The Creativity Fan Club

(and Why I Hate Them)

Speech given at the 2015 opening of the MPC Creative Community, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City


“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” — Joseph Chilton Pearce

Our Creative Age

For most of human history, creators were called “heretics” or “blasphemers” and threatened with hellfire. Creative or freethinking women were accused of witchcraft and thrown in wells or burned. Men who refused to conform were said to be possessed by the devil and banished from the tribe.

Clans and kings forged their authority through rituals, myths, and religion — all at the expense of creative innovation. You pledged allegiance or lost your head. It’s hard to make creative leaps when you face the guillotine.

But no more.

Now, supposedly, we live in the Creative Age. We endlessly celebrate creators and rebels. We hear it shouted from every pulpit, from TV, and from the stage of a thousand TED talks: creativity is great, we need more of it, and schools must encourage it.

You’d think this would be a good thing. And it is, mostly. But the worst thing that’s happened to creativity today is that it has become a trend.

Suddenly, everyone is in the creativity fan club. But not me. Because the truth is that creativity is awful.

Let me explain.

The Age of Conformity

Everywhere you hear these empty phrases: ‘creativity! — follow your bliss!’ ‘Live your dream’ ‘Be passionate’. etc. What does this really mean? It gives you the impression that to create is something soft and pleasant. It conjures images of people finger painting or sitting in a circle ‘brainstorming’ with smiles on their faces.

Make a scrapbook! Ride a bicycle! Learn to cook! Be creative! These are all great things. But everyone thinks they’re great. That’s why it’s easy to be in the fan club. That’s the nature of a trend: it’s easy and safe, so everyone does it.

It’s easy to celebrate this kind of everyday creativity because it doesn’t threaten anything. It makes no interesting arguments. It raises no big ideas and challenges nothing about the world or about yourself.

Students fingerpainting or brainstorm time on the corporate schedule is fine. But the world needs more than that. These little activities are creativity in the same way that Wonderbread is bread: it’s good … but not really.

What the world really needs are creators, those that live their lives every day as a constant experiment in bold creation. But the creative life, the fearless pursuit of a life’s purpose, doesn’t have much of a fan club.

But, you’ll say, everyone thinks people should find their passion and pursue it! Sure. But most people just say that and don’t do it. And those that actually do aren’t always so well-received by society.

Consider the fate of many of history’s great creators: Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Socrates, Hypatia and Marie Curie, Copernicus and Galileo, Igor Stravinsky and Mozart, Alan Turing or Nelson Mandela or Julian Assange—people persecute and even kill people who are too creative for their era. Of this list alone, five were killed for their work! Even more were threatened with death. One was forcibly castrated by the government and later committed suicide. One lived most of their adult life in prison, another lives as a prisoner as we speak. Nearly all were rejected by the dominant culture and institutions of their day.

Where’s the fan club? Today is no different. We say we live in the Age of Creativity, but we really live in the Age of Safe and Mundane Conformity Disguised as Creativity.

The Creative Trend: Surface, not Substance

Don’t believe the hype. Creativity’s trendy fan club focuses on surface, not substance.

When the fan club says they like ‘creativity’, what they actually mean is that they like the idea of being a successful and socially accepted creator. They want to be Jesus the Messiah, not Jesus on the Cross. They want to be Stravinsky the genius composer, not Stravinsky the broke, loser musical pariah.

They like the thought of the finished product: the published novel, the billion-dollar company, the best-selling album. They daydream about fans fawning over the genius of their ideas. They love the superficial things that allow themselves to fuse their identity with that of a creator, like being rich and working only when ‘inspiration strikes’. The creativity fan club is ultimately about status and social aspiration. Which is to say, it’s ultimately about nonsense.

The fan club likes creativity in the abstract. They stare longingly at the symbols of a creator, rather than the work itself.

Beware, this is the attitude of a wannabe. It’s a distraction. It will stand in the way of actually becoming a creator. That’s why I’m attacking the fan club.

People who do the real thing, who actually create stuff on a regular basis, don’t have these fluffy delusions about their work.

You don’t hear real artists talk about how much they’re always “so inspired to paint”. You don’t hear great political reformers or entrepreneurs talk about how they’re “passionate about politics or business ”. The creativity fan club talks from the safety of an armchair, not the battlefield. They talk, they don’t do.

Go and watch interviews with great creators. Listen to the tone of their voice. Watch their faces. Look at how they stand, how they address others. What you see on their face is solemnity, focus, and a grim determination. They may be slightly crazy, overmedicated manic depressives, womanizers, drug addicts, drunks whatever — nobody’s perfect. But when you ask them about their work, their sacred core shines through. It glows with a fierce, bestial power. Because that’s what it takes.

Creativity is more like an addiction or a mental illness. You often do it not because it’s fun or it feels good or it makes you popular, but because some deep animal part of you must do it. Whether you want to or not you compulsively scribble or code or sketch or work through some new idea. That’s what a life’s purpose feels like. Creativity is energy with nowhere to go. It spills out in fits and spurts. The creator’s job is to harness it.

An honest creator will tell you this: the drive to create is scary as hell. It’s a habit: as absorbing as heroin and just as hard to kick once it’s in you. ‘Being creative’ often feels like a curse as well as a blessing.

To talk honestly about creative life means we have to see the bad and the good. But the fan club doesn’t want to admit both sides of creativity. They want the warmth of the sun without the chill of nightfall. Creativity laid bare, seen in all its raw humanity, doesn’t have much of a fan club.

Because it raises too many uncomfortable truths.

Creativity is Determination

The first of these is that everyone can be a great creator. You don’t need some immense talent or a genius-level IQ. Great entrepreneurs have been dyslexic, great artists, illiterate, and great performers plagued by stage-fright. Yet some of the most boring and uncreative places on earth are full of people with high IQs, power, connections, piles of money, and shocking good looks. These things are nice to have, but they won’t make you great. So don’t worry about them.

Any human being has the basic material to become a creator.

Yet most never will.

Most people never become great creators for a reason that’s so simple it sounds silly. It’s not lack of talent or smarts or because they’re not sure what they like. It’s because they break.

The life of a creator demands all of you. It’s a heartless taskmaster. It’s brutal. It’s merciless. Creativity is survival of the fittest. It’s red in tooth and claw.

People have worked themselves to death for their art. They’ve endured poverty. They’ve gone insane. They’ve lost love and fame and fortune, all in the name of their creative calling.

None of this is romantic. Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, Galois — the martyrs that we want to make romantic for their pain or early deaths did not live romantic lives. Don’t aspire to be a tortured artist. Don’t choose to be poor because you think it will give you artistic depth.

The bad conditions don’t make the creator. It’s the creator’s willingness to endure them, to always keep working and, eventually, to transcend them.

A great creation is just hard work done with such crazy intensity that it releases something deeper and eternal.

That’s the heart: at the bottom of creativity is a productive madness. You take all that burning energy and make it a ritual. Out comes something amazing.

Creativity comes from living a rich life, with good and bad. It’s true, the great entrepreneur, reformer, or the artist won’t talk about some abstract passion they have. They’re not in the fan club. But if you dig deep enough, the reformer will tell you how the death of their parents or some friend at the hands of some government animates their push for change. The artist will tell you of sleepless nights, led by colorful reveries and glimpses of some future masterpiece. The entrepreneur will tell you how the problem they want to solve haunts their every waking moment.

It’s all quite dramatic. It drives many people away. But that madness is inescapable. To create continuously is to accept it. Frankly, it hurts to acknowledge and act on these intensely personal and vulnerable parts of yourself. It sucks. But it’s part of growing up and to pursue the life of a creator, really, is just to grow up in a productive and interesting way. Everyone can do it. But most won’t. And no one wants to hear that.

Creativity is (Sometimes) Lonely

The second truth avoided by the fan club is that creativity can be terribly lonely, because a creator must be a contrarian. Now, it doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, on your path to become a creator you’ll connect with people more deeply and wonderfully than ever before.

But in the end, everything new is an argument about what exists versus what could be. There is no such thing as creating something truly new without controversy. The best people in your life will appear when you get serious about creating, but the bigger the change and the more successful your work, the more angry and jealous people also start to appear. They’ll swarm you like flies.

There’s a reason. Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” This is why people are so envious and eager to copy great creators. Because deep down they know that they too are capable, but they’ve chosen to ignore their purpose. They see the seeds of their own brilliance in the hard work of someone else. It’s painful.

If you push hard enough throughout your life, sometimes you’ll have to fight in an army of one. Most people don’t want that kind of life. That’s another reason why great creators are so few.

The creator’s life calls all of us to become our best selves. People avoid the call to a life of creative adventure through conformity. Most people are happy to live by copy and paste. Why risk something new, why go out and adventure, when you can just copy what already exists?

You can see copy-and-paste conformity all around you. Most people’s dreams are re-shared photos on Facebook. Their opinions come from the evening news. At their jobs they do the bare minimum, they pass the time, they save and go on a vacation to the same place that they’ve always gone.

This sounds harsh, I know. I shouldn’t judge. Because the truth is that living by copy and paste makes a lot of sense.

Think about it: the easiest path is to take everything as it is. Indeed if sanity is a mind well aligned with reality, then living by copy and paste is healthy and sane.

Business has to look like this. School has to look like that. Art must be done this way. Books should follow this format. Of course this makes sense! Look around! That’s the way things are! It’s the creator that contradicts.

The creativity fan club is a fraud because great new creations never start out with a fan club.

They start out as quests by solitary creators with marginal personalities or a tiny dedicated gang on the fringe of something. They begin with little fanfare, no respect, and often no money. After all the hard work, when it’s safe to hop on the train all the fans suddenly appear. If you follow the winds of the fan club, you’ll never arrive at something great and new.

Where does all this leave us? Well, it means that the authentic pursuit of a creator’s life is often unpopular, difficult, and slightly insane. But that’s okay.

We Were All Once Geniuses

The conformity you see around you isn’t real. It’s an illusion. Most people’s real dreams aren’t re-shared photos on Facebook. Everyone wants to explore their talents. Everybody harbors some interesting views and opinions. Everyone dreams of doing something great with their time on Earth.

And that’s precisely the problem. They dream. They want. They harbor. They don’t become. They don’t change. Because it’s scary and people are too afraid. It’s natural. But without change you get a life of copy and paste, not a life like a great work of art.

Conformity is like religious fundamentalism or political conspiracy. It’s driven by fear and secrecy. So the more you point it out, the angrier people get. Your struggle to become a better version of yourself challenges the comfortable mediocrity around you. The more willing you are to embrace your inner creator, the more hostility you’ll encounter from people who find your boldness annoying and uncomfortable. But it doesn’t matter, because the one life that you have is totally worth it.

The Myth of Genius

The path to conformity begins early. People get hung up on baggage from their past. They remember too clearly that 5th grade teacher that told them that their drawing sucked. They recall the time they were rejected at that audition for not being good enough. I’ve been there. These memories loom over your nascent creator.

Not long ago we were all great creators — restless and curious geniuses. Hard to believe? Well, we were all once children. Almost all children are brilliant, fearless non-conformists. Children speak their mind. They wear costumes for no reason. They dance with wild abandon. They combine crazy things and imagine alternate universes. I haven’t drawn anything in years, but when I was little I made my own comic books. What happened?

Fear happened.

The few fears that children have are silly and can be unlearned. But instead of just removing the fear of the dark or the monster under the bed, we replace these fears with more crippling grown-up ones. These fears are almost all social. We’re not afraid of the dark, now we’re afraid of humiliation. We’re not worried about monsters, we’re worried about failure and rejection.

In the end, we do something truly awful to our inner kid. We take that defenseless child within all of us and throw them into a pit full of other people’s opinions, most of which are unfounded and idiotic. We bury ourselves alive. That child with the spark dies forever, along with any hope of them becoming a great creator.

This is why great creators seem like geniuses, like one-in-a-million. Because most people just give up on themselves. They surrender. When faced with judgement and rejection and challenge most people say, “Well… I guess they’re right. Better to do the adult thing and start being realistic.” By ‘realistic’ they really mean boring and full of fear. That’s it. The End. Game Over.

The great creator never says this. The Steve Jobs, the Jane Austen, the Hemingway, the Picasso, the Frida Kahlo, the Albert Einstein, they say, “Thanks for your feedback. Now watch as I become great.” A creator never gives up on themselves. That’s their genius.

Creators are Productively Childish

Great creators have a child’s intensity, even when they’re old. To be clear, I don’t mean they’re immature. In fact, great creators look at their work with the utmost seriousness and maturity.

The creativity fan club denies this. For example, Mozart is the child-genius cliché. He’s portrayed as this laughing, immature, sexually bizarre lunatic with a spark for classical music. And he was nutty. But when it came to his music he was an unapologetic pro. His standards for his work were higher than anyone’s. He worked like a dog. He wrote and rewrote and studied and devoured anything that would help on his quest to be a great creator.

World-class musicians practice over ten hours per day. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. This is the mindset of a pro, however immature anyone might seem.

Great creators have kept the imaginative power and the depth of their child alive, not it’s immaturity. In the phrase of Emerson, great creators don’t see their alienated thoughts in the work of other geniuses, because they never alienated them, they spoke their inner voice instead of smothering it. So they seem like a genius.

When a child is playing and learning, they have the focus and intensity of a seasoned professional. Learning is serious business when you’re little, because your life depends on it. It’s adults that look like lazy amateurs by comparison.

Sometimes I wonder if the ancient idea of reincarnation, that we contain the souls of past lives, has a simple and mundane explanation. Occasionally a child says something that cuts so close to the essence of things, you can’t help but see in the toddler a past life as an ancient Buddhist sage. In English, we call these kids “old souls” because they seem to have inherited the wisdom of the past. But maybe it’s the opposite — they haven’t inherited anything at all. The ‘old souls’ we see in children aren’t because they have someone else within, but because their soul is unvarnished by the garbage judgments that others heap upon us and that we enforce on ourselves as we grow.

I once had a music student who couldn’t have been more than seven. Right in the middle of a lesson he turned to me with a dead-pan expression, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Have you ever been in love, truly?”

My first thought: What movie did he take that from?

My second: Oh God, do I need to give him an answer?

I just looked at him and hoped we could change the subject.

Children are intense because they’re curious about learning, they’re driven in the world, and they don’t care what other people think of them. This is what so many adults lack. By the teenage years, most people are already lost causes. Their chance to be a creator has come and gone.

People miss their chance for bad reasons: they worry too much about what their friends or parents or priest or boyfriend or girlfriend or classmates or teacher will think. They don’t ask questions, because they’ve been well-trained to know which questions are off-limits. They hide their true selves. They start copying and pasting because, well, this creator stuff just sounds a little scary and unreasonable and kinda hard.

The Creator’s Choice

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can choose to become a creator just like you can choose to wake up at 6 a.m. It can happen at any age, anywhere. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s a habit you can nurture and grow. That’s something education can help.

Unfortunately, the worst offenders in the creativity fan club are schools. Inspirational posters plaster your classroom wall: “Be creative!” “Think for yourself!” “Go against the current!” I remember when I started to see these atrocities when I was in middle school.

How ironic it is. Students stuck in a row of desks, listening to some teacher yammer on year after year after year. Truly, who could imagine that this environment might not encourage independent and passionate creators?

Everything wrong with the fan club can be seen in the typical poster on the classroom wall.

Schools want to encourage great creators, but instead of attacking its essence, they want to literally paper over the problem. Why? Because schools, just like most people, don’t want to change their fundamental approach. Just like the fan club, they want the surface, not the substance.

These posters yell inspirational messages just like teachers yell lessons at students. These posters counsel independence and responsibility, but the student is given neither. These posters tell you to live a life rich in risk and learning and exploration, but schools define all of human knowledge into a standardized curriculum that tells you over and over: once you pass the test, you’re done! Putting these supposedly inspirational messages on a photo of a waterfall (to give it that kinder, gentler touch) isn’t going to matter if you run your classroom like a concentration camp.

Most schools are disasters at encouraging creativity because instead of cultivating independence, confidence, and individuality, they encourage obedience, fear, and conformity, all of which destroy our inner creator.

The MPC

Which brings us to the MPC. Our home institution here at UFM has the mission “to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal and economic principles of a society of free and responsible individuals.”

Put simply, most schools fail to develop creators because they don’t treat people like free and responsible individuals. That’s why we want to build the MPC as a creative learning community.

The MPC is actually quite a simple idea. Treat students like creators and like adults. Trust them to lead their education, but hold them to a professional standard. Focus on habits, not curriculum. Otherwise, just get out of the way.

We’re organized around the famous quote: “all the world is my school and all humanity is my teacher.” Because living boldly is the fuel of creativity, and the creator’s life doesn’t end after college. The true value of school isn’t to force textbooks on you, it’s to give you the habits and mentality you need to live a creator’s life.

The design of the MPC asks a lot of uncomfortable questions.

What if students weren’t given tons of specific assignments or classes, but a rigorous framework for designing their own, where the entire world could serve as classroom and nearly anyone as professor?

What if school did away with schedules and measured results rather than hours sitting at a desk?

What if school was less like a factory or a prison and more like a club where interesting and ambitious people could gather and learn from each other?

What if a school was built around the constant conversation of how we can become better, stronger, more successful, and more authentic creators?

It all sounds a little crazy, I know. But here we are with the hope that education can help on the creator’s path.

And we do need help.

Community: The Perks of Being a Creator

Creativity is an unrelenting struggle. Some obstacles will be out in the world but, hardest of all, creativity is a struggle against yourself. Creativity is sometimes to fail and to face harsh judgement. A good creative community is a safe space to do this, and to learn from it.

A good creative community teaches ambition and determination. A creator is in constant rebellion against the limits of the world and the limits of themselves. A creator is never satisfied because there is always more to do and to learn. Creativity is infinite. That’s both its terrifying power and its magic.

Creative community must also teach conscience and respect. Creators are how the world heals itself. All things fall apart. Everything decays. And it will always be the duty and the privilege of the creator to be there, to replace the broken, the unjust, and the obsolete with something new and better.

Creative community matters because creators matter. Creators of all types are the best humanity has to offer. All progress depends on them. On you. On your willingness to try. The creative struggle is more bearable when shared because it’s tough: everyone falters sometimes, everyone fails or gets scared. I do.

Happily, we’re all on the same path. The programmer and the painter and the novelist and the musician and the entrepreneur — there’s at least one of each of these in just this room. The medium we choose to express ourselves is different, but the journey is the same. So let’s do it together.

Community also makes creating more fun. I lied when I started and said that creativity is awful. The paradox of creativity is that it’s both awful and incredibly, life-changingly awesome. And awesome things are made even better when people are there with you.

To watch someone come alive with their inner creator is the privilege of a lifetime. To discover it within yourself is absolutely amazing, it’s the greatest thing you can do for yourself and for those who care about you. Everything gets better when you get serious about becoming the creator you were meant to be. Because you finally, really, fully live.

This program focuses on the substance of creativity. We’re not creativity’s fan club. We’re boot camp for creators, a club to work and to learn and to grow. To come to terms with our inner creator, our freedom, and the responsibility that freedom entails.

We want everything, from the furniture to the staff to the software, to reinforce this process. That’s our mission, that’s our goal.

Since we’re talking about dreams today, I should admit: it’s also one of my dreams–to build something where people of all types can find each other and connect and whose shared commitment is goodwill, fun, and a lifelong drive to create.

The greatest gift we can all give to the world is to take our dreams seriously. The inspirational posters are half right. You should ‘dream big’. But your dreams don’t belong on a poster. They don’t belong in some cheesy meme on Instagram. They belong in front of you, blooming here in the real world because you were so brave that you actually did them.

Beyond some basic training and strict, high standards, you have tremendous freedom to become the creator you were meant to be. You were brave enough to take the first step. I believe in the great creators that you can become. But you certainly don’t need my permission.

You just need to start and never stop.