Creativity: Crafting Your Life’s Masterpiece

The taboo of creativity

What do you think when you hear the word “creativity”? Do you think about artists, musicians, and designers? If you do, you’re off to a great start, but if you think that is where creativity stops (i.e. if you’re not one of those you = you aren't creative), I am here to tell you that creativity serves a much higher purpose and it encompasses people from all walks of life — and that includes you.

Before we jump into how creativity can be a powerful tool, let’s first go back to the basics — how did you view creativity as a child? My guess is that it wasn't such a dooming and panic-inducing word, and the reason was mainly that you didn't have people telling you whether what you did was creative or not, or even define the word, for that matter. From crayons on the wall to watercolors on canvas, hand turkeys, and our intricate forts made out of couch pillows, cardboard, and blankets — your early days were filled to the brim with creating. You were none the wiser, and it was fun.

But why is creativity still important past the childhood state? Well, according to the International Center for Studies in Creativity, the most widely used working definition of creativity is “the production of original ideas that serve a purpose.” In other words, creativity is what helps us overcome obstacles, solve problems, and create a better life and world. Perhaps we can extend the definition and say that it is what moves us forward, and a tool to help us accomplish a goal.

Creativity is a skill, but it can also serve as a tool. Think of it in the same terms as humor: comedians practice their humor by trying out different lines and routines and they get better and better with time and practice (did you know that even improv comedians practice?!). However, humor is also a tool for them — for some it is a means to make a living, for others a way to cope with difficult situations (any Chandler fans out there?), and others use it to fulfill their mission to bring happiness to people around them. Creativity, can do the same for you.

Many people find it hard to think of themselves as creative, because typically when someone mentions creativity, people such as the Picassos, the Sinatras, and the Angelous of the world come to mind. They are “mistaking creativity for craft.” Why do our minds immediately go to people of great talent and success? And why don’t we think of the elementary school teacher who uses creativity every day through songs and paper cut outs to teach children new concepts? Well for starters, culture has skewed the definition of artists, so before we talk about why creativity is important, we need to look at what an artist really is.

Seth Godin, marketing guru and breaker of the status quo, states in his book Linchpin that being an artist “has nothing to do with a paintbrush,” because there are “artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.”

So based on that premise, whether our medium is our voice, laptop, networking abilities, or our critical thinking skills, we can safely state that we all have the capacity to become artists in our chosen field — we all have aptitude for creativity. Whether you are an accountant, teacher, engineer, janitor, clerk, mother, or human being, creativity is a powerful tool to have.

Having the right mindset

So if everyone has the capacity to be creative, then why don’t we all lead a creative life? Well, mindset has a lot to do with it.

Psychologist Carol S. Dweck, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology proposes in her book Mindset — The New Psychology of Success that there are two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset is where a person believes his or her qualities are carved in stone. As a result, it “creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” In other words, your amount of intelligence, courage, and all other qualities have a limit, and there is nothing you can do to increase or improve them. As such, the person focuses their time and efforts in proving to others that they are brilliant at what they do. It’s a defensive mindset where learning is not much of an option, where any feedback is taken in the most personal of ways, and where every task is nothing more than a competition with others.

On the other hand, the growth mindset is “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” Dweck adds that although people may differ in their “initial talents and aptitudes, interest, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” This mindset allows people to develop a passion for learning, and in overcoming deficiencies (instead of hiding them, like the fixed mindset person would).

Which mindset do you identify yourself with the most?

This is an important thing to identify in yourself, as it informs a lot of your behaviors and attitudes in general. Dweck states that over her last 20 years of research, the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. This in turn affects how you see yourself in the arena of creativity, and whether or not you are willing to delve into it, explore what it means in your life, and break the boundaries of the limits you have set on yourself or allowed other to set upon you.

The Creative Process

Creativity has broad applications, and in order to apply it to different disciplines, we must understand its process. Borrowing from The Artisan Soul, penned by author and thought leader on human creativity and the beginning of a new renaissance Erwin McManus, the following is the “order to the creative process: we dream, we risk, we create.” For us to be able to dream, we must be open-minded and willing to learn. In order to risk, we must look fear in the face and overcome it. And to create, ultimately requires action, which in turn asks of us to be willing to accept the results, whether it is failure or success. I would add an extra step to McManus’ definition of the process and say that feedback is the fourth component — this last step entails our ability to take criticism and turn it into further action.

If the creative process asks us to dream, risk, take action and receive feedback, how would it look if you approached the steps from the growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindset?

A tool that evolves

If we can agree that creativity is more than how you stroke paint on a canvas, we must ask, what does it look like in other arenas of life? The answer may not satisfy you in the sense that it is not black and white, much like life — and this is frightening at times because, how nice would it be if life came with a manual? But then again, how boring would it be if it came with a manual. So let me propose that creativity looks a lot like observing, brainstorming, planning, designing, and practicing. It is a system of trial and error. By this I mean that you can take whatever you want to accomplish and look at all the different options and paths you can take to achieve the end goal, from there you lay out plans of actions, gather what you need, and try out the different paths until you get there. The thought that creativity is an elite trait only some get is a lie — creativity is not exclusive of gender, social status, or background. It doesn’t choose people, but it must be chosen by people. And as such, it adapts and evolves according to our needs.

Cultivating Creativity

Since creativity may look different to every individual, it is a personal process. With this in mind I encourage you to seek what motivates you and inspires you to be creative. But let me warn you on one thing that you will find along the way: like anything in life that is worth it, it takes time. As professor of psychology R. Keith Sawyer put it, we must…

Forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we’re waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we’re waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.

So start today. Go back to your child-like ways and experiment — define what creativity looks like to you, in your life, your career or vocation. How can you make your days more enjoyable, challenging, or interesting? And to get you started, let me give you five tips that could enhance your creative life today:

1. FRAME PROBLEMS AS OPPORTUNITIES & WRITE THEM DOWN

A good and practical way to develop creativity is to create solutions to problems. But that begets the question — Do you see problems as obstacles or as opportunities? As negative as a connotation as the word problem has, problems play a key role in our advancement, both in life in general, but also in specific situations, such as our jobs.

Salman Khan took a problem and turned it into a great opportunity when a few years ago he wanted to help his cousin with mathematics. Not living in the same city made it difficult, however he didn't let that stop him and he realized that he could leverage technology, along with his skills and knowledge, to his advantage. Soon thereafter, Khan Academy was born, and it is now a source of academic video tutorials not only for his cousin, but also one that high school, college students, and life-long learners around the world use today!

Think about problems in terms of your everyday activities, your industry, and your job and have the attitude to think of ways to be part of the solution. This technique of turning problems into opportunities not only applies to tutors and teaching, but any obstacle that may present itself in your life, thus giving you the opportunity to expand your creative skills to solve the problem.

2. STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE.

I consider myself an introverted person, I like my solitude. But having started a business earlier this year meant having to network. A few weeks ago I decided to talk about my experience on networking as an introvert at BarCamp Tampa Bay. The subject alone was a sort of contradiction, and required me to get in front of people and share some of the most embarrassing anecdotes of my life. I was really nervous leading up to it but stepping out my comfort zone was more rewarding than I could’ve imagined — the talk was amazing, and not because I led it but because of me taking the risk and being open about it from the beginning (I literally started off by saying “I’m an introvert, so this isn’t easy), others in the room had the courage to participate, and before I knew it we had a room full of introverts who were eager to share their stories and tips on how to network!!! I also learned a lot in the process, got some experience under my belt, and got invited to speak at another event — great opportunities arise from challenging your comfort zone!

But how does this apply to creativity? Well, stepping out of my comfort zone challenged me to create ways to cope with my introversion: I planned on facilitating a discussion instead of being the sole speaker the whole time, I did research to lead an ice breaking game for the beginning, and I even used the talk itself to expose me to more networking opportunities — if I hadn't challenged myself I never would have learned that creativity could even be applied to something such as crafting a talk! I didn't have to make it into an intricately creative talk with an over the top look-at-me slideshow, all I did was create the best solution for my purpose to deliver a talk.

3. MAKE MISTAKES, FAIL HARD.

Take a breath, count to ten, and try again — Creativity strives on making mistakes as much as it does on solving problems. Being comfortable with making mistakes may not be easy, but it could lead to being open minded and thus allowing creativity to flow through us. Sometimes, mistakes are the gateway to creativity. A great example of this is when 3M laboratories set on to develop a strong adhesive. By mistake the researcher created an adhesive that was weaker than what already existed (and as such could be removed without leaving a mark), and from that Post-it notes were born. They are now not only wildly popular, but they are also used specifically as an asset for brainstorming, which in turn is a tool of creativity. Can you imagine what it would be like if 3M hadn't used their mistake for their advantage? What would life be without Post-its?!

So remember, mistakes are okay to make, they are part of life and they teach us that failing is not always bad. Failing teaches us to grow in many aspects, including creativity.

4. THE MORE YOU DO IT, THE BETTER YOU’LL BE AT IT!

Skills require practice, and this is true especially of creativity. The more you practice it the better you will become at it. Let’s replace creativity with learning a language for a moment — when you were little you learned English with the following formula: you were exposed to the language, you heard it constantly, copied the sounds, repeated them, failed, tried again, and fine-tuned them until you were able to speak. Apply this formula to any creative endeavor and you’ll be fluent in it too: Surround yourself with creative people, learn from them, copy their techniques, add your own twist, apply them to your life, fail, try again, combine techniques, create your own, fine-tune them, and in the end you will be an expert in your own version of creativity. And then do it all over again!

My advice here, no matter where you choose to focus your creative endeavors, go for quantity — with time the quality will improve.

5. HAVE FUN & PLAY!

The beauty of creativity is that it can take any shape or form AND it can also be fun! Why else would Google, Pixar, Zappos, and other successful companies that are known for their creativity invest money to ensure the environment is creativity inducing to the employees, usually in the form of adult playground-like facilities?

In Trycicle — Creative Behavior co-authors Diego Uribe and John Cabra advocate that “Play provides room for exploration and improvisation,” while allowing “a relatively safe space to take risks, challenge conventions and expand horizons.” So don’t forget to have fun as you explore your creative skills! Go back to your kindergarden years and make prototypes out of play-doh, paint a wall in your home with chalkboard paint and use it to brainstorm ideas or practice your calligraphy skills — create an environment that encourages play!

So whether you want to be or you currently are a writer, a teacher, engineer, barista, scientist, entrepreneur, stay-at-home parent, or whatever vocation, you alone make the decision to have creativity play a role in your life and profession.

However you choose to express your creativity I hope this encouraged you to start today. Whatever medium will translate that to the world, know that the most important masterpiece you get to create is your life — you alone are the author of your own life. So in the words of Robert Mckee I encourage you to…

Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly.

Be your own creative self.

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