Here's Why You Think You're Not Creative (and Why You're Wrong)


My first memory of creativity lives as a weathered, polaroid photo of me around the age of 5. In the photo I’m stomping through the house pantless (foreshadowing for how I enjoy spending my evenings now) with a toy microphone that had a speaker attached. According to my mom I would (yell) sing nonsense songs while prancing around the house, as if our entire apartment was a stage. There was no pretense, fear of rejection, or goal -- I sang like no one was watching because it was fun and a form of self expression.

Creativity is a loaded term -- 75% of people don’t think they will reach their creative potential, leaving a creativity crisis in our hands, each generation declining in CQ. Various studies show a sharp plummet in creativity starts as early as 13 years old, and it affects both divergent thinking (generating unique ideas and insights) and convergent thinking (bringing various ideas together into a satisfactory result).

This saddens me, not only because to create is to be human but because creative pursuits have massive mental health benefits as well as material ones. With the amount of problems facing the human species (human rights, environmental problems, and medical challenges to name a few) we need creative thinking and problem solving more than we ever have before.

I’ve experienced this decline myself. I went from stomping around the house pantless and creating poems, writing raps, recording personal radio shows, making short stories, singing in choirs and bands to -- working -- with spurts of creative expression in the ways I can personally eek them out. Not all adults follow this exact same path, but social expectation makes creative outlets hard to come by as individuals age. We expect kids to play, explore, and express themselves, but we also expect them to grow out of playing and exploring in exchange for discipline and “productivity.” 

There’s three core reasons why this killing of creativity is happening.

1. Reward the Robots

Mrs. Shaw, my first grade teacher, was emphatic about rigid discipline. Every afternoon we'd commence our coloring activity, given a coloring book and a box of crayolas, with explicit instructions on how to outline and shade the drawings. The shading had to be light and uniform. If we colored outside of the lines or deviated from her instructions, we were harshly reprimanded. Coloring inside of the lines has never been my strong suit, so I had many memories of being scolded for not following her rules, during what was meant to be a relaxing and creative activity.

I saw this hard line on creative thinking manifest itself throughout my schooling. My 9th grade English teacher was extremely strict on creative interpretation. If an answer given by a student didn’t exactly match what was in her teaching manual, even if it was a different version of the correct answer, she deemed it wrong. During creative lessons, when we were analyzing poetry for instance, which is open to interpretation and multiple meanings, she would quickly cast out any answers that didn’t exactly match her teaching guide.

Education is an incredible tool, both for self exploration and knowledge, yet school traditionally is structured for memorization and regurgitation of information -- limiting critical thinking, a key element to creativity. Discipline can improve creativity, helping individuals focus their attention in ways that can generate new insights, but it’s a fine line to walk and has a limit. When we emphasize conformity in thinking, we kill openness, which kills creativity. We train kids to become robotic and rigid in their thinking, slowly snipping the divergent approaches that could birth interesting ideas and solutions to problems. Children with unconventional ideas are typically reprimanded, and students are rewarded for striving for the exact same answer and approach to getting to that answer.

Art classes are one aspect within traditional school systems to foster more open and creative environments, but are the first to go when there’s financial challenges or budgets cuts. How do we expect children to foster their creativity if their environments don’t facilitate it?

This conformity in thinking and practice follows us into our working lives. There’s nothing less exhilarating than having your ideas ignored, belittled, and misunderstood because they don’t conform to the group think of an organization.

2. Freedom, Freedom, I Can’t Lose

Creativity is a form of freedom, a window into releasing the mind and physically shifting the world around you. We all want to experience freedom and autonomy in our lives and self expression, but we’re socialized to let go of creative freedom for survival, especially in most work settings.

Creative freedom in the workplace for employees isn’t just a self indulgent venture - companies spend thousands of dollars on fostering creativity, because it leads to happier employees, better products, and more profit -- while simultaneously creating environments that kill creativity.

The recipe of killing creativity in a work environment is one part compartmentalizing jobs, two parts top down dictator type management of ideas, and a third reprimanding anyone who challenges the status quo.

You’re probably thinking “If we allowed people to do anything they wanted it would be complete chaos” and I agree, yet there is a healthy balance companies should strike with systems and openness to new ideas and ultimately innovation. Besides not boring their workers to death, it will lead to better solutions to business challenges.

3. You’re Gonna Starve, You Artist!

The starving artist trope is a stereotype for a reason, because society has both revered and scoffed at artistic pursuits. We gawk over artists painstakingly pouring their heart and souls into work that isn’t acknowledged until well after their deaths. We expect artists to struggle for decades until they make a big break. Unless you’re a prodigy or part of the small percentage of people that makes it in a traditionally creative industry (like music, acting etc), creative expression is fairly misunderstood or seen as a nice to have, but not necessary part of life.

Studies have shown the benefits of creative pursuits -- from reducing anxiety to increasing self esteem, immune system, and your overall happiness among many other returns. You don’t have to be Jay-Z or Picasso (although that would be nice) to find fulfillment in creative thinking and creative work.

We need to expand what we define and think is creative -- we are facing a world with a large dissatisfaction with work, and complex, towering social problems that won’t disappear overnight. We need creativity for survival, like we need air.

Creativity is a way of thinking and seeing the world and your craft -- how you express those thoughts and attitudes, is an extension of that. Until we stop assuming that all creative pursuits are a risky or unnecessary cause, we will continue to downplay the importance and need of daily creative expression for all people, to our own detriment. There’s a better way, and that way, is to create.