A Conversation with Summit Closing Keynote Denise Jacobs

Denise JacobsSTC Associate Fellow Karen Bachmann interviewed Denise Jacobs, creativity evangelist, who will be speaking as the closing keynote for the 2015 Summit. Below is a selection of Denise’s responses. Learn more about the Summit at summit.stc.org. Can’t make it to Columbus? Consider registering for the Virtual Track.

Becoming a creativity evangelist

Being a creativity evangelist is a very cool thing to be doing. It came to me when I was writing my book CSS Detective Guide. I did technical writing for a really long time. I worked at Microsoft in the user experience area in different groups. I’d written manuals on how to do stuff as well as all the stuff I did for the Web. Despite all that experience, the process of writing a book was really daunting. I had moments of self-doubt for the entire eight months. When I finally got through the process and was designing the website, it was the first time I was designing something that I wasn’t too self critical about. In that moment, I thought “Oh my god! How amazing to just create in this uncluttered way! I wish I could make other people feel like this.” I felt this rush of energy going through me. Like being in love. It was a feeling of complete and utter joy and acceptance. If I could bottle this, if I could help other people go through a process to feel like this, that’s what I want to do with my life.

It occurred to me that I’d be spreading the good word of creativity. I’d be evangelizing creativity. I’m a creativity evangelist!

After that epiphany, which was life shattering and changing, the second thought is “How is that going to work? How is that going to be my job?” Luckily, I didn’t get caught up on the details. I just made it work.

My plan was to be a speaker. The thrust behind the CSS book was to be a speaker. The plan was for my writing to launch my speaking career.

Of course, this epiphany hit after the last chapter was sent to the publisher, a month from publishing this book on CSS. Now, I wanted to be a creativity evangelist. So I decided that I would become really established as a speaker in tech. Then, at some point, start introducing new content on creativity. At some point, I’d see if I could interweave the creativity stuff into the CSS stuff, and eventually replace it.

So I started speaking in 2010. By 2011, I didn’t need to submit talks. People were inviting me to speak. I started to say, “I could talk about CSS, but I have this creativity presentation.” I would mention other conferences, how people like Jefferey Zeldman wanted my creativity presentation, and then these conferences would want it, too.

Months later, people were still talking about my stuff. I felt I was onto something.

Silencing the inner critic and conquering hidden fears

I had this idea while writing a book. I was battling my inner critic the whole time. There were days that I fooled it and lulled it into quiet. On my birthday at Disney World (when you could still get in on your birthday for free), I had a inspiration. I thought it would be cool to have a workshop on silencing/firing your inner critic and to teach exercises to quite the inner critic.

After giving these workshops, I now find it fascinating that so many people are interested in the work I’m doing on fear and silencing the inner critic. People can’t recognize their fears, but they know that something is off. In my talk, I explain, “If you see this, this is what is happening.” People will talk about something like being a perfectionist, but will not examine that behavior to understand more deeply. I explain how the things that are off are your fears showing up in another form.

I think it’s really good to help people identify what is going on and to show them techniques to respond. After I help people understand how to recognize their fears and the forms they take, I provide a list of things to help them respond to those. If you’re a perfectionist, here is a list of things you can do. If you’re afraid of criticism, here is a list. Whatever your fear, here’s ways you can manage it. With fear, you have to trick it and come at different angles.

Inspiring creativity epiphanies

I’ve been speaking since 2011 and giving workshops since 2013. I’ve also been writing throughout. I’ve gotten phenomenal emails from people in response to my ideas.

I wrote an article “Breaking the Perfectionism–Procrastination Infinite Loop.” A guy wrote me about being plagued with this problem for years. He had sought therapy and other help. Nothing had helped until he read my article: “Your article has changed my life. Nothing has helped like this.”

I spoke in Poland and heard from a guy afterward that this was a “game-changer” for him. He explained, “I didn’t realize there was an imposter syndrome, but now that I understand it, I’ve changed how I talk to myself.”

Obviously, I’m female and African American. Most of the people who have contacted me are white men who are technologists and developers. I find that fascinating. If you really look at my message, it’s kind of touchy-feely at the core. I dress it up so that people don’t look at like that. I explain the neuroscience and other scientific reasons behind the message. Still, I’m fascinated and overwhelmed that I am able to connect and resonate with people who are typically depicted as the polar opposite. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be the messenger for these people.

Helping everyone realize their unique creativity

I feel that – with technical communication and technical stuff in general – there is this myth that tech people aren’t creative. That there’s nothing creative about it. I’m trying to get across that creativity is more of a mindset and a skill and an approach rather than something innately there or not there.

Everyone is creative in different ways. The way you are creative may be how you distill down the information. Or in having laser-like vision on how to communicate technical information. There’s creativity in that. It’s structured and precise, but…you’d be amazed what a gift this is. Being able to really discern the key points of importance of a lot information takes creativity. Writing a book on CSS required understanding how to structure it to present people what they needed to to know and when. Other people cannot do that. Their brains will melt.

The problem is not that people aren’t creative, but that we have too narrow a definition of creative. Just taking something through the filter of who you are is creativity. If you and a friend wrote a story with the same characters and plot, the final story would still differ because it comes through the filter of each of you.

I encourage people to ask, “How am I creative? What is the thing I do that other people cannot do?”

Having that moment when I switched and saw that I was creative, instead of wondering whether I was, and realizing that I was operating in that creative space was like an on-off switch. It changed everything I did.

It’s the questioning, not the doing that is the problem. I don’t have to wonder if I’m tall or if my eyes are brown. I just operate in that context. I realized I could do the same with creativity. I am creative! Let’s go, instead of wondering.

Encouraging creativity missionaries

When considering the creativity of technical communicators, they posses clarity. X-ray vision. That unique capacity to take all this stuff from SMEs and know the process and outcome. Technical communicators can see the “skeleton” of information and get to the essence and the structure. There are people who don’t have that x-ray vision. Technical communicators can just say, “No, this is really clear. Here it is.”

When you know and celebrate how you are creative and what you are really good at, that gives other people permission to do that for themselves. When you think you can do everything, you can’t do anything well. When you decide what you are good at and do it, you can let go of everything that you aren’t great at and that doesn’t make your heart sing. You can bring your creativity.

Building a creative community

Being able to bring your own creativity is how teams work well together. Like a band. Not everyone should be a guitarist. You need all the instruments. What makes teams and communities strong is individuals tuning into what they are good at and not doing the stuff that they are not good at. The creativity revolution starts once you get yourself sorted. Then, you can help other people get to that place, too.  Help people tune into what they are great at and can accept and embrace.

There’s a really big shift that happens when you are doing what you are really great at. It’s different than just doing “something.” Our work is to tune into what that our greatness is: What’s our brilliance? What are we good at? How are we each creative? What makes our heart sing? Once we know that for sure for ourselves, we can start encouraging other people.

I coach people through that process. People tell me everything they want, but then end with that they don’t know what they want to do. I worked with a woman who works with the community, but she really loves pottery. She told me that she had this idea of a collective to teach the people how to throw pottery and become empowered. After sharing her dream, though, she concluded that she didn’t know what she wanted to do. I challenged that she had just told me. She responded, “But that’s so overwhelming!” So I walked her through the first couple of steps, and she realized it wasn’t so overwhelming. She could do this.

People know what they want to do, but don’t know how to do it.

When I had my epiphany in 2010, I searched for “creativity evangelist.” Nothing came up. Now – while you’d find a lot of my stuff and information about me, because I use this as my title and have a good digital footprint – you’ll also find more people calling themselves by this title.

Helping others find their first steps on a path to creativity

I’m honored that I can do help people find out what they really want to do. It’s worked for me so far. I’m proof this approach can be effective. The key is just give it a try. Of course, it’s easier to follow a model, but just taking the first step on a new path does work.

When I started Rawk the Web to encourage women and people of color to become more visible in tech, I realized a lot of stuff plays into this concept. So many people face the same challenges: Don’t know how it works, don’t know what it looks like, don’t know… Rawk the Web encourages people to try and go! Becoming a speaker is such a daunting process. I felt like I didn’t know so much, and I was afraid to ask people. My personal inner critic tells me that I should know everything. I have to be smart and figure it all out. That’s why you research, right? When I asked questions, however, the answers weren’t favorable.

One of the reasons I started Rawk the Web was to help people gain a sense of what is possible. This is possible, not rocket science. Take away that inner critic. This is also necessary. This is the time to speak up. We need for people to stop feeling like outliers and to come together to build a sense of community and shared vision. That plays into the grand scheme of things and while still being about personal development.

Rawk the Web and Creativity Revolution are venues to tap into a larger creative community and build sense of community. Rawk the Web promotes diversity. Creativity Revolution helps people tap into their own creativity and then help others. It’s been incredible to be able to share this journey.