The Story of the Creative Constellations Project

Part 1.  The Myth of the Singular Burning Passion

Tell me if you've heard this one.  Let's say that you are pondering - in a global, existential way - the purpose of your life, or trying to make concrete choices about whether to pursue a particular job or go back to school, or even just try to finally pick one of your many projects to buckle down and focus on… What is the advice you will hear?   

Now, I'll bet you love the spirit of this advice - I know I do! The part that suggests that you have an inner knowing that matters more than what other people think you should do or be feels right on.  Activated by these slogans, our hungry hearts leap with excitement. "Yes!!!" we say, "I do deserve to live a life of passion and purpose!  I do want to be in love with my work and my life!  That's just what I'll do!!"  Then, we earnestly peer into our hearts expecting that if we just look hard enough, we will surely locate a single, powerful, beacon that will guide us to our heart's true desire. 


Maybe, we think, if we listen intently enough, we'll hear an inner voice, pronouncing our real passion in James Earl Jones-ian tones...something like "Your passion shall be cheese - go forth!" or "You were born to dance the merengue, you fool" or "You are to build a school for overly-warm penguins,"  or "You are chosen to invent an app that changes how young men do their laundry - forever!" Anything!  As long as it is one, singular, undeniable thing, one compelling passion that will propel us forward into our clear right choices, our focused next steps. 

 But when the rush of passion-finding excitement wears off, many of us who want very badly to live lives of authenticity and impact find that we are left feeling really confused.  Because the hard truth is, if you had a singular, burning passion, you'd be doing it already.  You'd be one of those people who say things like "I've always known I was born to be a __________...I just can't imagine for a second being anything else."  Now, maybe your path to that burning passion wouldn't be simple or obstacle free, but you'd be aware at every moment that that's where you're meant to be heading.  

For the rest of us mortals, we're stuck with the reality that no matter how hard or long we look into our heart of hearts, we find not one star, but many.  Despite our best efforts to locate a single passion to organize ourselves around, we discover only that we are complex, messy, and changing.  Our inner worlds look more like this:

And this can feel like a huge, overwhelming bummer.  We can get trapped in self-condemnation, wondering "What's wrong with me? How come I can't just 'pick a lane?  Is it possible I am a pathological commitment-phobe?"

After years of entertaining these self-flagellating questions about my own life, and befriending and coaching other multi-faceted human beings with similar sense of passion-panic, I've come to believe that this pit of confusion is wildly unhelpful, and based on wrong-headed thinking.  We must have a new story about the inner basis upon which we can make meaningful life-choices.  We need a story about creativity and purpose that acknowledges that we have a world of self-knowledge inside ourselves, but also recognizes that our inner guidance isn't faulty if it doesn't happen to point us down a single-focused path.

2.  What if complexity doesn't mean chaos?

Let's for a moment imagine that we aren't given gifts we aren't meant to use.  Let's pretend that we believe that we are who we are because we're supposed to be that way.  Let's entertain the possibility that people whose creativity expresses itself in multiple ways are NOT somehow flawed, like we were too lazy or confused to show up on the day that the single-passion people got their marching orders. 

The truth is that most of us are irreducible, multi-dimensional beings.  We love multiple ways of working, have many different passions, create in many different ways.  I started wondering, what if the issue is not so much that we have many passions or interest-areas, but that we are actually creative in multiple ways?  And what if the COMBINATION of ways we are creative is actually our gift?

What if our creativity is not a single guiding star, but a specific cluster of stars that fit together as a system, like a constellation? And what if our job is not to try to reduce that constellation back to a single star, but rather to investigate the relationships between our different passions, or, more precisely, our different ways of being creative. What if our constellations - as a whole - are the guidance systems we’ve been looking for?

Components of the Creative Constellations Project Include:

Talks and Workshops

Coaching circles


Illustrated Constellation Cards


Cool, right?  So, all I needed to do to start testing out this constellation metaphor hunch of mine was to find a good list of the "stars" - the different ways of being creative - that people might be working with.  I mean, we can't very well map our creative constellations if we don't have names for the different ways people are creative, right?  If we are going to try to steer by our creative constellations, we're going to need some kind of a map of the stars.  

And that's when I learned that the question "what are the different ways in which people express creativity?" is not one that very many people have ever thought to ask.  We've been so busy asking other questions, like "Are you creative or not?" and "What are the 25 ways to get more creative overnight?" that we've neglected to wonder "how are people creative?"

3.  The old ways of thinking about creativity and purpose don't work any more

How is it possible that we haven't yet developed a good working map of the different ways in which people express creativity?  Well, a very quick trip down a small historical wormhole reveals why it makes total sense that we haven't been overly curious about the naming the different kinds of creativity that people express.  

Back when most human labor was organized like this

It stands to reason that the only relevant creativity-related question was "Are you creative?"  And from there, the flowchart looked something like this:

Along with this simple YES/NO way of thinking about creativity, came a pretty set way of thinking about life purpose and life design:  The standard-issue life for many middle class people included - in precisely this order - going to college, getting married to an appropriately colored person of the opposite sex, getting a good stable job with benefits and a pension, having children, and setting about producing things (men) or caring for people and consuming things (women), then, after roughly 40 years of that, settling into the golden years of retirement with a golden watch on your wrist (men) and an overwhelming sense of somehow having missed out on living (women).

But change came in a big way.   came a massive change in the ways in which work and life are organized.  A little thing called the Creativity Economy started to 

This is HUGE!  If everyone has creative potential, then the key must be to figure out how to set it free, or how to crank it up so that it can drive the productivity machine of the economy....right???  Well, there are a lot of people out there who are certainly trying.  Whole bookstore shelves are packed with books promising to help readers spark, unlock, free, unblock, unleash, and practically explode with creativity everywhere all the time.  It's as if we've replace the old "Am I creative?" question with the question "How can I get more creative?"


the essential success factor for thriving in a creativity-centered culture is not actually “getting more creative” but rather developing a grounded self-understanding that begins with the deceptively simple new question “how are you creative?”  

When you look carefully at highly creative people, it seems really evident that they are not all creative in the same way.  

A fashion designer is creative in a different way than an activist or a writer, or a scientist or an explorer or a chef or a comedian or a singer or a teacher.  That core creative drive may be universal, but it expresses itself through us in many different modes.    And if it is true that not all creative people are creative in the same way, I think it makes sense that instead of asking “how creative am I?” as if the challenge is to get more of that one thing creativity, we shift to a more powerful question – How am I creative?

And when you look even more closely, you notice that many creative people are creative in multiple different ways.  They are expressing a whole constellation of creativity.  

If we look more closely at  Alice Waters, is a great example of this multi-modal creativity.  Alice started out as a chef, a maker of food, and to improve the taste of her food, she started expressing herself as a cultivator – both in the garden, growing fresh vegetables for her cooking, but also as a restauranteur, cultivating a community of people around her who shared her love of healthy delicious food and an unfussy, simple kind of environment to enjoy it in.  At the time she started cooking and gardening in this way, this was kind of radical – flying in the face of a culture dependant on pre-packaged, corporate made food.  So, Alice’s practices became a challenge to the dominant culture, and she became a disruptor. Which tied into some early experiences creating in disruptor mode during her student days at Berkeley.  Not content to simply interrupt the dominant practice, she focused on offering an alternative that would be sustainable – in social innovator mode, she invented a project called “The Edible Schoolyard” designed to connect children to the experience of growing and cooking vegetables for themselves.  Success in spreading this innovation required her to apply three other creative modes, the uplifter – stepping in to teach others directly, the articulator – putting her ideas into language and publishing several books, and ultimately, the leader – who does the three things that all leaders do: holds and communicates a strong positive vision, empowers others to contribute toward the achievement of that vision, and guides people through the sticking places along the way.

This leads to the fourth new assumption about creativity.  If it is true that creativity is part of our life purpose, that each of us is creative, in different ways, and many of us are creative in multiple ways, then I believe that the specific constellation of the different ways you are creative forms a kind of guidance system for your life.  The old question “what am I going to be when I grow up?” is way too rigid and small for the kind of life a multi-modal creative needs to live.  We need to learn to consult our constellations and see which ways they are pointing us in terms of answering “what do I want to create in my life?  Or, more manageable, what do I want to create next?”

16.    And I started to realize that finding your creative constellation was going to be a 3 step process:  the first step is to figure out which stars are in your personal creative sky – you’ll need a way to assess which modes you most strongly express – we’ll call these your Major modes -  which you sometimes express, or express less strongly – we’ll call these your minor modes – which ones you only call upon in specific circumstances – we’ll call those augmenting modes, and which are just plain not your thang.  The second step will be to explore how your modes relate to one another – what is the shape of the constellation they form?  The third step will be to practice using your constellation as a guidance system for your life.