By Adam J. Pearson
Introduction – Why We Think We’re Uncreative
“I’m not creative.”
“I’d love to paint, but I’m just not talented.”
“I have this idea for a song, but I couldn’t write it. It wouldn’t be good enough.”
“I love poetry, but I wouldn’t know where to begin to write it so I don’t.”
If you’re like me, you hear people say things like this all of the time. You may have even said such things yourself. This kind of thinking is tremendously common and I think the reasons for why that is are very understandable. Many of us have had parents, teachers, friends, or critics tell us that we “weren’t cut out” for a particular art, or that our work simply wasn’t “good enough” to be significant. Some of us have tried and failed to play around with creativity and received no encouragement or been told that we should focus on more “practical” things. Others among us have dared to be creative, but hidden our creations away out of fear of how they would be judged and what those judgments would mean about us.
As Maria Konnikova points out in a Scientific American blog entitled “Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity?”:
We may say we value creativity, we may glorify the most imaginative among us, but in our heart of hearts, imagination can scare us.
In her fantastic book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown identifies a key reason why we can sometimes find it hard to be creative, namely that creativity involves “vulnerability“–a combination of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. It involves letting ourselves be seen and daring to do something new or different. The fear of judgment and uncertainty can be enough to make that vulnerability intolerable to many of us. It can seem safer to put up defenses and lay low rather than risk getting hurt.
I totally get that and I’ll be vulnerable myself for a moment and tell you why. For years and years I would never give any creative endeavour 100% of my effort or ability. In this way, if my creation was negatively judged, then I could say: “It wasn’t my best effort anyway, so this rejection doesn’t mean I’m a failure.” It was a majour shock to me when I realized that if I continued to think like this, then I would never get to explore my full creative potential, because I’d never put myself on the line. And that I was only resisting going ‘all in’ to creativity because I was afraid of being vulnerable. Yikes.
It wasn’t until I read Daring Greatly that I learned that being vulnerable isn’t weak; in fact, it’s tremendously strong and courageous. It takes guts. And that’s why we admire other people for being willing to put themselves out there and be vulnerable, even as we judge ourselves for being vulnerable at the same time. However, the truth is that it’s just as courageous for us to be vulnerable and try to learn or create as it is for others to do it. To really feel alive, we need to embrace vulnerability and be empowered in the process. To quote Ray from Trailer Park Boys, that’s just “the way she goes.”
Thus, there are many reasons why people think they’re not creative. When people buy into them, they sometimes end up repressing their creative urges or totally dissociating them to the point that they end up believing that they aren’t creative at all. We can dissociate ourselves from our creativity to such an extent that we can even disown our own creative ideas and impulses and project them onto others, thinking “you’re the creative one, I’m not.”
However, anyone who has ever spent time around children knows that we’re all naturally creative. As a teacher, I was always amazed at the out-of-the-box ideas my students would come up with, the zany rules for games they would imagine, and the wildly imaginative scenarios that they would envision. Look at how kindergarten children draw: their use of colour and line and form are all so free. They know how to relax into play and they know that being creative is fun. In the best of cases, that is, when their parents, peers and educational system don’t fail them, they can continue to practice their creativity into adulthood. However, sadly, in many cases, these children grow into adults who buy into some of the reasons for not being creative that I mentioned above or see vulnerability as too scary to risk (see Ken Robinson’s inspiring TED Talk “How Schools Kill Creativity”).
I’m here to tell you that even though these reasons for why you “are not creative” are understandable, they’re simply not true. You are creative. You were born creative, you expressed that creativity in your childhood totally naturally and effortlessly, and that creative potential still burns within you, even if it has become totally unconscious, even if you’ve disowned it from your identity, even if you’ve become afraid of it, and even if you’ve found it safer to project it onto others rather than embrace it in yourself. No one can tell you you’re not creative, not teachers, not parents, not friends, not enemies, not psychologists and least of all yourself. Except in cases of self-fulfilling prophecy, all the repetition in the world of a false idea will never make it true.
The truth is that you are creative. And if you want to to awaken that creativity and start to put it into practice by learning a new skill or art, then it’s not too late. There’s no better time than now and if you’ve got no one to encourage you, then I’ll be that person and cheer you on; I’m doing it right now here in this article. I’m rooting for you. All you need is a little willingness to explore, to play, and to grow. And let a new adventure unfold.
Beautiful Excuse #1: But it’s Too Late…
It’s around this point that a few classic excuses start to come in. The first one is “but I’m getting started too late to really learn a new skill or art.” My initial response to this is that if you’re not breathing your last breath, then it’s not too late.
The neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to learn and adapt all the way into our elderly golden years; contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks, provided he or she is willing to learn. You are creative and if you’re reading this, then you probably want to discover and explore your creativity. I’m telling you that you can do it. And that it’s not too late. And if you want a clear, visual argument for why it’s not too late, check out this wonderful comic by Anna Chui:
So, it’s never too late to learn a new art or skill until you breathe your last breath. What do you want to learn? What would make you feel alive? What would be an exciting new talent to develop? Go for it. Life’s too short for excuses.
Beautiful Excuse #2: But I’m Not Talented…
This is where that other beautiful excuse comes in, “I’d love to, but I’m just not talented.” I can speak to this one because I used to use it myself. At this point in my life, people tend to see me as a fairly creative person. I write, draw, paint, cook, sing, and play guitar. However, and I’ll be vulnerable again here to make a point: the truth is that I was not naturally talented at any creative activity that I now practice. When I first started, I sucked at painting, I sucked at writing, I sucked at guitar, and I sucked at cooking. If you don’t believe the latter since I’m a culinary school graduate, ask my poor friend who had the misfortune of eating my lemon steak pasta disaster. She probably still has nightmares about it to this day.
Some people are naturally talented, it’s true. However, my life is a testament to the truth that talent can also be learned. You can acquire it through practice. You see a musician on the stage and you think “wow, she’s so talented.” Do you think that might sorta kinda have a little something to do with the fact that she practices every single day? It might. The reassuring truth is that while we’re sometimes born with talent, at other times, talent is born out of practice.
The truth is that when you start whatever amazing new skill or art you are going to start, you’ll probably make some mistakes at first. And that’s perfectly fine. As my friend, the great abstract mandala artist Adam Millward is fond of saying:
In my own life, this idea has held true for every creative activity I am now somewhat decent at. My first paintings would make the most loving mother cry. My first singing attempts sounded like a dying giraffe blowing a broken horn. My first drawings looked like a chicken stepped in a puddle of ink and ran across the page. So what? It’s all good. No one has to see our process work. We get to choose when we start to share and what we want to share. The rest is just part of our development, a series of milestones on the path of our creative growth.
I wasn’t naturally talented; I was just willing to listen, learn and make mistakes again and again as I tried to get better at whatever medium I felt drawn to play with. And that is the wisdom that childhood creativity still offers us; creativity is a form of play. Sure, it takes work in the sense that we have to stick with it and practice, but it’s mainly play. Whatever creative art or skill you choose to learn, you should choose it because you love it, because it speaks to you in some way. As the great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “follow your bliss.” If you follow your bliss, your passion will carry you over any stumbling blocks you may face.
“a mistake is only a mistake if left uncorrected,” the Chinese sage Kung-fu Tzu (Confucius) once said. Learning means that every mistake is a little better than the last and every failure is a little more successful than the last. Seen in this way, there’s really no failure in learning at all, only steps on a path of improvement. There will always be new levels to explore; that’s the fun of the creative journey. And while you’ll never regret having had the guts to try, you’ll always regret never having tried at all. So, why not give yourself a chance?
Where Do We Begin?
If at this point, if you’ve begun to see that all of these excuses are a load of horsehockey and the reasons for why you’re not creative are false, then you may wonder where you should begin. And the answer to that, is to start with the basics. There’s nothing demeaning about learning the basics; the basics are simple and simple is an advanced course. As my Muay Thai instructor used to say “you may want to skip past the basics, but the basics are your foundation. Without mastering them, you have nothing on which to build.” I couldn’t agree more.
The basics are so important to every art you may wish to learn. You can start by doing some basic exercises in whatever art or skill you want to learn. I’ve found it helpful to do some research, check out some books, get inspired by the greats in your chosen domain, watch some YouTube videos and practice a little. Play around and see what you can come up with.
At this point, you may hear Beautiful Excuse #3: I’d love to, but I don’t have the time. This one’s a classic, “an oldie, but a goodie” as my grandfather used to say. To this excuse, I say: do you have 5 minutes to spare per day, or even per week?
(Hint: the answer is yes, especially if learning this new skill or art is an idea that thrills and excites you, which it should be, otherwise, why are you bothering?).
Even 5 minutes is enough to make a beginning. If you’ve got more than 5 minutes, you can play around more extensively and, follow Dr. Bruce Davis’ advice and explore a “silent retreat” to release your creativity, for instance, but if you don’t, 5 minutes is fine. 5 minutes is enough time to practice a guitar chord, to practice some paint strokes, to practice a drawing technique, to do a pirouette, to hold a martial arts stance, or to try a sculpting technique. Go for it; you have nothing to lose and many awesome skills and creations to gain.
Stimulate Your Imagination
The American biochemist, activist, and educator Linus Pauling once said that “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” And the best way to have a lot of ideas is to stimulate your imagination, which is a fancy way of saying, expose yourself to lots of new stuff. When I was last in Toronto, I visited an exhibition of the paintings and sculptures of the great Francis Bacon. Bacon used to totally surround himself with pictures and images so that he would constantly stimulate his mind with ideas for new artworks. He would literally flood his whole studio with imagery. To an outside observer, it would look like a hurricane had hit the place, but to him, it was the best way to invite a storm of creativity to rage in his mind.
I’m not saying you have to go to Bacon’s extreme to stimulate your imagination. However, it is a good idea to continually expose yourself to new ideas, new techniques, new works of art, and new approaches. I like to read a lot of books, but you can also watch videos (TED talks are wonderful, for instance), listen to songs, go to art exhibitions, read poetry, go to workshops, visit plays, or attend dance recitals. It’s perhaps most helpful to stimulate yourself with content within your chosen art or skill area, but stimulating your imagination with other arts can give you ideas within your own chosen area. I take a lot of inspiration from sculpture and even Ikebana (the art of Japanese formal floral arrangement) for the way I plate my dishes while cooking, for example; the levels and forms sculptors use are relevant to the shapes I aim to create on the plate.
The more ideas to which you expose yourself, the more you can practice divergent thinking–or generate ideas that ‘diverge’ or shoot off in all kinds of different directions. The more divergent ideas you come up with, the more options you have to practice convergent thinking–that is, zoom in on an idea you want to explore, or unite, integrate, or combine several ideas into something new and different. After all, making combinations of old components is also a powerful form of creativity.
As an example of the combination of divergent and convergent thinking, postmodern artists liked to combine multiple media such as newspaper clippings, household objects, oil paint, etc. into collages. They took all of these divergent elements and ways of thinking about art and unified them into a single convergent piece. Convergent thinking opens up some interesting ideas: How can we make food to accompany certain styles of music? How can painting influence the way we paint sauces onto plates in cooking? How can we interpret dance in painting and sculpture in dance? These are fun questions to play around with. An exciting feature of the arts is their power to inter-inspire each other.
The more you practice, the more you’ll find what first took a lot of effort and involved carefully following steps one by one (procedural knowledge) gradually becomes increasingly automatic (automatic knowledge). As Jungian analyst Larry Staples puts this point in “Creativity Analyzed: Psychology of the Artist,”:
When we really start creating, something lets go and begins to flow. It’s like something takes over, and all these things that we didn’t know we had inside come pouring out. But this “letting go” can be scary. A lot of people worry that they might go crazy. When we let go of the ego we may feel as if we don’t have any control. But eventually the flow will stop, and the ego will come back. It’s like a cork that bobs down, and then bobs back up. The same thing happens when we dream: the ego goes to sleep, and the unconscious begins to flow. Writers and artists literally dream while they’re awake by diminishing the ego.
The more you stimulate your imagination, the more the voice of inspiration will start to speak within you in the form of novel ideas and wacky new possibilities. Creative inspiration sometimes sounds wild and strange, but part of empowering yourself is learning to trust it anyway. Recently, for example, I had this wacky idea:
What if someone unified as many conspiracy theories as possible into one super crazy theory? What if they then made that crazy theory into a film parodying or satirizing conspiracy theory documentaries?
I recognized right away that I was being hit by inspiration. I could have ignored it and kept doing what I was doing, since I don’t know much about film-editing or doing voice-overs or writing scripts. However, I chose to listen to the idea and learn what I needed to learn. In the strange final result, I united 75 different conspiracy theories and New Age ideas into a single fake 6-minute documentary called “Integral New Age Conspiracy.” Clearly, I don’t believe any of these zany theories; my point was simply that the documentary form has the power to present total nonsense can be presented as if it were clearly established truth (e.g. in the case of the so-called ‘documentaries’ in the Ancient Aliens series, for example). When I made this video, I knew that most people won’t get the majority of the references in this movie because they’re so obscure, nor will they likely find it as funny as I do. However, that doesn’t matter. I did the project because it was a fun idea and and I had fun doing it. Inspiration spoke; I listened. This is what I encourage you to do as you proceed along your adventure in creativity.
If you’re still wondering how to stimulate your imagination and creativity, here’s PsychCentral’s list of “Over 40 Playful Yet Practical Ways to Cultivate Creativity.” Try some of these little tricks and games out and see what exciting ideas arise within you.
“Where do you get your ideas?” every writer ever has been asked at least a thousand times.
My answer? Everywhere.
Conclusion – You Can Do This
In conclusion, creativity is not something you need to ‘gain’ because it’s not something you ever lost; the truth is that you’re creative whether you know it or not. The reason that we can cultivate creativity is that the imaginative capacity, the power to imagine and create based on what we envision, is already there within us. We can cover it up, deny it, project it, and make it unconscious, but it’s still there. We know that because every single one of us naturally exercised that imagination to some degree as a child, so we have done it before. And no amount of excuses for why we “can’t be creative” or “learn to draw” or “start playing guitar” can stop us if we’re determined to explore our creativity.
Creativity is one of those crucial things that makes life worth living for me. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it provides a sense of accomplishment, and it makes me feel fulfilled. So, I’d like to ask you once again: What do you want to learn? What medium do you want to explore? What would make you feel alive? What would be an exciting new talent for you to develop? Now’s your chance to liberate your creativity. I’m rooting for you. You can do this. Start with small steps or plunge right in. Either way, you’ll be happy that you did.