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Tina Roth Eisenberg unleashes creativity
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Tina Roth Eisenberg unleashes creativity
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Conversations
10 May 2018

Tina Roth Eisenberg unleashes creativity

Interview by Madeleine Dore
Julia Robb

“Everyone is creative,” reads the first line of the CreativeMornings’ Manifesto.

Its founder, Tina Roth Eisenberg, built the community from humble beginnings: a free breakfast and short talk on a Friday morning each month in her Brooklyn co-working studio. Now in over 180 cities across the globe, the mission remains the same. “If I want to do one thing in my life, it is to help people realise they have a right to their ideas and a right to express those ideas,” she tells me.

The Brooklyn-based, Swiss-born designer has long been courageous in expressing her ideas, having created a diverse ecosystem of creative communities and businesses, including the popular design blog swiss-miss, the co-working space Friends Work Here, the temporary tattoo business Tattly, and the to-do app TeuxDeux.

Tina often credits her ventures to a simple philosophy borrowed from musician James Murphy: “The best way to complain is to make things.” Tattly, for example, came from complaining about how aesthetically displeasing her children’s temporary tattoos were. Now, artists and designers around the globe contribute to making beautiful designs for children and adults alike. “Complaining is just a waste of energy,” says Tina. “When I see something that really bugs me, I think, Okay, Tina, you either need to stop thinking about it and let it go, or you really have to do something about it. ”

Whether it’s making creative careers seem more accessible to thousands around the world, or bringing neighbours together on the front stoop of her brownstone at the end of the day, Tina teaches us how to turn complaint into creativity and community, while turning the ordinary into the extraordinary along the way.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

MADELEINE DORE: During your studies in Munich, you worked on a thesis, The Beauty and The Ordinary. The result was a 200-page book filled with photographs of the little things we usually filter out from our view—how a black tea bag marks a pattern on a napkin. You say highlighting the beauty in everyday life has been a project and passion that has never left you?

Tina Roth Eisenberg: What I just love is seeing beauty in things that most people wouldn’t notice. One of my favourite examples is seeing the blue pallets outside Dominos Pizza that they use for dough and whoever has stacked the empty ones outside has gone the extra mile to stack them perfectly. They could have made one stack taller, one stack shorter, but it was this perfect queue, and it made me chuckle. It’s fun when I’m with my kids they see me photographing stuff like that and ask, “Why are you doing it?” And I explain to them it’s the beauty in the ordinary. It’s like when I did my thesis—I would explain the concept to people and at first they wouldn’t get it, but often a few days later a friend will leave a message on my answering machine saying something like, “Hey, I get it now, I looked at my toothbrush today, I have never really looked at my toothbrush.” When your way of looking at the world can impact how other people look at the world and they start seeing beauty in seemingly ordinary things, that’s really something.

Does that happen often, that initially people don’t quite understand your ideas or passions?

Yes. There are some ideas I’ve been challenged on, but when I just know deep inside that it’s the right thing I don’t hold back. I actually like it when people challenge me because sometimes I need that push back to find the language to convince them, or convince myself that what I am doing is actually right. It’s important to investigate. When you have an idea for something and in the bottom of your heart, you know this thing needs to exist no matter what anyone says, that’s when it can truly be successful. When I had the idea for CreativeMornings people literally laughed in my face and said nobody would show up at 8:30 in the morning in New York City. And I just thought, well then, let me prove you wrong. Now look. There are morning events around the world now, 10 years later.

Tell me about some of the things you do each day to create beautiful moments.

There’s one thing I do with my kids every morning. I wake them up and they come downstairs and lay down on the couch and I take the blankets and make them into little burritos and say, “Burrito, burrito, burrito. Good morning!” and they complain about going to school. It’s really sweet because I make them breakfast and their lunches while they hang out. We’ll have a sweet little 10-minute conversation while they are little burritos on the coach. I look back at the routines I had with my family and they are beautiful memories, so I’m really aware of creating traditions that maybe one day they will talk to their children about and say, “My mum always did X.”

What about creativity, how do you bring that into your kids’ lives?

When my daughter was about seven I started hosting at least one big dinner party a month where I invite people I admire to have dinner at our home. I’ve learned that inviting people to your home for a meal changes everything—what starts as a work connection can quickly becomes friendship. Now both my kids are involved in helping make nametags and place cards for the table, which is really cute, and they both sit down with us for dinner. I tell my kids who these people are and what they do before the party and we look them up together and it’s really cool for my kids to see that these people live creative lives.

When I see them on the couch talking with the guests, my heart wants to explode because all I want is for them to realise that there’s so many different ways to make a living, and most of all that you can live your life creatively and make a living. That’s something that my own parents were always afraid of—that I’m not going to be able to make a living being a graphic designer. I know it came from a place of love and worry, but I want to make sure my kids now are exposed to as many professions as possible.

That’s amazing. Do you ever get nervous as a host that people won’t mingle?

Yes. I had some dinner parties where it wasn’t a good combo, but most of the time it’s magical. It’s absolutely magical. Nobody wants to leave and they became friends.

One of your philosophies is to choose wisely who you surround yourself with, and be around people who improve your life. Can you speak to that a little more?

When I started the first iteration of Friends Work Here—which was called Studio Mates—I had such an incredibly uplifting community around me all day. The people I was surrounded by were smart, driven, kind, and the best in their field I would feel so empowered to do my best work. Everyone would lift each other up, even if you weren’t that good yet. It made me realise whenever we had someone join that took more than they gave, it would disturb the balance of the community. There’s nothing wrong with taking, but it has to be a balance. So ever since I’ve really started paying attention to who fills me up, my life has improved so much. I feel like the frequency of who I am is greater—if you start paying attention to who contributes good energy and to your life, and show up with an open kind heart in your life, a mindset of abundance and generosity, everything just rises.

That’s such a great question for anyone to ask themselves—do I feel filled up?

I’m really trying to make my kids aware of how people make you feel. After play dates I often ask my daughter, “How do you feel right now? Do you feel filled up or do you feel empty?” In the beginning she’d be like, “Mum, what are you asking me?” But now she will come to me and say, “Mum I don’t feel filled up right now.”

It’s something that you really need to teach children, or at least it’s something that I wish I learnt earlier in life because I was in some really unhealthy friendships. Maybe I felt bad for someone or was feeling manipulated into friendship. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced something like that?

Absolutely—I think we all do, and it happens well into adulthood because there is no breakup manual for friends. What was it that helped it click for you to quit toxic friendships?

It started in my 40s—zero fucks given. When I was going through my divorce, I really looked at who in my life has an open heart and who lifts me up—and who I can do the same for. I’m so ruthless now if I feel like somebody doesn’t have good intentions, or if somebody can’t be happy for me. Not that I cut someone off immediately, but I also believe that friendships change throughout the course of life. Sometimes they just have a place in time, but you can also outgrow each other. I’m trying to have really good people in my life where I know I fill them up and they fill me up and we are happy for each other’s successes.

I’d imagine this approach to friendship would also influence the colleagues you hire and the dynamic of your teams?

Yes, it’s the same with companies—we are currently working on a code of conduct for CreativeMornings where you need to have a generosity mindset. It filters down to even the hosts we pick for CreativeMornings. My community team really figured out what makes a good host—low ego, a big heart, generosity and really believing in building a community.

Can people learn to have a big heart or is it innate do you think?

I’m not a psychologist, but something tells me either it’s in your nature, or maybe you’ve been humbled tremendously and fallen and stumbled so you end up there.

How did you come to have such a big heart?

I’m not sure—I was bullied a lot when I was younger and so whenever I see anything like that at work or with my kids, my instant reaction is to protect and to be there for people and help them. I feel like that experience has really helped me become a very empathetic person, and maybe idealistic, yes!

You’re also known for being very enthusiastic, which must be an important ingredient when it comes to managing and engaging multiple teams simultaneously.

The rule at work is that people can come up to me and talk to me at any time whenever they need. Also, I hire people I trust—something might not be in their skill set, but I intuitively know they can figure it out, they’re smart, they’re driven, they have enthusiasm for it. The cool thing about having started two companies at around the same time is that the teams had to be independent and I think they are better for it. I think it’s so cool when I see people really putting their own thought into something and their own heart and they actually take ownership of it. It’s so much better than if I was the only one making decisions. Tattly is better because everyone’s decision-making goes into it. They’ve said to me as well, “You know we are running Tattly together.” That’s cool. To be honest, I could not come back for a year, and it will still work.

I don’t think a lot of founders could say the same thing—it’s so common for people to hold on so tight to the things they start.

The nature of how I started my business was unplanned and I wasn’t available all the time as I started multiple businesses, it had to become that. I think it comes down to empathy and loving people. The way I run my company is still the way I want to be treated at work, which is with a lot of respect and with a lot of understanding that sometimes life can be a little unpredictable—if you need to go and be with your kids right now because they are sick, go. If you are not feeling well, then you go home. It’s a lot like my first boss when I had my first job here in New York. It’s something that I think really shapes you, the first job you ever have—how your bosses treat you, just the whole feel of a workplace and it was so respectful, so kind and so in acceptance, is important.

There seems to be a lot of intermingling with your work and life—you eat lunch with your team and the co-workers at Friends most days.

I try to always have lunch with people. That’s my social time, whether it’s with Friends or a business lunch. That’s where the magic happens. Particularly with Friends, everybody is working on so many interesting things. I could never go back to just working for one company where we’re all working on the same problem and then we’re having lunch together and we’re talking about the same thing again. Not that you can’t have interesting conversations, I’m generalising right now, but the fact that someone can bring up some weird problem they’re trying to solve, that is so different from what I’m doing, that’s what I love so much about Friends.

The CreativeMornings manifesto begins with “everyone is creative.” How so?

It’s just not necessarily in being good at drawing. People come up to me and say, “I love your work but I’m not a creative person, I’m an accountant.” It’s like, “Who says you’re not creative?” These labels we put on people are really, really terrifying. Right? Because at the end of the day I cannot imagine that somebody is not creative. If you come out with any idea whatever it is, even how to put the jam on your toast differently in the morning, in some small way that’s being creative, right?

So instead of having these boxes of creative and not creative, how can we open that up a bit more?

I don’t want people that work in the creative industry to monopolise the creative process. In my work, it’s really important that I try to hear everyone thoughts on something. For example at Tattly, when we have new designs we usually show it to everyone, regardless of whether they are in a creative position because everyone can have a good idea.

Why is it that so many people shy away from the creative or playful part of themselves?

I don’t think you can generalise—maybe they just don’t trust it within themselves. Some people they knew that they’re inherently creative but it’s all the pressures of family. There are so many factors. There’s so many different pressures that go into whatever creative path you pick. What I find really fascinating, for example, is two young Korean-Americans who work for me at CreativeMornings. They say all the time, “We’re complete crazy birds. When you grow up in a Korean family, you don’t go into a creative career like we did. You become doctor, a lawyer.” It made me realise even more how lucky I am to have courageous people like them work for me because they went their own way. I wonder if they just had the right friends or what it was that made them confident that they can do it.

Do you think it’s changing? That young people today are more aware that they can do anything?

They all want to be YouTube stars now, though! [Laughs] I definitely think that the sense of potential that you can do whatever you want is bigger than ever before. On the other hand, if you just look at the state of the world, I’m not sure how optimistic all of these young people are—that it’s even worth it to try, you know? Imagine you’re 10 or 14, what do you make of this mess? There is a sense that why should I even work hard and hustle hard if A, we’re destroying the planet and B, we have a completely corrupt, unethical, completely immoral government? How does that not mess with your head as a young person? How does that make you want to thrive? I’m not a pessimistic person, but I feel for my kids.

You mentioned that it’s been a shock to see that the progress of time does not necessarily equal social or economic progress…

When I grew up, granted there were messy things happening too, but overall, I remember when I graduated I was like, “Yes. Growth. Success. I’m going out in the world right now and the economy is going to keep growing and I’m going to contribute.” There was not an ounce in me that ever thought that things could go backwards or that we could see a decline in progressiveness. I don’t know what’s going to happen once my daughter graduates. Is she going to say, “I’m going to make the best of it. I’m just going to enjoy my life.” I really wonder about that, what all of this does to my kids. I’m really an optimist, but given the kid’s sense of potential versus the world right now, it’s really hard.

How do you do it then? How do you remain an optimist for your kids?

I just always try to say that we have to make the world we want to live in. I really wish I realised sooner that I need to be an active participant in the world I want. I know this sounds really cheesy, but for so long I was floating. I was like, “Ooh,” and whatever came my way I was like, “That’s a cool job. Sure, you want me to work for you? I’ll go work for you.” I wasn’t very active in my head planning like, “Okay, if I want to be this type of person, I probably need to work in this type of environment.” Now, in hindsight I’m thinking, Man, the world I’ve created for myself with Friends Work Here and my companies, that’s the world I want to live in. My daughter sometimes gets it because sometimes she says, “I don’t like x.” and I say, “Well, what can we do to create the world you want?” I just hope that maybe that will be in their nature, too, to make the changes they want to see.

It’s a powerful tool. When did it shift for you? When do you think you stopped floating and you created the world you wanted?

When I became pregnant with Ella over 11 years ago. The inventory that I took of my life was just good—I don’t know what happened to me. I mean the pregnancy hormones; they just really took me for a spin. I was like, “What am I doing?” I was working as a design director in a good company but now in hindsight, I was such a chicken and I was just coasting. Then I was like, “Wait, you’ve always wanted to run your own design studio, what are you waiting for? Now you’re making human?” That human better look up to you one day and say, “I have a bad ass mum.”

I knew if it continued what I was doing she’s not going to say that to me, so I started my own studio when she was born, and then about a year and a half later, I opened Studio Mates. Then I started CreativeMornings. Somewhere right in between, I had my son. Again, I wish I had a wake-up call earlier. But it never occurred to me that you could start all that sooner. When your life is so much easier and there are less responsibilities.

What’s interesting about the companies you create is that often they are free to access—CreativeMornings is a free global community, and TeuxDeux was offered as a free app initially…

I don’t like to put price tags on things that are a labour of love. That’s something that I need to get better at [laughs]. For CreativeMornings, I don’t want to have it any other way. I never ever want to charge for it—the accessibility of things I do is really important to me. At the end of the day it’s an exchange of energy. I was at a really small conference where William Ury, the co-author of Getting To Yes, was there and I could see his face light up when I talked about the concept of CreativeMornings. Afterwards, he told me he believes CreativeMornings works because it’s based on non-transactional giving. When people are welcomed into a warm, friendly community with breakfast and an interesting lecture and it’s all for free, you start a relationship with through generosity – people come back, and people want to be part of it, and people want to help.

Just the term non-transactional giving is so powerful…

It makes sense in terms of our growth because people would come to the events and then want to host it in their own city. I don’t think this would have ever worked if we were going to charge for it, ever. We would have had such a different nature and feel because it would have attracted different people that would have seen it as an entrepreneurial money-making undertaking. The people that it attracts as host are generosity-driven community-builders with big hearts.

Do you think an entire economy could ever be based on non-transactional giving?

I mean, community is such a structural element of every society right, and there are not enough non-transactional communities that hold people up and celebrate people and make them feel safe—yet.

There was a recent CreativeMornings talk by Paola Mendoza—the Artistic Director for the Women’s March on Washington—about the role of art in uplifting communities that really touched you. Why is art and community so important in our modern lives?

I’m probably not doing to do Paola justice, but basically she lit a fire in all of our souls because what she made clear was that when we—the creative tribe—organise ourselves and start creating, magic can happen, momentum can happen, and it trickles down into every corner of society. That to me is so powerful and uniting. In my everyday life, I have nothing to do with the grandma around the corner who sits in the Italian pastry shop all day long, but we both contributed by making a sign and knitting a hat, and all these small contributions made a huge impact on the world.

It seems you have a knack for starting a community anywhere—on Instagram, you’re often sharing snippets of friends, neighbours and kids chatting and picnicking on your front stoop. What’s your advice to someone who wants to build a community?

Be generous, be inviting, be warm, and know what your values are. The word community is being thrown around so much right now—just because you have a product, doesn’t mean that the people that buy it are a community. They’re your consumers. To me, a community is people that have shared values or feel welcome in a shared space. I really feel like the face-to-face connection is key.

For many, affording a creative career is a privilege and it comes back to why it’s so important to have communities that are accessible. What do you think is the biggest challenge in terms of building a creative career and sustaining one?

That’s such a big question. There’s a few different angles—for one, it’s difficult for bigger tech companies to actually find people that have the skills that they need. People that study product design by the time they graduate, it’s already outgrown. Well, actually the company’s need because everything’s evolving so incredibly fast. On one hand, it’s actually difficult for young people to know that something like say product design exists, but then also realising that I honestly think people should just learn by working in a company. Companies should actually educate the people that they need and have them learn on the things they need to get solved.

Like an apprenticeship almost?

Yes, actually. Then on top of that, for the company that wants to attract talent, it has to realise people join missions and not companies. Unless you have a mission that really resonates with young people or values that resonates with young people, you don’t get them. If you do and you give young people freedom and you give them responsibilities that are probably a bit over their head and they see they can have real impact, that is so incredibly fulfilling.

For creative people, they want to have an impact. They want to see that their creativity is resulting in something. I feel like I’m really lucky that I can give that to my team. I just feel for young people that are incredibly creative, incredibly talented, but not finding a job where they can live to their highest potential and grow. That must be the most depressing thing in the world, right?

Also, it comes back to just making enough money to get by. I had an interesting dinner where everyone was talking about how New York is so great. After 15 minutes of just listening I was like, “Can you all just chill out a bit?” Let me just tell you one thing, it is really hard for the young, creative class to get by in New York. They’re struggling. And you know what? We’re going to lose them.

With CreativeMornings we can see where the creative class is rising—Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Austin, these cities are just exploding with the creative class. More and more people are flocking there and there are more and more creative jobs happening there.

Your own approach to making a creative career and business like Tattly and TeuxDeux could be traced to your favourite James Murphy quote, “The best way to complain is to make things.” Can I ask what you might currently be complaining about?

[Laughs] I’m not allowed to do anything new… Actually, I’m already cheating because I started a new founder’s dinner. It is something I wanted to do for so long because it’s really lonely to be a solo founder—there have been times with the mistakes I’ve made I sometimes just wish I could offload with a co-founder or another entrepreneur, so I started this dinner series where I get founders around the table. It’s really lovely.

You say it can be lonely as a solo founder—is it even more so being a woman founder?

A few years ago, if you had have asked me if I feel like I’m not taken seriously as a woman entrepreneur or if I feel I’ve been discriminated against, I would have said no, never. Maybe I didn’t have the sensitivity or I was oblivious, but maybe it had to do with me being tall, loud and being able to hold my own. But over the past few years, I feel my antennas have come out and I’ve become more aware of what women face day-today—there have been a few meetings where I’ve thought wow, if I was a guy this conversation would not be happening right now. I’ve been invited to more and more all-women events and seen this shift within society with women lifting each other up.

I’m now purposely seeking out women in leadership positions to work—because that’s what the guys have been doing the whole time. At the same time, I have a lot of empathy for men—I don’t want to protect them, but I have a lot of men in my work environment who I think are really decent human beings who are very confused, and so afraid of doing something wrong—I want to be very gentle and respectful and lead by example.

How does leading by example tie into your ideas about success— has your definition of success changed over time?

A few years ago I concluded a talk on success being about seeing growth and happiness around me. That still rings true to my heart. Money unfortunately has never been a drive—it probably should be! [Laughs]. But when I’m at the end of my career when I’m sitting on porch somewhere overlooking a beautiful view, I want to tell stories about the people I’ve seen grow—and I hope they come visit me! If my porch is full of people I’ve helped in their career, then my life is a success.

Of all the ideas you’ve seen or helped grow, what are you most proud of?

It’s clearly CreativeMornings. If there is one thing that I feel I am contributing to the world that is so much larger than me and so much larger than I could have ever dreamt possible, it’s CreativeMornings. The fact I was able to be the beginning momentum of something that has had so much positive impact on people all over the world—on their careers, on their outlook of life— is just the best.

So there was never a plan for CreativeMornings to a global community?

No—I’m a hyper-local-let’s-just-do-this-for-kicks kind of person. Sometimes I feel very torn around that because young people today are often asked, ‘Where are you going? What’s your five or ten-year plan?’ But you know, I always feel like telling them, I never had a plan and it worked out!

What else would you tell young people? Scrap that—if you had a microphone and the whole world was listening, what would you say?

It’s really time that we all show up with open hearts and think about what we contribute to the world that makes it better—how can you bring a sense of play or curiosity or kindness into your work, communities, your family, your tiny knitting club? Everyone can be an active participant in creating the communities they want to be part of.

Madeleine Dore

Madeline Dore is a freelance writer and content producer based in Melbourne. Check out her extraordinary blog, Extraordinary Routines.

Julia Robb

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