The Only Three Times Most of Us Are Ever Creative

I can feel it when my Creativity leaves.

It happens most days, sadly. I watch it walk out the door like a dour, fuzzy muppet, oversized face down, dragging its suessian hands on the floor. It passes the line of people at my door who stand in queue with questions and messages and needs and just so many needs. Need #31. Need #42.

The books, and I’ve studied them, say that most of us lose our Creativity because we self-inhibit. In fact, educators have a name for this. They call it the “fourth grade slump” because that’s about the age when most of us develop an acute awareness of other people’s judge-y-ness.

And judge-y they are. To overcome this oppression, we try to be neutral and avoid actual, out-on-a-limb expression, but if we’re honest, other people can be just as judge-y about how to compile a spreadsheet or allocate a resource. So there’s no escaping it. But people can be really judge-y when we try to actually suggest a new idea or make something. Being creative is like raising your hand in a fluorescent room full of people staring at the floor.

The really good ideas are at first fragile. They require hands cupped in protection. We can do low level creative things like doctor a photo or write a tweet, but the really great Creativity leaves when the room gets crowded with Needs and judge-y-ness.

The other day, when the Needs lined up at my door again, and I watched Creativity drudge off, it occurred to me that there are only a few times in life when most of us are really creative.


The first is when we’re completely ignorant.

This is the beauty of being a five year old. Completely, blissfully, wonderfully ignorant to the demands of the world. A fellow five year old has a negative opinion about your new art. Who cares? An authority figure wants you to organize something instead. What? It’s time for bed or to come to dinner. Hang on, I’m busy.

Of course, we eventually turn six, then 31, and we cannot unlearn what we learn, and cannot unhear what we hear, about life and the world and other people’s opinions.

Perhaps this is why there are so many stories of outsiders blowing up an industry, like Louis Gerstner, the cookie executive who is credited with turning around IBM in the 1990s. It’s only the ignorant and unconnected who are able to fully ignore the forces of stasis, no matter how well-meaning, whose “concerns” apply gravitational pull to new ideas, stifling innovation and effecting in some cases horrific launch pad disasters. (Actually, one study suggests that outsiders do best when the company is in crisis, which says something about the constancy of our chaos.)

It’s why the first 100 days in a new job are so critical. Yea, when you’re new and ignorant, you get knocked over a lot and make some embarrassing mistakes, but so what. Embrace your newfound, temporary ignorance. It’s an opportunity to actually make something, and it doesn’t last long. It’s also the beauty of risk. New environments re-ignorance us from the monotocrats.

But of course a person can’t change jobs every two years — or homes, or marriages — and we can’t go around pretending to be ignorant to entice our dearly departed creativity back. So ignorance doesn’t really work as a strategy for more creativity.


The second is when we’re completely desperate.

As the great Don Henley pined, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

Some people treading the long tail of decline say they’re desperate, but they’re really not — not yet. As long as you still have a steady paycheck for the foreseeable future, you’re not desperate. Your big idea failed on launch, but stumbles along with small market share. The second month in, you know you made a bad decision, but you decide to tough it out. You end up hanging on to the old thing for much long than you any reasonable scenario would suggest in the hope that it will, of its own accord, reignite. (The most nonsensical reaction is when purveyors of decline actually make badges out of their consumption and stasis, like a pastor who proudly proclaims that the dusty sanctuary is God’s design for the church.)

Desperation doesn’t darken our door nearly as often as we think it does. It only really appears when the perceived pain of change becomes less than the present pain of insufficient funds notices we’re getting on life. The scary moments, when they do come, become the megaphone to rouse us from our consumer slumber.

Desperation can lead to great things, so I’m not opposed to this under special circumstances, but I’ll pass for now on pursuing despair as a strategy.


The third is when we’re completely secure.

This leaves the third and final option — complete security.

For a period of time I consulted with teams of people attempting to design live event experiences in church settings. One of the aphorisms I’d cite, in an attempt to help teams create a sense of personal intimacy and goodwill amongst each other, was that insecurity is the first destroyer of creativity, because the really good ideas are tied to a sense of self and identity. Our best stuff can be almost unrecognizable at first. Good ideas sprout with the affirmation of others, at least until we’ve become so experienced that we can recognize it ourselves, although I’d really say that even then, or at least in own life, years of experience and titles and prestige and fans don’t foster complete security in our own ideas.

It’s stereotypical and likely off-putting to use football anecdotes, but I can’t help but think of the career of NFL hall of fame coach Tom Landry. Landry, who retired in 1989 and passed away in 2000, is considered one of the greatest innovators in football history. Several of his big creative ideas are still in use 25 years after he left the league.

In today’s sports climate, I wonder if any of this would have happened. He didn’t win a single game in his first year, and finished with no more than 5 wins in his next four. After five straight years of 5th, 6th and last place finishes, most coaches would have been fired. Instead, the team owner gave Landry a ten-year contract extension. He didn’t have another losing season for 22 years, a record that stands today.

We need healthy environments — people, job situations, financial security — to foster creative thinking and behavior. And while each of the three is to some degree out of our control — that is , not something we can make happen tomorrow — security is really the only scenario we can hope to make a long term reality.

So next time your Creativity leaves the room like a dour Muppet, ask yourself how secure you are. And if you like the answer, or think you might be able to like the answer, then make some decisions based on it; in other words, begin to adjust your schedule so that it’s not built on fear for job security or status or future paycheck, but on what you need in order for Creativity to stay in the room a while.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).