Creative Confusion
Bff-ing Ambiguity
Linda (Elle) Yaven

I. personal ambiguity

At the start of the pandemic, a client, Steph, asked "How do I learn to spend time by myself?"

Although the planet is full of people cherishing time alone, the reverse is also true.

1. From craving solo so much, where are you?

An upside of our new normal, if we acknowledge the tension, is revealing the story beneath the story. It's happening with social justice, me too, climate change and everyday lives. The gap between what's going on, versus what we say is going 0n, has surfaced in clearer outline.

Steph said her goal was to take one deep breathe a week. Whatever keeps you from quality self-connection is more obvious now, if you take note.

So her question was timely. The stress of acceleration pulls us from simply noticing, yet alone connecting, with intentionality to ourselves.


Sometimes the painting is in charge. Sometimes I am.
- Susan Rothenberg, Artist‍

In micro-managed times, we fetishize ambiguity, while it's home base for creatives. In any inventive path, you recognize going in, you are bound to get lost. Yet, you sign up anyway for the creative confusions, inherent challenges and ultimately, freedom of it all.

My background as a painter implies solo hours in the studio. And guess who shows up when spending time there? Rest assured, given half a chance, the cadence of your specific personal ambiguity will.

There's good news: doubt arrives partnered with possibility, if we are willing to apprentice to our own confusions. The conundrums of achievers have appeal to me. Working with clients, I guide people to align with their specific strengths, befriend their bafflements and direct creative drive.

In coaching I admire the willingness to hold confusion as an opportunity for self-design. While quality time alone can happen in the studio, in nature or your room, it also happens in proximity to others. In coaching teams, we see how private confusions have resonance for others too, in enriching or un-fun ways.

Working with people in business who may or may not identify as creatives, I know how creativity takes many forms - from project management to UX design to stakeholder leadership to musicianship.

The painter Willem DeKooning said, first entering the studio, it's crowded with voices other than your own. After awhile these voices quiet down, until only one or two remain. Then, with time, if you are fortunate, even you leave.

2. What 3 words describe the quality of time by yourself?


The distinction between learning asked and learning unasked is helpful here. Baking your first cake or learning to drive are examples of the former. You chose to learn and can foresee the outcome. You won't necessarily be changed by the experience.

When my sister passed away too early, I recognized the difference between choosing to learn something and having learning thrust upon you. I called this dynamic "learning unasked”.

Learning unasked is visceral: you are thrown back on yourself like nobody’s business. In the gray zones of uncertainty you wake into the middle of a muddle without GPS.

The pandemic has thrown us into collective/individual states of learning unasked. We didn't choose to be the learners we now find ourselves to be.

Yet, well before the pandemic, learning unasked has been part of human experience.  

It throws us a choice: to design into what is opaque or not. To activate creativity in the fullest sense, or not. Two alternate strategies with two alternate outcomes.

3. What has opened up for you during our new normal?

Photo by Nathan Anderso

Like many sisters, we butted heads like the best of them. Yet, in that last phase we were so done with sisterly drama. Her courage, in the face of what she knew might happen, changed me.

3. How has a moment of "learning unasked" shaped you? 

III. Slow/Fast

Photo by Linda Yaven

My first gig as an educator was teaching visual organization to art and design students. I was drawn to minimalism. and limited the palette for the semester was to black, white and gray. Telling my students, they groaned.

I made them a promise. By semester's close, they'd see nuances of gray not visible to them at first. Slowing down their perceptual experience, new increments of gray would surface.

A similar thing happens when taking time to catch your breath. New distinctions arise linked to more purposeful action. Pausing with intentionally molts adrenaline body so subtle body can arise.

IV. Emosh
The cure for anything is saltwater:
sweat, tears or the sea.
- Isaac Dinesen, Author (1885- 1962)

The music conductor Seiji Ozawa told this story about his life. As a child he knew one or two kinds of sadness. As a teen, four or five different kinds. In his fifties he recognized eight or so variations. He intended to continue nuancing this emotional range his whole life.

"Mirroring is something so many creative people do, this idea of shadow dancing –
we’re touching the exterior world, but ultimately we’re defining the contours of our own interiority.”
- Kehinde Wiley, Artist

Becoming present to where you find yourself, is front end design at its most personal.

It is an aesthetic paradox: in riding waves of uncertainty, you finally find footing in sync with what has most meaning for you. The joy of agency happens by respecting your own navigation system. As a coach, I am humbled by how BFF-ing what you consider to be your shadow, will shed light everywhere.

Your change maker persona, is hungry to test and influence the unknown, and is our ally in positive change.

4. What confusion could you become curious about?  

Photo by Linda Yaven


One day towards the close of her life, my sister and I were sitting in her bedroom. She told me she'd come to value “kindness” above all. Coming from this practical gal, her words were a revelation.

Not fleeing our own ambiguity, we become kinder witnesses of someone else's. Not automatically dismissing what we don't yet have words for, is a sign of self respect. Not throwing darts at someone else, or yourself, for not having answers immediately or 24/7, makes you, as one client said "Just nicer to be around."

5. Do you cut yourself slack when confusion shows up?

When the pandemic first hit, a neighbor walking their dog shared they felt lost and unmoored. I thought of a friend who’d sailed from San Francisco to Tahiti with his brother. “It’s like sailing when you hit the doldrums in the Pacific” I said.

In moments of learning unasked we puzzle through grays to emerge with alternate ways of creating light.

Your thoughts appreciated!

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