Reframing creativity You are not creative unless you create

The word ‘creative’ has become a label that we give to those people who make things and make them well. Whether it’s the Don Draper creative director of your workplace or a crafter in the far off lands of some remote Siberian community, a ‘creative’ must have two qualities – they must be able to generate ideas or physical objects and be great at it. Unfortunately, we’ve evolved this term to be somewhat misguided. The problem I have with our current description of a creative person is in the ‘great at it’ bit. What is ‘great’ anyway? You can use “good”, “awesome”, “out-there”, “innovative” – whatever positive feeling you like; the key is not the word but the fact that we’re only comfortable in labelling someone as a ‘creative’ person if the ideas and artefacts they put out in to the world are judged to be of significant value or surprise. We don’t refer to people as ‘creative’ if they come up with ‘bad’ ideas or ‘silly’ ideas. Those are the sorts of people we label as weird, stupid, crazy, eccentric or, worse yet – not very creative.

I propose a new frame of reference, a new meaning for this sought after sense of self-worth, this label of ‘creativity’ we so aspire to have bestowed upon us by colleagues, friends or family. I propose ‘creativity’ need not be a judgement of value but rather a judgement of repeated behaviour and repeated behaviour only.

Consider the following words:

or almost any of the words here

Now consider them in context of how we ordinarily describe someone. For example, “Nancy is a really negative person.” When we announce this fact about Nancy it is not implied that she is particularly good at being negative. We don’t seem to grade her ability at it either way. When we label someone as negative, dismissive or active we seem to be satisfied with the fact that all they need to do is to do it a lot. If Nancy was in a bad mood for a single afternoon we’d hardly describe her as ‘negative’. We’re more likely to say “Nancy is having a bad day, she’s normally much nicer than this.” It’s not until we see a repeat of the behaviour again and again that we begin to feel comfortable and correct in giving the label and describing that person in such a way.

How does this relate to being creative?

I’m not sure why but there’s an inherent value judgement with the word “creative”. I see that the Melbourne School of Life has a sold out session called “How to be Creative” in February led by Sarah Darmody. Yes, that’s right, it’s sold out; one of the few that have. It promises to demonstrate and discuss techniques, give a guide to boosting ‘creative confidence’, identify motivations for creativity, creative triggers & innovation and here’s the clincher… how to handle criticism. I find it ironic that we’ve talked ourselves in to this corner that means to be a creative person you not only have to generate a plethora of ideas but you’ve also got to have a thick skin, have ‘confidence’ in yourself and be always on the lookout for the right ‘trigger’ that might just lead to that new idea, the next ‘game-changer’.

I won’t be attending the School of Life lesson but it begs the question in my mind – How should one “be creative”? The reality of creativity, just like the negative Nancy example, is that to be known for something you just need to do it; again, and again, and again and again. By reducing ‘creativity’ to its root word “create”, the value judgement is removed and the simple fact reveals itself – to be creative you just need to create. Save the value judgement for after the creating when you can reflect on your creations without it affecting the outcome of what you’ve created in the first place.

In the pursuit of personal creativity, there are no rules to creating, one creates what one wants to create. Whether it’s something artistic like a watercolour painting, or something more practical and “everyday” like a doorstop to stop the backdoor from flapping about in the breeze on a hot summer night. Regardless of whether your creation is good, bad or ugly, the habit of creating anything at all simply provides you with the practice you need to become ‘better’ at it. Just like any sport, craft or fine art. Once you become better at it, confidence increases.

Of course, it’s easy to sit in the ivory tower and preach “make more make more” but one can’t isolate the human emotion that goes along with what we’re calling ‘creative confidence’ these days. Creative confidence is validation from the world around us that what we’ve created is somehow valuable, aesthetically pleasing or useful (or all of the above) to those who are not the creator. If other people tell us our creations are good, they must be… right? Why do we value the opinions and feelings of others more than our own judgements?

The great thing about our time and place in history is that we’re living in an age where any pursuit to create can be broadcast via blogs, twitter feeds or facebook to masses of people – incomparably so to any other time in history. Our audience is no longer those who walk by us as we’re busking or artmaking in the streets of an isolated city – it’s everyone with an internet connection. When it boils down to mathematical probability, there’s going to be at least one other soul (but likely many hundreds and thousands of souls) out there in the world who find anything you create to be either valuable, aesthetically pleasing or useful to them (or if they’re lucky, all of the above). If creating for yourself, there are no risks, only rewards. If you do not make any money from your creations, nor find anyone else who shares your passion for whatever you create you first need to ask yourself whether or not that was the point of what you’ve created. If it was, you were not creating for yourself. If the motivation is to create because you want to be more creative, then the process becomes the reward and you can be satisfied with your own efforts. You alone can bestow that elusive title of being a ‘creative person’ upon yourself and wear it proudly wherever you go.

Note to ‘creative professionals':

For those of you who might be designers and whose job descriptions include ‘being creative’ – the process, motivations and output of ‘creative thought’ do not necessarily apply because the definition I pose for creativity here is not the same as the definition that most ‘creative’ workplaces use.

Creativity in the professional setting is much less about ‘creating’ and more about ‘thinking differently’ or thinking innovatively – coming up with a ‘new’ idea, something that no one else has thought of yet. The focus and value proposition for these agencies is not the process of creating, it’s what comes out at the other end. With that said, the rules of personal creativity still carry immense benefits for individuals working in these environments.

By being in the habit of creating for one’s self one can assume that a creative person by my definition will in fact come up with more ideas than someone who does not practice creating (even if those ideas aren’t initially to the creative director’s liking). By coming up with more ideas you are more likely to find an idea that, at the very least, gives your colleagues or art director a springboard to bigger and better ideas. The advantage of ‘creative’ workplaces in this context is the concept of collaboration. The power of multiple brains (that all come pre-loaded with their own different experiences and intepretations of the world) working on the same problem is phenomenal. This is the basis of ‘brainstorming’ and is a useful process for finding connections between ideas and concepts that may not have been found without the magic mix of different minds interpreting the one thing. It doesn’t work unless these minds can tell the other ones what they’re up to but  ‘creativity’ in the workplace (or innovation to be more accurate) is the subject of a much longer discussion.


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