Marcel sits alone, at his workstation with his head in his hands. It is Monday morning and he cannot believe he is here, in this same situation yet another day, another month, another year. He had sworn to himself that this year would be different. But it wasn’t. It was the same. He is not sure which is more soul-destroying: the problem that causes his unhappiness, or his sense of powerlessness to change it. He knows that if he could just solve this one problem, everything else would fall into place. The trouble is, no matter what he tries nothing seems to work.
Marcel doesn’t need money to change his world. What Marcel really needs is a bit of creativity. One of the joys of adulthood is that as time passes we gain more and more experience from which we can draw upon to solve our problems. We learn through our experience for example, what is the best strategy for getting the kids to school on time (most days!), what is the best way to approach our partner on a sensitive issue, what is the best day of the week to fill up the car, and what is the best time of year to plant the petunias.
By contrast, in childhood we have relatively few experiences on which we can draw from. Creativity is the force that enables children to solve problems for which they have no experience. Children practice creativity daily because they depend on it to navigate through the multitude of novel situations that they experience in the world. However, as we grow older, we have less need to rely on our creativity as our primary problem solving method. Despite the popular notion that “everyone is creative”, unless it is practiced, developed, nurtured and cultivated, our creativity becomes latent.
The shift from creativity to experience is not a bad thing. It is arguably far more economical for us to be able to draw from our experience and get it “right” the first time by predicting the consequences of our actions, rather than relying on the trial and error approach required to turn a creative vision into reality. We learn that there are certain rules and laws, norms and expectations that will help us solve the given problem much more efficiently. Much of our problem-solving becomes automatic, highly efficient and relatively painless as a result.
Invariably however, we come across a problem-solving challenge that our experience has not prepared us for. When the answer cannot be found by searching back through the experiences we have had, or the lessons we have learned, there is a tendency to define the problem as “unsolvable”. War, global warming, increasing interest rates, price of fuel or changing market economies are all examples of problems that are “too hard” and have become unsolvable. For others the “unsolvable” problem is how to simply get through the day against the backdrop of internal turmoil, depression and sadness. For others, it is not single problem but the sheer number of them, and the seeming futility of one person’s action, that overwhelms us. It may not even be a “negative” problem, but a vision for which we simply have no familiarity with the ways that it might be translated into reality.
Interestingly, it is in the face of these types of challenges and problems that children – whose creativity has not yet been squandered or squashed – offer us the most promising solutions. By calling on children we can discover the possibilities for our so-called unsolvable problems:
“We don’t like it that our fathers must be soldiers and shoot other children’s fathers.” (Engbrottsskolan, Ctvidaberg, Sweden).
“There comes an army; here comes another. They meet in the middle and declare PEACE.” (Holy Cross Primary School, Western Cape, South Africa)
“The war is not around him but trapped inside his head. War is not battles; it is struggles without end.” (Friends School of Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, US).
“The condition of the heart can alter the perspective of a person. The condition of the hearts of a nation can alter the state of mankind-PEACE.” (Walnut Ridge Middle School Library, Walnut Ridge, AR, US).
Creativity is therefore essential to all people. More than merely a good artistic ability or an active imagination, it is a combination of process, product, thought and action. It combines trial and error, imagination, and freedom that ultimately reconfigures what used to be, into something new. Creativity therefore matters not only to dancers and painters, but to any person who – like Marcel – longs to see something change, to experience the hope of new possibilities. Whether we want to make a difference in our world, in business or simply in our own lives, creativity is deeply needed in many homes, communities, hallways and offices today. To be asked to change the world and to confront the “unsolvable problems” is to be asked to cultivate the habits of creativity and foster them in ourselves and our children.
The good news is that even the most latent creativity can be reawakened. One of the pioneer researchers in creativity – E. P. Torrance – extensively studied creativity in both children and adults. He found that people with a highly creative approach tended to have particular styles in their approach to problems, situations and relationships – such as a certain type of flexibility and fluency. Many other researchers (particularly in early childhood education and in business) have also studied what it means to be creative, and there are some remarkably consistent themes. Here’s what the research says about habits that build creativity:
Habit #1: Take delight in deep thinking
Creativity requires us to not accept things at face value. Like the child who becomes engrossed in watching an ant struggle against a bread-crumb five times its size, deep thinking allows us to ponder and observe rather than judge. By suspending judgment and allowing ourselves to become completely absorbed in our curious, to contemplate “what is?”, “what else?”, “what if?”, “what about?”, and “why not?”, we begin to see beyond the standard answer and open ourselves up to new possibilities.
Habit #2: Demand imperfection
Creativity is not simply a thought, but requires an action. The most imaginative visions are not creative until they are translated into being. However, particularly in Western cultures, there is an increasing emphasis on achieving individual perfection with little tolerance for getting it wrong. To foster creativity, we have to be willing to place a higher importance on immersing ourselves in the world, than we do on being perfect. Whatever we define as “perfect” is highly specific to cultural and historical contexts. Because perfection depends on the achievement of these arbitrarily constructed rules, and creativity depends on something beyond the rules, we can never be truly creative whilst in pursuit of the perfect. We tend to tolerate imperfection in others more readily than in ourselves and our children. Therefore, freeing ourselves from the chains of perfectionism requires, above all else, the cultivation of self-compassion, laughter, and a bit of perspective.
Habit #3: Get to know yourself
Our world is filled with barriers that limit our opportunity to cultivate our creativity. Social judgments and expectations, dogmatic rules and bureaucracies, and simply the need to curb our passion so that we can earn a dollar and put food on the table are all common creativity inhibitors. By far the most significant personal cost of “being creative” is the risk of become alienated from the community to which you belong. History is filled with creative geniuses who are pathologised as “eccentric”, “mad” or – as increasingly the case of highly creative children in schools today – a nuisance, a problem, oppositionally defiant, or learning disabled.
Practicing creativity therefore requires that we also cultivate our acceptance that – in working toward something new – we are likely to challenge the comfort zones and expectations of those around us. For most people, the practice of creativity as an all-or-nothing endeavor is profoundly costly in personal terms. To practice every-day creativity requires that we learn to discern when to push and when to pull back. Every person has different thresholds for alienation, isolation and criticism. Knowing ourselves and our limits allows us to take risks, but always ones that we can live with. Make your creativity energizing, sustainable and for the “long-haul”, rather than isolating yourself and making your creativity a source of misery.
Habit #4: Use your strengths
Creative people are usually interested in everything with a particular focus in one area. Discover a strength you have and immerse yourself in it. Explore it from every angle. Pull it apart. Put it back together. Contemplate, play and challenge everything you can about it. Be curious about everything, and consider in what ways and contexts your strengths could be applied and connected to other areas. Give yourself permission to change your mind. Discover every possible use for what you’ve got. Use it. Reflect on it. Use it some more.
Habit #5: Find a Creative Role Model
Creativity is one of the key learning strategies we have to survive our early childhood. The difference between someone who is creative, and someone who is not, is simply whether creativity has been allowed to flourish or wither beyond the early years. Instead of sitting back in the hope that creativity will discover us, we need to actively seek out sources of inspiration for creativity. Surrounding ourselves with people who navigate through their own lives with creativity provides valuable insight into the genuine nature and nuance of creativity (rather than the sanitized and contrived Hollywood version). Observing, discussing, and sharing stories with (or about) the people who inspire our passions can help to identify the core values and strategies that might be useful in our own creative development. (It also helps to strengthen and buffer us against the criticism that can sometimes be directed toward creative action).
Habit #6: Challenge the myth of independence
In a culture obsessed with “making” children independent from birth we do great damage to our creativity. Creativity is a collaborative process and everything that is created is simply a new version of what was before. The creation of a new person, for example, comes from the splicing and reconfiguration of its parents’ DNA. Likewise, to approach any problem creatively, we have to be able to connect all parts, to be able to discover unexpected interactions and inter-relationships that we might not otherwise have seen. People who are creative tend to have a tendency to see most things (including themselves) as one part of a bigger whole, where they can actively influence and shape the world they live in. In order to be creative we need to challenge ourselves to see interdependcies, rather than seeking to be alone and isolated in the world.
Habit #7: Maintain a strong Play-Ethic
A strong work-ethic is a highly valued quality by many. However, it is in play that all the parts and pieces flow into the totality of creativity. Businesses whose bottom-line depends on high levels of creativity – such as soft-ware developers and advertising agencies – understand this principle extremely well. These workplaces more closely resemble a child’s playground of color and freedom – rather than an office – where a genuine Play-Ethic and culture is actively fostered and encouraged.
Play (which is distinct from competition and sports) enables us to let go of pre-imposed dogma. In play we are free to move in multidimensional and illogical ways (mentally and physically), to try out different combinations and roles, to laugh at ourselves, to act without fear of failure, shame or measurement, and to be wholly led by our curiosity and our sense of discovery. In play, we can truly connect to each other, to the problem at hand, and to our hearts. Far from being limited to games and children, introducing a sense of play into any context that we want to change is the most direct way to be creative.
With the possibility that as adults we may re-learn to play creatively we have the greatest hope of solving the unsolvable and changing the world in the process.