This Decision Changed My Life and My Business

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The Power of Rituals

Louise Bourgeois photographed by her assistant, Jean-François Jaussaud, in her Chelsea apartment in 2000. She was always surrounded by her notebooks and diaries.

People tend to believe that routines are boring, that they keep you in an uncreative rut. The opposite is true. The myth is that creative people are different, that they have a crazy and unpredictable lifestyle, an alternate reality every day. But that’s not accurate.

Ideas need certain structure to flourish. Note that I say “structure” and not “rigidity.” Creativity is built incrementally by practicing small habits or following daily routines, or even having an occasional ritual when starting something new.

To stick to a routine, you have to find something you love doing and that doesn’t feel like a chore.

The extraordinary French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, wrote every day in her journals. Her thoughts, activities, and experiences served as a memory bank of ideas.

In 2005, British artist Chris Ofili had a spectacular solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Afro Muses showed 181 watercolors of men and women’s heads wearing an intricately detailed kaleidoscope of African outfits and adornments, with different hairstyles and expressions. They all had the same the width and height, but each subject was distinctive and special.

It would take him between 5 and 15 minutes to make each one, while in parallel he created his large paintings. Watercoloring became his anchor, his daily ritual. He said “Sometimes, I will return to the watercolors in the evening. And that’s a completely different atmosphere. If things haven’t gone well during the day, I can calm down.”

When he felt stuck or out of ideas, he devised a ritualistic way to get his creative juices flowing when writing about a dull object. He opened a random page and challenged himself to use the words in it to create his description. I think this is not only a fantastic way to keep the brain engaged but I’ve also tried it myself and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Think about the 80–20 rule. 80% of the time, it’s quite helpful to stick to a routine or to follow a ritual, 20% of the time, it’s better to roam around free to spice things up.

While teaching an investing class at Columbia Business School, Buffet held up a stack of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day,” in response to a question about how to prepare for success in investment. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

You may not have the freedom, time, or attention span to read 500 pages a day like Buffet suggests but picking up a form of meditation — literal or metaphorical — like journaling was for Bourgeois, or watercoloring is for Ofili, is a feasible 15-minute daily ritual that can pay you back with dividends.

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