Jessica Olein has written an interesting article on Slate about how people say they value creativity, but they really want everyone to jump in line and dutifully follow the status quo, even if it is to the detriment to those who talked the talk about valuing creativity in the first place. I hate to say it, but as someone who lives in the 9 to 5 world, she’s right. I see it almost every day.
Though her company initially hired her for her problem-solving skills, she is regularly unable to fix actual problems because nobody will listen to her ideas. “I even say, ‘I’ll do the work. Just give me the go ahead and I’ll do it myself,’ ” she says. “But they won’t, and so the system stays less efficient.”
Ideas for how to manage projects, streamline workflow, and integrate technological advancements are nearly always met with metaphorical brick walls in the workplace. If the ideas are presented from the bottom to the management then they are almost certain to fail or to be dismissed outright without even a friendly ear. After awhile, people become apathetic and stop suggesting creative solutions to problems. The resistance to creative change, even in the positive, is astounding!
Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”
To survive a creative life we can’t let that apathy consume us. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard, “We’ve been doing it like this for XYZ, which is why we should keep doing it like this going forward.” This is not a reason for doing something if there is a way to improve upon it–especially in our technological world of lightning-fast changes.
“Everybody hates it when something’s really great,” says essayist and art critic Dave Hickey.
I ran into this myself in a creative writing class back in 1990. I had written a first-person short story from the point of view of a character who dies (not that my story was really great or anything, but who am I kidding, it was pretty awesome for a high-school kid). The character continued to narrate the story from beyond the veil of death. My creative writing teacher insisted that I couldn’t do this.
“You can’t have a narrator that’s dead.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You just can’t.”
In 1999 the movie American Beauty was released, and guess what–that’s right, the narrator of the story was dead. That movie won 5 Oscars and according to IMDB had 74 total award nominations and 94 wins.
Why again couldn’t I write a short story in which the narrator is dead? It’s exactly what Olein is talking about in this article. The story was something new at the time–it was definitely out-of-the-box. My creative writing teacher had quite a bit of jealousy rattling around inside her when it came to my burgeoning writing talent (there were many other issues that made this abundantly clear, but that’s a post for another day…). And just because she had never seen someone write a story with a narrator who dies, she rejected it as an impossibility.
Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.
And even if our teachers do support us in our creative pursuits and encourage new ideas and innovation in our thinking, what is our current obsession with testing doing to the creative among us?
Even if children are lucky enough to have a teacher receptive to their ideas, standardized testing and other programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (a program whose very designation is opposed to nonlinear creative thinking) make sure children’s minds are not on the “wrong” path, even though adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than their IQ.
I’ve had long conversations with a teacher-of-the-year friend of mine about No Child Left Behind and how it leaves no room for creativity in its curriculum demands. We also talked about direct instruction (mostly experimented with on low-income children, of course) being the same way. We’re teaching our kids only to follow directions and stay within the lines. Teaching a test is not teaching problem-solving, which is something that life requires of all of us. Problem-solving often involves finding creative solutions to complex issues. You can’t learn this by picking A, B, or C on a multiple-choice test.
To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.
I choose to live creatively. It is at the essence of who I am as a person in this world. I’ve never really fit–I’m the proverbial square peg and I refuse to carve corners to try to wrongly wriggle into a round hole. I choose to be myself and, accepted or not, here I am. Now if I could just let go of satisfying myself…
As writer Anais Nin once said, “Perfection is static, and I am in full progress…”