As an organizational psychologist, I’m always searching for innovative ideas that will support and encourage people in living at their most creative and fulfilled peaks, both personally and professionally. Recently at a Room to Read San Diego event, I was delighted to meet someone who does just that — publisher, Bettie Youngs. Her work is centered on helping people creatively express their life stories. I instinctively knew that she would have many pearls of wisdom to share – and I was right.

Bettie has had an illustrious career, which includes working as a graduate school professor and penning 36 books. Currently as a publisher of memoirs, she will only take on projects if they are film-worthy ( Reflecting back on our interview, I now realize that channeling our inspiration and living in the “creative zone” is more about paradigm shifts of how we live, think and operate, rather than a set of to-do’s.

When asked how she finds inspiration and gets into a “creativity zone,” Bettie’s responses were geared toward values and virtues. “Creativity isn’t just a moment, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a ‘goal’ and one that depends on being physically, mentally and emotionally in tune. Living creatively means you are choosing to live in a zone that is about peak-performance.”

Her four guidelines concerning peak performance are insightful and inspired me to examine how I reach creativity in my own life (also see “How I Channeled Bettie’s Advice” below).

Operate in a Zone of Excellence

Bettie achieves her goal of peak-performance and excellence not only by setting standards and boundaries in her life, but also by keeping herself accountable to them. She refers to this as a “zone of excellence” and states that it can happen by surrounding ourselves with people who are positive and similarly focused.

“I want to have people in my life who bring peace and joy and creative juice. People who bring a litany of negativity and wheelbarrows of stress and who foolishly squander time and talent, have to find friendship elsewhere. Once you are in the zone, joy and productivity increase; being outside of the stream of ‘good things happening’ is irritating and downright painful. When I do find myself in these situation, I can quickly move back into the stream of creativity.”

She also believes that if you live outside of this zone for too long, you will place finding and living your “calling” at stake. “In creativity, we find our calling—one of the highest purposes of our lives.”

“Once you are in the zone of loving what you do and working with people who also expect to operate in the zone, you readily come to see and feel the difference. The desire to be in the zone is part of what propels you. I’ve found my calling and I think that is the goal in life. Not just to do things, but to find and do them because we are driven from within to do them.”

Stop the Juggling and Just Bear Down and Focus

In her drive for excellence, she spends much of her time “focused.” Contrary to previous research that shows humans are capable of multi-tasking, the new research shows that it slows us down, burns us out and brings forth mediocrity. Bettie tends to agree with the singular focus approach. “If excellence is the goal, then bear down and focus intently on the activity at hand. Focus helps us tap into a stream of consciousness that we don’t get when we’re busy juggling many thoughts or tasks.” She shared that meditation is a tool that works because it helps us redirect our brain’s energy to slow down, which then helps us focus and produce a high-end result.

Replace Bad Habits with Productive Ones

According to Bettie, creativity is stifled if you allow others to run your life and when you’re not in control of setting and maintaining good boundaries. “We’re all creative—if we chose to be. But we must be willing to be self-disciplined. This requires clearing away our bad habits and replacing them with positive and productive ones.”

She uses the metaphor of “cleaning house” to describe the process of choosing (people, clothes, friends, etc.) a lifestyle that represents who we are today and how we want to live. She explained that if a person has a closet full of clothes that no longer fit his style/decade/taste, it might be time to clean house. She applies the same concept to people or activities in our lives. If for example you get newspapers and magazines you don’t enjoy or have outgrown, take stock, get clear and simplify your life by making changes.

Bettie believes the reason we hold on to old habits is that we don’t want to do the work that it takes to implement progress or change. “Good intentions alone are not enough. You have to be willing to move into the experiential; whether it is about getting love, getting fit, being a better parent: It is about showing up at a higher level.

Tap into the Mind/Body Spirit

She shared some things that you may have read or heard about, but may not necessarily practice: The mind and body need to be connected for us to be at our personal and professional best. “Peak performance is also about being fit, body-wise, too. Physical activity, which kicks the endorphins into play, is a key component of peak performance. Whether you get your endorphins from walking dancing, running, or something else, the point is, physical activity jumpstarts the body and brain and triggers a feeling of wellness and best of all, zest, zeal and optimism. We often refer to this as the “mind-body-spirit” connection. Creativity depends on it.”

Another important factor fueling the brain for creative performance is diet. She shared that the slogan, “Eat Your Wheaties,” which refers to fueling the body for peak performance is one that she has followed in order to meet the demands of working as a publisher. “If I skip breakfast or if I eat something such as pasta for lunch, my work day is essentially over. But if I fuel my body so that my brain will function at its best and rev up endorphins via movement and exercise, then I can sustain a long and productive day.”

At the End, Creativity and Habits Connect

My talk with Bettie made me better realize the connection between creativity and our habits. We need to pay attention to our expectations (emotional habits), fitness and diet (physical habits) and willingness to focus and minimize multitasking (mental habits). When habits in these areas are positive, and in sync, then we are more likely to be in a zone of excellence.

I walked away from our interview with a big-picture perspective on what true creativity is and how it is
triggered—and maintained. Thank you Bettie for sharing with us your experiences and reminding us that being in the zone of excellence is about the connectivity of mind/body/spirit. I know I will keep this advice in mind as I continue aiming for a life grounded in purpose, satisfaction and creativity.

summerBlog2012-image2Operating in a zone of excellence is a goal of mine and after talking to Bettie, I realized why my office was feeling less than inspiring lately. It was time for an office spring (summer!) cleaning. I perused my library filled with hundreds of books and realized that one half of them were no longer relevant, either to the work that now makes up my life, nor my ongoing interests.

It suddenly hit me that my hanging on to books that I rarely cracked open was holding me back in several ways: Taking up extra space where I could better focus on prime material, blocking creativity of fresh new thoughts and holding thoughts that could be shared with others.

As I looked at them, I thought, “Out, out, out!” The graduate school books that just weren’t that interesting, cookbooks with recipes that required about 20 more ingredients than I was willing to use, textbooks I had learned from and outgrown and novels that were recommended but stayed uncompelling after the first couple chapters – all out. Now that I’ve “cleaned (office) house,” I feel invigorated and ready to make other areas of my life leaner.