The creative path is the one discovered along the way

What often differentiates the artist and designer from the analytical thinker or engineer is their ability to think through their work as they're working on it.

The analytical thinker is analyzing information before anything's begun, then re-assessing after-the-fact. The engineer creates a blueprint, prepares resources based on the blueprint, then builds the bridge to spec. There isn't much wiggle room for sudden or dramatic change when you're in the middle of constructing a bridge, so the plans get made and the work gets done according to the plan.

But for artists or creatives, the work is constantly evolving, always in a state of change. There is still planning and reflection, but it's more fluid and the work influences the plan just as much as the plan influences the work.

I was recently reminded of this point when reading John Maeda's Redesigning Leadership. John puts the point elegantly:

"Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it—thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue.
A large part of what drives [the artist’s] confidence is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes."

Making matters for the artist because it’s how she learns. She could spend a lot of time up-front doing what analysts, engineers, and managers do: addressing what’s known, diving into existing variables, and gambling on the outcome or marching forward over—or under—prepared. Or she can jump into the work and rely on her ability to adapt and change course as she goes.

One approach isn’t any better than the other for anything in particular, but the latter method—of making and thinking along the way—allows for more creative exploration by default.

By making and allowing yourself to adapt as you go, you free yourself up to do just that: to make things up as you go. To change course, alter the goal, modify the expected outcome, throw white all over the canvas and start again. When you set things like vision and goals up-front you limit what’s possible. Vision and goals are you saying you know where it is you want to go, but creativity is about just starting and figuring out where it is you're going by getting there.

Why we lose our child-like wonder

To a child, being a non-expert is an asset for growth.

Being a naive child means learning how the world works (or doesn’t work) is as easy as trying something, making mistakes, and adapting.

But 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.

An empty box becomes a way to efficiently move a lot of stuff. A sheet of paper becomes a canvas for capturing notes or drawings. A bowl is a convenient container of food, while a cup is an optimal way of transferring liquids. If I put a spoon in front of you, you’d likely be able to tell me exactly what it’s for, but struggle to come up with things it’s explicitly not for.

Often the cost of experience is imagination. We trade one for the other.

To the naive child, an empty box is anything they can imagine it to be: a space shuttle, a race car, a store front, a home, a giant shoe, you name it. A sheet of paper isn’t merely a canvas, it’s a yet-to-be-folded airplane, or boat, or hat. A bowl is a drum, or a helmet, or wheel, and a cup is a magnifying glass or secret agent speaker phone. A spoon to a toddler is a guitar, a boomerang, a drumstick, a mirror, or any number of other things.

As we grow and become experts in life and work, it becomes more and more difficult to see around what we (or society) expect things to be. As a result, experts are only good at what’s proven. Creativity comes secondary to what we already know and believe. It’s difficult to be anything but the expert after so long, because you can’t forget what you’ve learned. We don’t grow up to become more child-like.

Yet to remain creative, we must learn to be an expert while maintaining a child-like spirit. We must learn about optimization and efficiency, but remain curious about why they matter.

Never losing child-like wonder, constantly asking “why” or being willing to play with your food, all allow you to instill the sense of naivety into what you do best. Which leaves the door open for what you don’t know you might not know.