Alive in Berlin Nadja Petranovskaja Catherine Elms

1. Your body of work is more than the tangible things you create.

Pam Slim‘s amazing speech Body Of Work contained many insights for me, but perhaps the biggest one was how broadly she defined a body of work.  Not only does this include the tangible things you create – brands, books, products, music – but it also includes intangible things, such as community, love, hope, humour, a legacy.  This struck a chord with me, as I’ve been doing a lot of work this year with unpacking my negative self-beliefs in order to be successful (e.g. always assuming I’m not good enough so there’s no use in trying).  Now I wonder if I’ve been looking at my personal development all wrong – instead of wanting to be happy in order to be productive in my work, perhaps being happy is part of my work?  Instead of striving to be the kind of artist who locks herself away to create, shuns the world in order to produce great works of art, perhaps being part of the world is essential.  Is creating a good vibe just as important as creating a good album??  This certainly feels true – the people I admire the most are those whose personalities shine through everything that they do, people who bring joy, hope and inspiration to the world.  I want to be one of those people.  I don’t want to be an island anymore.

2. You are the master of your own feelings.

Ben Austin‘s theory of emotional self-mastery provided concrete actions to take when it came to creating the emotions I want to feel consistently in my life.  After identifying our desired emotions (mine were joy, strength, confidence, excitement, love), we were encouraged to consciously consider how we move our bodies, what language we use, and what we think about on a day-to-day basis.  Austin argued that these are powerful tools for “doing” emotions consistently, and for harnessing intentional action outside ourselves.  At one point, Austin asked the audience members to change their body language to depict someone who felt depressed.  I looked down at myself and saw a perfect caricature of depression already in my limbs – crossed arms, slumped shoulders, head down.  If that’s my default position, it’s no wonder I always feel vulnerable.  What can I do, starting right now, to feel joy?  How do I move my body in a way that feels joyful?  What can I think about, or focus on?

3. The secret of living is giving.

Tony Robbins famously said those very words, but it was a sentiment that came up again and again at AIB; in fact, I think every single speaker of the weekend stressed the power of giving somewhere within their presentations.  Michael Gebben identified giving with no expectation of reward as pivotal to being successful.  Naho Iguchi described money as a tool for helping others, a gift, a container of thoughts and prayers.  Greg Hartle asked us to consider what we are building to contribute to a better world.  What purpose are you serving?  Who are you helping?  What is your life dedicated to?

4. Home is inside ourselves.

In The Upside of Loneliness, Sarah Kathleen Peck described loneliness as a psychological perception fuelled by urbanisation, architectural barriers, social barriers, and media consumption.  But there is a gift within the crushing weight of our feelings – feelings are navigation systems in our lives that remind us of what it means to be alive.  Loneliness is that feeling of missing home, of being stuck between wanting to meet people and wanting to be alone.  We get lonely because we’ve forgotten that home is inside ourselves.  As Peck beautifully put it, “the antidote to emptiness isn’t filling up on things – it’s love.”

5. Your self is made up of multiple personalities.

I have always found the concept of personality archetypes fascinating (here’s an excellent website if you’re interested in finding out yours!), but one approach I’d never considered before was the possibility of having multiple archetypes within myself.  In a workshop titled Prototyping the Self, we were asked to consider numerous aspects of our selves, one of which was our “alter egos”.  The workshop leaders asked us to consider the different personas inside us, and to choose a persona that deserved more space in our public lives.  It was fascinating to see what everyone chose – my workshop partner Solveig and I both chose a more confident persona, which seems obvious to me, but the workshop leader chose a quiet thoughtful persona, and another group member chose an artistic persona.  We had to write a note to ourselves from our desired persona, adopt the body language of that persona, and talk to the group about what it felt to be that persona.  I have always broadly identified as a Creator, but decided that my inner Rebel needed more space; she dropped some f-bombs, climbed onto the windowsill to address the room, and said that she felt powerful and didn’t give a fuck what people thought of what she did.  It was utterly terrifying(!) but also liberating to be given permission to act in a completely new way.  I will continue to do some thinking work in this area, and perhaps try to step into my different personas from time to time – others I identify with include Caregiver, Advocate and Intellectual, though I could use some work with my inner Explorer and Performer.

6. Everyone struggles with fear – learn to surf it!

As touched upon in my previous post, I was relieved to find how down-to-earth many of the Alivers were.  Despite having achieved incredible things, most were still friendly and approachable, and many admitted to struggling with productivity blocks including perfectionism, procrastination, discomfort, and occasional complacency.  But one thing that came up time and time again in my conversations was fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of loss.  Greg Hartle acknowledged this in his opening speech, urging us in our world of diminishing permanence to embrace the area of unknown, and let go of that which we’re still holding onto, in order to move forward.  Pam Slim also urged us to consider which fears are getting in our way, and “surf the fear”!  She argued that we should learn to ride out the wave of fear and acknowledge it as an icky part of our creative process, rather than let it immobilize us.  Sometimes you just have to acknowledge your discomfort and Do The Thing regardless.

7. Your surroundings are essential to your ability to create.

During Creative For Life (illustrated above), writer Dave Ursillo asked us to consider 3 areas of our lives and how we feel they affect our creativity – those areas are our environment (physical and emotional space), the people we are surrounded by (do they help you embody your values?), and our daily practices.  It was totally eye-opening to realise that every one of those areas stifled my creativity!  I am surrounded by physical and emotional clutter, which tire me out and give me no space to reflect/pause, let alone create.  It made me realise that this needs to change, and fast.  It’s important to distinguish between making excuses for being unable to do the work, and merely identifying your stumbling blocks in order to work past them. Ursillo navigated this well, underlining the importance of creating an environment in which you feel expressive rather than repressed.  I’m also pleased to say that I’ve been doing some emotional decluttering since coming back from Berlin, and I feel a lot more expressive already!

8. Travelling alone is totally do-able.

I almost didn’t go to AIB, as I wasn’t sure I was able to handle the challenge of travelling. Of course, I am so glad I did – not only because of the amazing experience the conference was, but also because I learned that travelling alone is no problem!  I prepared well by checking in online to save time, arriving at the airport with enough time, researching how I’d travel when I arrived in Berlin, printing maps, making sure my passport was in date, having communication plans with my family at home (Skype!), and packing wisely. Everything went by incredibly well, and I have no qualms whatsoever about travelling alone again!  I did initially feel embarrassed at the conference that this was my first solo outing, as so many attendees were seasoned travellers, but everyone was so nice about it – they said it was an important first step! 🙂

9. Everyone is capable of great quests and adventures.

The final speaker of the conference, Chris Guillebeau, has visited every single country in the world!  But you don’t have to do something as grand as that to be adventurous.  You could visit every Nandos in the world and win free Nandos for life (it’s a thing!), or cook every national dish in the world, or learn how to speak Japanese, or accept that amazing job opportunity and move away from your home town.  If you have a crazy idea, explore it.  If you have a goal, no matter how modest it might feel in the grand scheme of things, make it your quest to do it.

10. What’s worth living for?

This was another truth bomb from Chris Guillebeau’s talk which set the cogs in my mind whirring.  He believes that the question “what would you die for?” is a meaningless thing to ask, as we mostly have no control over how we die (it’s not usually for a cause – it’s usually down to disease, age, or accidents).  Instead, we should be asking, “what do you live for?”  What’s worth living for, and what’s worth investing in?  It sounds obvious now, but this was such a novel idea to me.  It occurs to me that my life to be very fragmented, and I do certain things without purpose but I don’t question them because they don’t cause me any bother (e.g. my inability to spend money on myself without feeling guilty).  But what if I invested my resources in doing what I love – even if “what I love” is something as broad as “being creative” or “going on adventures”?  To use money as a concrete example, what use is it sitting in my bank account when it could be going towards piano lessons, or studio time, or visiting cities all around the world?  It’s very easy to value physical things (money, stuff) over life experiences – after all, you have something physical to show for your efforts.  But what does that mean you’re actually investing in? A bank account with a few extra digits?  A house full of nice expensive homeware?  Is that what you want your life to be about? I want to invest in my creativity, my community work, my music career, my intelligence.  Fuck having a spare £100 “for a rainy day” – I’m going to use it to pay for those piano lessons I’ve always wanted.

This blog post is part 2 of 2 – read part 1 here.

The image above was created by the amazing Nadja Petranovskaja; she created a piece of art to accompany every speech, which you can check out on twitter.

p.s. want to read more of my blog posts about personal insights/feels?  Check out On “owning” your ideas, and sharing your voice; and I need music that makes me feel.

ETA (18.07.14): The official Alive in Berlin trailer/video is up now!  I’m in it a few times 🙂


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