One simple thing you can do to reframe your creativity

Do you think of yourself as creative? Are you a ‘right brained’ type? How much of your working life involves being creative? Why do some people think they aren’t creative at all?

What the hell is creativity, anyway?

I’m obsessed with these questions and spend a lot of my time as a theatre director analysing how artists make art. But I don’t have definitive answers because last time I checked (sorry, data driven age) creativity is not something you can measure and weigh.

“Can I have 2.6kg of creativity please?”

Stop Press: Creativity Down by 54.7%!

I think we’d all agree these statements are pretty meaningless.

Data do exist though on how many of us would like to be more creative. Both in our jobs and lives. A quick sweep of online polls (yes, yes, I know) suggests that only 25% of us believe we are living up to our creative potential.

Think about your circle of family and friends for a second. Does experience suggest that statistic might be fairly accurate?

It strikes me that a very interesting situation exists therefore. A significant majority of the population does not really know what creativity is, but they also feel (whatever ‘it’ is) that they’re lacking it.

Well when you put it like that, it’s kind of obvious why those two phenomena are linked.

So is there a fresh way to think about this hobgoblin term: creativity?

Here’s a quick thought experiment. What if we were to swap it for another word? There are many we could chose from; playfulness, vulnerability, inventiveness. Right now, though, I’m going to suggest…

Individuality.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Rather than a ‘thing’ that you have, like a substance existing outside of ourselves, creativity is really just an expression of bits of our selves that already exist. It’s our unique ability to filter the world through the prism of our personal experience to create new connections.

Think of an actor tackling the role of Hamlet in a play.

Whilst she’ll go on a journey to discover the ‘truth’ of that character, it will inevitably be her own unique interpretation of the role that the audience will relish.

Think of a great ‘Hamlet’ and you might picture stockings and skulls, but most likely you’ll recall an actor’s interpretation of the role. The individual details they brought to the stage.

In fact, Shakespeare’s most famous play contains within its own structure a sort of meta-discussion of the actor’s art. At one point, a group of strolling players turn up at the castle in Elsinore to perform for the court. Hamlet gives them some timeless advice:

“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

tl;dr: Be yourself. Show the world your self in the mirror.

In his intriguing film Looking for Richard, we follow the actor Al Pacino as he embarks on a quest to discover the soul of Shakespeare’s villainous king, Richard III. The further the actor searches ‘out there’ in the outer world for information, the deeper he digs into his own psyche to find the Richard within.

To steal an analogy from quantum mechanics, it’s a bit like the paradox of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle whereby light can be seen as a wave or a particle depending on the interaction of the observer. Who does the spectator see on stage, the actor or the character? Depends who you ask. And when.

Does creativity reframed as individuality help us to re-examine our own relationship to it? It seems odd, doesn’t it, to ask whether you are an individualistic person? ‘How individual do you feel?’

And yet, in my experience, this isn’t so far from what we are really talking about when we talk about creativity.

Imagine this. I could ask 100 of you to tell me what you had for breakfast this morning. I’d get a lot similar answers. (Maybe some of you have a penchant for roast widgeon first thing, I don’t know) but what would be unique would behow you told me about it.

The words you used. The pictures you created. Your personal style.

It’s in these tiny details, these micro-decisions, these wild flowers which grow through the cracks, that your individuality — your creativity — expresses itself.

So you are being creative all the time. We all are. Whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. Because we are unique.

We are constantly telling the world, and ourselves, a story. The story called: Who I Think I Am.

What if the real question was not: how creative are you? Rather: ‘how much do you embrace your individuality?’

In the past, economics has framed individuality as the enemy. When output is your KPI (that’s ‘key performance indicator, artist dude), it matters little what colour hair you have or if you can salsa. What the machine needs is cogs to make it run efficiently.

You may say, but there’s compelling research to suggest that societies which place a positive social value on individualism have stronger economies. That’s because more individualistic societies are, in general, more competitive.

We all know, however, that you can be individualistic and conformist. Take a look at the suits in any financial district. Let me be clear, what I’m talking about is individuality: the robust celebration of the quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us who we are.

Also, the productivity model of work is crumbling.

A.I. and automation are dismantling it. The requirements of an employee in the last century (to be a cog) are evaporating because humans cannot compete in those tasks which machines can perform more efficiently and at lower cost.

Instead, what is valued in humans is what they alone can bring to the workplace. Ironically, the very things the old world model perceived to be the enemies of productivity: human vulnerability, compassion, empathy, uniqueness, individuality.

The future world of work does not require cogs. It needs more rare and exotic birds.

How, practically, we embrace and expand our individuality is a whole other discussion. No one has magic-bullet answers. There are only questions.

One thing I’ve learned is that the right questions, asked at the right time, have immense power.

Here’s one to start with: What do you value?

Take 2 minutes to make a list. Already, you’ll own an map of your deeper self.

And in the meantime, I leave you with Hamlet’s 400 year-old advice. Hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature. The world requires it.

What do you think? Get creative and let me know.