Thinking About Creativity

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
-Charles Mingus

Far be it from me to crush anyone’s dreams, but not everyone needs to write a book, paint a picture or make a movie. Now before you get yourself all knotted up, let me explain.

It seems lately there is a lot of emphasis on this notion of “creativity”. There has been a culture grab for those people who have both right and left-brain sensibilities. Well, outwardly it would appear that way. The truth is, in the white-collar world, the proclamation of “out of the box thinkers” (really just a trite way of saying creative) is nothing new. However, in large companies, the very last thing they want are “out of the box thinkers”. They want malleable mindsets, people who won’t question or stray from the corporate message or objective.

To the truly creative individual, staying “on point” with the corporate message is anathema to their essence.

So if your company makes jet engines, installs home services or makes widgets and they are beholden to shareholders, don’t be fooled into believing they want to hear your “out of the box” ideas. If a manager’s job is contingent upon staying the course in order to receive their 12-15% annual bonus and their 4-5% annual increase, don’t kid yourself.

They don’t give a shit about your ideas.

Which seems the anti-thesis of what some feel good, self-help snake oil salesman have been pitching us over the past ten years. We’re to believe we can add value to our monolithic corporations if we just contributed more creatively. If only we would offer suggestions, the road to the corner office would be paved with steak lunches and a nice Malbec. Hogwash!

As the Internet has grown and the ability to create and distribute all forms of content became more user-friendly and readily available, an entire industry exploded teaching people to embrace their creativity. But the sad truth is that putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, paint to canvas or eyeball to lens does not make you creative. A creator, yes. And just because you can doesn’t mean you should

You see creativity is not something that can be learned in school, through practice or rote behavior. Creativity is first and foremost, a mindset, a belief.

Creativity is about strength and resolve. It is CHOOSING to go against the norm. It is a particular point of view and ultimately, a life choice. It’s been my experience that the easiest way to find someone who is not creative is to find the person who proclaims the loudest that they are. If you have to say you’re creative, the chances are you’re not very creative.

Now look, I am not saying you are not creative. I firmly believe buried deep in the recesses of our brains is a seed of creativity. Some people learn early to water and grow that creative seedling while others find and feed it later in life.

Sadly, some people never know it’s there or are taught early on to ignore it. Let’s also be clear about this, you don’t need to be a writer, actor, director, artist, musician, whatever, to be creative.

Scientist Alexander Flemming is a guy who changed the entire face of medicine through one little creative moment. Flemming is going about his business, conducting his experiments and wakes up one morning to find ONE of his petri dishes didn’t react the same as the others. Now, for whatever reason (here I submit is the critical creative moment), he made a decision to examine what went wrong with that one petri dish. He made a very simple decision and in the process changed medicine forever.

How easy would it have been for him to just say, “Shit, I fucked up.” And thrown it out?

If he were working for a large corporation, odds are he would have been berated and then told to throw it out (obviously, that is a gross over simplification of things…I’m trying to illustrate a point, I’m not shooting for historical accuracy).

What did he do that was so creative? In the matter of a few seconds, he made the decision to examine the flawed petri dish and thought to himself “OK, now what’s this all about?” THAT is the creative mind. And that you cannot teach. You can teach people mechanics but you simply can’t teach them to be inquisitive, to look for changes or to look at their world differently.

Is Andrew Flemming any less creative than Pablo Picasso?

So what did Flemming discover? Penicillin. Might someone else have discovered it? Maybe. But they didn’t, he did. 

Bob Marley said it best about creativity, Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.

You see creativity is devoid of the banal. It is looking at things and instead of asking “why” asks “why not?” It is the person who looks at the ordinary and sees only an opportunity for the extraordinary.

1731_2Steve Jobs was a flawed human being, we all know this, BUT he did more for the creative (and non-creative) mind than almost anyone since Johannes Gutenberg (he invented the printing press). Jobs made the chief modern creative tool, the Mac, user-friendly and virtually idiot proof. 

More importantly, he (probably more realistically, Apple’s ad agency creatives) provided the two words that provided a battle cry for a generation. 

Think different.

And what’s the one thing no one will never tell you about creativity? They leave out the really crappy parts. The parts where you’re riddled with doubt, insecurity and fear. The creative individual is judged, pushed down, and encouraged to color inside the lines and laughed at when their heart tells them to color outside the lines.

If they are tenacious and lucky enough, they can break through all the skepticism and doubt (internal and external) and maybe, just maybe, squeak out a living.

But they continue to create because they have to. It’s what drives them. Make no mistake, while it may be creativity that drives them, it is not what defines them.

All of this must sound horribly pretentious. To try to put some sort of definition to creativity is akin to trying to define what makes The Beatles one of the most important group of musicians ever (note: I am not a huge Beatles fan, but to deny their influence would be foolish). You simply can’t explain why their music is as influential today as it was 50 years ago.

Malcom Gladwell famously wrote about the 10,000 hours “rule”. Which should not be defined as a rule. If I spend 10,000 hours working at something, I would probably become proficient at it, but unless I were truly wired for it and connected to it, I would never be great at it. So, tread lightly in thinking that at 10,000 hours your creativity reaches critical mass. What you should extrapolate from that is you need to practice…and practice a lot…and even then, you may never achieve creative nirvana.

A lot of people think creativity can only be found in the arts. And to that I say bupkiss! You can creativity in the manager who recognizes talent in a subordinate and defies their own career goals to advocate for them. It’s found in the carpenter who, by simply turning a piece of wood a different way, changes the entire outcome of a design. Creativity can be found in the sales person who finds a way to sell to the most obstinate of customers or in the hotel janitor who suggests building elevators on the outside of the building so he won’t be unemployed for two months while they refurbish the elevators inside (that’s actually a true story).

Creativity can be found everywhere and it’s in everyone. It’s just what you choose to do with it and how you exercise it. But like any exercise it’s work…and it can, and often does, suck.

So, I’ll condense all those books about finding your creativity into one simple sentence. Open your eyes and live your life, not the one you think you should (I just saved you 20 bucks, you can send it to me). It’s as simple as that. Maybe you are destined to write the great American novel or screenplay. Go for it. You should. Maybe you are the one of the lucky ones who is truly gifted and can knock it out of the park right out of the gate. But you’re probably not and it’s going to take a lot of work and it will ultimately be rewarding, but the path to that is going to kind of suck.

Oh and can we please just eliminate the image of the tortured creative soul? Sure, they exist, but I know a lot more high functioning and extroverted creative people than I do miserable ones. Some people like to link some element of  mental illness to creativity and that also exists, but is completely in the minority (yes, some introversion helps and that can be a little depressing sometimes). Some people think alcohol or drug use is the key to opening up a creative door. It can, but even one of our most celebrated literary drunkards, Charles Bukowski, never wrote drunk. Refused to.

The only real defining characteristic of being creative is living your live and examining and questioning things. 

Perspective on life, a particular view of the world, is not something they teach in school. No matter where you go or how much you spend on it. You can pay to learn the mechanics of creativity, but not to be creative.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, that seed of creativity still exists. It never goes away and I would bet you are way more creative than you think…but that may not necessarily mean you need to write a book…but then again, maybe you should.

So, what does that make me? Am I the master of creativity? Nope. Far from it. I don’t know what that makes me and I don’t much care. Other people take more pleasure from labeling things than I do. I’ll keep doing what it is I do as long as I can and as long as I think I have something worth saying. And the things I think are worth showing, I’ll show. It doesn’t mean they’ll be seen. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that they’re any good. They are simply an expression of my world view and one that I think is worth sharing.

That’s creativity.

edited from July 2012