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.

Learn how to turn your ideas into action

I’m excited to announce my first ever online class: Productivity for Creatives.

Working with the remarkable team at Skillshare in New York City, I’ve created this concise, self-paced, one hour class that walks you through my steps for being productive.

Whether you want to write a book, launch a website, start a business, or get your artistic career off the ground, this class is the perfect starting ground.

You’re going to learn:

  1. How to find your drive and maintain it
  2. How to identify good (and bad) creative habits
  3. What tools you’ll need for any job
  4. Building a creative environment where you can thrive

I’ll also be answering questions one-on-one with students, so if you’ve ever wanted to get inside of my brain, this is your chance.

The class is online now, I highly recommend signing-up for a monthly Skillshare membership (just $10 a month for unlimited classes!) or you can take the class for a one-time fee.

Join me in the digital classroom

The challenge with teaching creativity

Attempting to “teach” creativity is difficult. I would argue it can’t be done well in our standard, current educational environment.

When your expectations involve creativity, the task of training or optimizing for it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible. How do you measure what’s truly creative when there are expectations set? How can anyone value whether something is creative or not if creative ideas exist, by nature, outside of expectations?

As Cevin Soling mentions in Can Any School Foster Pure Creativity?:

“Creativity is based on thinking unconventionally, having time to daydream or simply reflect, understanding that there is no single right answer, and appreciating and valuing failure. All of these experiences run counter to what’s measured, and thus valued, in the public school system.”

A popular retelling of this exact situation comes from Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity. In the talk, Sir Robinson tells us:

“I heard a great story recently…of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, 'I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, 'But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, 'They will in a minute.'”

Note the reaction the teacher had in this story when she heard what the little girl was drawing. Rather than viewing the girl’s approach as creative and imaginative, the teacher has an initial reaction to explain to the girl that she simply couldn’t be drawing god, nobody knows what he looks like.

In teaching creativity, we run into this problem again and again: how do educators remove their own biases to make way for natural creative insights? How do we, as advocates for promoting creativity in the workplace (as an example), get out of our own way?

Rather than trying to teach creativity (the act of generating unique and valuable thoughts), it’s worthwhile to instead teach and actively promote the attributes that make up creativity.

Exercises that build confidence, that promote curiosity and exploration, that force participants to be resourceful, those are worthwhile endeavors that build creativity.

We also know that these are attributes that can be taught without hindering the process of teaching or grading them. We can teach students and employees to be resourceful and curious by offering them playful challenges. We can instill a sense of humility in those we teach, and encourage a mindset that allows restful breaks whenever they’re needed.

If we want to teach creativity to our children, peers, co-workers, or ourselves, we have to focus on the individual attributes that drive it, not merely on the act of generating ideas.

To teach and encourage creativity yourself, look to the various attributes that cause creativity. When those aspects are built or strengthened, the result is almost always some level of creative output.

Photo via Flickr.