Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Space Between Two Words

I grew up going to a summer camp that focuses much of its daily energy on the character development and leadership skills of its campers. This camp taught me not only to climb trees, shoot guns, and right a capsized boat but also to overcome even the most grueling challenges—physical, mental, and emotional. For as much as my time as both a camper and a counselor shaped who I have grown to be, bulking up my weaker muscles and ironing out the messier wrinkles, over time there is one such lesson that has had a more profound effect on my professional life than I ever expected.

That is the lesson on creativity.

There are two kinds of people in my family: those who go to museums and those who meet at the cafĂ© afterward. While my grandparents, my mom, my aunt, and my brother innately understand traditional art, my dad and I just don’t get it. We’re math people. Logic people. Football people. We say, “Have a nice time. We’ll wait in the car.”

So, naturally, I grew up understanding that I was just not a creative person. I off loaded all creative responsibilities to my more creative friends and family members, even having my mother create a gift for a friend in my place because I knew I wasn't creative enough to accomplish it. I told myself I was acknowledging my own limitations and seeking solutions from those with the talents I needed. This kind of attitude was golden in job interviews, and, I believe, landed me my first, and favorite, job.

I realized my lack of creative talent was a problem on my second day. As part of my on-boarding to the publishing house I had recently joined, I was to attend a brainstorming meeting in which we would create new titles for the books we published.  I distinctly remember the thoughts that followed me from my desk to that conference room. Uh oh. I’m not creative. This is not going to go well, and I’ll probably get fired. By the time I sat down, my brain came to my defense by acknowledging that it was my first time, and I could probably get by with “just observing for now.”

But after months and months of listening to so many good ideas and hearing my own measly ideas shot down on the few occasions I spoke up, I grew increasingly fearful.

What if I’m not creative enough for this job?

What if they notice?

Surely they've already noticed.

I’m such a fraud.

Of all the ways college tries to prepare you for the real world, it was camp that had prepared me for this kind of battle. Self-esteem is hard to come by in a text book, but out in the woods you learn how to pick yourself back up, keep you head held high, and remind yourself of the reason you are not a fraud and happen to be doing okay. Not great, I conceded,—but okay. After all, they hadn't fired me yet.

It was during the losing third quarter of this mental game that I made a pilgrimage back to camp to visit for a night and attend a Sunday evening council fire—where campers are recognized for their achievements and receive a sermon-esc lesson discussing a chosen quality that they are to practice in the coming week. That night, we learned about creativity.

Creativity, apparently, was a quality that everyone could express. As I began to hear myself chant those familiar words—I’m not creative—in the back of my head, I asked myself to be quiet for a moment and listen to the speaker. She spoke of our God-given ability to be creative and that each of us had the intelligence and the skill to create ideas. And this is where I interrupt this story to make a very important point. You see, she did not say create “good” ideas. Or create “award-winning” ideas. Or create “client-approving, you-get-a-raise-for-your-brilliance” ideas. There was no adjective between the verb and noun. Only the space it takes to get from the end of one word to the beginning of the next. And that’s when my perspective on creativity shifted so suddenly, so profoundly, that I attribute my entire professional success to that very small space between “create” and “ideas.”

You see, she took me back to the denotation of the word “create.” She stripped it of its cultural connotations about positive adjective associations. Of its inherent talent to socialize with only the artistic few. Of its fleeting and mostly disappointing presence in my life. This is when I remembered that before it conjured images of Van Gogh and modern dance, it fueled Henry Ford’s assembly line. The art of creating has been ongoing for centuries—millenniums—since the beginning of time, really. Whether through divine forces or scientific bangs, creation just happens. It does not require adjectives of color, line, form, or praise. It is a verb void of prerequisites.

It denotes, in it’s most natural form, the creation not of only good ideas, but ideas.

Suddenly the sound of creativity did not include only colorful birds chirping during an afternoon of painting in a whimsical garden of poetry and genius. Now, it even sounded like wheels, grinding along a conveyor belt with nuts and bolts, churning out materials in a sweltering factory. It sounded like number two pencils scrawling digits across an evenly-lined notepad. Like the sizzle of oil in a pan while a chicken fried itself into dinner.

I returned my thoughts back to that sermon, and felt a fire ignite in my chest. Suddenly, I was creative. I looked around and noticed creativity in everything. I created thoughts with my mind. I created dinner with the food in my pantry. I created jokes during conversations. I created plot twists for my authors.  Dare I say I had been creative this whole time?

I decided then and there that I would no longer dismiss my ability to be creative—seeing it as a natural talent that my mathematical-side of the family had left me lacking—but would embrace it even in it’s smallest presence in my life. Yes, I would now practice it as if it were a skill to master—like calculus.

It’s been three years since this revelation and in that time I've spent many more days walking from my desk to a conference room to brainstorm with my coworkers. But now, the thoughts that carry me down the hall include, Let’s see what we can come up with. Let’s generate at least 3 (adjective-less) ideas in the course of this session. Let’s keep practicing creativity. Every now and then, the younger version of me will groan at the thought of having to interrupt my busy day for another brainstorming session and that old, familiar—though quieter—chant will begin, I’m not creative. But now, in its wake the older me pipes up, dismissing my past self, giggling at the notion that I could even have the choice to not be creative. After all, even the thought “I’m not creative” had to be created. 

I find myself now enjoying creativity more than I ever thought I would. I hear people describe my writing career as “so creative” even though I've always thought of it like math with words. I've found myself sought out for brainstorming sessions due to my creativity.  I even take on projects that require “someone creative” because I know that that person is me, and I look forward to the opportunity to challenge myself into earning the adjective “good” in front of my ideas.

It takes only one thought, only one shift, that tiny space between one word and the next to turn the impossible into the possible. To sit on a log bench and hear your biggest weakness described not as a talent you cannot attain, but instead as a definition you’re already defining. To find yourself lost in a career that requires creativity far beyond your talents and to realize that you can and will master it as a skill. Because despite your own objections, creativity is just a word with a definition—needing no adjective to exist. 

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