The Dangerous Myths About Creativity

I got into a bit of trouble the other day. My mentor and dear friend, Kim, was having brunch at her house. I always go, enjoying great food, awesome people, and getting to cuddle with her cat, Sassy.

I started chatting with one woman I hadn’t met before. As we were talking, I said something about the work differences between creative and non-creative types of people. As someone who worked with numbers, the woman bristled a bit, explaining her work was creative as well. I knew she was right.

I’d fallen once more for the creative myth. We all carry a version of this myth. Some are general clichés that society tells us. But each of us tweaks them to tell something important about ourselves. Here are some that I know well.

The crazy genius

One of the most common is the temperamental and off-balance genius. They can be mean, scoffing at any societal norm. They are “crazy” and could have some version of mental health issues, like bipolar, depression, or others. In fact, their madness is critical to their art– without it, they won’t make anything.

This myth is dangerous on so many levels. One, mental health issues aren’t the source of creativity. So many people struggle to maintain their mental health, and if you do, please get help. Creativity is not bound by mental illness.

You can be incredibly happy and healthy as you make art. Also, being a jackass is not only bad karma: its bad business. You’ll lose great people and amazing opportunities to work with people. No one likes working with an asshole, even if you’re Michelangelo.

The poor artist

Then, there’s the poor artist. The poor artist makes art, never money. In fact, the moment they make any money, their art is no longer “pristine”. They’ve sold out. This myth makes the creative process pure and material needs like money or housing, superficial.

This myth stops so many people from enjoying their creative side, or pursuing it. I believed that I couldn’t make money through writing. In my mind, writing wasn’t a real career.  As the eight year old who demanded to go to sleep away camp, I’ve always been independent.

Sure, I loved to write, but I didn’t want to live in my parent’s house for the rest of my life.

Then I found out so many businesses need help with the very thing I love to do: writing and telling stories. With the title copywriter and content strategist, I began to create a resume and portfolio. Suddenly, my creative skills and experience were allowing me to live alone, travel, and have fun.

If I had a million dollars would I still be a copywriter? Maybe not. My heart will always be with poetry and fiction. But the choice to work for businesses is authentic to me. It allows me to hone my craft and get paid. I learn to tell stories beyond me, and tell them well.

Is what I do selling out for someone else? Maybe. But no one can apply that as a blanket statement: it’s about making choices and weighing what you need versus what you want.

The strange but gifted one

Finally, and perhaps the hardest myth for most of us, is that creative people are born different. They are strange and not connected to our experiences.

alien reach

It comes out most often when we look back at famous artists. Mozart is a child prodigy, creating symphonies at a young age. Michelangelo claims to “see” David inside the marble. We think these artists had effortless, raw talent. It disregards the struggle and work all creative work requires at one point or another.

But this myth has one more damaging aspect: that creative people are rare. If we don’t have their talent, then we can’t possible have any at all. People who go into business, law, science, or mathematics can’t possible share anything with those geniuses. Us average mortals will never achieve anything like these great creative minds.

I don’t know when these myths happened, but I call bullshit.

The truth about being creative

To understand true creativity, let’s look at what the word creative really means. The verb, create, comes from the Latin word creare, “to make, bring forth, produce, beget.” It’s connected to the idea of growing, of things rising from the Earth. The word creative starts to be used in the 16th century, and by the 19th century, relates to imagination.

This etymology tells us a few things. Creativity is fundamentally about creating things. Sounds simple right? But here’s what it’s not about:

  • Money
  • Mental health
  • Genetics

Creativity brings something new into the world. It’s not limited to a certain field, a certain amount or lack of money. It’s not even attached to talent.

If you’ve made something, it’s a creative act.

Now you could say working in a factory can’t be creative. Or being an associate in a lab, you’re just following rules. It’s true, not all creators are creative. For instance, one of my favorite albums is by a band you hear all the time on the radio. But I wouldn’t call them creative anymore. Why? Their music has nothing distinctive anymore. New words, a different beat, no imagination.

The defining factor for creativity is imagination. It’s a willingness to explore, to try something new. It’s inherently playful and challenging (probably why art can be seen as threatening to society or government). Your creative voice asks why not, it dreams, it wants to expand, and build. It asks you to take that vacation, try a new food, and dance in your kitchen.

If you build from fatigue, the status quo, from a set of rigid rules, or from a place of fear, then that imagination is lost. You’ve made something, but you weren’t creative. In fact, you may be drowning it out.

What creative people look like

A few examples:

My grandmother and mother sitting in an airport, thirty years ago. As people pass, they make up stories, inventing countless histories as they wait to board a plane.

A coworker comes up with a complicated solution to a coding problem. He brings pieces together to function in a completely new way, opening up even more possibilities for improved data collection and analysis.

My brother’s girlfriend sends a care package before my brother’s big exams. It’s full of small gifts and wordplay. Underneath it all, is a whisper: It will be alright, you are not alone. The package arrives, thoughtfully, two nights before his test.

I sit at the counter, watching an old friend carefully make home made cannoli. They are creamy with a hint of orange liqueur. I feel it in how he carefully creates the tube by hand and squeezes in the ricotta, bit by bit.

I know that it’s in you too.

How are you creative? What myths have held you back? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Hungry to unleash your creativity? Stay tuned: Next week I’ll show you how to unleash your inner creativity (and love every second of it)

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