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Progress starts with ingredients

A lesson in creation, leadership, and life.

A good friend of mine told me how he went to a poetry workshop recently. My friend is not a poet. He’d actually never written a poem in his life. He was a nervous about attending the workshop.

Here’s what the instructor asked him to do.

She asked my friend to make a list. The first list he had to come up with were “objects you find beautiful.”

Then she asked him to come up with lists of other things:

  • 3–5 people you’re close to
  • Words that remind you of those 3–5 people
  • Words you use a lot
  • Words you like the sound of
  • Places that feel like home
  • Things other people want of you or expect of you
  • Songs from your early childhood

What he ended up writing in those lists were his “poetry ingredients.” She then gave him a poem someone else had written with a blank space every other stanza. This was the “recipe.”

He plugged his ingredients into the recipe…

And ta da! My friend had a poem.

It got me thinking how many things in my own life are this way. It all starts with a list of ingredients. Building, making, doing something new really isn’t much more complicated than that.

Take painting, for example. When I try to decide what to paint, I make a list of emotions: What have I been feeling strongly lately? I make lists of colors, shades, forms, places and people that inspire me. From these ingredients, the recipe begins to percolate in my head. And I begin painting.

For writing, before I attempt to hammer out any sentences, I make a list of things that feel stirring to me: What has my brain been hooked by lately? I write down recent situations I’ve encountered, enjoyable conversations I’ve had, things people have said that I’ve disagreed with, words or phrases that have puzzled me, concepts I’ve read in books that have intrigued me. From that list of ingredients, I begin to write.

Progress starts with a list. Progress starts with ingredients.

I wonder — if we slow our minds down for a second — how many things we find hard to start, make, and do that would become more straightforward and less stressful if we remembered this?

You’re on a project at work. You’re stuck. You don’t feel inspired. You don’t feel creative. But you remember that creation starts with ingredients. So you start listing out the ways the project could be better, things you’ve seen recently that have caught your attention, people you should go talk to to get new ideas. The list of ingredients snowballs, until you’ve caught fresh momentum to start plugging them into your recipe. You’re unstuck.

You’re a new manager on your team. You’re frustrated. Folks seem disengaged, blasé about the work they’re doing. But you recall that progress starts with a list of ingredients. So you start listing out what potential blockers people might have, reasons why people should be excited about the project, what ways you might be getting in the way with your own actions. Your list of ingredients stares you in the face: It’s clear what you need to act on. You’re no longer frustrated.

From a simple list of ingredients, you can make progress. You can become a better leader. You can create. You can write. You can paint.

Even if you’re not a poet, you can write a poem.

Start with the ingredients.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.