August 14, 2011

Bulk view

Reflections on creativity

Creativity is about making something new. So why is it that when we talk about creativity, we usually think about artists and kindergarteners instead of our everyday lives? Why is it that when we’re asked for examples of how we’re creative, we reach for doodling and photography instead of spreadsheets or code?

The truth is that we create. Constantly. Every moment we make something new that has never existed before, and that would not exist without us. We can’t help but create. Even when we’re vegetating on the couch, we’re creating our lives. The “creativity” we recognize, I think, is a combination of the consciousness with which we create and the ability to create something unexpected.

I’m tired of this stereotyping of accountants, lawyers, and other “left-brain” types as uncreative. There are limits to how creative you want your accountant to be, of course – but creativity loves constraints, and even Picasso worked within the physical limitations of paint. Within the constraints of what’s legal, an accountant can help you find unexpected savings and opportunities to optimize your business. I think of my web development as intensely creative. On one level, I write code; on another, I build new ways for people to connect and work together. (This is also why I’m careful about work, life, and happiness: burnout is a common danger.)

Stop drawing lines between “left brain stuff” and “right brain stuff.” If you let yourself separate those two, you can make up all sorts of excuses. “My job isn’t really that creative.” “I can’t draw.” “Oh, this is just a hobby.” Creativity isn’t just about arts and crafts. It isn’t something that’s reserved for the gifted. It’s for everything and everyone.

Profoundly “left-brain” stuff can be profoundly “right-brain” as well. Take mathematics. Whether you’re looking at grade school kids learning how to do multiplication for the first time, the teachers teaching them, or academics chasing down elusive proofs, there’s a lot of room for creativity there.

Profoundly “right-brain” stuff can be profoundly “left-brain” as well. Leonardo da Vinci’s art was informed by his knowledge of anatomy and his attention to detail. Fugues and minuets were composed with mathematics in mind.

You don’t even have to have a white-collar job to find opportunities for creativity in your work. You just have to make things happen. For example, no training manual could’ve anticipated what this guy turned his job into:

A janitor sweeping the floor at a nursing home might see her work as creating a neater and more comfortable environment for people. A greeter might take the opportunity to experiment with conversation. How about you?

Don’t leave art to the artists. Create your life and create a better world.

We constantly create. The trick is directing our creativity towards the kind of things we want to build. The playground bully is creative, too.

If you don’t think of yourself as creative, try thinking of a time you thought about doing something, making something, becoming someone, and you went ahead and did it. Imagination becomes life.

Creating can be frustrating. We judge ourselves harshly. We feel our limitations. I can draw, but I can’t draw well enough to get the ideas out of my head. I can write, but there’s still something missing. I can code, but I occasionally write embarrassing bugs. Then there are external challenges as well: the limitations of the world we work with, other people’s conflicting ideas and desires.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that you’ve got to start from somewhere, and here is as good a place as any to start.

Obstacles and constraints help you become stronger at creating. If everything came easy to you – if you could wave a wand to make your imagination reality – how would you grow? Challenges provoke you to figure things out.

We tend to stereotype creativity as arts and crafts, and ignore the beauty in things like mathematical proofs, code, and cabinets.

Yes, cabinets. The IKEA cabinet in our kitchen, for example. Your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, mass-produced sort of furniture. There are probably hundreds of thousands like it in the world. But there is so much creativity wrapped up in this simple thing. Design, of course – how to create something simple, utilitiarian, and affordable. Something that can be flat-packed, transported, and reassembled – and beyond that, the idea of flat-packing, the business innovations that led to this being here. Take another step back. Think about the logistics involved in obtaining wood and metal and shaping them into this cabinet. The invention of screws and brackets and drywall fasteners. A step closer: our own creativity in installing the heavy cabinet, balancing it on top of volumes of Childcraft on top of a set of shelves. A step back: the automated production of this in some remote factory’s assembly line; the robots that do the work, the people who invented them and the people who manage them today, the orchestration of all these processes on the factory floor. Further back: the invention of mass-production. Forward: Our cats’ discovery that the top of the cabinet makes an excellent perch. I could play all day among the unfolding levels of complexity of a cabinet.

Not that cabinets are the most special things in the world – I chose a cabinet simply because the word sprung to mind. If you want to, you can reflect on a single grain of salt (the crystalline structure, the discovery, the richness of human history, the influence on words like “salary”, the logistics that brought that salt to you, the way it makes recipes sparkle, the science around it).

If you start looking, you’ll find a world of wonders around you.

—-

Thanks to #kaizenblog for the nudge!