As creatives, we've all experienced creative blocks, misplaced passions, and a lack of career focus and clarity in some form or another. They can be roadblocks keeping us from producing our best work. The good news, though, is that a good deal of it is in your head—stay with us here—and you have more agency over your self-sabotaging thoughts than you may think. According to experimental psychologist and “mind hacking” expert Patrycja Slawuta, we can all take strategic steps to reprogram the matrix of influences at play in our subconscious.
After years in academia, Slawuta, who earned a PhD in social psychology, felt the wayward pull to charter an alternative career path—one that would allow her to connect the dots more clearly between scholarly research and real-world problems faced in everyday life. Today, she works as a consultant, leading "self-hackathons” and workshops with a range of clients and creatives—from tech startups to solopreneurs, creatives, artists, and everyone in between—to teach them about the mechanisms of the human mind, and how to break through debilitating mind loops to unlock their creative potential. “We are industry-agnostic; we work with anyone who considers themselves a human being,” Slawuta says. Here, she shares a few insights into the science of mind-hacking.
To understand the way the human mind works, Slawuta says, consider the computer: “We are living code. When you look at the human brain, our ‘computing centers,’ so to speak, you see a lot of coding,” she says, from the four-letter DNA codes that comprise our genetic makeup, to the more nuanced, systematic modes of thinking and decision-making that have been shaped by a number of environmental factors.
“We run on scripts, arguments, memories, value systems, and beliefs that are programmed by our interactions with people and our experiences navigating the world. For the most part, we don’t have a say in how we are programmed until we experience larger shifts in adulthood,” Slawuta says. “Later in life, we are able to exercise individual agency more directly, and ask ourselves: 'What data sets are you downloading?'” Recognize your life's path, what's shaped you, and visualize what direction you’d like to see yourself moving. As Slawuta attests: “Behavior is coded by a variety of stimuli and responses, and human technology is by far the most advanced technology we have.”
“Any skill is learnable, hackable, upgradable,” Slawuta attests, citing herself as a prime example. Despite carrying impressive levels of enthusiasm and a confident energy that powers each of her workshops and public speaking engagements, she confides that she’s actually an introvert at heart—one who’s simply put in the time to learn and adopt extraverted traits. “I am an introvert who has taught myself to be an extrovert,” Slawuta says. “Most people, and even my closest friends, say, ‘I can’t believe you’re an introvert!’ And I’m like, you don’t understand, I’m the classic case of an introvert that doesn’t like to interact with people!”
There is a significant caveat, though. As with most things in life, you can’t have it all, and the promise of this possibility is tempered with human limits. “The world is like a giant App store,” Slawuta says, returning to her tech analogies, and our brains have limited processing power and hard-drive capacity. “We can learn anything, but not everything. The first step is to understand what you want, and why you don’t have it right now,” she adds, while also considering the benefits of not having a desired trait, “because there are always hidden costs and benefits.”
“Confidence is tightly linked with self-esteem, which is the immune system of the psyche,” Slawuta says. “If you have a healthy immune system, you might get sick, but you’ll be fine. If your psyche's immune system—your confidence— is weak, any little negative comment, criticism, or even something as insignificant as a Tweet will threaten to shake you to the core.” Building an unshakeable sense of self-worth is one of the fundamental values Slawuta works to instill in her workshops, and is especially paramount for creatives, she says, whose work can often stem from a personal and emotional place.
Referencing Nathaniel Branden, “the father of modern research on self-esteem,” and author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Slawuta suggests one helpful exercise for self-examining and bolstering your own self-esteem and envisioning a stronger, future you: “Imagine you're given ten percent more of something, be it a possession, trait, or skill set. What would that be, and how would it change you?” Ten percent is a small enough change to keep your sights within reach—yet far enough to motivate you to actually pursue it. As Slawuta says, “Once you begin to imagine it, you actually start to embody it.”
“Creative work is some of the hardest work, because you’re birthing something. You’re pulling something into existence from nothing, and that requires a great deal of effort and attention,” Slawuta says, “and the most scarce resource that we have as human beings, by far, is our attention.” Body language is often seen as a reflection or response of the mind and nervous system, but on the flip side of that, she argues, actively changing your body language can also support changes in your mindset. “I think about the body as the hardware that works together with the wetware of your brain, and then the software of your thinking mind. Together, they form the complex architecture of your psyche.”
To get grounded and centered, Slawuta shares a basic exercise to get both your mind and body into the zone. “Stand tall, with feet slightly apart, and begin to imagine yourself getting rooted into the earth. Feel your feet. Imagine that your consciousness, or whatever chatter is in your head, is getting liquefied, and it drops and drips out, all the way into your feet.” This exercise can also be helpful to practice before giving a presentation or a public talk, she adds, because “your mental center of gravity moves from your head into your feet, helping you to speak slower, and more confidently.”
“The most important skills of the 21st century will be adaptation, resilience, and re-skilling,” Slawuta says, and it’s a trio that leaves little room for precious perfectionism. “When you look at all three, the common theme is discovering how to learn and re-learn. In psychology, we have this concept of the ‘practicing mind.’ Everything is practice, and if you see it as such, there’s really no fear of failure—every experience is just a way of showing you what doesn’t work.”
Every individual’s journey is different, and especially for creatives, Slawuta says, “this approach opens the possibility of considering that you can create yourself, as well.” To keep track of your progress and recognize your own thought patterns, she recommends keeping a journal, and sticking to a simple routine of practice, no matter how brief. For those in need of more motivation or social reinforcement, Slawuta suggests forming an accountability group. “Ultimately, we’re most ‘programmed’ by other people, and by having accountability partners we can use that natural tendency to our own benefit,” she says. “It helps to get you into the habit of doing it, to set aside time to reflect on your goals and progress, and ultimately spend more time with yourself.”
Aileen Kwun is a Korean-American writer and editor covering art, design, culture, and travel. The author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Design, an anthology of oral histories with living design legends, she was also formerly a senior editor at Dwell and Surface magazines, and has contributed to dozens of publications internationally.