Creativity: Let’s Talk About What That Means


An “incident” this week got me all worked up about creativity and what the heck we are (or are not) teaching our kids and ourselves about it. Before I go into details, here’s the definition of creativity from the Oxford dictionary.

n. The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.

Keep that in mind for the rest of this piece.

Here’s the incident: A friend bought (at my recommendation, unfortunately) the Lego Architecture Studio set for her kids’ birthday. For those who don’t live and breathe Lego, this set consists of a ton of white pieces and a book on architecture for the budding architect. There are no “instructions” or suggestions of things to build. You are expected to use your creativity and come up with your own things, just like an architect would. Since this child has expressed an interest in architecture, I thought it would make a good gift.

Well, the kid hated it. “There are no instructions,” was the complaint. “I can’t do anything with this without instructions.” So the mom returned the kit and bought one that builds a specific model. And has instructions.

“Well, it’s still encouraging her creativity,” the mom sighed. “She’s still doing something away from the screen.”

Okay, that’s just sad in so many directions. First, the kid is so brain-locked that she can’t see the endless possibilities of such a set. Second, the mom thinking that building a specific model encourages creativity is a problem. It sets a low bar when “creative” is equal to, “anything away from a screen.” Third, I know there are plenty of people laboring under the illusion that creativity is found in adult coloring books, building specific models of Lego, making craft kits, or any of a hundred other pre-made “creativity boosters” when really, creativity isn’t found on a shelf.

Madison Avenue drives a lot of these misconceptions. Marketing sells us creativity in a bottle. “Just do this simple thing and you’ll be more creative!” Since creativity is a desirable quality these days, plenty of people look to the easy way to boost their own creativity or that of their children. But you don’t find your creative legs by engaging in manufactured activities with loads of instructions.

You find creativity by tossing the instructions and striking out on your own. You have to think in order to be creative. Just following directions won’t cut it. You have to ask why does something happen? What if it happened another way? Take things apart and put them back together in ways that make them better. Get outside and see how the world works. Break a few rules. (Not the ones the cops will bust you for, please. Think the “rules” of art, writing, or how things are “supposed to be.”) Think about how two things relate to one another and then rethink that relationship. If all you’re doing is following instructions, you’re not doing the critical thinking that’s necessary for creativity.

And telling yourself or your kids otherwise is doing everyone a huge disservice.

Yes, creativity can spring from pre-made beginnings. It’s possible to take that Lego model apart and rebuild it into something of your own creation. It’s possible to take a craft kit and make it better with your own additions or modifications. Writers who begin in fanfiction aping the work of others often springboard on to their own work once they become inspired and comfortable. So, yes, manufactured opportunities can lead to creative work, but only by going beyond. And that requires work and willingness. There’s nothing lazy or comfortable about it.

I wonder why, besides the whole marketing schtick, people gravitate toward easy creativity? Part of it is fear, I think. There’s a huge fear of looking stupid if you strike out on your own. We’re conditioned to go with the herd and moving away from that can be terrifying, even if it’s rewarding.

Some of it is that I’m not certain people really understand creativity anymore. In a world where a solution to every problem can be bought, or where you can easily look up the solution, where’s the incentive in thinking? When every moment is spent in front of a screen consuming pre-made entertainment, you don’t have to be creative in order to entertain yourself. Creativity used to be a necessity. If you needed to solve a problem, you were often on your own. You had to get creative. Same with entertainment. But now? Eh.

But creativity is still important, and not just for writers or artists. Humans are meant to be creative. We’re meant to use our minds to come up with new things. Yes, we’re also meant to follow instructions at times, but there are plenty of times we have to go off-script. It’s healthy and fun.

I feel badly for the kid who received the Lego Architecture set. She is unwilling or unable to do anything without instructions. She’s unable to see how many possibilities are in that box of pieces. This doesn’t bode well for someone who might one day want to be an architect. Whether it’s because she’s afraid to try or so consumed with pre-made entertainment, I don’t know. But when someone says, “I have to have instructions,” in order to have fun, there’s a problem.

Matters are made worse, though, by parents who insist that she’s still engaging her creative muscles by building pre-made models. Now, if there was some encouragement to make her own thing afterwards, that would be encouraging creativity. But simply saying, “Yay, you built that! How creative!” isn’t doing justice to the child.

We’re telling ourselves and our kids that creativity can be found in a kit. And that’s not cool.

Creativity requires failure. It requires you to try something that carries a risk of looking stupid, not working, or getting you laughed at. And I think that, more than anything, is what people run from. Failure isn’t fun and no one wants to be laughed at. But failure is necessary to discover what works and what doesn’t.

That’s when creativity happens. The more you fail, the more creative you often become. The more you stick to the instructions and refuse to leave that path, the less creative you are. You rely on others to tell you how things should be. And that, I can tell you from experience, leads to a miserable life.

Creativity is messy and uncomfortable, but oh so fulfilling in the end. Embrace the mess and teach your kids to love it, too.


(Photo courtesy of AidaGorodskaya)

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