One of my favorite books is Creativity in Business, written by Stanford Business School professors Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers—who taught one of the most popular courses by the same name. In the book they introduce the "Voice of Judgment" (VOJ). Steven Pressfield, in his books The War of Art and Do The Work, refers to it as "Resistance."
Your VOJ will stop your creativity cold. It comes in two basic flavors: 1) self-judgment/self-criticism, 2) judgment from others. Banishing the VOJ isn’t easy, but in my creativity workshops I teach a simple way to do just that.
Step 1: Pay attention
Get yourself a creativity journal. Every day for a week, jot down every negative or non-constructive critical comment, emotion, behavior or thought that you encounter during the day. (No one has ever had any trouble related to a scarcity of negativity or criticism). This means your own comments, emotion, behaviors or thoughts as well as those of others.
Tally them at the end of every day and put a star by those with most impact on you and your creativity. Jot down your reflections and reactions to those VOJ encounters each day, using the following questions as a guide:
When do I notice the VOJ most? Is it more active in my personal or professional (school) life?
About how many times a day do I judge myself for something? How many times do I find myself judging others? How many times a day do I allow others to judge me?
What did the VOJ prevent me from doing today? In the past? How is it impacting my future?
When I’m in a group, how much time can elapse before the VOJ appears? When I hear it, how do I handle it?
When and where is the VOJ most absent?
The only goal is self-discovery and self-understanding. Once you recognize it for what it is, you can do something about it. Namely, destroy it. How? By silencing its voice and quieting your mind in the following way.
Step 2: Perish the thought
Adam Smith coined a term called the Impartial Spectator. Smith defined “the impartial and well-informed spectator," as the ability to stand outside of yourself and watch "the person within" in action. We each have access to this person. The notion of the Impartial Spectator is really no different in principle than the mindfulness meditation practiced by Tibetan Buddhist monks, one of the most studied groups in neuroscientific research for their abnormally high gamma brainwave activity—the waves now proven to immediately precede the "Eureka!" moment.
There is no better way of removing creative roadblocks than meditation. As Anya Kamenetz recently described in her Fast Company column, Meditate Your Way to a More Creative Mind, when they were at a creative crossroads in the 1980s, Walt Disney's Imagineers called in a meditation coach. The ideas began to flow: Tokyo Disney, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland among them.
The instructions for mindfulness meditation conducted by ancient Buddhist priests are straightforward enough. They amount to sitting still, breathing, "watching" yourself breathe—invoking the Impartial Spectator—and not thinking about anything but observing yourself from outside yourself. In other words, suspending all judgment.
Easy, right? Here’s what to do:
Sit still in a chair, in a quiet room, for 20 minutes, and just watch yourself breathe. Pick a time and a place when you can be reasonably sure no one will interrupt you. Close the door to minimize outer distractions. Sit comfortably in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor, with your hands resting in your lap. You can close your eyes, or you can keep them open but unfocused. Place your attention on the inner rim of your nostrils, where you can feel the subtle movement off air as you breathe in and out.
Now, ‘watch’ your breathing go in, go out, go in, go out. Make a mental note for each in-breath and out-breath like this: ‘breathing in,’ ‘breathing out.’ Or just ‘in’ and ‘out.’ Try to be aware of the entire in-breath, from the time it starts to the time it stops. This is the time to make the mental note ‘breathing in,’ if that's your choice of note. Don't worry about the exact words, it's the process of observing yourself that's critical. Then try to be aware of the entire out-breath, from the time it starts to the time it stops. This is the time to make the mental note ‘breathing out.’
Now, if you suddenly notice that your mind has wandered away from your breathing, just make a mental note of that. For example, ‘wandering, wandering,’ or ‘thinking, thinking,’ or ‘imagining, imagining’. Then gently bring your attention back to an in-breath or out-breath, and continue observing and making mental notes of those observations.
Try it. Then make notes in your journal on what you experienced.
Human nature being what it is, the VOJ will never go away completely. But if you can get in the habit of doing both of these simple exercises regularly, you will render it powerless.