Lessons on creativity from my parents

Growing up, I don’t think there was anything my parents did—or didn’t do—to impact my creativity. At-least not directly.

In-fact: “creativity” was an unfamiliar word to me until I got my first job! I hadn’t really heard people reference creativity until I was working alongside self-described “creatives” in the design industry.

But there were elements of my childhood that have absolutely impacted my perception of creativity, and my ability to think creatively.

Isn’t it funny how we’re tremendously impacted by things in our lives we don’t realize until much, much further down the line?

My father was a surgeon.

Meticulous with his hands, analytical in how he processed problems and situations. It wasn’t surprising for me to come home from school and find my father in the driveway with the family car in pieces. He’d take it apart by hand and lay all the parts out around him as he worked.

Every screw, plastic cap, and metal panel laid on the concrete driveway. My father’s hands would be covered in grease and glue, cuts and scrapes. He’d have sweat on his brow and dirt all over his jeans.

When asked what he was doing there in the driveway, he’d explain there was a squeaking sound when the window was being rolled down, or that the radiator hose was old and leaking, or something else he was investigating or trying to repair. Rather than taking the car into a professional mechanic my father figured he’d save a few dollars and do the work himself.

Everything is easier once you start,”he’d tell me. “Once you start taking something apart it’s easier to see how it all comes together.”

Or, to use another quote from a source I am not quite sure the source of:

Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, that’s how you learn about the real world.

Just because we might not know how a car works doesn’t mean we’re incapable of repairing it ourselves when something breaks. The fear we face at the outset is often just an acknowledgement that we’re on the bridge between not knowing something and knowing it.

My father’s example showed me that most complex things are really comprised of many small, simple things. If I ever wanted to better understand something all I needed to do was really look at all of its parts.

My mother was a school teacher.

She understood the importance of education, of building knowledge and expanding our perspectives of the world around us.

When my parents divorced my mother found creative ways to keep her children entertained. She didn’t have much in the way of money, but she did have exercises and games she could give to me and my brothers and sisters.

I remember cupboards full of colored paper in the home: all different shapes, sizes, and colors. We couldn’t afford every new toy or form of entertainment, but we could afford paper and glue.

My mother taught me that imagination can do a lot, much more than nearly any other part of our brain’s processes. To quote Albert Einstein:

Imaginationis more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imaginationembraces the entire world”

A secondary part of what I learned from my mother was making due with what you’ve got. If we didn’t have money to buy art supplies, we’d whiteout an older work of art. Or use a brown paper bag, or paper plate, or old clothes, as the canvas.

I learned I should never feel limited by what I don’t know or what I don’t have. Instead I can get crafty by looking at the world around me and what I do know or do have in order to do more.

Growing up, I never really thought about these lessons.

But as I reached adulthood and began finding my own way in the world I began to understand just how impactful these lessons from my parents were.

Creativity requires us to jump into unknown situations: to uncover new and novel ideas. It requires us to be open to possibilities and embrace the fact we simply don’t know everything there is to know. But it also requires us to try anyway: to paint when we don’t know how, to write when we might be wrong, to tinker and experiment and press forward even when we feel limited.



Creativity often comes from discomfort

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Creativity comes to those who want or need it. Those who are hungry for change, something different, a shake up.

Comfort is debilitating when it comes to creative thinking. The act of creativity thrives in moments of tension, when there is struggle there is an opening for creativity.

You cannot merely will creativity. You cannot "try harder" to cause it to occur. It requires a gap, some type of discomfort, or another type of provocation to occur.

Consider your appetite for food. It’s hard to see the appeal of food when you’ve just eaten a large meal. No matter how much you might enjoy food, it can be hard to stomach another bite after you’ve over indulged. The appeal of a really good meal is partially in the hunger for it. The same is true of creativity.

If you don’t see a need to break from routine or change your thinking, the notion of creativity will not only seem unappealing, it will become difficult to realize. Why question the status quo if it’s giving you what you want? Why push boundaries if their confines are comfortable? Even if you don’t know things could be better, it’s easy to convince yourself good enough is... well, good enough.

It’s those who feel an itch to change things in their life, those who are unsatisfied with their work or processes or other aspects of life are more likely to experience a creative breakthrough. The ones who dare to look out and ask: “What if this were different?” are the ones who often make it so.

We call this perspective “openness to new experiences” and it’s one of the primary attributes that determine whether or not someone is creative. Associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman believes openness to experiences is the single most defining trait that makes creative success possible.

This helps explain why boredom is so valuable to creativity: it instigates exploration, it creates an opening for novelty. It also explains why those who travel or read diverse content and expose themselves to different ways of thinking are the ones who tend to produce more creative ideas and work.

Perhaps one reason some of the most creative artists and musicians in history are also the most troubled: the struggle they encounter in life is what pushes them to try new and different things.

If you want to be more creative, embrace the uncomfortable feeling brought about by peeking outside your routine and asking: “What else is out there?”



What we give up by being creative

There’s a high cost to being a maker or creative.

Of course I’m talking about the cost of diving into the unknown, of taking something comfortable or familiar and throwing it away.

To create is to destroy: the empty canvas, the blank page, the solid stone, or perception or even beliefs. The pursuit of new and different requires us to abandon—at least temporarily—the old and familiar.

What happens when the new isn’t as good or reliable as the old? What do we do when what we create doesn’t feel worthy of the destruction? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or fulfilled our purpose as a creative? How do we know when more (or better) ideas and projects on the horizon, or if we’ve reached our peak?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that the adventure into figuring out the answers for yourself is almost always worthwhile.

The reality is that the journey of a creative—of someone who imagines an alternate way forward or who asks what might happen when something gets made—is one fraught with uncertainty, dead ends, and many nights of discouraged restlessness.

When you begin to embrace curiosity and creation, when you open yourself to newness, you will never be the same. It’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. Once you’re through, you’ll see things or feel things or have things you didn’t before.

But what we trade-off for all this is something we can’t get any other way: a different tomorrow. Something tangible that wasn’t there yesterday. A new book or blog post. A sculpture. A photograph or video, or conference, or document that proves “I was here, I made this.” A different perspective, or a more clarified one. A more vivid idea of what’s possible or why things are the way they are.

Even when the work isn’t up to snuff—when what we make doesn’t match what was in our head, of compared to what someone else made before us—we still learn, we still will have made something that wasn’t there yesterday.

And the result of any creative endeavor is this: a guiding light or inspiration to others, and a reminder for ourselves. A difference big or small in the way you think or feel or see. And that difference is what creativity is all about. Not accepting the status quo for what it is. Not looking around you and believing it doesn’t get better. We must appreciate everything around us that is beautiful and unique and valuable, but we must also remember that what often makes those things so is that they are impermanent.

There’s always the great unknown just around the corner. And when we go out to face it we give up a lot, but gain a lot too.



Why starting helps get us unstuck

The hardest thing about writing a draft is starting.

Looking at a blank page can leave you feeling as though anything is possible, the words can go in any direction. The limits are boundless, so we procrastinate. We tell ourselves we’ll start writing once the right idea strikes, once we have a more vivid direction to go in. We often look to the internet for inspiration or direction but get distracted instead. The work waits for us, but we’re off pretending we’re waiting for the work to tell us what to do.

The blank page sits there because that’s all a blank page can do: wait.

If you’re trying to create—to write or paint or code— for fun or as a new habit or hobby, the pressure is even worse than if you’re doing those things professionally. That blank page isn’t just a blank page to the free-writer, it’s a choice. You could start writing, but there are so many other, more important or pressing things to get to, you’re better off waiting for inspiration to strike. So you’ll focus your attention on more important things like checking email, getting caught-up on your favorite tv shows, fiddling with an old project.

Of course with this mentality the writing or painting or coding rarely comes, and when it does: it’s slow and painful and often feels like a bit of wasted time. We try to convince ourselves we’re wasting effort by saying things like: “This is crap” or “I shouldn’t waste my time since I don’t know really know what it is I’m trying to make.”

Yet once we’ve begun creating, once the opportunity and pressure of the blank page have been corralled, the act becomes a little bit easier. Surprisingly, it’s easier to end a sentence than begin one. It’s easier to add ink to an already wet canvas. It’s easier to cross out a line, move the code around, or tinker with colors, once the work is already in front of us.

The reason for this is simple psychology: our minds need direction—some clear guidance—on what to think about at all. And we each tend to feel like: unless we have some guidance, we’re better off doing something else. The internet is always willing to think for us, so we tend to turn there first for inspiration. If we don’t feel the jab of inspiration, the clear signpost on which way to go, we don’t budge.

Of course once we start moving in a direction, we realize moving isn’t all that hard. The only motivation we often need is the direction we give ourselves.

When we pause for clarity we’re often fooling ourselves. We don’t need inspiration to start tackling a blank page, we simply need to start. With whatever thought comes to mind first. With whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

Capturing whatever you’re thinking or feeling the moment you encounter the blank page is a good way to get a direction clear in your mind. What you’ll find is as you start putting things down, they will surprise you. Things you write or paint or code will be things you weren’t really aware you were thinking or feeling or considering. Putting these feelings and thoughts down gives them clarity. The act turns our thoughts from mushy, cloudy things into tangible words and images you can not only see but now edit too.

Once you’ve begun, the rest of the work becomes a little bit easier. And when you have a few bits on the page, you can hone in on what resonates or calls to you and edit or remove what doesn’t. The spark of inspiration is often best found in the work itself: all you need to do is start. To fake it if you have to, but start.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”



Creative isn’t something you become

It’s a process you learn to develop over time.

This distinction is important, particularly if you’re coming at creativity from a place of having been turned off from it: working or living in a culture or place that promotes routine and answers over the unknown and question seeking.

If you believe creativity is a state of being—that it’s on or off, something people have or don’t, something you must be empowered to flip on—you’re much more likely to accept excuses for why you can or cannot use it.

The common fallacy tends to be: “I can’t be creative because my boss/parent/partner won’t let me.” Of course creativity scoffs in the face of constraints. True creativity says: “they” won’t let us do things one way, so we’ll try another.

So what’s preventing you from being more creative here and now? What if it’s just your perception that creativity is a switch, or something to become or a state to achieve? How might we change the perception of creativity as being something you don’t turn on or off and instead being something you develop as a skill? Something that can work around any constraints? A skill that gets better over time, not worse?

Creativity—the ability to think of ideas which are both novel and valuable—is a skill anyone can learn. Much like math, science, writing, or a foreign language.

I remember thinking I’d never be able to do math, even of the basic variety. I grew up thinking mathematics were something you were either good at or not. I watched in school as students who excelled at math breezed past problems I could hardly understand, let alone solve.

But over time I learned math is a learnable skill: it was just the ways I was being taught that weren’t right for me.

I found “tricks” for solving problems, visual approaches that aligned more with my way of thinking. I learned when terminology and labels mattered and when they were just for show. I learned how to break the problems down into manageable chunks rather than trying to solve large problems at once. And I realized just how important it is to approach a problem with confidence, without which my mind wouldn’t even begin to view a problem as something I could solve.

The same attributes are all true of creativity. Creativity is a skill which can be learned by anyone and developed over time.

To do it requires learning small tricks for utilizing it: flipping a problem around, changing perspective, asking silly questions, finding a partner, or any of the other hundreds of thinking tricks.

Developing creativity also requires a clear perspective of what it is and what it isn’t, how it differs from innovation or imagination.

If you want to develop your creativity you too must improve your confidence of doing so. Without which it won’t matter how capable you are, you’ll find your mind simply don’t even want to try.

Creativity is a skill like any other, in that you can develop and improve it. It’s not a switch to be turned on or a trait you’re either born with or not. When you realize this, many more options for how to utilize your creativity become apparent.