When I was in third grade, I worked on a group project for my class. I think it was for social studies, or maybe science. We were asked to create a map of a country and to draw different symbols with a legend to represent different things you would see in that country. We labeled types of land masses, geographic points of interest, and the animal species that you were likely to find in different areas. I invented an animal — a type of bird — and put it on the map. I was always a creative kid, so this was not unusual. I wrote about my “M-birds” in our report as well. It was an excellent piece of creative writing (I still have it). My team was marked down points for my creativity, and the other students in the class made fun of me.
I was ashamed and started to try to hide my creativity rather than share it with others. I stopped sharing my stories and the books I was trying to write. I stopped trying to do creative things when we were asked to “invent” something. I was embarrassed when other people looked at my artwork. I felt like thinking in a different way from my classmates was a bad thing.
Nearly thirty years later I am still experiencing the same feelings. I try to write, but I am nervous that other people won’t like it. I start novels and stop them partially complete. I feel like they will never be good enough, so why bother? I was in a creative career for almost a decade, but I left that for the comfort of a 9–5 job. I continue to read and write, but I struggle to share that with others. I have started exploring this feeling, and I have learned one thing: Society is killing creativity.
Society is killing creativity.
Killing Creativity in Schools
The focus of K-12 education has shifted. Teachers are limited in what they are allowed to teach. Most schools expect teachers to focus on standardized curricula and making sure their students are meeting benchmarks. Those benchmarks are assessed through standardized tests. Our educational system has become a fast food education.
Teachers are not rewarded for encouraging creative thought and creative activity. Parents, school administrators, and politicians are increasingly concerned with test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates (and which colleges students are accepted to. They push IB and AP courses and dual-enrollment college classes on high school students. We push our kids to perfection, but we don’t encourage them to learn and explore in a creative way.
Creative children are often shamed or punished. We want kids to behave like businesspeople or future CEOs, but we don’t encourage them to pursue creative endeavors. I know — I am a parent of two teenagers. For a long time, I told my daughter not to pursue the arts. I told her that she would never be able to support herself financially and that those activities are better as a hobby. I was wrong.
Searching for Creativity
Months into the new 9–5 job, I realized that I was unhappy. I started exploring old interests. I started reading more fiction (something that I never had time for in my previous job) and I returned to experimenting with my writing. I realized that something I loved doing when I was a child was what I really wanted in life. The challenge: I have lost my confidence in my ability to create. I find myself asking: Is it any good? I constantly question whether other people will read what I write.
I realized that I needed to rediscover my creative side. My first solution was to buy books on the craft. I read over 15 books on writing techniques and strategies. I read about how to outline a novel and plan my writing, I read about character development, I read about world building. Every book that I read had a formula that would make your writing “attractive” to publishers. Fast food writing for our fast food educations.
I realized one thing from reading all of these books. I did not want to write based on a formula that would make publishers want to publish my book. I definitely don’t want to write the same drab book that has been written with slight alterations hundreds of times before. I aspire to be the type of writer that people remember for centuries.
I realized that what I really needed was to practice my writing and to get my confidence back. Maybe the first things I wrote wouldn’t be good, but they would allow me to test the water and find my style.
Creativity in College
We produce cookie cutter children in K-12, but what happens once they reach college? College has become just an extension of high school. When I was a college professor, I observed many concerning things. Many of my colleagues assessed student performance based on 2–3 multiple choice tests and nothing else. They didn’t assign any writing, essays, or papers (too much to grade). They expected students to read textbooks that watered down the content. They often delivered lectures using slide presentations provided by the textbook publishers. Sometimes the test questions were provided by the publishers as well.
Other professors expected students to be enthralled by every word they said. They saw themselves as the holders of knowledge, and they viewed their students as extremely lucky to even have the opportunity to be in their presence. These were often the same professors who complained about why their students never showed up to class.
Then there were the other professors. These were the ones who were accused of spending too much time and energy on their teaching. I had a professor like this. I still think he is a genius (and I talk to him as often as I can). He would enter the classroom, and we would have a dialogue as a group. We would discuss and debate what we were reading. We would think about how these things translated into practical experiences. He challenged us to think outside the box. He assigned readings that were far beyond the content of the class. This confused students initially, but by the end of the semester it all made sense. There were connections. He was (and is) a policing scholar — we often talked about authors such as James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marcel Proust. We discussed the work of Hemingway. It always connected back to the topic of my studies, but often in unexpected ways. He continues to hold a treasured place in my heart.
Unfortunately, most college professors are just eager to give their students a grade and get them out of their classes. They race to the end of the semester to prepare for the next one. They complain about their students to each other. This has an unfortunate impact on college education, and it discourages creativity.
How can we expect college students to be innovative and to create when they are taught to memorize what is in the book, what the professor says in the lecture, and what is on the slides?
How can we expect college students to be innovative and to create when they are taught to memorize what is in the book, what the professor says in the lecture, and what is on the slides? Innovation and creative thought are not rewarded. In fact, they are often punished. Professors who teach their students to be innovative and creative — even when it means failing — are often punished as well. This is particularly true at the undergraduate level. There are two key problems: fear of failure, and the ego-imposter syndrome challenge.
Fear of Failure
One of the biggest threats to creativity is a pervasive fear of failure. We train our children to fear failure from an early age. This fear continues through adulthood. There is one problem with teaching people to fear failure — it discourages creativity.
Creativity thrives on failure. Many of our most important discoveries have resulted from failures. Failed experiments. Failed jobs. People who have failed in one part of their life often learn from those failures and this allows them to grow. Failure allows us to become who we were meant to be.
Creativity thrives on failure.
My last semester of teaching, I talked to my students about failure. I encouraged them to embrace failure and learn from it — but to never fear it. This is a lesson that I am still trying to learn myself. I think I learned more from my students that semester than they learned from me.
Failure is an essential aspect of creativity. Painting a picture? You have to experiment with it a bit to have something that is new and innovative. The first few paintings might be awful, but they allow the painter to learn techniques that will eventually result in a masterpiece. Writing a book, short story, article, or essay? The first few are usually atrocious failures, but they allow the writer to learn writing techniques and to find their writing style. Learning to play an instrument? You have to make the squeaky mistakes to find the techniques to produce beautiful sounds. The key is that you have to experiment — test new methods and find the one that works.
The other threat to creativity that I have observed a lot recently is a combination of ego and imposter syndrome. These are individuals who have an inflated sense of self on the outside, but on the inside are constantly worrying that others are going to realize they don’t belong. These people are worried that they won’t be good enough and that eventually other people will realize this and ostracize or shame them. To compensate, they spend their time boasting or trying to overemphasize things they are good at. They are like peacocks putting on a show while hoping you won’t see the damaged feathers.
These people put so much energy into their presentation of self that they forget to think, create, and innovate. They also stop listening to other people. One of the most important ways we can build on our creativity is to connect to others.
Finding Creative Connections
In trying to rediscover my creative side, I have learned one important thing: creative connections are essential. I make an effort to connect to other creatives who inspire me when I can. I try to talk to other writers (whether they are academic writers or other types — sometimes I prefer the non-academics) when I can. I connect with writers online — people who are facing the same creative struggles that I am facing. I try to attend ballets, operas, plays, the symphony, and other activities that will spark my creative imagination more.
Essentially, I am trying to reconnect with my creative roots. One of the best ways to do this is to talk to other creatives. How did they find their way out of a creative rut? I have found that many other people have entered the creative pit of doom. The good news is that most of them seem to have found their way out, and often with more ideas.
I have also turned to reading more. I always had a book with me when I was younger. I was constantly reading. I have started to embrace that love for reading again.
One important lesson that I have learned from reading more is that I need to expand my horizons. For many years, I was only reading things that were connected to the topics I was writing about. I was not reading in a variety of genres but focused in a narrow subset of a narrow field. This was limiting my creativity.
One of the best ways to foster creativity through reading is to read across genres. Read things that you normally would not be interested in. It is amazing how the human brain will find unusual but meaningful connections across topics that logically should not be connected in any way. In recent weeks I have read a biography of Tolkien, an essay by Virginia Woolf, started a history book series on the history of England, a book on management, a couple of novels, and recently started reading Harry Potter in French. I am finding connections between Tolkien and Virginia Woolf embedded in what I am learning about the history of England. I am finding connections between my novels and management techniques. The variety in my reading is allowing me to make creative connections that I would not have otherwise observed.
Reviving Our Creative Selves
It is essential that we find a way to reinvigorate our creative souls. I have learned a lot in seeking out the creative child that a third-grade teacher stomped like a bug. I have also learned a lot in reflecting on how the pressure of my peers influenced the way I saw myself. In circumstances where others make me feel bad about myself, I try to take a step back and figure out if that is an accurate depiction of who I am or if it is more of a reflection of who that person is. Many times, it is not me — or not entirely.
Reawakening your creative self is not always a pleasant process. It requires a bit of reflexivity and self-awareness. This can be uncomfortable at times, but the destination is definitely worth the journey. I am finding my voice again as I work to embrace my creativity. This is having remarkable effects on my mental health, the way I treat others, and on how much I am enjoying my life now. I think it is time for us to revisit the way our society approaches creativity — from birth to death.