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Oh, I’m not creative.

It’s impossible to count how many times I’ve thought or uttered these four words. I’ve thrown them at friends and family who tried to compliment me, and at employers and colleagues who wanted to enlist my help with new projects.

I spoke them aloud even as I drafted screen plays in film school, produced art exhibitions and reviewed plays, filmed documentaries and wrote news articles. I’ve whispered them to myself as I admired the artistry of loved ones: painters, film- makers, writers, engineers, medical innovators. How I wished I had the creative impulse that seemed to come so naturally to them — a creative impulse I simply didn’t recognize in myself.

For most of my life, I’ve seen myself as a producer, a patron, a cheerleader. But a creator? Nope. Not me.

Turns out I’ve been wrong. And if you’ve ever denied your own creativity, you’ve been mistaken, too.

“There is an assumption that creativity is reserved for designers and artists, which could not be further from the truth,” says Elena Imaretska, coauthor of The Innovative Mindset and chief innovation officer at Brave New Workshop, a world-renowned improvisational theater and corporate-training company in Minneapolis.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of your creativity is believing you’re not creative, says Imaretska.

“If the label ‘being creative’ is eroding your self-confidence and precluding you from stretching, learning, and creating, reframe it to ‘acting creatively,’” she suggests. “Maybe you don’t think of yourself as creative. That doesn’t mean you can’t act creatively sometimes. And if you make space for creative activities in your life, you will soon realize that you have become creative.”

Why Creativity Matters

To be human is to be creative — to solve problems, to arouse pleasure, to make life more convenient, to make relationships more robust. When we deny our creativity, we deny our humanness. (It’s worth noting that scientists are researching creativity in other species, which suggests that it’s not even confined to humans. One could argue that to be alive is to be creative.)

Moreover, the qualities associated with creativity — focus, presence, awareness, engagement, curiosity, self-expression, courage, self-trust, nonattachment, and persistence — are critical to our overall life satisfaction, says Imaretska.

“Being creative means risking failure and staying open to change.”

“Being creative means risking failure and staying open to change,” adds acclaimed opera singer Gwen Coleman Detwiler, DMA, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Creativity is not goal- oriented as much as it is being present in the moment. I think it takes courage to be vulnerable to all that the moment brings.”

As adults, we have been conditioned to guard against pain and failure, a defensiveness that blocks both vulnerability and creativity, says Detwiler. But garnering the courage to be creative requires neither artistry nor perfection. Mastery isn’t the goal of creativity, she argues. Practicing openness is.

“Everything that is new requires creativity,” she explains. “Was Einstein not creative in developing the theory of relativity? Was Gandhi not creative in developing new ways to resolve human conflict? There are people who use creativity to build systems of organization or write code or even just manage a family schedule. I think we tap into this process by respecting and creating space for that exible and curious child who lives inside each of us. We must give space for failure and not be frightened of vulnerability.”

Today’s conflict-rife times make it more important than ever to harness our creative powers, says Imaretska.

“Creativity is something that already exists inside each of us. It needs only to be uncovered.”

“We have many challenges to solve. The thinking that created our problems is not going to help us solve them, so we all need to intentionally work on our creative muscles. We must be ‘innovatively fit’ so that we can contribute our ideas, our skill sets, and our passions to solving our society’s challenges.”

To tap into the problem-solving power of creativity, Imaretska encourages the “Yes, and . . .” approach used in improvisational theater. “Creativity is about building rather than halting. It’s about expansive thinking rather than stagnation,” she explains. “‘Yes’ means ‘I understand the current reality. I heard you.’ ‘And’ means ‘Here is how we can move forward; here is another idea and my point of view.’”

This method honors all parties’ perspectives, removes the need to argue, and points to a joint way forward. It’s a creative approach applicable in all kinds of relationships, be they personal, work related, or global.

After all, adds Detwiler, creativity is not about being right. “It is about being curious and uninhibited. Creativity is a process, not a result. The process can lead to a wide variety of outcomes, most of which would not be considered art. Creativity is something that already exists inside each of us. It needs only to be uncovered.”

A Creative Path Forward

To transition your thinking from I’m not creative to Yes, and . . . , Detwiler suggests asking yourself: What if I were creative? In what context do I already exhibit openness to experience? Where else am I willing to be open? Then move in that direction.

In The Innovative Mindset, Imaretska and her coauthor, John Sweeney, recommend the following reframing exercises to challenge our narratives about creativity (or lack thereof), to develop openness, and to fuel creative thought and action:

  • When you are working on a project or a task, ask, “How could we complete this if we had no budget?”
  • Find and listen to five different versions of the same song. A country version of a Beatles song is the same song, for example, but it sounds a lot different.
  • Make a list of 10 things that ended up much different — and actually better — than you’d expected.
  • Find an item in your garage or other storage space and think of 10 things it could be used for besides its intended purpose. For example, tires make great playground swings!
  • Write a few alternative endings for a movie or book and consider which you like best.
  • Plan a hypothetical vacation with three very different people you know and imagine how each getaway differs.
  • List all the major technology in your life (car, computer, phone, electricity, refrigeration, etc.) and find solutions to challenges that would arise if you lost each of them. For instance, “If I didn’t have a car, I would take the bus or carpool.”

Exercises like these demonstrate that creativity is, indeed, open to all of us. We just have to be willing to explore the unknown. “When you get an impulse to try something, don’t edit. Just try it,” says Detwiler. “When you are curious about something, follow that curiosity, and see where it takes you.”

Defining Creativity

There are many myths about creativity, all of which promote the “not me” message:

Creativity resides in some discrete portion of the brain that only some of us can access. The right-side-vs.-left-side argument — which posits that creative people predominantly use the right side of their brains while analytical, logic-driven people are left-side dominant (and inherently less creative) — has been debunked.

Creative power is reserved for the “creative genius,” a story that links creativity with intelligence. In fact, research shows a weak association between creativity and intelligence, which means that you don’t necessarily have to be smart to be creative.

Creative acts are reserved for the young. We applaud the open minds we see in children and bemoan closed doors and lost opportunities as we age. But from a neuroscientific perspective, our brains are wired for creativity as long as we keep practicing creative acts, and as long as our brains remain healthy, according to Mark Walton, author of Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond.And injury or damage caused by concussion or dementia doesn’t necessarily preclude creativity: Firing the brain in creative ways is often still possible and can strengthen damaged connections.

What all of this research tells us is something that artists have long known: Creativity is not the bastion of a select few. Rather, it is something we can all tap into and develop as a skill.

This originally appeared as “Creativity Quest” in the January-February 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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