Whenever I get chatting with someone new and we start trading the answers to the “what do you do?” questions, inevitably my art and my music turns up in the conversation, and about 80% of the time I’m hastily, pre-emptively assured (I don’t even need to ask the question!) that this other person is “Not Creative”.
I find that statement both intriguing and sad, because I absolutely believe that creativity is not the domain of a few: it is the inherent birthright of every human being. As Steven Pressfield says in his book, The War of Art, “Creative work is... a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us out of your contribution. Give us what you've got”.
It also makes sense to me why so many people believe that they are Not Creative. I’m convinced this happens because:
- When we grow up, we’re incentivised to adopt one way of being. It’s easier for society (and, often, for our families) if we’re “the smart one” or “the musical one” or “the sporty one”. It helps people to know where to channel you. Even our organisations are structured on specialisation - on you being good at one or two things, not many. Where Renaissance people were once celebrated, today’s society doesn’t know how to handle someone who is good at multiple things... I once had a CFO say to me, “I can’t figure out if you’re a corporate warrior or a hippie.” The truth is, I’m both. I love businesses and I love people; I enjoy art and music AND systems thinking and contracts (not even kidding - they can be beautiful examples of structure and clarity); I love time in high heels and pretty dresses, and time where I’m in the same outfit, day after day, getting grubby while I hike a very long way.
- Over time, we come to over-identify with that one way of being, and, by so doing, we limit other intelligences that may be available to us. We see ourselves as a head person, or a heart person, or a creative person, only. We don’t seek to learn and integrate those other, missing, parts of ourselves… instead, we just assume that they were never ours to have. Our parents want to set us up for success in the society that we operate in, and this society absolutely values head intelligence, over heart intelligence and over creative intelligence. I, however, am convinced that true genius turns up when you've managed to integrate your head, your heart, and your creativity.
3. Incentives include both carrots and sticks - and that early incentivisation imparted some emotional baggage about those things we were told weren’t important for us. For example, I’ve always been celebrated for my brain. When I was asked by my Dad about what I wanted to do at university, I said I wanted to do an arts degree - I wanted to study things I was interested in, like sculpture and history and english literature. “You’ll never make a career out of that!” my Dad responded, horrified. “You’ll do law instead.” While I have no doubt that my Dad’s intentions were great (he values security, and wants that for me), the message was that my creative, emotive side wasn’t really valuable to the world. Consequently, I spent the first 5 years of my career as a workaholic lawyer with no creative outlets, until I had a breakdown because I was so out of balance. My psyche would only let me crawl out of the pit of depression when I started feeding those parts of me which needed to creatively, and emotionally, express.
If we are going to heal this belief that we are Not Creative, we need to do several things:
- Redefine what “creative” means in your head. Creative doesn’t just mean art and music. It’s wood-working. It’s quilting. It’s cooking. It’s any kind of “I feel compelled to express myself through a particular medium”. It can be how you arrange your house. It can be how you dress your body. Just ask yourself “What have I always wanted to try?,” and start walking toward that thing. You'll know you're on the right path if you feel pretty terrified.
- Grieve the ways that your creativity was diminished and demeaned. If an essential component of who you are (such as your creative self) was treated as Less Than when you were growing up, grieve it. There’s no way that wasn’t painful to your child self, and your psyche learnt, as a consequence, to avoid the pain associated with the rejection you felt when you tried to express creatively. I remember my mother once saying to fifteen year old me that I might be able to sing in a chorus line (implication: definitely not as a soloist) and it stopped me from sharing my music with people for years. In fact, the thing that undid it was when, in my adult years, she heard me singing along at a James Taylor concert, and said I was as good as the woman front-running the support band. I could have given myself that freedom if I had just acknowledged, and grieved, the impact that her first comment had had on me sooner.
- If you’re finding it too difficult to stop judging your creative attempts, give yourself permission, instead, to be shit at whatever avenue you’d like to exercise your creativity in. I remember feeling such a strong urge to express myself through drawing and painting, but my inner perfectionist wanted to vomit at whatever was coming out of my hands. “It’s too abstract! Too pink! Too juvenile! Too sexual! Too self-focused! Too comic book! TOO! TOO! TOO!” So I made up a big sign in my house that said: “Permission to create shit art”. That got me over the initial blocker long enough for me to develop skills that let me create things that I’m proud of. But, also - skills schmills!! You've undoubtedly seen art that you've thought, "I could do that" about. That's because art is less about what is created, and more about what that created thing makes the audience feel. You don't have to be technically good at something to be "creative" in it. So, stop judging yourself, and let whatever wants to come out, come out.
You ARE creative. You DO have a unique contribution to make the world, and your creativity is a big part of that. Just because it was convenient for others to limit you down into one thing, you now have a choice about whether you keep limiting yourself down, or if you get brave enough to show up as a full person.