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  • Christine Silk

The Blessing and the Curse of Being Creative



Girl with the Red Hat by Vermeer (1665)



A creative person will have a lot of ideas and insights. Most of them will be wrong and unworkable. A few—a very few—will be brilliant. One or two ideas may change things for the better (and possibly for the worse, because ideas are powerful).


Winston Churchill was a statesman, historian, artist, and one of the key visionaries of modern tank warfare. He was a creative thinker on an extraordinary level. That, combined with his impressive skill-set, made him a formidable force. It is not an overstatement to say that his leadership and imagination were some of the main reasons that England won World War 2. President Franklin Roosevelt said of Winston Churchill: “Winston has fifty ideas a day, and three or four are good.” As Churchill’s biographer William Manchester explained in The Last Lion, Churchill’s ability to produce a few successful ideas was more than just finding a quarter on the sidewalk, it was like winning the lottery: “He [Churchill] was no crank; when he hit the jackpot, it was the mother lode.” (p. 571).


But Churchill produced a lot of bad ideas, as Roosevelt had noted. And, Churchill’s unconventional thinking was not necessarily regarded as genius-level by those around him. Many people were skeptical of his proposals, partially because they couldn’t grasp the unconventionality of his approach. Manchester explains: “Most of his schemes were politely discussed and then dropped. The difficulty was that his Admiralty staff was dealing with genius, with a man who thought in cosmic terms, and that the price for some of these excursions was beyond the grasp of career naval officers” (ibid).


I’m not here to tell you that if you’re creative, you’re a genius like Churchill. You’re probably not. But there are parallels. If you’re a creative person, then you know that ideas and insights come into your head in a constant stream (to the point you sometimes think you’ll drown). Somewhere in that stream may be a solution to a problem, but it may take collaboration with others to know for sure. And, in that collaboration, others may not recognize the value of what you are proposing. A quick story will illustrate how this might play out.


Imagine that you belong to an organization that mostly consists of administrative-type people who are very organized, and good at carrying out a project. Brainstorming out-of-the box ideas is not their strong suit. But that’s in your wheelhouse—that’s why you work in a creative department such as graphic design, marketing, or copywriting. You’re accustomed to coming up with ideas that are not obvious or ordinary.

 

The team meeting is held, and the biggest item on the agenda is how to solve a particular problem that has been vexing the organization for several months. You present five or six ideas that you brainstormed. You know that most of the ideas won’t work, but you don’t know which ones are in fact unworkable, because you don’t have all the skills and experience to evaluate that. You know that the combined knowledge and experience of others at the meeting can help sort through the quality of your ideas. Maybe one or two will spark inspiration among someone else who has the expertise and experience that you lack.

All your ideas get shot down. There are snickers around the room that you would even dare to offer such . . . ridiculous! crazy! cringy!  . . . suggestions. But then, a week later, one of the participants in that meeting says she can’t stop thinking about one thing you said, and she sees a way that it might be the solution that the organization needs. You may or may not get credit, but who cares? You took a risk. You got ridiculed. But in the end, you sparked a process that solved a problem.


Yeah, the snickers and the lack of credit are not fun, but you’re going to have to come to terms with that. It’s how the creative mind works. With the blessing comes a curse. You are blessed with a fertile imagination, and you can create things that ordinary mortals cannot. On the flip side, these are the curses of being creative:


1.  Creative people often look wrong because they see patterns first. But like all humans, creatives are working with incomplete knowledge so they cannot necessarily verify whether what they are seeing is valid or not, or whether it will continue on the same trajectory. Creatives get mocked for being wrong when in fact they are just early. Being wrong and being early look exactly the same.


2.  Creative people produce both great ideas and bad ones—and it’s not always obvious which is which. All successful people fail. Non-creatives think that the creative person “lacks credibility” or “looks absurd” because they have had ideas—and actual projects—that turn out to be failures. This is a fundamental mis-conception of the creative act (and of entrepreneurialism, too, which is a manifestation of creativity). The creative person generates ideas easily. Most will be wrong, but a few may be gems. Even the wrong ones might have a grain of truth or insight that will spur someone else to see the potential, as the above story illustrates. It’s why creatives are doing others a favor by putting their ideas and insights out there—even at the risk of looking foolish. Someone else might be able to pick up on a pattern or an insight that can move the idea forward and solve a problem.


3.  Creativity is an act of faith. The Hebrew word “emunah” is commonly translated as faith. As Tzvi Freeman explains, it can also mean “an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends, rather than evades, reason” The root for the word “emunah”—אמנ—is also the same root for the Hebrew word “uman,” which means artist or craftsman. The act of creation is, at heart, an act of faith. The artist brings forth something that began as an innate conviction, or a mere spark of inspiration. The artist then takes a leap of faith to bring that spark into the world as a poem, a play, a song, a dance, a painting. The spark transcends reason, and so does the act of creation itself. How do you “reason” that what you produce is going to come out as you envisioned it, that it will have your intended effect on other people? You cannot. An artist does not get to choose the response that the audience will have. And the final product often does not exactly match what the artist had imagined.


Working from faith, you create it anyway, you release it into the world. The word “amen” is the same root as “emunah” (faith) and “uman” (artist or craftsman). Amen is what you say after a prayer, as a way of confirming that you accept what was said, and you have faith that the statement will be fulfilled. (See this essay for a fuller discussion of the word “amen.”) Releasing a work of creation into the world is the artist’s amen, the final letting go so that the work can fulfill its intended purpose, or another purpose that cannot be predicted. This is why the artist must tell the truth, and must keep the creative act connected to something higher and more transcendent.


So the take-away is this. If you are a creative person, expect that for every successful idea you come up with, you’ll come up with many more ideas that are failures. You may not be able to tell which are which. You may get ridiculed—that’s part of the package. Learn to deal with the ridicule. Keep creating anyway. Have faith in your vision as an artist, because “faith” and “artist” are connected. You never know how your creative work is going to help another. Amen.


References:



Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1983.

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