Creativity is not Magic

Creativity is not magic. It’s a rigorous discipline. Even if you’ve studied visual art, music, dance, theater, this does not make you creative. This simply means you’ve been trained to perform a task with such craft that the observer’s mind is baffled and thinks it is witnessing magic. The danger of assuming creativity is magic relegated only to wizards or artsy-fartsy people is two-fold: creativity is terrifying and unattainable, or worse, and fun, unstructured feel good add-on to the rigors of academia.

This piece is not meant to critique the arts, but inspire students and educators (participants of the most banal environments on the planet, next to prisons) to develop their own magical practice of creative thinking, feeling and doing. This practice, as I’ve witnessed, informs one’s learning, curriculum design, classroom management, and will even inspire their peers and colleagues to reimagine themselves as creative.

As a Senior Learning Experience Designer at the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab Network, I, with my colleagues, believe “all children have creative confidence and know that they can change the world. The K12 Lab inspires and develops the creative confidence of educators and supports edu-innovators in order to catalyze new models for teaching and learning.” We do this by designing and offering irresistible learning experiences to ignite the inherent creativity in humans through the practice of the design thinking modes and mindsets. We also go into schools to work closely with leaders, teachers and students to either help implement design thinking into existing curricula or use design thinking to catalyze new models for teaching and learning. In either scenario, and every variation in between, we have been hailed as superheroes or magicians waving our wands to make creative solutions suddenly appear as if from thin air.

And the simple truth is we are not magicians. We do, however, have a creative practice developed from years and countless hours of learning by doing. We use this practice like superheroes: to liberate the confines of the mind to allow our users (students, teachers, leaders) to become their own designers of creative and irresistible learning environments. These practices attempt to lift the veil on creative practices inherent in all schools, ready to shine.

So how do we do it?

  1. Assume a beginner’s mind. Practice cultural humility. Enter your context as an anthropologist deeply aware of what you are/are not bringing (biases, symbolic power, skills, assumptions, etc.) to the context. We at the K12 Lab are prototyping how to practice this self-awareness with a this tool.
  2. Practice transformational empathy. What is this? Transactional empathy is simply going into a context without having practiced #1. Transformational empathy is accomplished through a self-awareness and earned trust with your user(s). To quote my colleague, Ariel Raz, without transformational empathy, “one is simply practicing ‘you’ centered design, not user centered design.”
  3. Be the Anthropologist. Empathize by observing, immersing, engaging and into whatever context/content you want to learn from/with. Pay close attention to patterns, roles, relationships, habits (good and bad), insecurities (theirs and yours), and give respect to the culture you are visiting in order to earn respect of your creative playmates. Creatives observe the hell out of their world and wonder….
  4. “What if?” The two most favorite words of a creative practitioner. Try them on. They conjure curiosity. This trick promises not to disappoint. You can try, “If only…,” but that would only perpetuate a habit beaten into us from our school system. Combine “What if” with a bias toward action and you’re well on your way to developing creative superpowers.
  5. Build tools and relationships in order to earn trust. One creative practice can be taught to look like this. Even as a 30-year practitioner, I find creativity actually feels like this. So how do you earn trust? You reveal your authentic self by practicing 1–3. You create activities to practice creativity with early wins, and you acknowledge the win with your Future Creative. You articulate the purpose of the role creativity has with the work at hand and where someone is in the creative journey. You allow for space to feel and communicate vulnerability. Creativity is hard and ambiguous work. Welcome it. Own it. Learn from it. Share it.
  6. Lastly, love them up! Hold in your heart a genuine love for yourself and the user (student, teacher, leader) with the trust and optimism that you all are already creative, just out of practice.

And you may wonder, “This is all just good teaching and leading practices. What’s new here?” Nothing, simply the valuing of creativity as a disciplined literacy, not magic.

“The future belongs to creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people are artists, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers.”

-Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Like what you read? Give David H Clifford a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.