The Business of Being Creative

A little background: 5 months ago, I transitioned from living in Brooklyn and working in the UI/UX design world of New York to pursuing an MBA (Master in Business Administration) in Texas. This week was my first week of classes.

It was only our second day of Statistics, and I felt overwhelmed. My fellow classmates nodded knowingly as our professor spoke what sounded like a foreign language to me. I had seen data visualizations before, but mostly focused on their colors and styles in the context of a UI design. Never once did I consider their statistical significance.

Intermittently our professor asked if we had any questions. I had one: what does every single word you just said for the last 40 minutes mean? I blocked off the rest of my day to watch Statistics 101 videos and try to teach myself the subject matter.

On my way home from class, I stopped at the grocery store. The young lady at the register asked what I did: “I’m in business school.” Her eyes lit up: “My dream is to start a business, but I’m a performer and have never been good at that stuff.” By “that stuff,” she meant finance, accounting, and all other courses involving numbers and highly relevant to running a business. I had to smile a little thinking back to my statistics class this morning. I’ve heard a version of her story from most of my creatively gifted friends and inside my own head on countless occasions. Naturally, I started to think about where that negative story came from, and how we can stop it.

“Creative: having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com)

If you are a “creative,” you are often naturally gifted. By gifted, I mean you came preloaded with a certain skill that you can perform pretty easily. Yes, there’s writer’s block or creative slumps when you feel depleted of new ideas. However, in general, if someone gives you a blank canvas, you can make things. You get energy from making things.

If this sounds like you, you also probably didn’t have to actively learn how to be a creative. You might have grown up seeing the world in colors and shapes. Friends always asked you “Does this sofa look good here? Which top goes with these pants?” Maybe you spent hours alone taking things apart and putting them back together because you thought you could make them better.

If you’re like me when you try to learn something that doesn’t come so naturally, you think: “What’s wrong with me?!” And you blame yourself for not picking it up quickly. If this happened to you at a young age, you might have assumed (or been told) that you simply were not as good at math or “more of a creative” and given it up entirely.

Ouch. If you’re a parent (I am not, so take this with a grain of salt), can we make a pact that you’ll encourage your gifted children to learn beyond their talents? Can we make a promise that you’ll tell them they can learn anything with hard work? It’s too easy for kids to be discouraged by an initial obstacle when learning an unfamiliar subject. Obviously, it would be counterintuitive to not nurture your talents, but there are too many other great learning opportunities in the world to take advantage of. I’ve convinced myself it’s the way people are taught, not their intelligence, that prevents them from learning.

Instead of “I am not good enough,” maybe we should be saying “I’m capable of coming up with a way to learn this.”

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from being a creative in a business world.

  1. Use your imaginative superpowers to come up with new ways of learning the material. Can’t learn statistics from a textbook? Try drawing it on a whiteboard or make up a song about regression. Don’t give up.
  2. Relate it back to your passion. Ask yourself “how can I apply this to what I do?” over and over again. In Statistics, I keep reminding myself that my passions are technology and design. For technology, being able to analyze and summarize conclusions from huge sets of data is tremendously useful. For design, it’s compelling to present specifically how a design improved business.
  3. Remember that most people have to work hard to learn new things. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people thinking that they are just naturally better at something than you. This may be true, but it’s highly likely that you are also naturally better at something than them. Take advantage of this. Exchange knowledge.
  4. Make time to do what you love. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to walk away from it. Go do something that gives you energy and come back to it. 9 times out of 10 (*not an actual statistic*) you will figure it out when you get back. If not, at the very least you got to do something you enjoy!

I hope you learn the things that seem hard. They will teach you to see your gifts in a different light and set you apart in your industry. You will grow in unexpected ways and meet people that challenge you to think differently. To be honest, it’s probably the industries that seem difficult to you, that need your gifts the most.