Childhood role models and their influence on creativity

Is one key to being more creative having a strong, creative childhood role model?

I remember growing up with parents who encouraged exploration, creative expression, and—possibly most important—curiosity. They undoubtedly impacted how I perceive creativity. If something breaks your first inclination might be to take it to an expert, or call someone, to fix it. But my father would work diligently to understand why the thing broke and how he might fix it himself; whether a car break pad, an electrical short in a wall, or even a computer. My mother was all about resourcefulness and art, motivating family and her students to constantly create and explore using whatever was available.

For a long time I wanted to believe my upbringing didn’t have a major influence on my perception of creativity, but the more I’ve researched into the impact others have on our own perceived creativity—or our creative confidence—the more I realize just how important childhood role models can be for instilling a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Being creative requires a strong sense of curiosity. It requires an openness to ideas, and the resources, abilities, or resourcefulness to pursue them. Without these things it’s easy to fall into routine and to consistently expect things in the world to be reliable. But if you go out into the world expecting things to be fairly unpredictable—or, at the very least, knowing you don’t know everything and that there’s always the possibility of learning on your own—a lot can happen.

A childhood role model can certainly be helpful in teaching and exemplifying these skills for a child, but it isn't the only way.

As we grow we lose our sense of wonder. I've written on this before by saying: “as the child grows up, he or she comes to be an expert on how to live within the bounds of what becomes known; to do so ensures a general happy and healthy life. You don’t have to look very far to see how this transformation occurs, how we each go from naive toddler to knowledgable youth then finally into experts as adulthood.”

Books, experimentation, educational and environment can all help influence the creative mentality. An adult role model can help too, it’s just not a requirement to developing the necessary habits and behaviors of creative thinking.

Books help expose us to different ways of thinking just as a parent or group of individuals might. The stories contained in books help us feel as though we’ve lived them, the cost of the experience merely being time.

An author could realistically or figuratively go on a journey that provokes irrational thinking, puts them face-to-face with danger, and shakes up their very existence. As a reader we merely need to show up and we’ll come out on the other side unharmed but undoubtedly changed. A role model can present a similar map to us: they tell their story or live it before us and the outcome is the same in that we get the insights of the experience without having to have left the comfort of our lives.

Travel can also be important for diversifying perspective. When we go somewhere new we expose ourselves to potentially new concepts or ideas; the further from home, the more radical our exposure is likely to be.

Diverse hobbies and experiences, interactions with strangers, and even intriguing movies or music, can all influence our ability to think creatively. But in order to even encounter any of those things we must first believe we have a capacity for creativity; we must first be curious enough to try new things, to open ourselves to opportunities. If as a child you are told the world is the way it is and you shouldn’t question or explore, you’re less inclined to do so. But if you’re instead taught from an early age that the world is vast and varied, you begin your life expecting to encounter things that are different and potentially insightful.

Children don’t need to learn these things from their parents, but having close mentors or role models to help demonstrate the value of creativity and curiosity goes a long way.

Of course, it’s true just as much for adults: if we aren’t surrounding ourselves with those who inspire and motivate us, who push us to ask questions and remain curious, we’re less likely to step outside our comfort zones, to take risks, or to simply wonder.

You already have all the tools for creative work

“The tone is in the fingers.” - Jason Fried, Founder of 37signals and author of Rework.

Too often impostor syndrome creeps up on us and begins a conversation that can prevent us from doing our best work.

We’re reminded of our past failures or short-comings, the negative or unfair criticisms we’ve encountered along our way, how talented and more fortunate peers are performing around us. In these instances we often find ourselves paralyzed and unable to do creative work. What’s the point, anyway?

Sometimes, though, we fight the feeling of being an imposter. We do this in numerous ways: by drudging through the work, or by seeking motivation from others. Commonly we’ll use the feeling of being an imposter to seek out newer and shinier tools. Tools, we think, that will allow us to do better work merely because they’re new and different. If the tool we’re using is the problem, we tell ourselves, then that means I’m not a failure!

All these things are undoubtedly helpful in their own ways, but more often than not they become traps. They pull is in with false promises of relieving our symptoms of feeling like imposters, of feeling not good enough, only to have us realize we’ve wasted time researching tools or inspiration when we could have been working, learning, and growing our abilities. This is particularly true in our search for the best or shiniest tool for the job. Even if we have perfectly fine tools sitting in front of us, we’ll tell ourselves we can’t do our best work until we have what “the pros” use.

We can’t do remarkable design unless we have expensive software (never mind the free stuff). We can’t write unless we use the same tool our favorite authors use (again, who cares that it’s almost identical to the free stuff). We can’t paint unless we have the most expensive brushes and high quality canvases (despite the fact most famous artists start with cheap brushes and tissue paper). We can’t tell our story unless we pay for expensive blogging software (because tumblr just won’t do).

Of course, sooner or later, you’ll be back to square one. The tools we use matter, but only if we have figured out how to use the most basic among them.

Gordon Ramsay, the multi-Michelin starred, internationally recognized chef and TV personality shares in his book:

“It is better to be an under-equipped doer, than an over-equipped poser.”

The difference between the posers, the real imposters, and everyone else is simple: they don’t do the work.

To be an imposter is simply to not do the work, to not grow, to pretend as though you have all the answers and the only thing holding you back is a different tool, a more expensive brush set, a better pen.

To be a true creative means you’re constantly pushing to do the work itself, regardless of the tools you’re using. If you’re a creative, you’ll find a way to make the work with whatever have in front of you anyway, right? Isn’t that the definition of creativity?

And when you do start to feel like an imposter, you won’t wast eyour time seeking bandaid solutions. Instead, remind yourself that maybe you feel like an imposter because you’re growing:

“We adjust our expectations of ourselves in the same manner we adjust our capabilities as we learn and grow. So our notion of what it means to be someone who is creative evolves as we progressively do more and more creative work. As we grow our creative “bar” gets set higher and higher, so not only do we fail to notice our new nature of thought and capabilities, but we feel as though we’re continuously missing the mark. We compare ourselves to those we look up to, those we work alongside, and their creativity feels boundless. But what we fail to see is our own growth, and how outer comparisons are not precise or entirely accurate.”

Use what you have to do what you can, start now.

Three tips for effectively critiquing creativity


Creativity is less about critique and more about creation. You should never mix the two.

However, there comes a point with any creative work where there has to be a critique in some form. The critique will come either by yourself, from peers, or from customers or audience. Sometimes you’ll be invited to critique other’s creative work as well, of course.

It becomes critically important to know how to critique well. If you can effectively critique your own ideas or work in a constructive way, you’ll end up feeling empowered and driven, with more insights into what to do than what not to do. If you can critique other’s work with equal prowess, you’ll learn about yourself and your style from the critique, as well as become the go-to person for feedback in the future (expanding your personal network).

Learning to critique well is just as much of an art as the art work itself. It requires both skill and practice. But here are three tips to serve as a starting point:

1. Know when the right time for critique is

For some ideas, a critique is vital in the first few stages, after the idea has come about and just begun to develop. For others, it’s only after an idea has reached a more concrete, completed phase that it can effectively be evaluated.

The right time for a critique depends entirely on the context.

If, for example, you’re about to critique the results of your own brainstorming session, it’s likely better to wait until as many ideas are already out in the open as possible before critiquing them; otherwise you stand in the way of possible ideas making themselves known.

This makes sense, as the creation mindset is very different from the critiquing mindset; one requires free-roaming thoughts and a certain openness to what comes as a result, while the other relies on pre-existing concepts for evaluation and comparison. It’s surprisingly difficult to move from one to the other and then back again.

Likewise, if you’re evaluating another person’s work it’s important to know where they’re at with it before you begin evaluation. Do they feel as though the work is entirely complete and ready for a full critique? Or are they feeling stuck on a certain element and hoping your opinion can help them see something they otherwise wouldn’t see? In which case the critique you give should not be a full critique of the work, but solely of where the creator is currently at with it.

The company 42floors refers to this approach as Thirty Percent Feedback, and it’s very well worth exploring.

Before critiquing any work, first identify what the concrete goal of the critique is. Outline where in the process of creation you are. Only then can you consider beginning an effective critique.

2. Be constructive, not opinionated

Avoid using words like good and bad, or phrases like “I like that” when critiquing.

When you avoid these words, your critique becomes centered on the concrete reasons behind whyyour reaction to the idea or work is what it is. It’s those reasons that can be further explored and – most importantly ” acted on.

For example, If I looked at a project and stated: “I don’t like the colors,” that’s not a critique. Such a statement is simply unhelpful criticism. On the other hand, if I explicitly say something like: “The colors look overly muted and that makes me feel like they conflict with the message you’re trying to convey in the work” then suddenly there’s a starting point for discussion and exploration in the work. It’s clear from that statement what needs to be either discussed or acted on next.

When evaluating ideas it’s crucial to do the same. Our gut reaction to something (whether we like it or not) is certainly worth noting, but don’t merely cross ideas off a list because your first reaction is that they’re no good. Instead, take that feeling (of an idea being good or bad) and ask yourself why you feel that way, what is it about the idea that makes you not like it?

3. Invite critiques from your community

The purpose of a critique is often to see aspects of your work or ideas that you couldn’t see yourself.

Presenting the work for critique from a larger community of trusted peers (when the work is ready, of course) is the quickest way to get outside perspective. It’s from those outside perspectives that we learn and grow.

Finding a community that understands these fundamentals to critiquing is just as important as opening yourself up to the critique.

Fortunately quality communities exist and criticisms can be sorted through virtually. Sites like Behance, Quora, even Tumblr and Twitter are all worthwhile for inviting critiques.

No matter where you’re at with your work, a time for critique will come. Ensure you’re prepared.

Photo by Kevin Dooley.