The Mystery of the Missing Creative Bones

Where are all the creative bones buried?

Deep in the heart of any conversation about creativity there lies a Great Mystery.  Not the mystery of where new ideas come from, or whether talent matters, or how we're supposed to handle the fact that so many incredibly potent creators have died in recent weeks. (RIP David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey).  

All perplexing questions, to be sure, but the Great Mystery I'm talking about is the one that inevitably rears its inscrutable little head any time someone like me starts talking about how all humans are wired to create and - even crazier - how many of us are actually wired to create in multiple different ways, ways that form a pattern called your Creative Constellation...

As I've begun talking about the idea that we each have a "Creative Constellation," some very lovely people respond with a gentle palm in my face move that sounds something like this, "Wow, that sounds like something creative people might get, but that's just not me.  You know me, I don't have a creative bone in my body."

And boom, there it is.  The Mystery of the Missing Creative Bones.

Let's say, for a moment, that I'm right (oooh, that feels so good!) and all of us humans are wired to create.  (See this post to get the full scoop on my thinking on that topic).  Leaving aside the pesky little matter of whether creativity is a wire or a bone, the mystery is this:  where are all those creative bones buried?  

Are there thousands of creative bones embedded in the foundation of the Internal Revenue Service's headquarters?  Have the fat cat capitalists been grinding up our creative bones to make their bread all these years?  Sometime around 7th grade, are our creative bones excised from us in the middle of the night by little ninja "creativity fairies," who then take their bone-filled sacks to giant workshops where they are used to build thrones for the Presidents of textbook companies?  Or, is this a Pet Semetery situation, where the rainbow-colored spirits from an ancient burial ground of lost creativity will someday be unwittingly unleashed by a little boy just trying to give his poor dead Budgie a place of eternal rest?   

If we are all creators of one kind or another (or a bunch of kinds all together), why in the world are so many of us convinced that we are totally and irreversibly un-creative?  

Is it because:

A.  we confuse "creativity" with "art making" and treat them as synonyms, when they're not?  

B.  many of us went to schools designed for containment and coercion rather than creativity?  

C.  we've inherited some crappy understandings about what creativity is, and some attitudes about creativity that emerge from those  underlying crappy understandings?

The answer, of course, is D.  "All of the Above."  

Is it possible that the "missing" creative bones are not missing at all??? (gasp!) 

What if all of us who think we're missing creative bones have merely been seeing our own skeletons through a kind of warped x-ray machine shaped by an earlier time in our cultural and economic history? 

Here's what I mean:

Back in the day...a day we'll call "Day of Industry" (or industrialism for short), a day when most jobs were organized in large factories or bureaucracies, creativity was not, shall we say, the most valued of human capacities.  It ranked way down the list, somewhere behind "obedience," "conformity," and "willingness to trade your soul for a pension."  

Indeed, society had a pretty simple sorting system, involving what it understood to be a quite reasonable and simple yes or no question:  Are You Creative?  (Kind of like a Harry Potter-esque sorting ceremony in which the creatives got berets and the non-creatives got fedoras.)  

The sorting process looked something like this:

Of course, there were two different things going on with this "YES/NO" understanding of creativity.  You'll notice that "creative" was a synonym for "art maker" while "non-creative" was synonymous with "productive member of society."

This distancing between creatives/artists and everyone else not only created a distinction between people who are or are not creative, it also layered a sticky kind of moral judgement on the whole domain of creativity.  

In the logic of the industrial age, there were the normal, righteous, un-creative folks grinding away in the reality-drenched streets of  "productivity town," and then a handful of dreamy creative floaters living in "cloudville" where they could escape from their obligation to do something useful with themselves, and (this was the really scary part) gratify their own hedonistic pleasures.  

In other words, back in the days of industry, the common picture in people's heads of the relationship between productivity and creativity looked something like this:

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Basically, the basis of the image was questionable then, and it darn sure doesn't make sense now.  As our economy has shifted out of industrialism and into what some people call the "Creative Economy," it is requiring all of us to re-image this relationship between productivity and creativity, and between the economy and the culture.

So, what exactly is the creative economy?  Just for fun, let's see what the folks at the The United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development have to say about it.  (I suggest you hold onto your hats for this one.)  Ready? Because I'm not sure you're really ready.  OK.  Don't say I didn't warn you.  The United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development Creative Economy Report 2008 defines the emerging ‘creative economy’ as: 

Just WOW, right?  I dare you to say that three times fast!  What the hell does that mean and why do they talk like that at the UN?  Sorry, I can only help with the first question.  

What they are saying, I think, is this:  Today, the economy is being driven in unprecedented ways by human creativity, to the point where "culture" and "the economy" are getting very close to being one and the same thing.

For example, the technologies of entertainment and social connection which are hallmarks of our current economic age demand a flow of creative content, and the development of the technologies itself is also creative work.  Whatever separation there might have once been between the economy and the culture is pretty much toast.  The old image of "on the ground" productivity and "in the clouds" creativity has been turned on it's head.

Or, to make it really simple, this:

So what does this mean for the mystery of the missing creative bone?  

Well, suddenly, many of the folks who, in the OLD paradigm were pretty convinced (some a tad righteously so) that they had not a single 'creative bone' in their bodies are having to reckon with the fact that they may have had one all along - it was just hidden by some heavy-duty industrial-age blinders.  

What we can see now, looking back on "productivity town" through the lens of the Creativity Age, is that there was far more creativity going on in "productivity town" than we were willing to admit.  If we could zoom in and see all the people in the little "productivity town" of yore - maybe a farm town, or a factory town, or a city full of office buildings - we's see all kinds of creative work going on:

We'd see teachers figuring out how to create activities and environments that promote learning

We'd see architects and designers figuring out how to create buildings and furniture and ball-point pens and ergonomic staplers

We'd see explorers planning expeditions to all corners of the world

We'd see inventors creating contraptions and gizmos that would change the world

We'd see mothers figuring out how to keep their children fed and clothed and safe and growing up healthy and strong

We'd see activists figuring out how to end child labor, win women the right to vote, and desegregate public schools

We'd see farmers and gardeners figuring out how to cultivate and distribute food

We'd see managers trying to figure out how to organize workers and flows of work

We'd see curators figuring out how to keep our cultural treasures safe 

We'd see Dewey figuring out the decimal system for organizing books

We'd see doctors figuring out how to heal the sick

We'd see spiritual leaders figuring out how to connect people to deeper truths and sustaining beliefs

What we can see now, in retrospect, is that all of these "non-creatives" down in productivity-town were, in fact, creatively solving problems and actively creating their world.  

Conversely, if we visited the artist-land of "Cloudville" from the days of yore, we'd see a lot more industry going on than was ever fully acknowledged at that time.   

If we could wander through the sky world where the artists-of-yore were presumed to live, we'd find no candy floss or spun sugar castles.  Instead, we'd see a group of people with the remarkable ability to fuse an openness to dreams, imagination, and possibility, with habits of daily industry and disciplined work.  We'd find, in fact, that artists have a lot to teach other creatives about what it takes to take ownership of your own life and vision, and how to develop a set of daily practices that allow you to keep the work flowing.

Who knew the "management consultants" of the new age would be the former residents of "Cloudville"?  Ain't history grand?

So, what have we learned?

1. The notion of a "creative bone" that some people just aren't born with is an outdated bunch of hooey.  It's time to call off the search for the missing creative bones!  Mystery solved.  

2.  From the perspective of our Creative Economy, we can better see that we all have creative capacities - even if our creativity doesn't happen to express itself through the modes of art-making.   As Creative Economy guru Richard Florida says:  “The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He—or she—is the new mainstream.”  ― The Rise of the Creative Class--Revisited: 10th Anniversary Edition

3.  Creativity is not a synonym for "art making;" Art-making is simply one specific (and fabulous) way in which creativity expresses itself.

Clearly, it is past time to give up the old "Yes/No" "Beret/Fedora" view of creativity.  But, what shall we replace it with?  What understandings about creativity are more in keeping with the Creative Economy, and more closely connected to our actual experience of ourselves as creators?  Look for more on these new, improved mysteries in the next installment!