What is Creative Emergence? A Conversation with Michelle James

creative emergence

Learn about creative emergence and how it can change the way you work and live.

Michelle James didn’t start her career with the plan to build a ground-breaking creative consulting organization. Instead, after graduating college with an English and communications major, Michelle took a job at a radio station. She wrote copy for clients and generated sales for the station – two tasks that she excelled at.

At first, the job felt exciting and fun.

But because of her success in sales, her manager shifted her into sales full-time. It didn’t take long for Michelle to lose interest in the job. She quickly realized that, without the creativity and story-telling of writing copy, her sales went down – she no longer felt as inspired.

It would take many more years for Michelle to found her now-thriving business, Creative Emergence. However, the lessons she learned at the radio station are part of what drove her foundational philosophy.

People need to feel creative in their work. In this creativity, people feel alive, and in this aliveness, we find meaning in our lives.

Michelle James Creative Emergence


What is Creative Emergence?

The tagline for Michelle’s company is “consciously creating what’s next.” She works with people, teams, and organizations to help them step into more creative aliveness. In doing so, they become more engaged, energized, and connected.

But what is Creative Emergence at its core?  Michelle still can’t limit the fullness of Creative Emergence to a definition. Rather, she talks about its qualities and functions.

Michelle believes that everyone is creative. She also believes that creativity does not have to be limited to solely “side hobbies” outside of work. Instead, when we bring creativity into our work, we allow ourselves to feel much more fulfilled in our jobs. And, when we bring our whole selves to what is most alive in us – what calls to us – our work will naturally be more creative.

The term emergence focuses on the process of something new coming into being. Whether at work or in our personal lives, emergence doesn’t just happen. We must consciously create opportunities for emergent, receptive spaces that spark creativity and allow new ideas to emerge and grow.

True to every emergence process is that there is something unexpected, and the whole that emerges is greater than the sum of the parts.

When we do so, we’ll inevitably set ourselves up for more meaningful lives.

principles of creative emergence


Creative Emergence and Finding Meaning in Our Work

Five years ago, I took on a waitressing job during my summer break from teaching. I wanted something to do with all my free time, and a little extra spending cash wouldn’t hurt. So, two weeks into the summer, I found myself training to be a server at a local restaurant.

The first couple of weeks took some getting used to. I had to learn the menu, remember where everything went, and develop my server skills. But before long, I found myself in the flow of the job – right before the busiest time of the year.

Turns out I loved waitressing. I loved it even more when the restaurant was packed. The fun conversations with new people every day kept me engaged. The continuous mental game of taking care of everyone in the best, most efficient way fueled my mind. (If you’ve ever played the game Diner Dash, you know what I’m talking about).

I ended the summer inspired to waitress again. And so, two years later, I found myself back in the same restaurant. Only this time, the restaurant rarely got packed. I had less than half of the tables that I did my first summer. And all of the aspects that I loved during my first summer – plentiful conversation, fast-paced environment, and mental stimulation – were gone.

It didn’t take long before I found myself dreading it.


How to Bring Meaning into Work

As I listened to Michelle talk about Creative Emergence, I found myself reflecting on my work experiences. It didn’t take long for me to see how much truth her words contained – especially in the jobs I’d expected the least.

I didn’t become a waitress because it’s what I wanted to do with my life. Instead, I did it for summer money. Yet my first summer’s experience was filled with Creative Emergence that gave me meaning. I genuinely enjoyed going to work, interacting with new people, and creatively problem-solving.

When these meaning-filled elements went away, so did my engagement.

If I wanted to stay in line with Creative Emergence, I had a few options:

  1. Find new ways to bring more creativity and connection into my server job.
  2. Find a new restaurant that would contain the elements I was missing.
  3. Find a different job that would have more creativity and connection in it.

Michelle James Creative Emergence

I hear readers out there screaming, Sure, easy for you to say about a summer job! What about when it’s our careers? (Okay, maybe “screaming” was a bit overdramatic.) I realize my example is overly simplistic – but that’s why I wanted to use it. Sometimes it’s easier for us to understand something when it doesn’t have such high stakes.

We all have these three options. And yes, absolutely some of us have more privilege and flexibility in our choices. But the more you can lean into Creative Emergence in our work, the more meaning you can find. Ultimately, the more successful you will be.


Everyone is Creative

For many of us, it isn’t easy to see how creativity fits into our work. It’s even more challenging to see how we can bring more creativity into our work.

A big culprit behind this mindset is our society’s myths around creativity. We often associate creativity with art, not business. Furthermore, many of us believe that we’re not creative – a declaration Michelle firmly opposes.

“Everyone is creative,” Michelle says. “But most of us have a creativity story where, at one point,  we enjoyed doing something, then someone or something came to squelch it. For example, a voice that told them, ‘Oh, you didn’t do that in the lines. You’re not an artist.’ Or, ‘Your sister is the creative one in the family.’ Whether it was a teacher, a parent, a friend, or just a societal voice.”

creative emergence

According to Michelle, creativity is something that everybody has.


How to Bring Creativity into  Your Work

We must get away from the notion that creativity must be associated with art. Creative Emergence is the process of bringing something new into the world – and that can take on many different forms.

Michelle lists some examples of creativity as software coding, social structures, and important causes. It’s about checking in with yourself. Are you going along with only external directives, or are you finding creativity and inspiration from within yourself?

As I contemplated Michelle’s work, here are some examples of how I think someone could  bring more creativity into your work:

  1. Your server job is boring and slow-paced. One option to bring in more creativity could’ve been to engage in more exciting conversations with customers. What questions could I have asked? What “social experiments” could I have run in my own head? How could I have created more challenges for myself, even on the slowest days?
  2. You find yourself doing a lot of managerial and mindless tasks. Perhaps you can look for creative solutions to streamline work and be more efficient. Where can you add more personalization to your tasks? How can you create a system that will help your days be more engaging?
  3. You feel isolated and lonely at work. Maybe you can carve out time to create something for your workplace culture. How can you feel more connected to your colleagues? To your clients? What hidden talents do you have that might help bring people together?

Bringing creativity into your work isn’t always about rewriting your job description. Sometimes it is; sometimes it means leaving your job and creating something new. But sometimes, it’s about seeking opportunities to promote greater creativity for yourself and others where you are.

Fortunately, Michelle gave me a few principles to strengthen our Creative Emergence. (And many more can be found on her site.)


Three Principles Michelle James Told Me About Creative Emergence

  1. Creative Emergence requires space, time, and attention.

For creativity to flourish, we must allow ourselves the space, time, and attention to unleash it. Ideas can only emerge when we’re in a receptive state. This means that we can’t be glued to our productive tasks or distracted by digital media.

Find opportunities to carve our space and time into your life. For some, it might take the form of meditation, journaling, or exercise. For others, it might come when we’re driving or talking. The critical component is that you’re allowing your brain to be open to possibility.

As for attention, you want to pay attention to how something feels. Get to know your impulses. When you try something, really tap into how it feels. These feelings will give you direction in moving forward.

  1. Creative Emergence depends on frequent check-ins.

Creative Emergence isn’t about creativity for creativity’s sake. It’s about tapping into your wants, needs, and values. As you create space for Creative Emergence, make sure to check in with yourself frequently.

You should ask:

    • Does this align with my values? 
    • Do I feel aligned with what I’m doing?
  • Does this feel alive for me?

If the answer to both questions is, “Yes,” you know you’re headed in the right direction. If the answer is no, it’s a good indication that you may need to switch something up.

  1. Creative Emergence relies on letting go of the “how.”

Michelle says most people get stuck on the “how” of doing something. Our culture promotes this harmful thinking. Have you ever expressed a dream, only to be met with, “Well, how are you going to get there?”

Creative Emergence is about unfolding one layer at a time. “Just start engaging the next layer,” Michelle states, “and the How will reveal itself to what’s next.”

As Michelle says, the “How” comes after the “What” and “Why.”


“Humans are Natural Explorers”

For many of us, leaving the “How” to last feels like it goes against our default nature. However, this isn’t the case. Society has conditioned us to prioritize the how. In reality, our innate nature is to explore.

“Humans are natural explorers,” Michelle says.

She went on to describe our origins. As babies, we don’t know the “how” for anything. There’s not a manual for how to walk, or talk, or go into the world. Instead, a baby has an instinct to try, explore, and experiment on the way to get somewhere.

Years of cultural conditioning have dampened this innate explorer mindset. Unfortunately, many of us now view uncertainty with anxiety and failure. This isn’t our fault; our culture and biology amplify these fears.


However, the sooner we can get back to an explorer mindset, the sooner we can invite Creative Emergence into our lives. We must practice vulnerability and courage to expand our life possibilities.


Tools for your Creative Emergence Journey

Creative Emergence is all about bringing more creativity and aliveness into your life. More importantly, it’s not reserved for small pockets of our time; Creative Emergence can and should be happening in all aspects of our lives, including work.

If you want to learn more about Creative Emergence and start your Creative Emergence Journey, check out some of the steps below:

  1. Check out Michelle James’s work with The Center of Creative Emergence. It’s filled with helpful information and resources. She also offers workshops, trainings, and books to help you bring Creative Emergence into your life.
  1. Bolster your self-awareness.  About 90% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10% actually are. The more self-aware you are, the more you can check in with yourself, your values, and your feelings about what you’re doing and where you want to go.
  1. Find what brings you purpose. This “What is My Life Purpose” quiz by My Question Life is unlike any you’ve seen before. In fact, it’s probably the opposite of what you’ve seen – because looking at the opposite of what we want might just be the key to finding what we do want.

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