The Art of Life: Creativity and Leadership Series with Mary Moynihan: Chapter One

The Art of Life: Creativity and Leadership Series with Mary Moynihan


Reflections on art, creativity, leadership, and self-esteem

Mary Moynihan pens a series of articles exploring creative reflections on art, creativity, leadership, and self-esteem. The articles appear on the Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality newsletter and on Mary’s website


Chapter One


The Art of Life: Beginnings

‘Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.’
– Rumi, poet


I have been thinking for quite a while now about writing a series of articles on four themes I am constantly drawn to. These are art, creativity, leadership and self-esteem. I want to explore the varied meanings of each theme and my own personal understanding of them, how they resonate with me and how I approach them as a person and as an artist. I will reflect on intersections between each of the four themes as they are different yet interconnected. I believe paradoxes play a key part in the unfolding of life in relation to the individual and collective journeys we are all on; paradoxes are inherent in each of these four themes in many different ways.

Art and Culture

Art can refer to what we make, the creation of artworks through the expression of human creativity, imagination, talent and skill. The term art encompasses a range of different artforms such as theatre, film, dance, visual arts, writing, literature, music, photography, storytelling, movement, monuments, sculptures, architecture, spoken-word poetry, murals, digital arts and so on.
Arts and culture can include folklore and tangible and intangible cultural heritage and archives. Culture is an even broader term and can include not only the arts but can range from sports to culinary classes and tea-making, any activity that has an aesthetic, artistic, historical, intellectual or social connection. According to UNESCO cultural activities are activities ‘which embody or convey cultural expressions, irrespective of the commercial value they may have. Cultural activities may be an end in themselves or they may contribute to the production of cultural good and services.’
There are multiple ways to define arts and cultural activities as well as multiple ways to engage and participate in culture and art. Cultural activities and artistic practices take place in a range of spaces and places and the work and practices are constantly shifting, changing and intersecting in many different ways. Any space can be transformed into an ‘arts’ space depending on the activity that is taking place and the presence of an audience made up of one or more people.
The arts are about generating a sense of community, bringing people together and creating a sense of ‘us’.  Even when we are enjoying a piece of art on our own, such as reading a book, viewing a film or listening to a story, we can experience a sense of being connected. There can be a ‘connectedness’ to the artwork or to the artist.  When you experience a piece of art you are one of many people who have also experienced that artwork in their own unique way.
Art can be experienced and enjoyed in a million different ways by different people. This is one of the many beautiful aspects of art: there is no right or wrong way to enjoy art except to be open to your own unique intellectual or emotional response.  Some artists may attempt to ‘control’ how audiences respond to a particular artwork, but they can never fully control this process as each person’s response to a particular work of art is unique to that person.  
The arts are not just something we consume in limited settings. The arts are everywhere and can impact on all areas in society from the social and cultural to the economic and political. The arts are accessible to everybody. The arts can provide solace in times of sorrow and need, they support healing and recovery in relation to the promotion of physical and positive mental health and wellbeing. During Covid we witnessed the many different ways that the arts provided solace and comfort to people.
If you watch a TV series, film, documentary, cartoon or read a book or poem, you are engaging in the arts. If you go to the cinema, theatre, museum, art gallery or a music gig, you are engaging in the arts. Is there a poem or painting hanging on the wall of your home or the pub you go to? Do you or your children listen to, or play, music? Do you have Spotify, listen to the radio or sing in the shower?  Do you dance, imagine or day-dream? The arts are all around us. 
The arts can promote creative thinking, empathy and community engagement within social, economic and political contexts which is much needed in our society today. Culture and the arts can assist in creating a greater understanding for the human condition and what it is to be human, increasing empathy, compassion and respect for each other. The arts are a way to share and bring different cultures together, and can show us the world and ourselves in that world. We can learn about each other and about different customs, values and traditions through the arts. We can express and share our unique cultural identities and create new ones for a more inclusive, creative and equal society. We can share stories of darkness and difficulties and the struggles that individuals and communities may face and explore ways to overcome those difficulties into the future. The arts are a unique medium to move, inspire, provoke, excite, enrage and unite people, raising questions, provoking curiosity and exploring solutions.
The arts can also be conservative, reactionary, controlling and soul-destroying depending on how they are used. The arts are a powerful means of communication and influence, and as such they are open to mishandling, misuse and abuse. What is important is that the arts promote self and group expression and can be used to bring forward radical re-interpretations of how we want our world to be, to assist in promoting transformation through the creation of new visions for the future.  Through artistic practice and engagement, we can share images, ideas, thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences, desires, dreams and visions that can assist us on our creative journeys to change the world in more positive ways, enabling us to engage more directly, deeply and profoundly with the world we live in.
The arts are about emotions, instincts, intuition, creativity, uncertainty and desire. They are constantly changing yet remain the same. They are about controlled abandonment and are always about new ways to break the rules and move beyond what we already know, to move into the unknown.

Escape. Photo by Mary Moynihan


I view creativity as the ability to make something, or to produce or bring into existence something new. Like art, it can be the creation of a new artwork but it can also be the creation of any type of product or machine that is considered useful. Others see creativity as a way of being, a type of personality. Creativity can produce an idea, an action or an artefact that is considered innovative, valuable or meaningful. It can be a solution to a problem or finding a new way of doing something. Creativity can be something we possess, an inner trait or a skill or attitude of a particular individual or group.
Creativity involves thinking, imagining, and doing. If you have great ideas but don’t act on them, some say you are imaginative but not creative, that imagination is seeing the ideas while creativity is finding ways to make them happen. Imagination is seen as the visual images and ideas on new perspectives or new ways of doing or imagining something, being able to think outside the box and see things that other people cannot. Creativity is the ability to turn imaginative ideas or objects into something real and tangible. However, there is a diversity of ideas on what creativity is and how to act on it.  Whatever the definitions, creativity and the imagination are closely linked, they are like two sides of the same coin.

Imagination is a key source of creativity. According to George Bernard Show, ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at least you create what you will.’ The scientist and mathematician Albert Einstein believed in the possibility of looking beyond knowledge and to imagine new ways of being or doing.  According to Sir Ken Robinson, ‘imagination liberates us from our immediate circumstances and holds the constant possibility of transforming the present’.

Creativity is everywhere in our lives. It is in our art and sporting activities but also in raising our children, making our homes, creating our gardens, being an entrepreneur and in our work. Research on creativity conducted by the Hungarian-born American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi identified creative ‘flow’ as a person’s ability to become totally focused and engaged in what they do. The person becomes totally immersed in the creative process and there is a totality of engagement and a deep sense of infallibility.

At the heart of creativity is the ability to believe in your intuition and instinct, to believe in what you are doing even when you have no idea what that is. The path of process is equally as important as the end result. The creative process is a series of unfolding landscapes, some intentional and more often than not, most come alive in unexpected, accidental or experimental ways. There may be experimentation and openness yet even when there is chaos and the unknown which are key ingredients, there is always a map we are following, we simply cannot see it yet.

Words associated with creativity are autonomy, independence, ability, knowledge, problem-solving and divergent thinking. A creative person can be intuitive, reflective, expressive, unconventional, curious and is able to ask questions and see beyond what is present. According to Britannica:

Some creative people show an interest in apparent disorder, contradiction, and imbalance—perhaps because they are challenged by asymmetry and chaos. Creative individuals may also exhibit a high degree of self-assurance. Some possess an exceptionally deep, broad, and flexible awareness of themselves. Others are shown to be intellectual leaders with a great sensitivity to problems.[1]

Creativity can result in the creation of something original or an original artwork but it is not always about making something entirely new. As an artist I can use my creativity to reinvent the wheel in my own unique way which is a kind of paradox. As an artist, I let myself be drawn to what interests, intrigues or inspires me. I research as much as I can around the particular topic, then I let it all go and I let my imagination and instinct guide me to where I’m meant to be. What I make emerges in its own unique way. We can take inspiration from our imagination and from other artists and artworks that have come before us. We are not copying but changing something old into something new, adding value in our own way. The painter Pablo Picasso said that good artists borrow and great artists ‘steal’. A book I enjoyed reading is ‘Steal Like an Artist – 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative’ by Austin Kleon. In the book, Kleon quotes the writer Wilson Mizner who says ‘if you copy from one author it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many its research’.

The book is not saying to literally copy or steal from someone else’s work but to study different forms of art that interest us and to let the work that has gone before inspire us to create ourselves, to reuse, remix and reimagine in our own unique way. But always credit your sources. All creative works of art often build on what has gone before. Collect as many good ideas or inspirations as you can. If you are drawing on what has gone before you are not merely imitating but transforming the work through your own unique prism, transforming the work into something of your own, and adding something that only you can add. An interesting piece of advice from the book is to write, make or do what you love, write the type of story you want to read, draw the painting you want to see or do the work you want to see done.

Creativity and imagination however often require us to take away what is not necessary. We have to find ways to let go so we can concentrate on what is important. After doing a tonne of research, it may be necessary to let it all go, to empty the mind so new ideas can flow in. Clearing out space is essential for the making of new work or the unfurling of our imagination and creativity.  As a writer I take the work very seriously and try to keep it simple, something the writer and ‘champion of fear’ Stephen King, encourages writers to do.

Plato wrote that ‘boredom is the mother of all invention’.  I remember my children would stay on a phone or machine for hours if I let them. When the phone was taken off them, they would moan and complain that they had nothing to do and were bored. After a while they settled, it was like they were dropping into themselves. Then something magic would happen. During this phase of ‘boredom’ I could see them start to travel in different directions, thinking about what to do. They would naturally gravitate towards something creative like reading a book, making something or going outside into nature to play. All of which are activities that stimulate the imagination and involve creative expression. I reckon boredom often leads to something that is good for us, like a pathway to sourcing something we like. We need to give ourselves time and space to be creative and imaginative, to get away from external distractions and simply let ourselves be, to see what is underneath, to let ourselves be drawn to where we are meant to be. Nature is a great way to stimulate the imagination and creativity; as well as being physically free, we often need to move out of our heads to let the imagination and creativity run free.

Having a positive attitude is important for creativity, leadership and self-esteem. We are responsible for creating our own way and our own happiness. If we can dream it, we can become it. If we want to succeed we firstly have to believe we can. If there is something we want to achieve it may seem impossible but we have to believe in the impossible to make things happen. In terms of time, having a routine is important while at the same time going with the flow. Paradoxically, having a fixed routine can free us up creatively. The important thing is to make the time and space for what is important, to show up, to practice and do the work consistently, to keep at it, keep it simple (yet profound) and be positive, patient and persistent.

Awaken your spirit to adventure,

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk,

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

The above lines from John O Donohue’s poem ‘For A New Beginning’ echo through the darkness of all artistic spaces where artists abandon themselves to the risk-taking and rhythms of creative practice. Each time we create, we may be building on something that is already there and yet each time we start anew, born out of a connection that is beyond our understanding, an ancient wisdom is felt rather than known. The words of TS Eliot remind us that ‘for in my beginning is my end’, and the end is often a new beginning, the constant moving forward while being in the present, in the moment, as we relive the past, which will become the present and future. The creative cycle is endless and its nourishment is open to all who make themselves available. For O ‘Donohue, the journey is to ‘unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning, that is one with your life’s desire’. 

Serenity. Photo by Mary Moynihan


Creativity is closely linked to leadership. Leadership has numerous interpretations and manifestations. In the past, leadership was often seen as being the responsibility of one person at the top, yet co-leadership, team leadership or distributed leadership are equally important. There is already a vast amount of information available on leadership types, styles and approaches and open-ended debate into what leadership actually is and whether leaders lead, influence or guide. A key part of leadership is building relationships with others, being able to communicate with and build the confidence of others, to motivate others as best you can.

Leadership can encompass critical and creative thinking, vision and values, emotional intelligence including self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy, confidence and self-esteem, effective communications, assertiveness, teamwork and relationship -building, goal setting and action planning, motivation, positivity, problem solving, flexibility, time management, concentration, resilience and having strong inspirations. In addition, creativity and risk-taking are key elements of leadership.

Success is closely linked to leadership. But what is success? Is it important in life? I have always wanted to be successful at what I do, but for a long time I never properly defined what exactly success meant to me. There are many definitions for success. It can be the accomplishment of a particular aim or goal, achieving defined visions and goals whether they are personal, professional, emotional or spiritual. Success is different for all of us. To some it is about achieving a specific purpose such as inventing a cure for cancer, creating new artworks for others to enjoy or to gain status and professional achievement. For others it can be solely about achieving material and monetary success, to attain wealth with money and financial stability. It can be about prestige or fame or can refer to our relationships, or to spiritual success. For some it is about having peace and love in their lives, to live a life that is happy and contented, or to do things to support others in being happy. It can be to raise a family and have a home filled with love and laughter, be kind to others, to look after someone we love or to look after nature. The point is to discover what genuinely makes you happy.

I happen to believe that all of us have a particular mission in life that can genuinely give us fulfilment. The point is to discover what goal personally can make you happy. Success is something we all have to define personally for ourselves based on our own values, passions, beliefs and goals. It has to provide inner peace and personal satisfaction.  I can only have a genuine form of success for myself when it is based on what I truly want and love, and when it is clearly aligned with my own values as a person. If I base my idea of success on what I believe society wants then I am not being true to myself. It is important to search my heart to discover what success means to me and to have the courage to follow whatever that is.

Sometimes we make choices that are good for either ourselves or others; these choices may seem like the right thing to do at the time. But those choices do not necessarily bring us lasting happiness or peace. We may have to find the courage to overcome deep-rooted fears and emotions that hold us back and to find new ways to balance what is wanted in life. We may have to make decisions that can unsettle or disturb others through ‘periods of adjustment’, and this may be what is needed to ensure a more lasting form of happiness. If we want to make others happy, we first have to find happiness in ourselves. If we want to love others we first of all have to be comfortable with who we are and to love ourselves. Always follow your heart and be true to yourself while trying to support others along the way.  Have the courage to identify and follow your beliefs and desires but always be kind and always support those around you and treat others as you would want them to treat you. Always try to support others through difficult times or be there for someone if they reach out. Most times the support needed is temporary and assisting others can often support us to help ourselves.

As we journey on the path to leadership and success, we want to be able to self-manage our lives. We want to have self-awareness and very importantly, self-esteem to evaluate what we are doing and want to do so we can set goals and work towards those goals. Self-esteem is fundamental.

Hope. Photo by Mary Moynihan


A person with strong emotional intelligence is able to understand and regulate their emotions and to understand the emotions of others. They are able to share their feelings with others, to say no when they need to in a positive way, accept criticism, take responsibility, be able to move on after mistakes, and to problem-solve in ways that work for everybody, demonstrating a strong empathy for others. A person with strong self-esteem is confident and assertive. Confidence is about feeling positive about ourselves and the decisions we make. Assertiveness is about being able to effectively speak and interact with others in a direct way and with a healthy communication style, as well as being able to say no without aggression. Self-esteem is about having a positive attitude towards myself and a strong self-acceptance of self.

I like myself; I feel good about myself; I know I am unique. I am satisfied with who I am and I recognise all the good qualities I possess. I am proud of my achievements and have a positive and supportive attitude towards myself, and for what I do. I believe in, and have full respect for, myself. I see myself as equal to others. I have the power within me to be who and what I want to be. My job is to discover who I already am and to let myself be that person. I don’t have to ‘become’, because I already am. If you believe in yourself others will too. Live your life to its fullest potential and don’t hold back. Get out of your own way and let yourself be happy. However, like most things in life, a balance is needed. The balance of caring for ourselves, but also having time to care for others, and to do right by others.

A key part of my self-esteem is believing that I am able to achieve what I set out to do. I am able to identity the goals I want and the pathways I need to follow or let myself be drawn towards in order to achieve my goals. I nurture a positive, hopeful attitude that I can hold on to even when things seem to not be going my way. I am able to self-motivate. I trust my instinct to guide me to where I’m meant to be. My thoughts and feelings about me are positive, healthy and supportive. A strong level of self-esteem is key to a happy and healthy lifestyle, and plays a key role in art, creativity and leadership. I also think a key part of self-esteem is forgiveness. Forgiveness is an ongoing attitude, not something we decide to do here and there.

Rock. Photo by Mary Moynihan

The Stargazer

I recently completed a new body of poetry. I am in the process of sending this book out to publishers as a collection of poetry called The Stargazer Whispers. As I write these articles on creativity, leadership and well-being, I will occasionally refer to quotes from The Stargazer Whispers, which is a collection of poems of the sea and sky, reflecting on meaning-making and pathways of expression.

With regard to The Stargazer Whispers, I initially started out writing a series of poems inspired by the beautiful Skellig islands off the coast of the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. I have always been fascinated by the sea. The wild Atlantic Ocean is a magical place that is both real and mystical, a landscape where we can experience the timeless in the specific. I visit and stay on Valentia Island off the coast of South Kerry. From here I discovered more about Skellig Michael, the unique history of the place and the various landscapes surrounding the islands, all of which initially inspired The Stargazer Whispers.

In the beginning I thought the poems were simply about the islands and surrounding landscape. But as I wrote, the poems transformed into something more. The poetry started to map the landscape – in particular the seas, sky and mountains – to a reflection on pathways to find your way in life and express who you truly are.

‘Say the right thing, the true thing, the good thing.’

The above is the epigraph I have chosen for the beginning of The Stargazer Whispers. I don’t know who the original author is, yet it has become a kind of marker for me in my own life. It is simple yet profound, one of the key paradoxes of life itself. To be honest, straightforward, truthful and caring with ourselves and others. Someone recently asked me ‘what is truth?’ It is a question I am still thinking about. We can also ask what is ‘right’ and what is ‘good’, concepts that can mean different things to different people. If life is about love, happiness and justice, then truth and goodness are key values, ones that I encourage my own children to have.

As I mentioned earlier with regard to The Stargazer Whispers, I started out writing with one idea in mind but as I wrote, the direction changed and went deeper. I instinctively felt this new direction and I went with it but at one stage I realised I had no idea initially as to what the poetry was about. It was like something else was dictating the course of the writing and what the poems were about. I was not making it happen even though I was doing the writing. Strange as it may seem, the writing was creating itself and I was a conduit. My intuition kicked in and I had these feelings every so often as I wrote that I was heading in the right direction and so I went with the work, I let the work write itself. I am glad I did because it was the right direction to go in. The sensations were pleasant and open and very, very supportive.

My instinct or intuition was working and I simply followed. Art, creativity, leadership and self-esteem all involve instinct and intuition. Both instinct and intuition are gut feelings that come from a place of insight and emotional responses rather than analytical reasoning. A gut-feeling is something we just know, we don’t know why, but we do. Both instinct and intuition involve hunches, having the innate ability to know something without initially consciously thinking about it, guiding us towards the way to go.

I started off writing this article by quoting from Rumi to follow your heart, that it will not lead you astray. This requires the courage to do what your heart is saying rather than letting your fear take over. Fear can draw you down a different route, one where you may be safe but not content. I love the quote to ‘change the world by being yourself’. We are all unique, beautiful beings, and starting from where we are and using what we have is the best way to go.

Mary Moynihan, June 2024