So You Think You're Not Creative?

No one is born 'A creative,' and anyone can access creativity when they are passionate about a topic.  Here's how: 

Last week I spent an incredible day at what I hope is the first of many "supercreativity" salons in NYC.  The gathering was a small group of disparate thinkers coming together for knowledge and inspiration exchange.  Talk about pressure - not only did I need to show up creative, but I had to power that to super for the next 6 hours.  Not to worry, because the organizers know how creativity is fostered, and that we all possess it. The day was hosted by the ENVSN team at Microsoft, and PopTech.  ENVSN is an intimate tribe within a giant organization, whose job it is to disrupt the future of productivity and work by retooling and redefining it.  What does it look and feel like to be a next gen employee or leader?  How do we (re)define work, productivity, success, collaboration, and what kind of spaces do we work in? Find ENVSN's video series around these questions here.

PopTech is a global community of innovators catalyzing social change through collaborative thinking and doing.  It is dear to my heart for its annual un-conference in Camden, Maine.  I go to get an infusion of knowledge, inspiration and ideology.  Indeed it catalyzes my own thinking, but the greatest gift I get each year is the expansion of a network of like-minded people.

You're thinking they're all innate creatives, right?  I can tell you they would NOT all cop to that title; many are still getting used to being seen that way.  They do cop to their passions, and that is the source of creativity. 

The future of work will be about regaining trust.  Empathy = Trust = Creativity

What I brought to the table that day was my passion for empathy and perspective-taking. At its core, I believe the future of work will be about regaining trust in the employer/employee relationship, and both sides getting really good at taking the other's perspective.  Large corporations are undergoing a major shift in trust, where the onus is on them to make work a two-way offering.  Generation Flux has arrived - the next group of workers who embrace and enjoy instability, and who demand that employers offer them more than a 401k and health insurance. They are of all ages, all demographics - we can't study these folks like we did in the past. What do corporations do with this amorphous archetype? They level the playing field.  They help search for what makes each person, at any level, passionate, and allow their passions to become part of their work.  This paradigm shift is all rooted in empathy.  I write about the reach empathy has in all aspects of life, and I'm thrilled to see it getting past buzzword in the work world. The formula is simple:  empathy = trust = creativity.  When we feel understood, respected and safe, we free our imaginations and produce original ideas. That's all creativity is - it's not a voodoo talent bestowed (or not) by a higher power.  It's available for anyone, when the passion switch is on.  

Embrace jaggedness, not averageness

Have you ever heard that John is an empathic person, or Ella is a creative?  Maybe you've said it yourself.  The truth is that John is empathic in certain situations, and Ella is creative at times.  You can bet that John has moments where he finds it difficult to walk in another person's shoes.  Ella has zero ability to imagine what it's like to be an astronaut, but can post up 50 juicy ideas about the future of journalism in an hour's time. Creativity is powered by passion.  

Todd Rose wrote a life-changing book addressing individuality called The End of Average. The key principle he wants us to wrap our heads around is jaggedness.  Jaggedness is the opposite of average.  It recognizes that we have different degrees of ability and passion that cannot be measured against a middle ground.  We make many incorrect assumptions about what people excel or fail at based on their skills compared to the average. 

For example, engineers are naturally excited about and great at math, right?  Jaggedness says maybe.  Closer to the truth is that within math, an engineer may enjoy and excel at calculous, but she may have no clue or interest in geometry.  If tested, her scores reflect this jaggedness even within the subject - math. Do you assume that your friend who can make any horrible apartment look great with his design acumen should naturally be a great artist, or be exceptionally crafty? His home always looks inviting, but he draws stick figures and he is not the guy you invite to a glitter party. It's natural that we confer talent from what we believe is one area of excellence to another, seemingly related one. Well, it's Just. Not. Accurate.  Certainly, there are areas where assumptions match true talent, but it is dangerous for us to expect skills and passion where they may not exist - especially as employers.

We are variably creative based on many conditions

At the salon, we heard from two scholars on the topics of trust and creativity.  We have an age-old fear of trusting - to trust is to risk.  To make oneself vulnerable is to risk getting burned. Psychologist David DeSteno gave us research examples of how failure to trust can put us at greater risk.  Think about this in the future of work context.  When we trust our employees to contribute to the company, it frees them to bring their best (...creative!) selves to the job.  When we fail to trust that our company will keep us on during budget cuts, or allow us to veer off the job script path to bring innovation to the team, we risk being unhappy - which snowballs into many other risks like not staying at that job. This is just a slice of what we heard that day on trust, but you get the point. Engender trust, both ways, and work takes flight.  

Scott Barry Kaufman has written many books on intelligence and creativity.  Psychologist and Director of the Imagination Institute, part of UPenn's Positive Psychology department, Scott fired off so many golden nuggets about creativity that my hand couldn't keep up with my pen.  A key take away is that "creativity is characterized by variability."  Immediate thought - jaggedness.  No one is singularly creative, or not.  And another layer in, we are variably creative based on many conditions.  Have you ever had a day when you couldn't get a word down on paper, painted over the paint on your canvas, or felt lost as to how to manage your team? Several conditions constrain or foster creativity. The good news is they are not hard to put in place.  To me, all fostering conditions come from empathy.  When we enable conditions like respecting another person's opinion, giving without expecting a return, and honoring the jaggedness of every person, we're ripe for creativity. When we bring our roles, ego and agenda to the process, it shuts down our own creativity, and that of the group.    

Situational creativity is a thing

The supercreativity salon got the conditions right:

  1. Careful thought in bringing a small number of diverse (not all professed creatives!) people in the room
  2. The space.  An intimate, comfortable setting that didn't have a white wall with thousands of post-its at the ready (Thank you. Seriously.)
  3. Orchestrated timing.  Optimal time to learn, ask questions, prime the setting (via talk of trust and honoring 'messy' individuality), break, let things sink in, eat
  4. Loose agenda.  The feeling was 'we trust you' to generate substantive thoughts and ideas.  That's all that was needed. 

A philosophy I talk often about is situational empathy.  Just like any other communication skill, we can turn on genuine empathy in the right conditions.  And we all need regular practice - even the experts. Would we all like to adopt an empathic orientation toward life in general?  Sure!  But baby steps here.  My point is no one should be writing themselves off as not that 'kind' of person - throw your Myers-Briggs label out the window.  Apply this same method to creativity.  Instead of shutting this side of you down because someone or something told you you were not creative, recognize that those situations were not tapping into your passions.  If they were, you would have been able to sit for hours and never run out of imaginative riffs on the topic.  Being in the presence of other humans who have passion and knowledge for a certain field can be enough to get anyone fired up and ready to create.    

Above all, enjoy the process

Next time you are challenged to be creative, look to your passions and try to make the environment right for imagination and free thought. Gather with others around one key idea, feeling, core principle, question, and go.  Bring everything you can to the conversation because this is your jam.  You know this topic from your angles - enjoy what other angles your group sees, and meld and build on them.  Make no assumptions about your talent or anyone else's.  Turn your creativity switch on by turning on your passion. When you collaborate knowing that there is no wrong answer, freedom gives way to inspiration.