Last time we discussed how creativity can be an act of liberation, but ironically creativity does not thrive in freedom. If I were to tell you to simply create something, anything, you would likely freeze up, unsure where to start with such a broad assignment. But if I were to tell you to write a poem using the words from the last text you sent, you would know exactly where to begin. Perhaps you can even feel the excitement of the challenge rising in you, the curiosity of how you would respond to the prompt. And yet many of you would still feel anxiety as you try to decide what to write with your given words. So then I would give you an additional prompt to use the words from your text to describe your surroundings. Now you have something concrete to work with, a clear problem to solve. And yet, there are a million creative solutions.
As a teacher, I am constantly adjusting the creative constraints of my lessons, determining the right balance between autonomy and directed learning. This is why the researchers Piers Ibbotson and Lotte Darso refer to creativity as a boundaried phenomenon: “The main idea is that in order to come up with something new, individuals and groups need to enter a boundary zone where ordinary, habit-bound thinking and doing are stretched or compressed until novel and extraordinary ideas and solutions can emerge.” (1) It may seem contradictory to add constraints when you’re feeling stuck, but you need something to creatively respond to; you must know “what is” in order to ask “what if?”. Or as designer Charles Eames once famously responded during a Q&A:
Q: “What are the boundaries of design?”
A: “What are the boundaries of problems?(2) Charles Eames, Design Q&A
Only once we determine the boundaries, can we can find our creative solution.
This is why most people refer to creativity as problem-solving. However, this assumes we already have a well-defined problem to solve. But what if we don’t know the constraints? You’re looking at a blank canvas and you have to decide what to paint. This is called creative problem-finding, the process of choosing the constraints. A scientist does this when they pick a hypothesis. In fact, it is often said that the hardest and most important part of a research project is crafting the right question. And so highly creative people have to be practiced in both creative problem-solving and finding. Though we each have our preferred method, i.e. the right calibration of constraints to spark our creativity. For instance, I lean towards the problem-solving end of the spectrum while my collaborator on Art Kit Magazine: Your Guide to Art + Community falls on the problem-finder side. When we are discussing the content of an issue, I want to start with a title to generate ideas for who to interview and she wants to look at our list of possible interviewees to develop a title. Knowing this about our creative process has allowed us to lean on each other’s strengths and communicate more clearly. And the same awareness can be applied to your life.
Knowing your creative preferences (see the quiz at the end of this newsletter!) can help you respond to life’s given constraints. As I am a creative problem-solver, I know that I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by choices and fixated on perfecting solutions. So if I find myself in one of those states, I can try to adapt my creative constraints. When traveling I rely on recommendations as a way to mitigate the stress of FOMO (3). Or when I’m obsessively thinking about improving my teaching, I do a meditation on letting go of perfection and allowing for possibilities to emerge. Because while we don’t always have control over life’s constraints, we can adjust our perspective. In this way, a creative life is all in how we respond to the given constraints. So the next time you’re feeling stuck, just say the Serenity Prayer to creativity:
Creativity, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Or if that’s too spiritual for you, take the frank words of Charles Eames:
Q: Have you been forced to accept compromises?
A: I don’t remember being forced to accept compromises, but I have willingly accepted constraints.
There is no wrong choice. Each quote offers a way to frame creativity. It’s up to you to respond.
Living is a creative act,
Everyday Creativity Tip
Want to know if you’re more a creative problem-solver or finder? Take this quiz! It may be hard to pick your answers but choose what is most natural for you.
- Do you go to the craft store with:
- an idea and look for the right materials
- come up with an idea based on what you find
- When writing, do you prefer to:
- have a prompt to respond to
- write whatever comes to mind
- When at work, do you prefer:
- clear directions
- high autonomy
- When creating a drawing, you spend more time:
- sketching the details
- coming up with the perfect composition
If you got more #1 answers, you are a creative problem-solver. If you got more #2 answers, then you are a creative problem-finder! And if you’re split, then you are both!
Now that you know your creative preferences, pay attention to how they show up in your life. If you don’t know how to start a project, depending on your preferences, you can either write a list of categories to come up with ideas or categorize your ideas. When working with others, notice when you feel micromanaged versus neglected. Can you adjust how you are responding or better communicate your needs? This is how you cultivate your creative wisdom!
1. Piers Ibbotson & Lotte Darso, “Directing creativity: The art and craft of creative leadership”, Journal of Management & Organization, 2008.
2. Design Q&A: a short film by Charles and Ray Eames
3. Acronym for “Fear of missing out”
Originally published September 22, 2019 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.
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