Whenever there’s a discussion about creativity and education or the importance of the arts, inevitably someone will say, “But I’m not the creative type.” This is said with a variety of meanings. It can be self-deprecating, someone lamenting they always did poorly in art classes and never quite “got it” during discussions about poetry in English class. This can be expressed with a genuine feeling of being somehow lacking. At other times it is in the context of believing themselves more practical and down-to-earth than “artsy” people. Sometimes it is said defensively, as in, “I don’t go in for art exhibits or opera and I did just fine, thank you very much.”
Such defensiveness is not entirely unwarranted. Some creative people can be condescending to those they consider trapped in unimaginative work. Perhaps because they are more verbal and even dramatic, they are better at expressing their judgments. But to be fair, they too are likely to feel defensive after a lifetime of being called flaky or impractical.
All of this really comes down to a too narrowly defined notion of what it means to be creative. Just because I can’t appreciate the elegance and beauty of an equation (This is how mathematicians talk about their subject!) doesn’t mean someone who can is less creative than I am because I can do that with a line of verse. If you listen to a CPA or an IT person talk about that moment when all the parts of a challenging problem suddenly come together, the excitement in their voice and their obvious delight in their work is very much like that of an artist describing an inspiration coming to fruition.
What do we usually mean when we say people are or aren’t creative types? To put this politely, we would say those people we usually call creative are probably guided more by intuition than logic. There is probably a certain amount of truth in this on the surface. But this relatively minor surface distinction leads us to compartmentalize people, and often ourselves, into opposing personality types: Practical vs. Impractical, Realistic vs. Unrealistic, Responsible vs. Irresponsible, Rational vs. Irrational. The insulting nicknames we’ve come up with for folks we condemn to either of these extremes illustrates what a disservice we do to ourselves and to others with this kind of thinking.
And what do we mean when we say someone is practical, responsible, realistic? We probably think of someone like the local business owner who runs the corner deli, has a repair shop, auto parts store or local restaurant. These strike us as very down-to-earth people, and certainly hard-working. If you know anyone in the food service industry, particularly restaurant owners, you know how hard they work. But are they practical? Realistic?
According to Businessweek, twenty-five percent of new restaurants go out of business in their first year; 60% close within three years. With these odds, it makes no sense to start a restaurant. Now, you might reply that restaurants are a particularly risky proposition. But these figures hold true for all small, independently owned businesses, not just restaurants. In the face of these cold facts, anyone who starts their own business of any kind is motivated by something other than practical considerations, and making decisions using some faculty other than reason.
Dare we say instinct? Intuition? Creativity? When a business owner or investor says “I went with my gut,” or “I just had a feeling about this guy…” what are they operating on? Think of all the self-made businessmen from hardscrabble backgrounds who built a business from nothing only to have their MBA-bearing son drive it into the ground. We say the son had book-learning but no common sense. What do we mean by common sense? Isn’t it imagination, adaptability, creativity?
Let’s take a cold, logical look at logic. If it ruled our lives, no one would start a restaurant or any other small business. Who would marry? At most, we’ve got a fifty percent chance of success. Fifty percent of teachers will have left teaching within five years. This doesn’t suggest an education degree is a smart investment. In a recent theater season, 44% of Actors Equity members were employed, with a median income of $7,200: thousands below the federal government’s designated poverty level for a single-person household. If we were to figure in the income for all the actors who are not members of the union, these statistics would be far more dismal.
And what about athletes? Think of all the hundreds of thousands of kids in the little league, on local high school football or hockey teams. Compare that to the tiny number of adults who make their livings as professional athletes.
How impoverished our lives would be if everyone used only logic and reason to make their life choices. Try to imagine a world with no musicians, actors, painters, singers, poets, dancers; no Olympics, no U.S. Open, no baseball, basketball, football or hockey season; no restaurants, coffee shops, candy stores, or small businesses of any kind in any local downtown.
Can you imagine such a world? No one would want to live in it. Fortunately, we don’t have to. If you can imagine such a dismal world, you already know the reason why: Because we have imaginations. Even you do, however much you may claim to not be a creative type.
Some people might say the real explanation is emotion: some of us are ruled by our hearts, others by our heads. In that case, where does the owner of the local dry cleaners or butcher shop fall? See the statistics above. Starting either business is not a logical choice. But we live our lives somewhere between these two extremes. Our hopes and fears are informed by our reason and experience. The choices we make that shape our lives almost always require what we sometimes call a leap of faith or a creative leap. To live in the world as a human being is to be a creative type.
Let’s take another look at athletes. They are famous for their discipline. They have to manage every aspect of their lives through rigorous training and nutrition regimens. The relentlessly focused and driven preparation that distinguishes the great athlete from the mediocre seems anything but creative. And yet almost every world-class athlete practices visualization: they visualize, that is, imagine themselves succeeding. For decades now, motivational speakers have been instructing business leaders to use this same technique.
Athletes and salespeople, like artists, know all the study, discipline and preparation in the world isn’t enough. Dancers go through training as rigorous as any athlete’s, and composers, playwrights, sculptors and painters spend decades working with an intensity that seems almost obsessive-compulsive. But to truly succeed, something else has to happen. Athletes and salespeople know something rare is happening when they are “in the zone.” A poet might call it inspiration. It’s no coincidence that when Michael Jordan was in those moments he was described as poetry in motion. Even the most unpoetic of us knows what that phrase means. Likewise, whatever we call it, we also know what it means to be inspired, and to encounter someone or something that is inspiring to witness.