Teaching creativity has helped me understand myself better and gained an appreciation for how empowering learning (or re-learning) to think creatively–a.k.a. think “outside the box”–can be for many people. Interestingly, 20 years ago, creativity was not taught explicitly in design education. Instead, exercises, such as creating 25 explorations of textures or coming up with 10 different ways of communicating a same message, were used to help students build a creative mindset.
Times have changed. Today, creativity has transcend the boundaries of art and design, and is described as the skill of the future, essential to innovation and success. Increasingly, it is being taught in non-design related environments to the extent that, in some universities, creativity classes have become a core part of the curriculum. However, many people still question its value. While clients, colleagues, students, bosses, and even team members advocate for the need to work with creativity, in practice, practicality outweighs creativity: crazy ideas are not shared in meetings and when they are, they are instantly dismissed; there is never enough time to try something new—it is too risky!–too often the more familiar options are chosen; even questions like: Why thinking creatively is important? or What is the point of coming up with wild ideas if they aren’t practical? are frequent in classes and workshops.
So, what’s the deal? Why is creativity important? Why it is so hard to embrace creativity? Can anyone think creatively? Below some answers to these questions.
There are many reasons to support creative thinking. People who embraced creativity and reconnect with their imagination and inner child, also experience a huge personal growth: creative expression helps happiness, deepen self-awareness, focus on the present moment, and develop stronger self-worth and confidence. They understand that thinking about “silly” ideas is ok and that day-dreaming can lead to ideas that they would not have thought about otherwise. Above all, they see this way of thinking as liberating because it is free of judgement, and offers a different lens to see the world. It has been extremely rewarding to witness this transformation in many of my students.
Building the box
Creativity is like a muscle. Everyone has the potential to be creative in that we are all born with the capacity to imagine. When we are young, we create the most amazing and fantastic worlds made of paper or food, or transform inanimate objects into characters of our adventures and play with shadows for hours. As we grow up, and are exposed to education and society, we learn norms that determine what is considered “correct” and “accepted”, and what is labelled as “crazy” and “silly”. These norms, while sometimes needed, also add mental blocks—self-judgement being the hardest to deal with–and self- imposed constrains that hinder imagination and become the pillars of our “box”. After a while, our brain is wired in such a way that most of our ideas are based on things we have already seen or experienced before, and that fit inside the boundaries of our box. We judge those ideas that are too different or too “out of the box”.
Creative individuals, like designers, writers or artists, have a strong connection with their imagination and have the ability to generate ideas that break with the norms, expanding the boundaries of or opening the box. They aren’t afraid of taking risks and sharing ideas that are different from what everyone thinks, they celebrate “crazy” and “unusual”, and encourage this way of thinking in others. This behaviours come natural to them because they have developed cognitive flexibility that helps them “turn on” and “off” their creativity hat.
On the other hand, in those who have not been encouraged to think this way, “the walls” of the box have become thicker, and the boundaries are rigid. In many cases, they have developed behavioral barriers that make creativity hard to accept and practice.
Five Barriers to learn creativity (as a grown up)
The following are five barriers that I have identified from teaching creativity, that often manifest as complaints, questions or comments:
- Dreams and wild ideas are only “ok” for kids. We celebrate when kids create stories with toys or day-dream, but we condemn this same behavior in any person older than 12 years old. As we grow older, we start questioning the value of dreaming or thinking about “unrealistic” ideas. Everything has to be practical and efficient.
TIP: Changing this mind set is the first step towards reconnecting with your creative self.
- Playing is a waste of time. Spending time playing or engaging in an activity without a clear practical focus is often seen as a waste of time. We have evolved (or devolved?) into a society where time is highly valued and each minute of the day should be invested in doing something productive. It is wildly accepted that playing has great benefits for children, but its benefits for adults seem to be less known: playing fuels imagination and creativity, helps enrich problem-solving abilities, and is a source of relaxation that contributes to emotional well-being.
TIP: Games and playful exercises are a great way to free people from self-imposed constraints, and express crazy ideas.
- Creativity feels uncomfortable. If you are not used to thinking creatively, the first times it will feel uncomfortable. To some extent, creativity is like training to run a marathon: at the beginning any excuse is good to stay home and not going for a run, and when you do go, the day after, all your muscles ache and you feel tired. But if you keep training, the more you run, the more you start to feel the benefits in your mind and body. Learning to re-connect with our creative self follows a similar process.
TIP: Practice every day, and be patient!
- Taking risks is unnecessary. Everyone wants to be innovative and make an impact in the world, but many people are also risk-adverse; rather than pursuing wild ideas, they choose safe ones that are easier to implement. The saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” represents this behavior and many people use it to avoid taking creative risks. Granted, voicing a different opinion, proposing a dramatic change to something that has worked for years, sharing a wild idea, or going against the norm requires “courage” and can be scary. Cognitively, these types of responses required a greater use of energy until they become your new “norm”–but this does require time and practice. In other words, as at first creative thinking involves rewiring the brain (hence, we feel tired), it also requires a much higher cognitive energy load than just agreeing or sharing the first idea that comes to mind.
TIP: Put yourself in uncomfortable situations every day.
- Creative ideas aren’t practical to tackle serious challenges. Those who do work creatively, mostly use creativity to start the process but then forget about it, or they use it to solve small or not too serious challenges (I wonder if this is because they still question its value?). It is rare for truly creative ideas to be welcomed or entertained when dealing with major challenges like global warming or hunger. However, creativity could help provide a very different view from what has already been done in the past. The journey from a wild idea to a practical idea will take work, but the end product has the potential to be of much higher quality and impact.
TIP: See wild ideas as stepping-stones; not final solutions.
The Creativity “Click”*
I call Creativity Click to that moment when you realize that something has changed inside you. This is a very personal moment, and you are the only one who can identify this moment. I do remember mine: many many many years ago when I stop worrying about what was expected from me to deliver and started having fun working on a project. Some students have described this moment as when they realize that they were able to solve a problem with very few resources, or when they start feeling comfortable with the openness of an assignment, or when they realize that new types of ideas are coming to their mind. Another way of describing this moment is when you start becoming aware of your creative potential rather than letting it be just by chance.
Yes, creativity is great, but it also hard work. Motivation and willingness to question and challenge things as you know them are key to reconnect with your creativity, as well as every day practice. Otherwise, you will attend workshops and take classes and still won’t see the value of creativity. If you don’t keep an open mind and try to see what would happen if you work with a crazy idea for one hour and see where you go, you will most likely still think that creativity is just a buzzword.
To help others achieve their creativity “click” it is essential to:
- create a judgement free and trusting environment
- encourage questions
- provide feedback without shooting down ideas
- help everyone feel comfortable with ambiguity and vagueness
- show the value of creativity rather than solely explain the science
- keep a flexible and open mind
- understand that everyone’s journey is different
Once you embrace creativity, there is no going back. You can’t go back to thinking about “ordinary” ideas because creativity is fun; everything is possible and you get to be and do whatever you want!
Make experiencing your Creativity Click your goal for the new year!