Valary Oleinik is a Project Manager for the Secretarial and Document Services department of an international law firm. The imagination and ingenuity Valary exhibited during the #practicecreativity challenge made us want to  learn more about this generous and creative soul.


What might be an intriguing night job if you had to pick one?

I started putting Querist on some of my social media profiles as part of my identity and I think it is the closest to what I would do, and am trying to do undercover at night. I live a life of inquiry. I’m carving out more and more time to focus on writing and finding innovative ways to help people to learn how to learn, stay curious, and share what they know.

What is your definition of creativity?

To just say it is bringing about something novel and useful or valuable sends us down the subjective rabbit hole of defining how new and useful to whom and such. I think creativity is imagination in action. It is the brain finding a surprise hiding in plain sight. It is connecting dots we didn’t know were in the same picture. It is how the old becomes new. The known becomes known anew. It can be spontaneous or deliberate. It is how we navigate our ever-changing lives. It can result in something tangible or intangible. It is often the answer to questions that curiosity and necessity ask. It is art and science. It is active; a living spark that needs tending and nurturing. Two people who have provided definitions that I like are Albert Einstein who called creativity  intelligence having fun” and Bill Moyer who said creativity “is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” Both of their definitions, like mine, are nebulous, which is necessary. Trying to define creativity for me is like defining love or consciousness. What the words mean is experiential. I see creativity as integral to how we get through life. It is how we express ourselves, discover and explore the world, solve problems and overcome obstacles. It’s how we grow and move forward.

What kind of things do you do to get your “creative juices” flowing?

One of my favorite things is to just move around. In my earlier days,  I was a professional dancer so motion is like a second language to me. I still walk in time with the beat if there is music playing. I still practice pirouettes on the tile kitchen floor. But mostly I walk. Like dancing, walking gets you breathing. It gets fresh air in your lungs and fresh ideas in your head. A change of scenery can do wonders for giving you a new perspective.

Another thing I do is make a conscious effort to do at least one new thing each week. It may be taking a different route to work or cooking a new meal. It could be reading a new book. I read a lot. I love filling my reservoir with new ideas. I always try to have something to read with me and when I don’t I read signs, cereal boxes … whatever is handy. Doing something new, even for a few minutes, can make a world of difference.

Finally, I try to expose myself to unique and creative experiences. I’ve always been around the arts and sciences and it is certain that creativity is contagious. Being around others doing creative things is inspiring and motivating. When I stopped dancing I found that I enjoyed photography and I started capturing my adventures. Some of my favorite inspirations come from urban art, nature, science events like the Maker Faire, or art and architecture events like the participatory art project FIGMENT and Canstruction which is part design competition and part charity for local food banks.

Valary Oleinik

Photo courtesy of Valary Oleinik

Who would you say has been one of your main influences?

I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop out to say, my mom, but it is my mom. She was a former school teacher before she was a mom. My childhood was filled with exposure to as many different types of events as she could find. Puppet shows at the library. Music concerts. Dance classes. Astronomy camp. Trips to museums and zoos. She is also an avid gardener, so I got the nature bug early on. I was encouraged to explore. Mom definitely nurtured my little creative spark. In more recent years, she has needed me to do a fair amount of caretaking and has had to learn to walk again more than once. This has given me the chance to see firsthand how important creativity is to tackling sudden obstacles. For instance, how would you wash your hair if you could only raise one arm over your head?

It also certainly helped that I have spent most of my life in two cities that are playgrounds for the curious and creative: New Orleans and New York. If anyone can claim to be bored in New York City, I think they should have their pulse checked. But as great as New York is, it was New Orleans that started it all for me. Growing up in New Orleans, I have to say environment played as much of a role as nurture. New Orleans is a place unlike any other, alive with creative energy and the friendliest people. Music flows in the streets. We have a parade for any occasion. Playing dress-up is taken very seriously. And with events like Katrina, being ever resilient and living by your wits is a way of life. One of the images that sticks with me during the early days after the city re-opened after the storm was a community coming together to make new street signs to replace those blown or washed away. The signs were beautifully colorful but also necessary to direct contractors, many of whom did not know the city, to where residents lived who needed their help repairing their homes.

How do you encourage creativity in others?

Often the first step is to convince them that they are creative. So many people have this limited view of creativity. For some, it only means artsy. It is something fun, frivolous and optional, something they don’t have time to engage in (even if they secretly really want to). They completely overlook functional creativity. I start by asking them questions and try to lead them to the realization that they are creative. I ask them about everyday events when they have had to figure something out, solve a problem, overcome an obstacle, or just come up with an idea. Since I work with adult learners, another challenge is their fear of failure. Asking them to be creative is really pushing them out of their comfort zone. They don’t want to make mistakes. That is one of the big differences between kids and adults. Kids will dive right in and try things, while adults will consider, plan, and think but not DO as much as quickly. I had to good fortune to see Tom Wujec talk about his Marshmallow Challenge a few months ago and it embodies this. The kids beat the CEOs hands down because they create more prototypes. More tries are going to eventually yield more wins. It is tricky but if you can make safe spaces for people to try things and find the small wins, they will gain momentum quickly.

In what ways did the Practice Creativity Challenge affect your thinking?

In the months leading up to the challenge my life was literally turned upside down and inside out. In a matter of weeks there was packing up my apartment, preparing to speak at a learning conference, traveling to various cities, getting married, moving to another state, and unpacking (blegh) all while maintaining the usual work and personal responsibilities. There was a lot of some types of creativity going on, but I missed some other aspects of my creativity. They had, apparently, been accidentally packed into one of the moving boxes. So I was first drawn to the challenge as a way to getting a piece of me back, amid the chaos. In more normal times, I tend to get distracted by bright shiny ideas and always have multiple projects going in different directions, so I thought the challenge would be a good way for me to be able to focus my attention as I settled into my new environment. I guess it was sort of creative therapy in a way. I needed an excuse to give myself permission to do something I knew I needed to do for my own self-care. Amidst all the changes I was going through I needed to carve out a special place for myself and my needs. I need dedicated creative moments like I need air and water. I was drawn to the challenge because it was a short-term, very focused commitment. Of course, I am continuing to go back to ideas generated during the challenge, but it was just what I needed at the moment. It provided me with a basic framework and a support net that helped me focus. That’s one of the other things people misconstrue about creativity. Sometimes limitations are necessary and inspiring. A blank page is sometimes overwhelming. Constraints actually bring about more creativity by forcing you to really think about how to use what you have and options.

What advice would you give to other people who are motivated to become more creative?

Start now. Don’t wait. And keep doing it. Make time for it. People make appointments to have their car’s oil changed or to have their hair cut, but think they don’t have time to be creative in a focused way. But also be ready for those spontaneous flashes. I always have a notebook and pens (I like the brightly colored ones) handy. Make notes, reminders, doodles. This will be your idea journal. Find what works for you. There is no right or wrong answer. Make your toolbox as vast as possible. Different creative tools will be useful at different times. The more you have the better you will be able to adapt to different situations. Sometimes I want a blank canvas. I get out a bunch of craft supplies and “play,” letting my imagination run wild. Other times I need a more structured creative activity. Two I like are origami and haiku. They have boundaries and help me still my mind.

People often say you need to think outside of the box, but the part most people miss is figuring out what the current box looks like. If it is a messy box then maybe what you need is some quiet and order. If the box is too bare maybe you need to shake it up a bit by figuratively throwing some paint and glitter around. Creativity is always an active process but it can be quiet or loud. Listen to your instincts and you’ll know which one you need at a particular time.

Finally, don’t keep everything to yourself. Find ways to share your ideas and creative artifacts. Find your tribe and your cheerleaders. Many years ago I started a blog on Tumblr with the idea that I would post one photo or snippet of writing or quote I liked or something each day; it was a digital idea journal. I would build the habit of making the time, creating something, and sharing it. I didn’t really expect anyone to be interested but over time I found that many people were and I have now traveled many miles to see some of these people because it was through sharing our ideas with one another that we built wonderful relationships that provide love and support far beyond my little goal of expressing some creativity and keeping my creative muscles in working order.

Valary Oleinik, Creative Leader

Photo courtesy of Valary Oleinik