Creativity Is An Inside Job

by Simon Goland, March 19, 2015

Unleashing Creativity and Innovation“I am not one of those creative types,” he says. “I am an engineer.”

He is a product manager in an engineering firm. We are in the middle of a workshop series on unleashing individual and organizational creativity and innovation as part of an initiative to create a culture of creativity in the company. There are sixteen senior engineers, product and project managers with me, walking through the woods near the company’s offices. I have introduced the basic principles of Applied Eco-Psychology, which helps restore our relationship to the natural world through direct experiences in nature. After being quite uncomfortable with this experience at the beginning, as we progress through the woods, they begin to relax, settle into the activities, and open up more to themselves and each other.

I turn to the engineer who described himself as ‘not creative’, “I believe I heard that you like to cook. Tell me about it.” We are all sitting or standing in a circle in a little open area in the woods. A gentle breeze whispers her song through the trees.

“Funny you should ask that,” he says. “Even though I am an engineer, I actually don’t like following recipes. I usually get into the kitchen, open the cupboards and the fridge and look at what’s there. I pull things out and play with them, trying something different.” Then he adds, “My family usually loves what comes out.”

As he is talking, I see smiles around the circle. He does too, and interrupts himself in the middle of the sentence. “What?” he asks.

“Did you hear what you just said?” someone asks.

He stands still for a very long moment, and his face changes as the new awareness slowly creeps in. “I had no idea,” he quietly says to himself.

“We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the paths of life.” – Carl Jung

Over the years, I have encountered many similar situations, where a person carries a deep-seated belief about what creativity is or what it is supposed to look like, and how they don’t have it. Almost always, there is a shadow of someone from the past, lurking in the psyche and whispering a message, again and again, “Don’t colour outside the lines.” “Elephants are not green and yellow.” “This is not how you are supposed to draw.” “There is only one right way of doing it (or one right answer).” On and on, the messages repeat and reinforce each other, until we start believing that only some people are born creative, that being creative and being artistic is the same thing, and that work and career – and life, for that matter – are a serious business, not to be taken lightly.

Contrary to what we heard from parents and teachers in our earlier years, we all have creative fire within us. We had it since the moment we were born, when we ventured into exploring the world around us. We invented magical objects from sticks. We became dragons, unicorns, kings, queens, pirates, or space travellers, while reenacting scenarios of adventures for hours on end. We saw shapes in clouds. We talked to ants, trees, and birds. Our creativity was alive and imagination ran our lives.

Yet, slowly, day after day, one educational system after another, one authority figure or expert after another, the fire was suppressed, caged, and contained.

Tom and David Kelley, of IDEO, call it Creative Confidence. Michael Gelb, an international consultant in the area of creativity, talks about the Creative Mindset. I look at it as a way of being, a way of approaching each and every situation with the attitude and belief that we have the creative fire beating strong within us, a steady pulse, just waiting to be unleashed on the next obstacle, challenge, or situation. It is the same fire we had as children, and even if we happen to have forgotten that we have it, it exists in all of us.

There are many useful and valuable tools, models, and frameworks to apply creative approaches to challenges and problems our people and organizations are facing in our 21st century, characterized by the increasing pace of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos, Ambiguity). Design thinking, rapid prototyping, brainstorming, De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, and many others – they all have their place and value.

The starting point of such creative endeavors must be our inner work. Without exploring the beliefs we carry about our creative capacities, the outcomes of any application of any framework will be limited, at best. We have to get present to the cages of our mind and psyche that keep our creative fire contained. Only when we have truly connected with it, identified its cages and guardians, we then realize it was merely an illusion; an outdated belief that does not serve us any more. That is when the fire is unleashed and harnessed, to be applied to our personal and professional challenges.

This is one of the areas where Applied Eco-Psychology comes into play. When we actively and intentionally step in and engage with nature, we allow ourselves to reconnect to the child-like part of us; the part that may have forgotten how to be curious, how to look upon the world with wonder and how to approach life with what Buddhism calls a “Beginner’s Mind.” This part of us never doubted our creativity. It is the part within us that needs to come out, unleashing its imaginative spark towards whatever challenge or problem we face; grabbing a framework or a model, and beginning the process of applying, experimenting, playing, trying and failing, and ultimately creating something new, unique, valuable, and meaningful. After all, innovation is really creativity applied, and such application will be infinitely more transformational, when it is being guided by a liberated, playful, and unleashed fire of a person’s soul.

“When invited to a party, first know yourself. Then, dress accordingly.” – Epictetus