Has anyone ever asked you "How are you creative"?
I’m guessing not. But why? Why haven’t we been asking ourselves, our children, our employees and colleagues this really juicy and productive question?
In some earlier posts, (like this one and this one) I’ve speculated that one reason we’ve not been more interested in the multiple ways that creativity shows up is that we’ve been clinging to the misguided old question “Are You Creative?” Like most all-or-nothing thinking, the notion that creativity is a trait that some people have and others don't is rather like a bag full of three-day old fish – stinky stinky stuff. Let's file "Are You Creative" under BOT for "Bad Old Thinking," shall we?
One other Bad Question
Now, just to really clear the decks on our way to understanding the better question “How Are You Creative?,” I want to take a moment to acknowledge a spectacularly awful alternative question that seems to really generate some energy for some people: “How Creative Are You?” For today, I will spare you my rant about the ultimate futility of that question, and the real damage that it causes to people’s lives, but suffice to say that any view of creativity that even hints that there is value in “turning it up to 11” as an end goal is beyond stinky all the way to putrid and needs to be filed under BNT for “Bad New Thinking.” (Fair warning – I fear the fullness of such a rant may be coming to this space soon…)
Now that we've got that out of the way...
As we set both this BOT and BNT aside and return to the question du jour “How Are You Creative?” it occurs to me that to make sense of this intriguing question, it may be helpful to surface two underlying assumptions.
Assumption number one is that there are, in fact, different ways of being creative. Take a look at this panoply of famous people for a moment, and consider three basic questions:
- Do you agree that everyone pictured here can be described as creative?
- Are any of them creative in the same way?
- Who the hell is Boyon Slat?
Just at a glance, it seems clear that we’ve got some different kinds of creatives here, right?
Lady Gaga is a performance artist
Chris Rock is a comedian
Coco Chanel was a fashion designer
George Takei is an actor
Anne Lamott is a writer
Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a scientist
Frida Khalo was a painter
Oprah Winfrey is a television producer
Martin Luther King was an activist
Steve Jobs was a product designer
Alice Waters is a chef
Boyon Slat is an inventor (have you looked him up yet?)
Each of these people have changed the world with their creativity, but, if we had them all assembled in a room - can you imagine? - and we asked them “How Are You Creative?,” each of them would have a rather different answer to that question.
In other words, creativity is expressed quite differently through different people. It is all creative, but it takes different forms.
Assumption number two is where things get even more interesting…
...because if we keep thinking about the ways this group of differently-creative people are creative, we start to notice that many of them are actually creative in multiple different ways.
Let’s look even more closely at Alice Waters, for example.
Waters started her career as a chef (Maker mode), and her interest in making food that was both healthy and tasty led her to begin growing a garden outside her restaurant (Cultivator mode). As she started to get more and more convinced that fresh, organic foods were a key element in a larger vision for healthy, vibrant people and healthy communities, she couldn't help but notice that this simple idea seemed radical in the face of large power structures invested in packaged, less-healthy foods - and she tapped into an activist streak (Disruptor mode) that had been with her since her college days in Berkeley and that demanded that she do what she could to shift our thinking about food.
Waters then set out to design the Edible Schoolyards Project to create culture change by introducing young children to the joys of growing and cooking fresh healthy foods. (Social Innovator mode) In the process, she expressed her creativity as a teacher. (Uplifter mode) Over time, she came to be more and more in demand as a speaker and has become increasingly called upon to step into Leader mode, to inspire and support what has now become a much more mainstream movement to return to locally grown, organic foods to our tables, which are the heart and hearth of our communities.
And Alice Waters isn’t the only one of our exemplary creators with a complex creative constellation.
- George Takai is an actor, yes, and he has also been a politician, and an activist, and a playright.
- Oprah Winfrey is a television producer, and she is also a teacher and a host and a spiritual seeker and a curator and cultivator of other people and an actress and a leader and an editor, and probably a bunch of other things…
- Boyon Slat is an inventor, yes, but as you now know, having diligently googled him, he is also an entrepreneur and an environmentalist and a leader and a diver
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a scientist, yes, and he is also a teacher and an advocate - a popularizer who helps non-scientists get excited about what science reveals and takes a stand for the value of the scientific world view.
Each of these people, in other words, has a distinct combination of ways of being creative.
Their particular genius doesn’t come from one way of being creative that is different from other people’s way of being creative; their particular genius emerges from the interplay between their different creative modes.
Their genius, in other words, is in the intricacies of their Creative Constellation.
I think this is true of just about all of us.
Even people who we associate with a single, burning genius often have an unnoticed second or third star in their creative constellation – one that balances them and enables them to sustain their seemingly mono-focused efforts to pursue their dominant, guiding star.
Elizabeth Gilbert, for example, for years was fully identified as a writer, but more recently, she has spoken about how her time spent in Cultivator mode in her garden has supported and balanced her writing work. Gilbert’s writings themselves speak to the ways in which Mystic mode, Adventurer mode, and Investigator mode are all also at work in her constellation. And, more recently, she has stepped into the mode of Uplifter and Leader as she has become an international speaker and teacher in the area of creativity and the creative life.
My work in the Creative Constellation project has been to identify a solid starter-set of different creative modes, so that all of us can better map the coordinates of our genius, however complex our genius might be.
I’ve come up with 25 that I think hold water as distinctly different ways that creativity expresses itself through us humans, and through my workshops and talks, I’m beginning to help people answer this better new question:
If, like me, you find this third question really kind of exciting, I hope you'll stay tuned to this space, where I'll continue to explore what it means to have a multi-modal way of expressing creativity - including the joys and the challenges of being a whole, complexly creative human being.
Note: If you are interested in discovering your own creative constellation and don’t happen to live on Whidbey Island, please know that I’ll soon be announcing dates for a two-hour online workshop which you’ll come away from with your very own map to your stars-o’-genius. Watch this space for updates!