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Creativity During Crisis—Designing Hope

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

By Holly Lynn Payne

The pandemic has made us pros at expecting the unexpected. Our lives—and psyches have undergone a collective experiment in letting go and surrender. We’ve all navigated cycles of uncertainty, which gave us a bit more grit and a lot more gratitude. And from this sense of appreciation—a new view of our life is emerging.

When we view design thinking as agency, a crisis tasks us with choice. What will you make of this? it asks us. How will you allow it to remake you?

We know that this crisis took from us—but it also gave. We’ve gained strength, wisdom, more time, deeper relationships. Some of us found appreciation for the ways we were forced to slow down, drive less, cook more, buy less. And at times, we were confronted with things that didn’t go as planned, when we lost our patience—or our minds (momentarily), our jobs, homes, or far worse, those we loved.

The very idea of designing our way through a crisis assigns us agency. When we view design thinking as agency, a crisis tasks us with choice. What will you make of this? it asks us. How will you allow it to remake you? Creativity then emerges as the hidden gem. If we remain open, our crises almost always offer some opportunity. If we allow ourselves to see it—and then make something of it.

Creativity Behind Crisis

Adrienne Linholm, author of It Happened Like This, reminded us in Part I that we are wired for resilience. After losing her child to an inoperable brain tumor, Lindholm and her husband received a call, out of the blue, from an adoption agency in Honduras—where seven years prior, after several miscarriages, they submitted an application. This call led them to spend six months in Honduras on another crisis-riddled odyssey that tested every fiber of their faith. But they returned to their home in Alaska, with their new baby girl, to start a new life.

Lindholm’s inspiring story pinpoints the creative aspects at work behind every crisis. Although they were still very much in the throws of their grieving process, she and her husband saw this opportunity to create a better situation for themselves. Rather than settle on their loss as a permanent condition, the Lindholms got busy creating more meaning for their lives through adopting not only one child, but eventually, two children in need.

Creativity allows us to realize two final aspects of posttraumatic growth as studied by researchers: seeing new possibilities and discovering more meaning in life. Perhaps our collective tears of 2020 have given way to a new vision. We are now looking for signs of what is next. We may even see possibilities that at first glance, might appear impossible. But empowered by the strength we’ve gained, we can begin to wholeheartedly embrace these seemingly impossible opportunities—to create: something better, more aligned, more true.

Bryan Cole, the former director of marketing at Clif Bar, turned to creative thinking to help him make one of the biggest decisions of his professional life. After 17 years working with the top athletes in the world, he heard a calling to leave. “I had my dream job. I was working with people who inspired me. It was one of the best experiences in my life. But things were changing there and the values were different from my own. I started to question how long I could be happy working for someone else,” he said in a recent interview. “So much of my identity at Clif Bar was a huge part of me, but I had to break free of that.”

Cole, whose love of international travel opened him to Buddhist culture, had an ear for inward listening. In prior years, he took a six-month sabbatical to Indonesia with his wife and returned with a vow to live abroad for a year. But once their son was born, they delayed their departure. “Fear got the best of us and we kept pushing that window out. Soon our biggest fear was not going and looking back with regret,” he said.

Seeing New Possibilities

Things came to a head when Cole accidentally struck a deer with his family’s mini-van on a trip to the Sierra. The van was totalled. The deer was dead. “I stood on the side of the road in tears, watching the soul of this deer rise to the heavens. I Iifted my hands and saw my whole life flash before me,” he said. In the ensuing 90-minute tow truck ride, Cole realized he could dramatically change his life—and made the decision right then to take a leave of absence. “We didn’t know how we would do this trip,” he said. “ I just knew we were going to do it.”

When Cole’s request for a leave of absence was denied, he saw the opportunity to build out a new van for his family in the remaining six months his boss asked him to remain on the job. This creative thinking led his family on a serendipitous trip abroad that confronted them with getting comfortable with uncertainty—not knowing where they would stay next, or where “home” was. A year later, they returned to California to enroll their son in school, only to find themselves in almost the same position as when they left.

Cole woke up one night from a nightmare. “I was miserable and I should have been excited,” he said, referencing the dream job he had just been offered at Patagonia. “But I wondered what had really changed in the year? I was in the same spot with all the same issues.”

Grappling with this dilemma, Cole took a walk one day by the river and discovered a native Chumash game stone. “All I could see was a bit of green buried in the river bed, but it caught me at the right time and became a symbol that all of this was part of the right plan,” he said. Prior to this, he and his family sought a psychic reading—something they had never done to help them locate “home,” knowing they were not going to remain in California. The psychic told them the tarot card reading was showing them they needed to go “north.” Their son blurted out “Let’s go to Hood River,” where Cole’s wife had a sister. They went to Oregon.

“A big part of what we became comfortable with is living in the unknown. Listening to what felt right,” Cole said.

The Path to New Meaning

Cole attributes his family’s capacity for uncertainty as a major factor in helping them navigate their crisis, and find new meaning for their lives. “A big part of what we became comfortable with is living in the unknown. Listening to what felt right,” he said. “My wife and I committed to one thing. How things felt to us. If it felt good, everything else would fall into place.” He was right. Within a few days, they signed a lease on their dream rental house in Hood River, where Cole started his consulting company, B.Colective, a purpose-driven marketing agency.

Now he lives in a place he and his family love—close to mountains, water skiing, mountain biking, in a town known for its balance of work and family. None of which would have been possible if he hadn’t gotten creative and made the decision to take a leave of absence and travel abroad, landing in Hood River just a few months before the pandemic struck.

“I went to Hood River thinking I would have an epiphany and totally reinvent myself there. But I realized those in the outdoor industry are my people. I’m going to continue to do the things I do but do it for myself on my own time,” he said. “I have created my guardrails of good: work on good projects with good people that have good purpose. It’s not about the money. If they check all those boxes, chances are it feels right. That’s the filter I run everything through now.”

Perhaps Cole’s wisdom applies to us all as we round the corner on the pandemic. If we can view the pandemic as the longest, strangest trip we’ve ever taken, together and apart, we might just stumble across a special stone along the way that may show us our true north.


Holly Payne is an award-winning novelist, writing coach and the CEO & Founder of Booxby, an AI platform helping content creators succeed. She lives in the Bay Area with her daughter.

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