Will Cady is a creative strategist, consultant, speaker, and marketer. He is currently Reddit’s Global Brand Ambassador and founding head of Reddit’s KarmaLab creative strategy team. In his role as strategist, he has counseled leaders of powerhouse brands like Apple, Google, Samsung, T-Mobile, AT&T, Adobe, Toyota, LEGO, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Coca-Cola. In addition, he has consulted with entertainment leaders at Netflix, Disney, Amazon Studios, Paramount, and more. Will Cady has appeared on stage in front of thousands at SXSW, the Consumer Electronics Show, Cannes Lions, and The Gathering. He was recently named in AdWeek’s “Top 50” 2020, for Tech, Media, and Marketing.
Below, Will shares five key insights from his new book, Which Way Is North: A Creative Compass for Makers, Marketers, and Mystics. Listen to the audio version—read by Will himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Anxiety is creativity, ready to be transmuted.
These are incredibly anxious times. We’re all feeling it. The prevalence of anxiety today doesn’t mean something is wrong with us. It means there’s something for us to do. Anxiety is stagnant energy. That energy wants to be put into motion. Energy in motion becomes emotion. It’s the catharsis we crave. We yearn for the emotional release of converting stuck anxiety into a moving story.
I recounted a sunset sit I had with a Zen master who held my hand to his throat so I could feel his cancer. I was only eighteen and had never confronted such a terror before, let alone felt it with my own hands. “Behind fear,” he told me, “is excitement.” All emotions are energies that carry a story. The Zen mind simply observes them. My artist’s mind sees them as invitations to outer action or inner resolution. I had been studying music making at Berklee College learning everything about how to play an instrument but I was struggling to figure out how to write a song. There, in that zendo, I learned where to look to find an idea—a story worth telling. Anxiety.
What an opportunity. We all have anxiety and the stories our anxieties tell can, let’s admit it, be incredibly creative. Everyone has untold scores of stories within them. It just takes a little courage and practice to know how to share them.
2. Meditation is a creative tool.
I developed the Seven Directions system of meditation for turning anxiety into creativity. Each step is a deep exploration of one direction that is a part of the greater whole of the Seven Directions system. In this way, there is a sort of geometry. It is a tesseract that acts as a compass for your inner world.
Many meditation systems insist that people quiet their minds. Let’s be real. That is difficult to do, and so a lot of people quit meditation before they even really begin. What if there was a meditation system that didn’t tell you to avoid your thoughts, but instead invited you to engage with them? How might treating the mind not as a sky meant to be empty, but as a sandbox full of curiosities to play with help you get started with meditation? That is what the Seven Directions system promises and is designed to do. It is not a tool for escaping this world to find enlightenment. It is a tool for bringing enlightenment into it through creativity.
“What if there was a meditation system that didn’t tell you to avoid your thoughts, but instead invited you to engage with them?”
Each of the Seven Directions is associated with a question: What is in front of you? What is behind you? What do you rest upon (beneath you)? What shines upon you (above you)? What do you receive (to your left)? What do you give (to your right)? What is in your heart (the center)?
These are strategically open-ended questions designed to initiate a dialogue between your conscious self and your unconscious self. Your conscious self asks. Your unconscious self answers. The practice utilizes active imagination and active breathing to explore each of these directions and their questions as well as the answers they bring in the unique language of your unconscious. Inner sight, sound, smell, sensation.
Taken as a practice, the Seven Directions help break down an anxious feeling into something more precise. Rather than being an ambiguous, dominating feeling larger than life, meditating through the directions helps you to triangulate where the anxiety is coming from and what story it brings. Is it in front of you? Ah, perhaps it’s that dinner you scheduled tomorrow. What is the story the anxiety is telling? What are you going to do about it? Let it go? Or make something of it?
Now, you are bigger than the anxiety and the anxiety is, in fact, serving you. Giving you energy, not taking it away.
3. Curiosities are the key.
Curiosity is a state of mind, yes, but it is also a noun. There is the curiosity you have and the curiosities you find. Train your mind to always be looking.
Start inward first. With practice, meditations like the Seven Directions will help you familiarize yourself with your own internal language. You’ll develop a familiarity with the typical sort of thoughts, sensations, and experiences that populate the crossroads of your inner world where your conscious self and unconscious selves meet.
Eventually, inevitably, you’ll encounter something strange that doesn’t quite make sense or isn’t usually there; something curious. These are the threads of genius that dangle where only those who know how to look for them can see. Pull on those threads and you just might be drawn to something extraordinary.
“Curiosities are kernels of creative information awaiting your discovery.”
I call them curiosities—little aberrations of signal that seem just a little bit out of place. Mystics look for curiosities in their dreams and visions to travel the multiverse. Marketers look for curiosities in culture to identify incoming trends: a new color popping up in a city’s fashion, a recurring word or phrase that different people suddenly start saying, a strange new meme that appears across social media feeds, the striking popularity of a humble folk song. These are all indicators of a story ready to be told in an anxious energy brewing in culture. Something in people wants to move.
Curiosities are kernels of creative information awaiting your discovery. It takes a trained eye to see them and to follow where they lead. So train. The Seven Directions system is a practice for developing those muscles. Eyes closed, you work with spotting the curiosities of your inner world like lifting weights in the gym. Eyes opened, you will find the strength this practice gives you will help you see your outer world in a whole new light, full of insight and possibility.
4. Archetypes are the color wheel for culture (and programming code for AI).
There was a moment at a conference when I was approached by a Standing Rock Sioux man who pointed to my backpack and kindly but sternly said, “If you’re going to wear that symbol, you should understand what it means.” So begins my account of my journey into the significance of symbols and the stories they carry through cultures.
To the academic, the study of symbols and how meaning is made with them is referred to as semiotics, which has grown increasingly popular with today’s marketers. Symbols are more than just objects of study, though. They are alive. Every symbol is brimming with the energy of curiosity and there is an operating system of understanding that threads them together into stories we recognize, even if only in our unconscious. A shaman might call these spirits. A psychologist might call these archetypes. An artist calls them colors and paints with them.
Have you ever noticed that most of our movies and television shows feature the same sets of characters in the same sorts of stories? Or that company logos seem to imitate the same motifs? Have you noticed that even people in the real world tend to laugh or dance in similar ways or dress in similar styles? Have you noticed that politicians wrestle over stories of who is the hero and who is the villain? Have you noticed that you might do the same with your friends and your family?
Culture is a portrait of our collective human psyche and archetypes are the colors that paint them. They represent the energy of meaning inside the symbols and stories that we see outside. Look no further than the use of archetypes in brands. Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The siren in the Starbucks logo. The goddess of the hunt Diana literally as Wonder Woman. The mythic bitten fruit of knowledge on the back of an Apple iPhone.
“Archetypal literacy is the core competency of intuition.”
An archetype constellates various interpretations of meaning into one coherent feeling people can relate to. The valor of the hero. The reverence of the magician. The yearning of the lover. The dread of the villain. Often, I have used the coherence of archetypes as programming code for artificial intelligence to direct its creative outputs with more precision. “Be the Magician” I might say, or leveraging AI’s storehouse of all human knowledge, I might prompt with more sophistication, “Be Mercury. Be Hermes Trismegistus. Be the energy between Binah and Chokmah of Kabbalah’s Sephirot.” AI has the literacy to know where these prompts lead.
The archetypal systems of the mystics of every culture are profoundly useful for infusing human spirit into what we make, even through AI. Jungian archetypes, the Greek pantheon, the Tarot, the Zodiac, and the I Ching are brilliantly designed color wheels of human experience made to channel higher intelligence. Whether or not you believe what they represent to be true, they are and have always been programming codes for creation.
Like colors, archetypes can be blended into a palette and created with through the paint brush of AI for anything you would set it in motion to do. They give character. Mystics have long known this. Archetypal literacy is the core competency of intuition. First, you learn the names, then you learn the feelings.
5. There is a brain in your heart and the time to use it is now.
How smart can you be with feelings? There are roughly 40,000 ganglia neurons in your heart, enough capable of holding memories. But memories of what? They keep the rhythms for how your heart beats, which in turn carry information on how to feel.
Recent studies published in 2023 in the journal Psychophysiology by psychologists at Cornell University have shown that our heartbeat may alter our perception of time. In 2002, in a rehearsal room, while practicing a difficult piece of music to a metronome, I focused intently on the fast tempo of the piece I was playing and noticed a curiosity. To my perception, the time between the beats of my heart was more consistent than the beats of the metronome, which seemed to be inconsistent and full of change as I played. As I explored deeper into this curiosity of the shifting dynamics between my pulse and my sense of time, I began to realize that each of my heartbeats also carried a feeling—and that a feeling can be described as a way of experiencing time. “Groove is in the heart,” I laughed when I recalled what my music teacher would always say. It wasn’t a metaphor.
As I grew older and my practices in art and meditation deepened, I began to see that archetypes correlated best with these feelings—each with their own musical signature in my heartbeat. They each had their own way of experiencing time. A firm and fast heartbeat for the hero. A slow and patient heartbeat for the sage. A fluttering heartbeat for the lover. They each embody an entire way of experiencing the world and thus became my inner vocabulary for creating art and my life.
This is the intelligence of the heart described from the inside out. This is the intelligence that you access in the depths of meditation. This is the intelligence that holds certainty even amongst the most profound of changes. This is the music that holds people together. The mind thinks. The heart knows. Feelings are primary to the facts we select to explain them.
To listen to the audio version read by author Will Cady, download the Next Big Idea App today: