On Having the Courage to Keep Your Head Up

Now walkin’ back down this mountain
With the strength of a turnin’ tide
Oh the wind’s so soft on my skin,
The sun so hot upon my side.

Oh lookin’ out at this happiness,
I search for between the sheets.
Oh feelin’ blind to realize,
All I was searchin’ for was me.
All I was searchin’ for was me.

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

Ben Howard – Keep Your Head Up


What stops us being creative at work?  Unblocking the flow is easier than you would think, if only people would listen, believes Nancy Kline.  We can create a “Thinking Environment” for each other at any time: the quality of our attention and how we treat each other whilst thinking is what matters. 

That “the mind works best in the presence of a question” is one of the core principles of a Thinking Environment.  It is an approach to listening that is more than just a theory and a set of skills, it is a way of being in the world: listening using all five senses and being fully present.  Such an approach “ignites” the human mind. 

“We can create these conditions in our offices, waiting for the bus, chopping vegetables, walking the dog, in the lab, round the fire, on the phone, between the sheets and yes, across even the most mahogany of board-room tablesbelieves Kline, a woman who’s life’s work has been driven by answering the question: “what does it take for people  to think clearly, rigorously and for themselves, as themselves?” 

Working this week with a group of leaders at one of our biggest financial institutions, I started the day by asking them to stand up, tilt their head back and look at the ceiling.  What they gazed upon wasn’t exactly The Sistine Chapel, but there is strong evidence to say that doing this increases creativity.

We can create the conditions for people to think creatively anywhere, but research by Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, says the physical environment does matter.  Meyers-Levy suggests the way people think and act is affected by ceiling height.   

“When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly,” said Meyers-Levy. “They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.”

Ceiling height is not the only factor at play here – the phenomenon ‘text neck” is now well understood, arising as a result of the strain we put on our spine when looking down at our smart phones.  In a paper published in Surgical Technology International  Dr. Hansraj notes that good posture is having your ears aligned with the shoulders and your shoulder blades back. This lowers body stress and decreases cortisol.  Poor posture, on the other hand, stresses the spine and can lead to early wear, tear, degeneration, and maybe surgery.

At the University of San Francisco, research by Professor Erik Peper has yield insights into posture and treatment for depression.  Simply choosing to alter body posture to a more upright position can improve mood and energy levels and good posture facilitates breathing and increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, by up to 40 percent.  

We also put metaphorical ceilings upon ourselves all the time: looking up, seeing things differently, reminds us of the importance of gaining different perspectives. In their study Embodied Metaphors and Creative Acts Angela Leung and colleagues considered the connection between concrete bodily experiences and creative cognition. Their research, published in May 2012, provided the first evidence that embodiment can also activate the cognitive processes that facilitate the generation of new ideas and connections promoting fluency, flexibility and originality of thinking, thus improving our problem solving capability.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High) has done most to contribute to our understanding of happiness, creativity and human fulfilment and the notion of “flow” – a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work (watch his TED talk here).

For his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning Csikszentmihalyi interviewed CEOs who had been nominated by their peers as being as being both very successful and very ethical, very socially responsible. He quotes Masaru Ibuka, who at the time of founding Sony had little money and no product, only an idea.  The idea he had was to establish a place of work where engineers could feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content.   “I couldn’t improve on this as a good example of how flow enters the workplace” says Csikszentmihalyi.

A place to work to our heart’s content.  Do we have the courage to create such a place for ourselves, as ourselves? That’s a question of leadership.


Keep your head up, keep your heart strong
No, no, no, no, keep your mind set, keep your hair long
Oh my, my darlin’, keep your head up, keep your heart strong
No, no, no, no, keep your mind set in your ways
Keep your heart strong

‘Cause I’ll always remember you the same
Oh eyes like wildflowers, oh with your demons of change


Also published on Medium.

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