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Exploring the Sustainability Cycle

One of the biggest differences I’ve observed between the Arts and business is the continued audacity of the business mindset.  While art sends shockwaves through our culture now and again (e..g. Lady Gaga’s meat suit; Little Nas X, anything Banksy), big business has not only penetrated our government, it controls much of our personal lives (e.g. banking, employment, even our non-profits!).

Business has systematized its sustainability while the Arts are just starting to define what that means. If you're creative-minded, you might be familiar with the feeling of getting left behind. Never mind all the moaning and groaning about it, here comes the Sustainability Cycle to save the day!

The Sustainability Cycle is the three stages in the development journey of an artist, or in cultivating creative expression: Exploration, Inclusion, Evolution. Each stage also corresponds with an Act in Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.  

Exploration is the discovery process of identifying conflict; Inclusion allows for mutual respect of the opposite duality, prohibiting judgement and opening doors to opportunity; Evolution allows for every knowable thing to change indefinitely, while always holding space for the unknowable.  This completes a circle that never ends. Sustainability is achieved when all three stages happen concurrently in every moment.

But no one can master the Sustainability Cycle without understanding how authenticity alters their perception.  To demonstrate, we’re going to create something out of nothing!  How do you do that?  Well...define something...then define nothing. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder right?  I’m talking about how perception shapes reality.

That might sound like marketing.  After all, you can sell even the dullest product by attaching sexy messaging to it.  Throw some avocado into a rat’s mouth and CNN reports a celebrity hipster rat!  But the only way to combat a materialistic, exploitative culture is by employing the antithesis: authenticity.  

Perception changes when we see the unthinkable happen.  Remember when Apple commercials told us we would one day have phones that would fit into our pockets?  Inconceivable!  A black man for president? Never! Advertising hacking our personal information? It can't be. And even now we forget the impossible is happening every day via AI, VR, AR...OMG. LOL.


The purpose of this stage is to identify the conflict that is causing discomfort. Let's start with an honest examination of goals.  Whose demands are you prioritizing and why? Are you seeking enrichment or approval?  The difference between the two will foreshadow your sustainability: either you have something, or you are applying marketing techniques to nothing.  

After all, where do you want to meet people - in their reality or yours?  Are you only trying to fulfill someone else’s expectations or are you serving your true self?  The answer is less cut and dry than it sounds.  Consider those who populate the outskirts of the mainstream (oftentimes artists!).  It can be an attractive idea to please the people who have the power to help you escape the fringe.

Even if catering to those who promise success is a survival technique, that assessment is based on doesn’t make it a static truth. When you base your perceptions on someone else’s reality (i.e. seeking approval from the mainstream), you compromise your own enrichment.  You are the only one who can offer a perfect record of approval for yourself.  So why not stay true to your authentic self first?


The purpose of this stage is to bounce off the other side of the conflict that was identified in the Exploration stage. Duality is best served when both sides are used to find balance. If you switched your perception from one side to the other, would your nothing become something? Or vice versa?

What sometimes happens in this stage is that judgement clouds opportunity. For example, the janitor at the record label may be the one fan that launches a career. But judgement places limitations, and the bounce in this stage only works if there is mutual respect for all people, places, and situations that are present. Inclusion is about giving equal weight to the opposite of whatever was identified in the Exploration stage.

Forget what people have told you or trends in the industry - if you are not open to the unthinkable, you won’t recognize the opportunity to make nothing into something.  When decision-making is driven by the desire for approval, it closes the door to possibility.  

Making your authenticity priority attracts those with similar interests.  If your perception does not reflect a reality you believe in, how will you convince others?  For example, you tell people you’re a success but you don’t believe it.  If you are trying to manipulate how people see you instead of presenting your authentic self, you are closed to the reality of success without compromise.  That’s because people won’t see the possibility if you don’t demonstrate it!  (See my blog about The Mirror Effect.)

That doesn’t eliminate the need to wade through the bullshit of people who promise their intentions are in alignment with yours.  But that is a judgement! Maybe they are not in alignment, but what DO they have that can help you? If they are present in your life, there is an opportunity there. Bounce off with an open mind and see what you find.


The purpose of this stage is to find gratitude in wherever and however you are, in the present moment. In my work, more often than not, we can find a reimagined version of what the artist has identified in the Exploration stage that is already happening, just by shifting perspective. Now that's really something!

People change and staying authentic means recognizing that change and allowing unforeseen circumstances (a.k.a possibility) to uproot your plans and take on a completely different direction.  After working so hard in pursuit of a goal, the idea of the finish line moving or changing course can be heartbreaking.  But that is evolution and if we don’t pay attention we sabotage our own success.  

This what big business has mastered. They don't stop to question, they adapt, fast. Change is scary.  But change is what made your nothing into something, and will continue to do so….repeating Exploration, Inclusion, and Evolution over and over again.

Emileena is writing a book on artist development called ANOTHER WAY. Join the community by attending a monthly Meetup (it's free!).

Original Artwork by Dave Law, freelance visual artist and illustrator. For more, please visit

If you are looking for development, consider Emileena's E-Velop program.


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