When I was in graduate school—which I attended because my college roommate was going and I didn’t have anything better planned for my life—one lecture changed my life forever.
It wasn’t one of those presentations in which I understood the meaning of my existence or discovered my real skill in the world. Instead, it gave me a tool that I can use whenever I am clear-headed enough to reach for it. This was a communications class, focusing primarily on interpersonal skills, and the professor pointed to creative problem solving as the key to our dealings with each other. I understood that day that creativity is an instrument that can shake up the dullest path, the least interesting approach, the hardest problem, and the most complex argument.
I grew up thinking of creativity as being related to art, or music, or some other talent I didn’t possess. I didn’t conceive of it as something we can all develop in ourselves to change whatever landscape might be troubling us. I thought of it in very black and white terms—that we are either creative or we are not. And if we are, then we have a tangible piece of something to show for it. When I heard the creative problem-solving lecture that day, it interested me enough that I ended up writing my thesis about women and the creative process. In the course of my research and writing, I realized even more fully that creativity is more about the ways we let ourselves think than it is about a specific artistic technique.
Creativity is an instrument that can shake up the dullest path, the least interesting approach, the hardest problem, and the most complex argument.
We went to Austin last weekend so that Jodi could attend a letterpress workshop with one of her professors from her recent graphic design grad school program. When I picked her up after the first day, she was more alive than I’d seen her in a long time—and she did have plenty of tangible results from her work. But more than that, she was excited because she had let her mind imagine new things—ideas, processes, solutions, dreams. Just spending a few days in a new place, exploring, looking, and seeing was clarifying and inspiring to both of us.
When I was writing my thesis all those years ago, I was struck by the simple definition of creativity—putting things together that haven’t been connected in that particular way before. In our crazy daily lives, when we’re obsessed with meeting a looming deadline or rushing to the next meeting, it’s hard to sit back and imagine all of the different ways we might approach that task at hand. Neither is it the first thing we think about when we’re arguing with our spouses about money or chore delegation. But when I do have the wherewithal to muster my creative problem solving skills, whether it’s a writing project or personal budgeting, I’m always amazed at how empowering it is.
Countless writers, inventors, artists, and designers will say that their ideas just came to them—that they were thinking about their projects and were able to connect one old idea, for example, with a totally new one. If we’re standing in front of a blank canvas, or an empty worktable, we almost automatically open our brains to the big flow of ideas and things start to hum. We are not nearly so quick to do this when we’re struggling with ourselves or with others. We feel angry or scared, and our first action is to shut down.
In the midst of a big transition in my life, I realize that openness and creativity are my closest friends now. I want to stop relying on the ways I’ve always done things and make connections between some concepts I haven’t thought about together before. For example, if I’m feeling at loose ends in my retired state, I need to think of creative ways to keep myself engaged in my own work rather than offer to help at my old job.
Despite all that we expect ourselves to know after years in the workforce, most of us are just beginners at approaching our lives with new and creative solutions. Nearly 50 years after that life-changing moment in graduate school, I forget on an hourly basis to reach for my most creative spirit when I’m making decisions or solving problems. But I’m thinking I need it now more than ever, so I’m excited to have had last weekend’s reminder. I like thinking of my life as a bit of an art project—full of energy and mess and beauty and always the most surprising and intriguing results.