“I am just not that creative…”

I just did a search on pexels using only the word “creative.” Here are a few the top results:
light, creative, abstractThis search result concerns me. Not that any of these images are bad. No indeed, these photos are excellent examples of what I would term “traditional creativity.” They focus on artistic images and skills. They promote the stereotype of the “disorganized artist,” the classic understanding that creative people are sloppily dressed, covered in pencil or paint smudges, and (usually) poor.

This is a misunderstanding of what creativity is all about.

There is nothing particularly wrong with these sentiments, as painting, writing, and other forms of art certainly require creativity. However, stereotypes such as these do a disservice to people cannot identify them in their own lives. If you are not, as the final image in the series above a “creative mess,” does that mean you are not creative? If you cannot imagine combining colors in such a pleasing way (or even if you do not understand why the colored lights are pleasing to some people) in the second image, does this mean that you are not creative? If you cringe at the sight of colored pencils or paints, or at the thought of writing anything more than a quick text message, does it follow you are not creative?

No! Emphatically no!

This is a lie that stereotypes and misconceptions that our society peddles for the low, low price of the self esteem of our people. Creativity is not some obscure realm where authors and artists alone may tread. It is that primal force that prompted George Washington Carver to grind up peanuts to create the best (opinion alert) nut butter ever invented. It is the electrical current that lead Alexander Graham Bell and his compatriots as they revolutionized communication with the invention of the Telephone. It is an energy field that surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together (apologies to George Lucas).

Creativity is very rarely the creation of something completely original. Even in the field of art, creativity is usually derivative of something. More often, creativity is about combining two things that already existed in a new way (I am looking at you, smartphones). Sometimes, creativity is about taking an existing thing, and adding a new to it. This is a harder one to find good examples for, but think about how scientists build on older theories with new information, or how app developers will take an established style and apply a new theme to it.


In the classroom, I have students constantly telling me they are “not that creative.” To them, I have two things to say:

  1. Creativity means more than painting, writing, or doing Pinterest crafts. Creativity happens every time you are faced with a problem and can only solve it with a limited amount of tools. Like when you wake up and think “what am I going to wear today?” Or when you open the fridge hunting for a snack. Or when you decide you want to buy a new cell phone, but don’t have the full amount of cash on hand. How are you going to solve those problems? That’s right, you get creative. People who write code for computer programs are creative. Engineers are creative. Dentists are creative. The admin assistant who has to figure out how to keep all the schedule’s of their department straight is creative. Don’t sell yourself short just because you aren’t a “creative mess.”
  2. Creativity is not just something that happens without help. It can be practiced and learned! No one can be expected to magically become hugely creative all at once. Just like sculpting takes practice, so does math, science, coding, interior design, and, you know, essay assignments. Take small steps. Another great way to learn to be more creative is to consume creative works yourself. Read novels, articles, scientific reports, whatever interests you. Watch movies, look at prints, and get an appreciation for the finer points of the field that interests you. The more you understand about different topics, the more you will be able to make creative connections between them.

Fortunately, I think the popular understanding of what creativity is all about is starting to change. In that same “creative” search on pexels, on of the top results was this:

In this image, a young entrepreneur is sketching out how to run his new business. He is conceptualizing cash flow, how people will order his product, etc. Sure he is wearing improbably “artsy” clothing, but the task he is performing is one that a traditional understanding of creativity would consider dry and uninteresting. Yet, he is applying what he knows to a problem he needs to solve. Bravo to pexels for having a more complete understanding of what it is to be creative. Lets follow their example, go out there, and make something.



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