On ‘Creativity’

When I was (a lot) younger I would spend a lot of time doing things that weren’t homework. I used to edit and publish a DIY school newspaper; make my own ‘radio show’ mixtapes; write short stories; and a myriad of other things. That’s something I’ve carried on as I’ve gotten older, through avenues like my small-time cassette tape record label, and music project unexpected bowtie.

Perhaps as a result of that kind of thing, I got lumped in with the arty creative crowd, and I hated it. Whenever there was some sort of brainstorming session or group discussion at school or work, such as trying to decide on a name or a strap line for some project, I was always told: ‘Come on, you’re a creative person. You’ll be able to think of something great.’, and of course… I never could. How was I meant to translate the weird stuff I did in my spare time into a stunning one liner for an ad campaign? It was an impossible task.

There’s this common idea that there are two different kinds of people: those who are ‘creative’, and able to just pluck amazing ideas for anything out of thin air… and others simply aren’t… as if creativity in of itself is a particular skill. That was the perspective that was hammered into me for so long, and since I didn’t have that sort of seeming creative genius that allowed me to come up with flashes of brilliance on the spot, I really came to resent the idea and label of ‘creativity’ in general.

As time has gone on though, I’ve come to think of things differently. I know so many amazingly creative people that do so many different things, but who are hopeless when placed out of their own wheelhouse and ways of working… and when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to expect anything else.

As far as I am concerned, creativity isn’t (necessarily) about the ability to conjure up something specific for any given situation on demand. Instead, it is the urge to make stuff, whether that’s something like music or poetry; something tangible like jewelery or paintings; or something like cutting hair… writing code… or performing live in a band. Creativity isn’t a skill that can be turned to any task at hand, but something rooted in people that derives energy and satisfaction from the act of creating something… whether it’s any good or not. Somebody can be a creative person whilst pumping out absolute dross, because it’s the process – not the product – that matters.

I think we do our students and colleagues a disservice when we call them ‘creative’ and expect them to produce brilliance in response. Rather than having the intended complimentary effect, it just ends up as a rope around their neck, and produces expectations that are too much to live up to. I’d happily never hear the phrase ‘you’re a creative person’ ever again.

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