the craft itself, for instance for photography if you are into photography – which goes without saying, but even more so what you try to capture with you camera – again if you are a photographer. What I am saying is you need to be passionate about your subject, if you want to capture strong images; you need to care passionately about what you are photographing. It’s about emotional investment; if the subject isn’t important to you, nobody else will care about it either. In other words, photograph – or make art about – whatever is important in your life.

When you have found out how to channel your passion into the creative process by finding projects you care about, next step is to connect to your creative well. This is about getting into a state of mind of being in flow, where time stands still and you are completely absorbed by the work. This might be the hard part, because each of us has to find our own way into flow. For many starting is the barrier; by just getting started after a while things begin to happen, you sink into a deeper layer of concentration and feel as if being connected to an external power. Part of this is letting go of fear; fear of failure, fear of others’ judgment, fear of not being creative, fear of loosing control, fear of not being good enough. Part of the process is also letting go; letting go of rational thoughts, letting go of control, letting go of oneself. The before mentioned Julia Cameron suggests something she calls morning pages to connect with your creative well. It’s basically writing three pages in handwriting as the first thing your do in the morning after you wake up, just whatever occurs to your mind and without trying to control neither the thoughts nor the writing. It works and it’s recommendable (for more about morning page, look up my post Finding the Creative Well) .

A third important prerequisite for the creative process is putting in enough work. Even if you are the most talented artist in the world; if you don’t work hard, you will never really get in touch with your deeper creative self. You have to do the work, there is no way around it. When you do the work, you develop your creative mind and you slowly by slowly develop your artistic voice. Through hard work you find confidence and maturity and your unique way of expressing yourself. Give yourself projects and force yourself to complete them. Nothing will develop yourself as much as doing the work. After a while a whole new creative world will open up for you.

As I mentioned in my post Uncovering Creativity, creativity is not a scarce resource that runs out if you draw on it. On the contrary. But sometimes you need to replenish the creative well. By this I mean draw inspiration from other creative persons or artists or anything that makes you feel good. Why not spend a day in a gallery looking at contemporary art? Even just watching a good movie will expand your creative horizon and fill up the creative well again. Nothing is probably better than spending time in Mother Nature. Reading is good too, as are concerts, meditation, or even just treating yourself with a good cup of coffee in a stimulating café.

Related to replenish is retreat. Sometimes when you are struggling with your work, it may be a good idea to step back and let it go of it for a while. Do something different, go for a walk, sleep, see some friends or play with your children. Because even when you consciously let go of your creative work your unconscious mind still keep running in the background. This is a time of incubation. Suddenly when you get back to the work you were struggling with you will find that the challenge has solved itself.

One thing that really boosts creativity is to challenge yourself. When you feel too comfortable and keep doing what you are already able to do well, creativity stalls. Instead you need to face your fears and challenge yourself by doing work you don’t feel comfortable about doing, and in so doing expanding your creativity. If we want to develop our art – be it photography or other artistic expressions, we cannot keep staying in our comfort zone. The result is inevitably stagnation and boredom. Related to challenging yourself is stepping out of the box. This is another way to expand by doing your artistic work in a way you normally don’t. For instance try to photograph simple pictures if you usually prefer complicated images, or vice verse. Or handhold you camera with a slow shutter speed when you usually work with a tripod. This is just two examples, but you get the picture. By forcing yourself out of your usual habit your stretch your craft and find new ways to approach creativity. Related to both these steps are the willingness to learn. If you never stop learning, you will continue to grow and develop. Read books, join workshops, attend lectures, subscribe to magazines or talk with your peers about your craft and the creative process.

Another important part of the creative process is completion. Completion makes the work available to others, makes others enjoy all the creativity we have put into the work. Sometimes we create for ourselves, but even then we need to complete the work. Completion is not only about displaying or showing our work, it’s also marking the end of one creative process in order to open up for new ideas and a new flow of work. It’s a mental transition between old and new, which makes us ready to embark on new creative tasks. The completion is also strongly connected to detachment, which I have written about before (Engaged and Detached at the Same Time). With completion we are more easily able to detach from our work, and leave it to itself.

A few more ideas that can be used to develop your creativity and help you connect to your creative well: Make a plan for your creative life and put some effort into thinking what you want to accomplish. Set goals; be it a book, an exhibition, a multimedia program, a show for your friends or something else. Planning can really be a driving force for your creativity. And why not try to create with other? Collaboration can very much spurs the creative process. By working together you may induce way more inspiration in each other than you are able to do on your own. A successful collaboration provides credibility, it gives you an opportunity to gain experience, and it expands your knowledge base, widens your sphere of influence, deepens your relationships, and gives you a real-world resume. But one of the most important takeaways from collaborating is that it promotes your work ethic.