I just wrote a story about frozen peas and their anthropomorphized journey from the frozen tundra of their bag to an inexplicably warming black sea. I have no idea where it came from. I don’t like peas. I don’t remember the last time I ate a pea. I don’t have peas in my house. I don’t even, at present, own a freezer.
It was an exercise in freewriting where I told myself to write whatever popped into my head. There was no prompt and a bag of frozen peas is what came to mind. (How weird is consciousness?) The resulting epic was one of deep separation and loss, exposing the ways in which we deny the inescapable realities of death with poignant parallels to humanity’s race against time in the fight against climate change.
I’m kidding on that last point. The resulting prose of sentient peas was, of course, silly, and, as with any first draft of anything, utter rubbish.
I won’t do anything with this odd little vignette. This was a creative exercise for creativity’s sake because I’m working out my creative thinking like I would a muscle.
Most roles in my career so far have had a creative element. I’ve worked for process-driven government agencies, lean and agile start-ups, and large charities finding the best way to help more people. In these varied environments, I’ve worked on visual designs, led innovation sprints, and problem-solved on a daily basis.
But leaving the nine-to-five (or nine-to-seven…?) office life to develop as a writer has taught me some unexpected lessons about the creative process. Here’s what I’ve learned in my shift from drone to creative.
1. True creativity is a skill we forget how to use
There is good evidence that humans are a pretty creative bunch from the get-go. An often-cited study by George Land in the 1960s found that by five years old, 98% of children will ace measures of creativity. By ten years old, only 30% will. This more than halves again by age fifteen and in adults, only a meager 2% will perform well on these measures.
This is partly because, according to Ken Robinson, we designed our schools to serve industrial needs — churning out people who can follow rules and objectives that get set for them. This runs in direct odds with creative thinking, which requires seeing past things as they are now and imagining possibilities.
“Non-creative behavior is learned.” — George Land
And so, too, it’s the case in most of our workplaces. Managers hand us our objectives and goals and the scope for how we do our work is often more narrow than we’d like to admit.
This is despite the fact that, in a transition to a knowledge-based economy, companies should need creative skills more than ever. Indeed, many companies will tout their commitment to words like “innovation” and “disruption” while still creating conditions that contradict and inhibit these visions.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink argues that work increasingly relies on experimental tasks rather than linear, easy-to-follow steps, but most management practices still rely on an assembly-line style more suited to the latter.
Robinson illustrates the point in The Element with a metaphor from the restaurant world. The local fast-food joint is all about making everything the same. It sets a standard and then codes the conditions to meet that standard in an exacting way. Everyone does the same thing in the same way to achieve a consistent, pre-determined result. And as a result, a burger in Los Angeles will taste the same as a burger in London. (Ah, the boring consistency we love to hate.)
Contrast the fast-food model with the Michelin Guide, which sets a high standard, but leaves the exact definition of what this looks like and how to achieve it to the chefs bold enough to attempt it. No one tells a Michelin chef what to make or how to do it. That set meal in New York City isn’t going to look anything like that tasting menu in Tokyo.
Many of us spend much of our life in the fast-food model of business — even if it is one masquerading as a Michelin one — weakening our creative muscles. They atrophy from lack of use. So we need to take them out for a walk. It’s less a process of learning how to foster creative skills and more a process of finding ways to relearn what we’ve lost.
And re-learning these creative skills is an uncomfortable process.
Your Creative Anxiety Crisis is a Crisis of Meaning
Brought to you by the overwhelm keeping me from my actual writing today
2. Fear is the enemy of creativity
Part of the reason that Land suggests we lose our creative thinking over time is the way in which we try to do two kinds of creative thinking at once. In convergent thinking, the conscious mind is looking at what is, refining, combining, and critiquing ideas. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is a more subconscious process where new ideas emerge. We need to make time for both tasks, separately.
But there is something even more fundamental at play: being creative is terrifying for many people. Why? Because it involves going into new territories that we can’t control, that are messy and often fail, and that open us up to judgment. In short, it’s risky.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original at all.” — Ken Robinson, The Element
By the time we’re adults entering the world, most of us hate being wrong. It comes down to how important it is to us that others like and respect us. Being wrong makes us feel awful. Studies have shown that we’ll go so far as to give an answer that we know is incorrect if the rest of the group seems to think it’s the correct answer.
Yet the process of being creative requires us to be willing to be wrong. We risk being wrong when we create because we don’t know where it is going to lead us.
Most people are not willing to suffer failed ideas. They believe that a bad idea is a reflection of their abilities meaning that they’re incapable of generating good ideas. They feel stupid in the eyes of others. It’s easier to conform. It’s easier to not try. It’s easier to follow the objectives set for us from someone else and “innovate” within a narrow band that we can control to eliminate the risk of putting something out there that isn’t very good.
But creativity is about the ‘what if we tried…’ and then seeing what happens. And, most of the time, realizing we’re not on to anything. But, some of the time, creating magic. The thing is, no one gets that moonshot without the failures, too.
Get uncomfortable. Be wrong. Survive it. Be right sometimes. Practice builds the muscle and it gets easier.
3. The creative road is dark and full of terrors
There’s a concept in writing called completion fear. I know it well. I have so many ideas for stories. And while they’re ideas, they’re these perfect little packages of potential. Seeing the idea to fruition, though, means that this potential turns into an actuality and that actuality could be terrible.
Creative work is fumbling in the dark looking for the light switch. It means going down avenues that turn up fruitless. It means chasing a thread not quite sure if it’s something or nothing. It means throwing out work that represents time and effort and energy.
In jobs in the past, I had assignments that didn’t go anywhere. Reports that I wrote that went into some executive’s desk drawer. Projects planned and never started. But these were all initiated for a reason and the context changed. This is different to not even knowing what the context is when getting started and knowing before beginning that it might be a fool’s errand altogether.
Creative thought is unknown and uncertain. Creativity is an act of creation. Quite literally, it is an attempt to bring something into the world that did not exist prior. It’s a journey to a destination we can’t possibly know from the start. We have to follow the road until it ends and be willing to go back to the start when needed.
Until we bring the idea to light, we don’t know if it’s amazing or a dud. (Most of the time, especially when the creative habit is weak, it’s going to be a dud. Expect it. Make peace with it. Take what works, discard the rest.)
In a culture that prizes productivity, this is easier said than done. To spend a day writing crumpled papers into a wastebasket feels like, well, a waste. But it’s necessary to see the trashcan as a friendly tool. It’s clearing out the rubbish. It’s working through what doesn’t work to find what does. It requires a kind of mad self-belief in our own ideas. Or, at the very least, it requires a mad willingness to do the thing regardless of the outcome.
Reminder: What’s Worthwhile Will Be Difficult
The art of embracing twists and turns in your life’s story
You ARE creative
Creativity is one of those skills that people often say they either have or they don’t. It’s more helpful to think of it as a spectrum along which we can build strength.
I have artistic friends who knit or do glasswork who will still say they’re not creative because they follow a pattern. But this ignores the thought that goes into selecting materials or matching colors, and their unique approach to the work. There are opportunities to flex the creative muscle at these points and to further build it up the originality and creativity with which we approach our work.
We all have the capacity within us. We’ve just forgotten it, or we’re too scared to explore it, or we’re not sure where it will lead and if it will be worth it. But we won’t know until we give it a go. Even if it means discarding a strange little meditation about peas.