How long ago did you buy into the idea of divine inspiration? The lightbulb moment? Most people I talk to believe creativity and inspiration are the same thing, and that they simply...happen. If the Muse doesn’t visit you, you’ll simply never make a great work of art.
If you know me, you already know I have a different idea about creativity and inspiration. I think anyone can become more creative just as anyone can get stronger. No one builds muscle without exercise. No one gets inspired without creative exercise, either.
There are countless ways to practice the creative process and foster inspiration. I find the simplest way, though, is to begin with “Little c” creativity. Rather than Van Gogh masterpieces or Beethoven sonatas, little c ideas are the ones that simply enrich our lives. These come from your surroundings--from thinking outside the box. As Orin Davis says, Little c creativity is “the detour you figure out when a road is closed, the way you prop a door that won’t stay open, and the folded-up piece of paper you use as a coaster.”
Today, thanks to Covid-19, you can find examples of little c creativity everywhere. Countless people are finding ways to work from home, even if their jobs aren’t traditionally remote. Teachers have been forced to take their curriculums online--even ones who teach ceramics or band or chemistry. Parents have found ways to work while also taking care of their children. Collectively, we’re doing much more than finding alternative driving routes or propping open a door with folded to-do lists. Life hacks, work hacks, parenting hacks, cooking hacks, shopping hacks… These have truly exploded thanks to the coronavirus.
Sandeep Gautam wrote about little c creativity in Psychology Today, expressing his belief that “small c is the way we will inch closer to the enigma of genius.” If we don’t focus on little c and use those small successes to boost our confidence, we’ll never build up the grit--the positive attitude--required to push through to Big C.
Personally, I think for someone who doesn’t consider themselves artistic, little c creativity is a wonderful (non-threatening) starting place. After all, most people have used a shopping list for a bookmark. Maybe you’ve cut up t-shirts to make face masks. Encourage the growth of little c creativity by noticing the ways you innovate regularly: getting your team to use Slack instead of 200 group texts every day; the songs you make up for your kids; the dinner you cooked without a recipe.
It’s possible to inspire little c creativity as well as the Big C kind. Start by asking yourself open-ended questions. Be mindful of your surroundings (what do you hear? What do you smell?). Try a new coffee shop in the morning. Take a walk in nature. Banter with strangers to discover a new point of view.
If you can make strides in little c creativity, you’ll find yourself more confident around the creative process in general. You might be more willing to pick up a paintbrush or turn that lesson plan into a collage or cartoon diagram.
How has Covid made you more creative?
Curiosity may be the very thing that moves us toward a more just world. The alternative--an incurious world--may be one where prejudice and misery reign. Curiosity may be one of the essential ingredients to empathy, something that we can all agree the world could use a little more of right now.”
I have heard that empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings, and compassion is the action resulting from empathy.
I believe deeply in helping my neighbor--that by improving their lot, I’m improving the world. I don’t think being compassionate is a sign of weakness. In fact, I think being kind makes me a better leader and actually improves my creativity.
Let me clarify, though, with my interpretation of “nice” and “kind.” Being nice might mean ignoring the spinach in your friend’s teeth when they smile at you (you don’t want to bring it up and hurt their feelings, right? Make the situation awkward?). Being kind, though, is telling them straight out that they have food in their teeth. Then they won’t spend the rest of the day smiling spinach-ly at everyone (and resenting your unwillingness to point it out in the first place).
Sometimes the kind thing is harder, and more uncomfortable, than being nice.
But being kind and making hard choices doesn’t mean acting rude. Not at all! We can certainly criticize constructively and debate with open minds. As Dr. Todd Kashdan points out, “A culture that values debate, criticism, and quarrelsome discussions [is] more productive, creative--and ironically--harmonious.” When we can work together as a team and band together to creatively solve problems, our roads are smoother. Issues get nipped in the bud.
The key here is “respectfully.” Research by Abraham Carmeli, Jane Dutton, and Ashley Hardin shows that people who interact courteously--with presence, awareness, and positive regard--are more likely to exchange ideas. This kind of nonjudgmental collaboration results in new perspectives and the creation of original, unique resources. As I mentioned in my previous post, curiosity allows us to learn from our mistakes and grow. Respectful collaboration alongside curiosity can lead to constructive criticism and allow us all to work together creatively.
Even when working alone, though, respect can up our creativity game. Remember when we were kindly telling our friend about the spinach in their teeth? This is the same sort of constructive voice we need in our own heads. Berating our own ideas won’t lead to more creativity. Who wants to take risks if we’re immediately torn down?
Learning self-compassion is vital to our creative process. We need to collaborate with others without judgement, and we need to do the same with ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion expert, teaches that “self-compassion provides resilience during challenges, decreases stress and burnout, increases creativity and wisdom, and allows leaders to recognize and learn from their mistakes without shame.” Surely there’s no way to be truly curious--to take risks--if we can’t be kind and honest with ourselves.
What the world needs is people who can solve difficult, interesting problems. If we can be present together and communicate in a way that eliminates division, we can be more creative together. Isn’t it obvious, then, that kindness, curiosity and creativity can change the world?
While researching the creative process, I’ve consistently encountered the idea of a curious mind. Scientists refer to curiosity as a source of learning, a key component of mindfulness, and a precursor to innovation.
At its core, curiosity is about an open eagerness to learn something. It’s like a conversation with a caring friend whose only interest is to see you grow through a dialogue of thoughtful reflection. Curiosity brings about a state of awe as we stare into the universe of knowledge and confront novel subjects. It motivates us to want to learn more.
Curiosity is the soil of learning because it puts us in the mental state required to be open to the world, to build relevance in the content, and to take chances. It encourages the desire to master something and the passion to do it in the service of something larger than ourselves.
A curious mind also allows space to learn from our failures and mistakes. This didn’t work. Why? What might work instead? By arming our attitudes with curiosity, we’re able to embrace a growth mindset and truly appreciate criticism. Creativity is part of a feedback loop that allows us to let go of our ego in the name of progress for everyone, growing from that soil of curiosity.
Dr. Shauna Shapiro writes, “By remaining open to experiences, we are more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, which is crucial to generating original ideas.” Having teachers collaborate--especially across departments and subject matter--is a great way to help students think outside the box. How do math and painting work together? History and writing? Biology and music?
Collaborating within the classroom is useful, too. We need to utilize other people’s perspectives in order to see ourselves more clearly, more completely. It helps us to see beyond our own biases.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
Everyone knows that Einstein failed at school, but few know why. The fact is, he couldn’t handle the factory approach to learning. He eventually fled that traditional system and ended up in a progressive Swiss school that he said nurtured his curiosity, a key component in his success. As he famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
It’s my opinion that Creativity is largely misunderstood and definitely underutilized. It’s undervalued despite being one of the top skills needed in the current and future economy. It should be considered a top priority in schools, but is rarely taught (and almost never specifically or practically).
I had a student who said he wasn’t creative and couldn’t complete a project because of this. After some prodding, his eventual answer was that creativity is imagination. He explained, “I don’t know, it’s magic–that light bulb that pops up over cartoon’s heads… Well, the light bulb never pops up for me.” I think this is the view that most people hold about creativity: that it has magical, unknown properties.
So what is it?
First, let’s define imagination.
Imagination is simply the ability to visualize what isn’t there. To perceive things not in front of you. Basically, seeing something without the aid of physical sensory inputs.
Creativity, on the other hand, is a process that begins mentally and manifests physically. It starts when you make connections and translate them into a physical experience by creating something new.
“Okay,” you say, “but I’m not an artist…“
You don’t need to be an artist to create something new! It is important, however, that you push yourself past just copying something. Copying is essential to learning and creativity (and something I’ll dig into a bit deeper shortly and in the future), but it does not make you creative.
If we all stop at the copying stage; if we all simply regurgitate information; if we all think the same and have the exact same information we stagnate. Nothing happens.
Now imagine an environment that truly values the process: one that encourages diversity on multiple levels. What could this do for socio-emotional learning? That’s CREATIVITY, the core processor of deep learning. Creativity is about connections, and it’s connected to everything.
Because I like to go meta, let’s end with a bit of neuroscience.
Scientists have recently provided a lot of physical / biological evidence for concepts the social sciences have been figuring out for some time. Neural scientist Semir Zeki’s work has focused on understanding the core functions of the brain, and he concluded that creativity is central. He wrote that this “reveals a parallel between the functions of art and the functions of the brain, which drives us to an obvious conclusion – that the overall function of creativity is an extension of the function of the brain.”
Having read a great deal into it (and based on years of clinical experiences in the classroom), it’s my opinion that creativity is the operating system for learning, and investing in the creative process will save education. It is the core function of learning.