"I am not a creative person."
This is usually said with absolute confidence, both in the truth of the self-perception and in the idea that this lack of creativity actually doesn't matter and therefore is a good bit of self-deprecation.
On both fronts it's one of the most common falsehoods in modern corporate culture, and like all white lies, what starts out innocent compounds and compounds until it becomes truly dangerous.
We now live in an age where creativity is, paradoxically, both systemically devalued by businesses and absolutely necessary for their survival. The pace of change has become so staggering that every business and career depends upon an agile and adaptive foundation. If you can't conceive of new ways of doing things, if you are slow to adopt new methods, you are bound to struggle. Creativity is the necessary skill that underpins adaptation, and the good news is, we all have it, even if most have been taught not to recognize it.
Let’s Deconstruct The Lie
Despite being so ordinary in today's workplace that no one even bats an eye when a colleague says they're "not creative," the truth is, it's not common at all. In fact, saying you're "not creative" is to put yourself in an extreme, fringe category. Yet no one thinks about it that way.
It seems we've forgotten that by our very nature, human beings are creative. It's one of the key evolutionary advantages that made it possible for us to even be here today. Sure, variance comes into play. Some of us are taller, some shorter. For some, creativity comes a bit easier than others.
But what percentage of us are truly not creative at all, maybe a fraction of one percent? And yet people claim membership in that club all the time, and no one calls them out on it!
So let's define creativity: connecting existing ideas in new ways. That's it. Connecting existing ideas. Maybe you're thinking, well, gee, anyone can do that. Precisely!
You've likely been led to believe that it's about generating something from nothing. Somewhere along the way, you imagined that there’s some special class of creative people with a magical ability to just will things into existence. Call it the "big bang" theory of creativity. Only unlike the more famous big bang, it's categorically not true.
Take the most naturally creative person in the world and starve them of access to ideas—books, conversations, music, nature, everything—for some unnatural length of time. Better yet, never allow them access to those things in the first place. Their creative output will dry to the bone.
Not because they don't have the ability, but because they don't have the raw material. Original output requires original input.
Most people who believe they aren't creative simply don't think about the negative effects of their inputs. If you're doing the same things with the same people in the same way every single day, you should have no expectation that you would ever create anything new!
But it's not your ability holding you back, it's your context. Change it, and you'll be amazed how quickly you start connecting dots in new ways.
It's Not About the Arts
If "I'm not a creative person" is the great lie of our time, "creativity=the arts" is its favorite accomplice.
I have to be careful here: it's not that the arts aren't a natural outlet for creativity, perhaps the most natural outlet. It's that they are by no means whatsoever the only outlet, and participation in them certainly doesn't confirm or deny one's membership in the creativity club.
Maybe singing, drawing or playing an instrument never came naturally to you. Unfortunately, that experience likely began a descent into the world of "I'm not a creative person." But many people who sing or draw incredibly well have long ago abandoned their creativity in favor of repeating "the hits." This phenomenon is especially common in popular music, where a band’s song hits #1 in their 20s and the poor guys flog their guitars to the same chords for the rest of their careers. What's creative about that?
Elon Musk spends 99 percent of his time thinking about hard sciences and business. So he's not creative because instead of painting the cars of his dreams, he builds them? That's absurd.
What makes art special in the world of creativity is that it's subjective. There's no right or wrong answer. It just "is." Subjectivity and creativity are great partners: judgment is the enemy of all new ideas. But while art is a great muse for our natural creativity, it's not the only one.
Why Businesses Must Care
The corporate world is the chief incubator of "I'm not a creative person"-speak. Perhaps in part because, for most of the last century, the pace of change was slow enough for creativity to be devalued. IBM could hire you out of college and, to a pretty good degree of accuracy, explain your entire career trajectory all the way to retirement.
When an operation is that refined, and its marketplace advantages are strong enough, creativity from employees really could be more of a detriment than an asset.
A structure like that depends upon most employees directing their energy in predictable places, because by doing so, the chance of success is maximized.
Today it's nearly the opposite. Prolonged energy expenditures in the same direction are more likely to create vulnerability, not success. We're in a global economy where the barriers between ideas and markets have been reduced to nearly nothing. The competition simply evolves too fast, from too many places, for anyone to sit still and stay safe.
Most business leaders understand this, but they still struggle to incubate a culture of creativity for all sorts of reasons.
For one, unlike the arts, where the product is inherently subjective and thus far harder to dismiss outright, the business world depends upon a general belief in the objective nature of its output. The necessary conditions for creativity are hard to foster in an environment where everyone's scared to have the "wrong" or "bad" idea. It's often more viable for employees to be predictable than to create something new. Being "right," or even the illusion of being "right," is valued above all else.
Keith Johnstone wasn't discussing corporate culture per se in this passage from his fabulous Impro, but he might as well have been:
My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretense, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretense up because we don't want to be rejected by other people—and being classified insane is to be shut out of the group in a very complete way. Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they're a little crazier than the average person. People understand the energy necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a performance, but when confronted by other people they confuse the person with the role. Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. it's a matter of presenting yourself as safe.
In order to unleash the natural creativity in their employees, businesses should be thinking about how to create environments where they can safely drop their guard and focus on building rather than judging.
How to Grow a Creative Culture
We developed the YDP Creative Fitness method with this in mind. Our creative workouts give implicit permission to each participant to let their mental gatekeeper off duty.
We aim to create unlikely teams of collaborators, people from parts of an organization who rarely, if ever, work together. But then we go a step further, by making sure that the roles they play in the workout are outside their comfort zone. So if the COO gets assigned a workout that needs an operational mind, she doesn't get to fill those shoes. Instead, she'll fill a role she'd never play otherwise. By changing her status relative to the group, we give her permission to be more creative. In the operational world, she's supposed to know everything (never mind that this is impossible), which greatly restricts her mental freedom. In her role on the creative fitness team, she's free to throw out any idea she'd like. How could she know it's the "wrong" idea? She's way outside her lane!
It's these moments, when guards are dropped and everything is new, when creative magic comes easily. Suddenly the supposedly black-and-white world of corporate objectivity becomes blurred and colorful.
Regular commitment to these types of environments—even for as little as an hour or two a week—can reverse the creative atrophy that many corporate structures create.
One way or another, every business will have to figure out how to cultivate a creative culture. To compete with the fast-evolving world around them, change must come from all corners of the organization. It's a matter of survival.
The good news is that creativity is more widespread than most businesses believe: it's just a matter of unlocking it.