#151 from Innovative Leader Volume 4, Number 4          April 1995

Why Are We Creative? Because It’s Fun
by Peter Jacoby

Mr. Jacoby has been working and playing in many creative fields as a:writer, poet, painter, musician, TV writer/producer/director, theater actor/director/designer, and creative advertising/marketing consultant in San Diego, California.  His book, Unlocking Your Creative Power was published by Ramsey Press (San Diego, 1993).  He’s on the board of directors of the American Creativity Association.  He can be reached at (619) 541-7881.

Sometimes, as we go about our daily routines of “creating,” managing others who create, or just plain keeping the doors open and the lights on, it’s easy to forget why we do what we’re doing.  With all the pressure to be responsible, practical, and task-oriented--in other words, to act grown-up--we can lose track of what fiddling with a piece of string (or a molecular string) is all about--and why we were attracted to it in the first place:  Because, at its simplest and purest, creativity is fun.

Perhaps we discovered this when, as children, we first decided to make a page in a coloring book look, not like the tree it was supposed to be, but like abstract art.  Wasn't it fun to ignore the printed lines?  Wasn't it a delight to find out what would happen if we held not one, but four crayons, in one hand?  Who could resist the allure of actually creating something new, instead of copying something old?

Throughout the voluminous scientific study of creativity, two questions constantly arise:  “Where does creativity come from?” and “Why are many people less creative than a few stars?”

These questions are distressing, dogmatic, and dangerous.  Distressing because they usually assume there's a physiological source for “creativity.”  Dogmatic since they assume that most people are uncreative (certainly not as creative as the authorities who write these articles!).  And dangerous, because they perpetuate the myth that we, the uncreative mass of humanity, are not responsible for our plight.

Pinning Creativity Down

As they try to understand creativity, the near-universal approach of commentators and scientists is to study, analyze, quantify, dissect, and otherwise humiliate it.  It reminds me of an unfortunate patient in a hospital bed being examined by an unruly gaggle of half-trained medical students.

We, as a culture (and particularly the scientific and academic subcultures) have become fixated on specifying the origin of creativity.  If we were to accomplish that, supposedly, we could "harness" creativity, and put it at our beck and call.  We would be able to apply it constructively whenever and wherever we choose.  We could also manage it better in others, particularly those who work with us and for us in “creative endeavors.”

But creativity is a pesky little devil which won't be pinned down, won't sit still under a microscope while we examine it.

All the better, I say.  To quote an obscure but insightful poet who finally understood why a romance went sour:  “We asked Love to stand still for a moment/And answer one or two questions.”  Under a microscope or in a Petri dish, love dies.  So does creativity.  So does fun.

As our desperate urge to measure creativity is frustrated by its rascally unwillingness to oblige, we turn to creativity's footprints—its results.  This reminds me of particle physics:  since particles are hard to study, we study their effects.  Similarly, we call on the “effects” of creativity to give us a sign—the Big Discovery. 

Standards for Creativity?

In his paper, Whole Brain Creativity:  Seven Key Conclusions, Ned Herrmann, a noted theoretician and educator on creativity (and author of The Creative Brain) states, “Having an idea for a painting is not enough.  It must be successfully rendered, framed, priced, marketed, and sold.”  (That takes some of the fun out of painting, doesn’t it?)

I must ask, “Not enough for whom?”  And, “Why must it be?”  Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime (his brother bought it as a face-saving way to give Vincent some food money).  Yet Van Gogh is now recognized as one of the most creative artists of the nineteenth century.

Mr. Herrmann, who has concluded that creativity comes from the brain (no argument there), and is neurophysiological in nature, and has fixed genetic traits, adds that “the experimental results indicate that accountants and artists have very different cognitive styles that are manifested physiologically.”  Thus, people in these divergent fields “process information very differently and have chosen career fields that reflect their [brain] hemisphere dominance.”

Creating the “Creativity Victim”

If I may generalize for a moment, Herrmann’s generalization is dangerous, since it perpetuates the myth that some people are plodders from a simple, innate inability to create.  First of all, is the “accountant cognitive style” true of all accountants?  Likewise, is the “artist cognitive style” stereotype applicable to all artists?  In truth, there are many successful and non-successful accountants and artists who don’t match their “assigned” style at all.  Some accountants can be pretty creative around tax time, and some artists are as fastidious and unimaginative as the caricature of an accountant.

Pity the hapless accountant who reads Mr. Herrmann and realizes that he or she has chosen a drab, uncreative career because of a brain hemisphere dominance.  That's the end of the line.  Wouldn't it be easy to give up and say, “It’s not my fault!  I’m a victim of brain hemisphere dominance!”

That’s the point of abandoning responsibility and converting ourselves into “Creativity Victims.”

Easy Come, Too Easy to Go

Instead of looking for a physiological cause for a career choice, let’s consider another starting point:  Everyone is born creative.  Everyone.  If this is true (as studies of children indicate), why worry about where creativity originates?  If it’s originally part of everybody's makeup, then the problem is different, and much more solvable:  Why do some people “lose” more inborn creativity as they grow up?

In other words, we should be worrying about where creativity goes, not whence it comes. 

I think it disappears under mountains of repression the child experiences, both at school and in the home, as the message is repeated:  Self-expression is unsafe, and non-normal expression cannot be tolerated.  (But isn’t that essential for creativity?)

So lack of creativity is a learned response to life in general, and to parents, peers, bosses, and social groups in particular.  It’s the result of our quest for emotional safety.  Any intense search for a physiological cause for creativity only furthers the myth and emotional sanctuary of being a “Creativity Victim” (“It’s not my fault....”).

Creativity Takes Courage and Playfulness

Understanding, using, and managing creativity doesn’t take a neuroreceptor map.  It takes courage--the courage to quit being a victim and take responsibility for one’s life.  The courage to let go of (instead of control) the complexity we face in our careers and lives.  It requires recognizing, reclaiming, and embracing the playful, fun-loving, risk-taking child within each of us.

Each of us is really two people:  Our adult and our child.  It’s our child, not our adult, who’s playful and creative.  And our child is still very much part of each of us, just waiting, eagerly, to be invited by our adult to play.

When we understand this about ourselves, we can apply it to others.  We can only foster creativity and successfully manage creative co-workers when we understand that creativity and control are enemies, that letting go is the gateway to creativity, and that a judgmental viewpoint is one of the scariest things a child--the creative part of a person--will ever face. 

If we know that the child within us is the creative being, we'll start asking questions:  What sorts of playtime can I create for me and my staff?   What sorts of fun can I foster?  How can I forestall judgmental thinking?

Remember when you had the purest fun in your life?  What was the common element in these times?  I bet it wasn't specifics of time, or space, or money, or even age.  Based on my experience, and the experiences of participants in my creativity workshops, those times of greatest fun involved these simple things:

·           “letting go” (abandoning control) to one degree or another, the degree of fun rising in direct proportion to the degree of letting go;

·            emotional risk:  allowing ourselves to feel, “Who cares if no one else thinks it looks like a tree, it’s fun to color like this!”; and

· sharing the letting go (and the risk) with one or more people.

A Creative Challenge

If you manage creativity in others, this is my challenge:  How can you, as an adult and a professional, create those same feelings now that you’ve identified from your past?  I absolutely believe this is possible, as long as you keep things simple and playful.  Creativity and complexity are also antithetical.

We aren’t “Creativity Victims.”  No one is.  Because we--each of us--did our own locking up.  Sure, we felt (consciously or unconsciously) we had a good reason.  But we locked it up, not some outside force.  And there's no particular neurological or genetic proclivity inhibiting our active creativity today.  It’s us and our fear of emotional risk.

How to be creative?  How to manage creative people?  All it requires, really, is letting go--then we’ll clearly see how to help others reclaim the use of as much of their own creativity as they wish.

I suggest we start with a break from the office or lab, and have a little fun.  Invite the children you work with—including yourself—out to play.

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