“But I’m Not Creative” or Creative Fear



I recently came across this scholarly paper I wrote back in 2008 at Whatcom Community College. It intrigues me how so much of what I had to say back then still resonates with me today.  Here are  a few excerpt from said piece. I spared you bulk of the critical analysis and Foucault for the purposes of blogging. I attempt to answer some of my own questions regarding the “loss” of my childhood creativity and the creative fear I’ve spent years trying to overcome. 

The famous twentieth century artist, Pablo Picasso, once said, “All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” (Robinson).  In other words, children are playful, imaginative, curious and creative creatures, but somehow most people seem to lose some of their creative sensibility and spirit by the time they grow up to become adults.

Early childhood in modern America seems to be viewed as a time for daydreaming, drawing, playing make believe, laughing and learning about the world through play and exploration.  In contrast, adulthood seems to be a time to focus on the responsibilities of everyday life.  It is a time to face the facts and leave those foolish childhood dreams and that silly creativity behind.

Adulthood, for some Americans, means having to get up each morning to face eight hours (or more) of soul-numbing monotony and boredom in the workplace that comes from doing the same thing day in and day out. It is about paying bills, going grocery shopping, scrubbing the toilet, buying insurance policies, and waiting in traffic.  Adulthood is about juggling responsibilities, multitasking and trying to be as efficient as possible. Many adults tend to stop asking questions and simply accept the world as it is. They seem happy to just complain about how things are. They seem lose some of their curiosity and thirst for knowledge as well as their urge to be creative.  Perhaps some even take on a more passive role in life by simply switching themselves to autopilot to deal with the daily grind and unwinding at the end of the day by staring at their television screens.



I realize that this probably seems like a rather grim and cynical view of adulthood, but I believe that it is partly a reality for some people (specifically me).  My point is that somewhere between childhood and adulthood many people become less curious, less imaginative, and less creative.  The question then becomes: How does this happen?  Is it that they simply grow out of their creativity or is there another reason for this transition?  The switch doesn’t happen overnight.  It occurs over a period of years.  It seems like we have something that helps us to transition from the carefree days of childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood.  That something is known as the compulsory education system.

The above-mentioned scenario of growing up from being a creative and imaginative child to become a less curious and creative adult is partly true for my own life.  Like Picasso said, I was once a little artist, but as an adult I feel unworthy of that title.  Somewhere along the road of adolescence I left behind bits of my imagination.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think I know how it happened for me.

As I child I entertained myself for hours by drawing and making up stories to go along with my artwork.  In early elementary school art class was my haven from the evils of arithmetic. But around the fifth or sixth grade there was a shift.  I began to pay more attention to my academic performance.   I believe that is when my quest for straight A’s began and the perfectionist side of my personality really started to emerge.

I discovered that I am pretty good at rote memorization and the regurgitation of facts on exams.  I played along with all the rules.  I turned in all of my homework on time and did all the busywork assigned during class.  I studied hard and worked on projects even harder. I even made peace with the world of mathematics.  I was rewarded academically for my diligence.  But, as a result of my shifting focus, I gradually started to draw less and less.  I began to transform from Sofia the Little Artist to Sofia the Little Scholar.

In addition, in the later years of elementary school, art class became more structured and less enjoyable for me.  Craft time often meant having to replicate a sample project presented by the teacher. It was like working in an assembly line at the widget factory.  Arts and crafts became more of a lesson on how to follow directions and less of an exercise in creativity and the use of imagination.  There was a shift from being allowed to draw and paint anything I wanted to having to reconstruct someone else’s creative idea using popsicle sticks and glue.

That is how the transition occurred for me.  I’ve spent my adult years trying to reconnect and rediscover my creative side.  I often wonder what my life would be like if I had been able to truly nurture my artistic talent.  Perhaps I would not be as afraid of my own creativity.  Perhaps I would be less afraid of taking risks with it.

Looking back at my personal loss of creative spirit, I’ve come to the conclusion that the school system had a definite influence on the way I think.  I discovered that I am not alone in this thinking.  Sir Ken Robinson, a British author and educator, believes that the compulsory education system is to blame for the decrease in creative thought which occurs between childhood and adulthood.  Robinson delivered a  TED talk in 2006 in  which he suggested that school kills creativity.


Creativity can be a hard to define concept, but Robinson suggested that, “Creativity is the process of having ideas that have value.”  He did not limit his definition of creativity to simply being a trait possessed by individuals who are special or gifted.  Everyone is creative in one way or another. Everyone has ideas of value.  Furthermore, creativity doesn’t just apply to the arts.  There can be creativity in just about any discipline from science to mathematics to technology.  For example, Albert Einstein, whose expertise was in the sciences, had a brilliant creative mind.  The problem seems to be that most people seem to believe that they have to be a born a genius to be creative. In addition, the concept of creativity is often limited to a very narrow definition which simply includes famous poets and artists.

Robinson goes on in his speech to claim that creativity is not something people just grow out of.  They are educated out of creativity by the mass schooling system .  But how does this happen?  Robinson argues that children are not afraid of being wrong, but the education system teaches them that making mistakes is the worst thing you can do.  He makes the distinction that making mistakes is not the same thing as being creative, but “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”

Take, for example, the cliché about coloring inside the lines.  When presented with a coloring book, most young children tend to color all over the page using multiple colors.  They don’t care about the lines.  School, on the other hand, teaches them that the lines do matter.  Children are instructed to color inside the lines and to use “appropriate” colors.  An apple is supposed to be colored green or red and not purple.  The sun is supposed to be yellow and the grass has to be green.  Choosing to color outside the lines or to use inappropriate colors is wrong.  It is a mistake.  Most children will learn to conform.  It doesn’t stop at coloring book activities. Children are taught to conform in countless other ways and they do so to avoid criticism and humiliation.  They learn what is considered acceptable in society.  They learn to censor their and inhibit their own creativity and become fearful of making mistakes.  Is it any wonder that we tend to be less imaginative as adults?

I’d like to expand on this commonly-accepted myth that creativity is a trait reserved for only a small percentage of the population by returning to my personal quest to rediscover my creativity.  I have turned to various different creative outlets.  I took a drawing class.  I discovered that I enjoy photography.  I even kept a creativity blog where I wrote about my life and posted my photographs for about a year and a half.  In addition, I have dabbled in the world of scrapbooking.

I never actually took a class in scrapbooking or other paper crafts, but I recently had an opportunity to play the part of the fly on the wall and observe such an event at a local scrapbook store.   The students in the class consisted of a group of about ten middle aged women who had gathered to put together a Halloween themed project.  All of the necessary supplies were provided in a kit, which was handed out to each student.  All the students had to do was use the provided supplies to put together a gift box made of paper.   Each gift box was a carbon copy of the sample project presented by the instructor.  There really was no real creativity involved.  The creative part had been performed in advance by the person who came up with the project in the first place.

The thing that stuck me was how similar the event was to those elementary school arts and crafts classes which were really designed to teach children how to follow directions.  And the thing that truly surprised me was how genuinely happy these middle aged women appeared to be gluing and folding paper.  I suppose that perhaps for them, this was what they considered to be creativity.  But the exercise didn’t involve having any original ideas.  It seems that what was happening was that they were really allowing other people to be creative for them.  And it appears that a lot of the paper crafting industry does this.  There is a plethora of prepackaged creative kits available for purchase.*  The true creativity belongs to those who came up with the concept for such kits.  I believe this to be just one example of what happens when we are stripped bare of our childhood creativity and fail to reconnect with it in adulthood.

* I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with enjoying these types of step-by-step projects or that you can’t make them your own.