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The energy to create

by 18 Mar 2020Business, Culture

Forget about heavy industry: creativity is the most energy-intensive process out there. Professor Elaine Rumboll shares her ideas on the transformative power of creativity and how to stoke the fires that fuel bright ideas.

There’s no doubt about it, Elaine Rumboll is a dynamo. The driving force behind the Creative Leadership Consultancy (CLC), Elaine is also the former director of Executive Education at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. She’s held various professorships, is the Chair in Creative Leadership at Western Orthodox University and works as a LEGO Serious Play practitioner. Plus she’s a blues singer, prize-winning poet and cooking show creator. If anyone knows about powering creativity (and the power of creativity), she does.



So when it came to giving the graduation speech at the Creative Academy on 13 March 2020, she had important messages to share. “To create demands energy… Nurture yourself. Eat well emotionally, socially, creatively, physically, spiritually,” she told the class of 2019. For those who weren’t present at Graduation Day, Prof. Rumboll agreed to share more of her thinking around nurturing creativity and harnessing its power.

Making time for creativity

Even though we know it’s important to make time for creative thinking, things somehow seem to intervene. So how does Elaine find the time, given her many projects and varied interests? “The first thing I do every day is that I say to myself, ‘I’m not busy’. I think busyness is a state of mind. So I say to myself, ‘I’m not busy at all, I just have things that I would like to prioritise today” and I find when I do that, I have space for everything,” she says.

“I also try very hard to have days with nothing in them so that I can focus on creative things. I just started a plant-based cooking show, called the Super Simple Plant Show, because I’m passionate about teaching people to eat plant-based. Eating vegan can seem overwhelming, so this show is teaching people simple, affordable dishes that are vegan.” (Find the Super Simple Plant Show, a project with Renee Rossouw, on Instagram.)


“The other thing that helps me enormously is breath. I do a lot of yoga and whenever I start feeling a bit frazzled, I just breathe and anchor myself in the present. The present is the only place you’re safe. The past is full of remorse and the future is so full of anxiety. My practice is, I try as hard as I possibly can to stay in the present.”

The power of the present

The benefit of focusing on the present was brought home to Elaine during the training to become a LEGO Serious Play practitioner. After seven years at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, she had decided to focus on teaching by doing her own thing. “I’d left the school and started the Creative Leadership Consultancy. I was doing a lot of work in agility and managing energy, and I wanted another tool for my armoury.” The solution was LEGO Serious Play.


“I literally took all the money I had in my business and went and studied under the man that introduced this to LEGO in Denmark. I remember at the time thinking, if this doesn’t work, I’m going to have to get a job. But if it does work, it’s going to be amazing.” That was seven years ago and since then she’s added high profile companies and individuals to her client list.

The LEGO Serious Play training process, she says, was “a lot of fun”, and focused on being present in the moment. “I realised I’d spent years doing work on reflection, to get people to go into the past and think back. But actually the place where the most change happens is in the present, and play does that. It was a huge awakening and a shift of unlearning for me,” Elaine explains.

Having fun with it

Creative thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein and John Cleese have recognised the importance of play to creativity. “To stimulate creativity, one must develop childlike inclination for play,” said the man behind the theory of relativity. While according to the Monty Python alumnus, “If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” It’s an outlook that syncs with Elaine’s approach.

“I think when you go into play, you go out of over seriousness. We have a pandemic in our organisations where we believe that we have to be very serious about what we’re doing and there’s no fun to be had. It wipes out your energy. It raises all those voices of cynicism, fear and judgement. The thing about play and playfulness is it immediately puts you in the present.

“I love the idea of play as a leadership practice because the environments that we operate in are so inherently volatile and uncertain. You need a new kind of leadership practice that allows you to be comfortable in those spaces. Play does that, because when you’re playing something, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. So it allows you to be comfortable in those environments. You’re actually building the capability to lead well, because you become more comfortable with uncertainty.”

Using creativity for change

Elaine is a strong supporter of the use of creativity to effect change. “The heart of my work is to help people shift. And I started off doing that through working in prison.” She ran creative workshops in maximum security prisons for three years.

“I have an unshaking belief that everyone can shift and reframe and change and that’s what I’ve devoted my life’s work to. I’m absolutely passionate about people getting to the place where they feel that they are better versions of themselves, where they have hope. Creativity is the most incredible mobiliser for that.”

Looking at the work that the CLC does, there’s a real sense that there’s no limit to exploring transformation through creative processes. A workshop in incense making is used to embed bravery; creating Japanese kites is an experience in letting go. ‘Getting unstuck with glue guns’, a way to overcome personal blockages, is run by the Creative Academy’s Francois Jonker, an associate of the CLC.

A place of scenius

The collaboration between the Creative Academy and the CLC is something that lies Elaine close to heart. This year the Academy will host Business Acumen for Artists and Advanced Creative Entrepreneurship, short courses run by the CLC.

“It’s amazing to have a space in which you can run things with like-minded people,” she says. “Our ethos is very much the same. When you go into a place where work is aligned, it makes it so much easier for people to do the work and undergo the transformation they need. The Creative Academy is a place of scenius,” she says, referencing musician Brian Eno. His concept holds that your environment, the scene within which you find yourself, can promote your ability to create.

“The scenius, if picked well, will provide the context for exceptional inspiration,” as Elaine explained during the graduation speech. “The scene builds the extraordinary, not the lone genius.”

It’s a useful reminder that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it needs a nurturing environment. Take a tip from Elaine Rumboll, a Professor in Play, and give yourself the space to create. Feed your energy by being playful and surround yourself with people who stimulate you.

As Elaine reminded the class of 2019, “Remember the incredible power you hold. Understand that your creativity is a tool for transformation. Stay close to it.”

Elaine’s graduation speech

Graduating students, and esteemed guests, I am honoured to be representing the Creative Academy today. It is a school I have deep admiration for. Their reputation is growing internationally and locally as a place for rigour, fresh thinking and relevance. It takes guts, courage and bravery to envisage a school like this; one at the tip of a continent in a world that is often concerned more with “matters of great consequence” as the Little Prince called them, than the truly transformative power of creativity and connection.

It is these matters of great consequence that often unwittingly force us into over-seriousness, that create disconnection and alienation from others, this attempt to control and demand certainty in a world which operates with inherent volatility, paradox and complexity. The power of creativity is that it allows us to be comfortable with uncertainty, with mystery. It helps us build the curiosity that in fact increases our commercial acumen in a manner which is joyous and meaningful. Creativity is not frivolous. It drives the solutions for the changes we all so desperately need in a world which is struggling to manage its resources, its populations and in many cases its othering and prejudice.

I do not expect the insights I share with you today to make you rich. I am hoping that they provide comfort and a warm blanket for the road ahead which at times might appear impossibly treacherous and cold. They are thoughts that have helped me to collaborate and create across many disciplines in the world and given me much joy along the way; more so than I imagined I could have.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of ideas lately. As more and more objects that we purchase became intangible – the skin for a game, the music and films that we stream, the apps that we download to make sense of and manage our lives – the more it becomes evident to me how intrinsically necessary imagination is becoming in the economies of work.

The challenge is that to create demands energy; but so does the uncertainty and pressure of the world you are entering. Sooner or later, if you are not vigilant, burnout and cynicism become the realities. Here flow is impossible and creativity dries up. Here compassion, empathy, and real connection with others disappears. You enter the arena of Overseriousness.

So Nurture yourself. Eat well emotionally, socially, creatively, physically, spiritually.  Remember that as long as you have breathe, you can anchor yourself in the safety of the present. One of the things that has helped me when I am tired or nearing burnout is to look for all the anomalies around me – to become fascinated by my own ignorance, to be surprised by things that show up differently to how I imagine them to be. To be eternally curious at the extraordinary ways in which the world is unfolding for me and others around me. It is a great hack to help you refuel and see differently.

We are so often taught that it is the big idea that will provide the opportunity, that it is the good idea that will carry you far. The big idea is often the large rock in the rucksack of those following the path of “great and serious consequence”. In my experience it is the small idea which is the lightest to carry – the idea that starts off without a mantle of uniqueness – just an idea – or as William Kentridge would call it – “a good idea or a bad idea”. His point is that the richness of an idea comes from what you do with it – that the power of ideas lies in their making – it is then that they transform into the things that inspire us – it is what they suggest that then becomes birthed into the great idea. We so often don’t birth things in the world because we are crippled by the belief that what we are working with isn’t good enough, that it’s not unique, that it might even be a bad idea. We replace creativity with fear because we are worried about what others may think and in this way make our worlds barren and the road ahead solitary, dusty and long.

My wish for you as you enter the world of work is to follow the idea that sparks for you, that makes you feel alive. No idea will survive its first contact with an audience, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like at its inception. Don’t waste time there. Celebrate the less good idea and follow it to its transformation. Tie the addendum to that of “Better done than perfect” and you will save yourself much anxiety and many sleepless nights. This is advice which if I had been given in my early 20s would have made the process of Making much easier.

I would like to pay homage today to the salon for small ideas. It is the dwelling place of people like Jiro, the protagonist in the unforgettable documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi – the story of a sushi maker who has become internationally lauded for the quality of sushi he makes from a small room in an underground tube station in Tokyo, Japan. He has decided to focus on greatness rather than growth.
Small ideas aren’t replicable or scaleable, they can’t be easily and effortlessly transposed to other places in the world. But they provide incredible energy and inspiration to us because they help us believe that there can be another way of being successful. They are also deeply aligned with a growing global philosophy which says that growth is not the only way to succeed in a market. That in fact unchecked growth destroys resources, values and connection with others. Small Giants is worth a read here. One of my heroes, the 83 year old founder of the sportswear brand Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, is another small giant, to coin the phrase. His goal has never been to make money but instead to provide apparel for what he calls the silent sports – surfing, sking, hiking. Patagonia makes clothes that are expensive but will last a life’s time. Ironically, this sentiment has resulted in Patagonia becoming a deeply respected and admired billion dollar business which has grown despite itself. Patagonia’s tagline is  “We’re in business to save our home planet”. This has struck a chord with so many of their customers and given them something to connect them. It has connected a purpose “their WHY” to a WHO, a global community who feels the same way.

Understanding WHY you are doing something isn’t enough. Why you do something matters, but who you are connecting to with your WHY matters more.

Growing down makes you vigilant about your environment, it creates locality and it also builds the potential for Scenius above Genius – the idea that says that the lone genius is a tired construct, broke and hungry (literally) and that the scene within which you are in, the Scenius, if picked well, will provide the context for exceptional inspiration and phenomenal work. The “scene” builds the extraordinary not the lone genius. But be mindful and discerning of who you allow into your world. Your mental health, your belief system, your habits, your very creativity will be impacted not only by your friends but also their friends and their friends friends as Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale and a researcher on how social influence works, Dr. Nicolas Christakis, discovered. Three degrees of separation will perfect you or poison you. The best way to engage this is to operate in fields and scenes filled with integrity, curiosity, and people that inspire you and bring out your best. As the poet David Whyte says, “Anyone or anything that does not make you come alive is too small for you”.

But the world isn’t a neat chess board. Paradoxically, I started my work in the world in three maximum security prisons in Jhb working with long-term and ex-deathrow prisoners. Not quite the scenes I am urging you to find. Ostensibly the brief was to help them create poetry for an upcoming edgy arts festival but after the process I continued for three years, to run workshops every Wed at Jhb Maximum security prison and Diepkloof women’s prison. Using art, writing, dance and theatre we used creativity to help them reframe their thinking and reimagine themselves. So it is possible to draw extraordinary lessons from places that don’t feel welcoming, that are full of danger and malevolence and to transform them into places for change and renewal.

 It is my hope that as you graduate you continue to remember the incredible power you hold, that you understand deeply that your creativity is a tool for transformation, connection and hope. Stay close to it, listen to it always, let it be your voice in times of misfortune and despair. Be brave. Be Gentle. Be Humble. Be fascinated by your own ignorance. Laugh a lot. Remember the Scenius, the small idea, grow down, grow deep, grow joyously. Remember the WHO not just the WHY.

I will end as I started with The Little Prince. The Fox cautions the little Prince that you become forever responsible for what you tame. You cannot tame Creativity, but you can be tamed by her and be in service to her. Use your power well. Be responsible with what you create in the world and always remember that what you do shapes who you are becoming. After all is said, the bravest truly are the tenderest.

In closing I would like to read you a poem that I wrote entitled There are always ways back.

There are always ways back

There are always ways back
in –
opportunities for pause and presence
through breath
through wonder
even through the coveting of objects far flung and impossible
Always ways
to slow down
the crippling speed
of absent doing
to find a way back
to the circle of
spiraling quiet,
that neither beckons
nor denies
but merely holds
itself and us
in the possibilities
of acceptance and the journey home.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/elainerumboll?lang=en
The Creative Leadership Consultancy: http://creativeleadershipconsultancy.com


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