Learning and reacting are different. It’s important to honour both.
As part of my coaching practice, I have put together a framework to debrief people at the end of their work on a complex creative project. And I have been treating this debriefing process as distinct from, and different to, evaluating the project.
I am probably being quite arbitrary in creating this distinction (I do this sometimes – don’t get me started on the difference between resilience and toughness). But in my experience, there are two different conversations that need to be had at the end of a creative project.
Evaluation is where a project is reviewed, and lessons learnt: did we achieve our objectives? What worked and what didn’t – what could we do better next time? Did this project meet the measurements by which we define success?
This is a useful and necessary conversation to have. But before this discussion happens, I think that there is another that needs to take place. And this other conversation needs to concern itself less with the apparent successes and failures of the project in the eyes of the world and more to do with the creator’s subjective experience of working on the project. And this is where the difference between learning and reacting become important.
Working on creative projects can be an intense undertaking, especially if the project is complex and / or being worked on in challenging conditions. Even if the project goes well and achieves its objectives, project workers can emerge from the process feeling frazzled, exhausted, anxious, or even dissatisfied. A whizz-bang project emerges into the public eye looking new and shiny; the people who put the project together alone know the stress and strain of putting it together. I have been involved in of performances that garner applause and glowing reviews while the cast and crew are feuding and bitching backstage. I have been a part of corporate event teams that have produced events that entertained, informed, and promoted with elan, while we were stumbling with fatigue and losing sleep over logistical nightmares. Or known of award-winning online learning programs that had their creators literally banging their heads on their desks during development.
Creative projects are challenging, some more than others. Sometimes the sense of challenge can be so consistent or so severe that it leads to a sense of overwhelm for the people working on it. This can lead to a sort of dissonance between a personal lived experience of tiredness and constant worry about the project and the success and positive reception of that same project. When I used to be a choreographer, I remember being in a foyer and receiving praise from audiences for my work while thinking “You’re wrong. That was shit.” In my exhaustion I lost sight of the fact that I alone knew how the finished dance piece fell short of my original hopes for it; I would somehow not hear the actual audience tell me how the actual piece worked for them: that they loved it.
In short, I was reacting to my experience of working on the project. In my past work as an arts manager and project manager I used to try to lead teams who were swaying with exhaustion through discussions to evaluate a project and found that I was dealing with their reactions to this experience of work, which came from a subjective place. If those reactions were strong enough then they couldn’t analyse or evaluate – they couldn’t learn.
Discussion of this subjective experience is very important – developing self-awareness around your personal capacity for working creatively, and how that pans out for you, is important. Gaining some perspective, too, of how the exhaustion you are feeling or the tension you have felt are colouring your attitude to the project itself is vital. Honouring your personal journey of working on a creative project can allow you to shift from a shell-shocked sense of “OMFG!!!” to reclaiming the ability to celebrate or commiserate or forgive your efforts. Only then, can the true objective learning begin.
Through mentoring, I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get some perspective on these things then why not contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help?