I am not a writer. I write a lot, but none of it is fiction. What I do is teach university students who want to be elementary teachers. I teach them how to teach art and how to teach with art (these are actually two different things). As you can imagine, we talk about creativity a lot. Creativity has been a hot topic for quite a while. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity jump started the topic in 2006. The IBM 2010 Global CEO Study did the same thing. Also the Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis from 2010, the Kelley brothers’ book (and industry), Creative Confidence, and on and on and on.
Despite all of this, I’m often surprised at how many of my students do not understand what it is or why it’s important. These are students who want to work with children, very young children, and they don’t know that according the the National Association for the Education of Young Children, creativity is an “essential mindset for young children.”
So my students and I read textbooks and articles and watch videos and we discuss and discuss and discuss creativity and how nurturing it can change the life of a child. We talk about how to recognize creative behavior when we see it, and of course about how to promote it. We also talk about how a teacher must also nurture his or her own creativity in order to be ready to help their students. It’s like putting on your own oxygen mask first.
When we get to this idea, my students get uncomfortable. They get shifty eyed and fidgety. They look at the floor. It turns out that many of my students are afraid to engage in creative endeavors or activities. They really don’t even want to try. So they avoid them.
Over time I have found that my students all have basically the same four reasons for fearing creative endeavor; they are afraid of looking dumb, afraid of wasting time, afraid of not being able to come up with a new idea – all the good ones are taken, and afraid that their creativity will hurt or inconvenience others.
To me, all of these reasons for being afraid are also the exact reasons WHY someone should practice and strengthen their creativity. This is what I mean:
Afraid of looking dumb: If you try and fail, you will become more and more okay with admitting your shortcomings. You will recognize that “messing up” is part of learning. All the great ones mess up too. Over time you will feel less dumb and more confident. Being brave is part of being creative.
Afraid of wasting time: When you practice your creativity you will learn how to find successes in your failures. You’ll see the parts that work and find ways that you have grown and improved and changed, even if the entire endeavor didn’t work out. You will recognize that you can learn from all of your creative work, even if it’s a big ol’ flop.
Afraid of not being able to come up with a new idea – all the good ones are taken: You will realize that you are totally right. New ideas really are few and far between. That’s okay though. Our ideas are built on everything we have ever experienced. Being creative is making new combinations based on YOUR experiences – that’s what’s really new and different. No one else has your unique collection of acquaintances, books read, thoughts thought, conversations shared, music listened to, hikes hiked, road trips taken, mistakes made. When you put these all together, even if you’re telling a version the same story you’ve heard before, unless you try to deliberately sabotage yourself, this new telling of that story will be your own.
Afraid that your creativity may hurt or inconvenience others This one counts. This is the one you do need to watch for. In your creative endeavors, be kind. Be aware. Recognize your actions and how they impact others. Find ways to include others when you can, and be sure give them an out as well. Creativity should be thoughtful and compassionate.
Although I teach these ideas semester after semester, I still I have to remind myself that they apply to me as much as they do to my students. These ideas should matter to all of us. Aren’t we all a little afraid now and then to start a new creative task? Afraid to put yourself out there, in front of others – with people reading or seeing your thoughts, your creative acts? I think it helps to remember that looking dumb is sometimes okay, wasted time can actually be time well spent, old ideas can be awesome when seen through your personal lens, and it’s important to be creatively compassionate and kind.
Alisa Petersen is the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Endowed Chair of Elementary Art Education at Southern Utah University. Alisa grew up in Oklahoma in a home where exploration, making, play, and creativity happened every single day. She studied art and art education at Ricks College, BYU, and Southern Utah University. She has worked as an elementary visual art specialist, a district art coordinator, an outreach artist, and now as a university professor. She teaches courses in early childhood creativity and arts integration.