“I’m not a creative person like you.”
“I’m bad at creativity.”
“Creative stuff is just out of my comfort zone.”
As a designer/writer/artist, I hear phrases like this all the time. People usually break it out during a brainstorming session, or when they tap me for new ideas. And though it’s often well meant, it still leaves me feeling frustrated. If you’re this kind of person, you likely think that creativity is beyond you. But I don’t think that’s true.
Certainly some of us enjoy using creativity more than others, choosing us to take on careers that feature it heavily. Looking back on my experience, I was pushed towards creative endeavors early on in life, so it’s not surprising to me that I ultimately went down a path where it’s asked of me every day. I remember being part of my elementary school’s “gifted and talented” program, which was split into two groups: the English kids and the Math kids. I was an English kid, an artsy kid, a creative. That’s dictated my life for the better part of 3 decades.
Separating people by their strengths into either Creative or Analytical has long been a practice of Western society. I’m here to argue that those factors don’t exist on a spectrum, and that we shouldn’t make people choose.
So, still don’t think you’re creative? Keep reading.
Creativity vs. Artistry
You might not identify as a creative person. But you still have creativity. We all do — it’s part of the wonderful box of tools humans have in their brains that makes us special. We’re all born creative people. It only takes spending a few minutes with a child at play to see that this is true. When we’re young, we use our imagination, not only to prepare us for what the adult world might be like, but to picture other worlds entirely and lose ourselves in them. What is imagination but creativity by another name?
The problem is that we often conflate creativity and artistic ability. These two things are related, but not the same. Usually, I find that when someone says they’re not a “creative type,” what they really mean is that they’re not artistic. Which is fair! Not everyone can or should be interested in making art.
However, creativity is not artistic ability. The Oxford Languages definition for creativity is “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” Notice this last clause: it says “especially,” not “only.” Creativity can and should be exercised in all walks of life. It’s something that comes naturally to us, but can be stifled or grow rusty from disuse. As opposed to having a specific skillset, creativity can be applied to a range of things.
Artistry, on the other hand, is a combination of latent abilities and practiced skill. Artists usually spend years, if not decades, honing their skills before they reach any success. They also usually make things using a specific skillset. A painter is an artist who focuses on creating images with paint. A musician is an artist who focuses on creating music. Artists create things, but creativity doesn’t need to produce anything tangible at all. All artists are creative, but certainly all creative situations aren’t applied towards art.
Here are some examples of what I mean.
Example 1: Company Picnic Poster
Imagine you’re helping your workplace plan an upcoming picnic lunch. In addition to picking a day, ordering food, and finding a space for it, you’ve also been tasked with creating a poster to share this news with employees. You sit down at your computer and come up with the important information that needs to go on it: the time, date, and place. Your poster now conveys the necessary information, but doesn’t look very eye-catching. You give it a nice background, change the fonts, and add some photos to it. Now it’s looking good and ready to post!
Did this example require creativity? Yes — in addition to putting info on the poster, you likely flexed your creative muscles coming up with something interesting. But if you struggled with this activity, or another like it, it’s not because you aren’t creative. Designing an effective, attractive poster requires skill and practice. Graphic designers spend years honing this craft so that they can make posters that convey information beautifully. As a designer, trust me when I say it isn’t easy, and the average person shouldn’t feel bad about struggling with it.
Example 2: Employee Engagement Committee
Now imagine you’re on a committee at your workplace that has been tasked with increasing employee engagement. Your first meeting is a brainstorming session, where you and your coworkers are supposed to list ideas that might help. You do some research before the meeting, and you think about it while you’re on a walk. Then during the meeting, you share your ideas: a fun event where employees can mingle, a pet photo wall, quarterly live meetings where the CEO can answer questions, and pairing employees from different departments up for lunches together.
Now, did this activity require creativity? Yes! Brainstorming is one of the most creative activities: it’s time devoted to the act of ideation, or coming up with new ideas. Did it involve artistry? Not at all — the focus was on coming up with ideas. You didn’t have to create anything to accompany your idea, like in the previous example.
If you normally think of yourself as not creative, now ask yourself this: would you have been good at the second scenario? You’ve probably done similar activities before. Even if you struggled with them, know that brainstorming improves with practice and flourishes in certain environments better than others, but it always involves creativity. Creativity is a natural skill, but it does involve effort. This leads me to my next point.
Creativity vs. Magic
As we’ve discovered, I believe that creativity is a natural skill, but that it can be improved with effort. While some of us will find that we’re naturally good at it, or comfortable with it, or excited about it, most people find that practicing it regularly with intention and a willingness to learn can help make us better at it.
This leaves me to believe that many people who say they aren’t creative just haven’t had enough experience with it yet. They think that creativity is an inherent special gift that only some people have. And if that sounds like the start of some fantasy novel, it’s because it is — those people think that creativity is magic.
True, they probably wouldn’t ever say that. But think about it: a world where only certain people have special, secret powers sounds like pretty much every fantasy movie, from wizards in Harry Potter to superheroes in Marvel. Magic is inherently mysterious, even to its wielders. And, usually, there are people who are born with much more than others.
Yes, you can be extraordinarily creative. But the idea that most people are born without creativity and can never hope to have any is false. Those of us still waiting for our Hogwarts acceptance letter can rejoice, because there’s no age cutoff for creativity and there’s no special school to train you in it. In some ways it’s the most egalitarian force out there — some of the most successful creatives in this world have started with very little, from J. K. Rowling to Steve Jobs.
The nasty paradigm of the “creativity = magic” logic is that it creates haves and have nots. The “have nots” are bummed because they don’t get any special powers. On the other hand, being a “have” can be a burden because everyone relies on you for all the creativity. I can think of many group projects where I was designated the “creative” one, so therefore I had to come up with the project idea, decorate the diorama, and present to the class because those were all “creative” tasks.
This kind of logic can create laziness. Someone who deems themselves “not creative” believes that they can get out of doing things that challenge them. They don’t want to try thinking outside of the box; maybe it’s too hard for them, or a bit scary because they think they might fail. Maybe they have failed before: they tried to paint once and found out they weren’t any good. That makes sense after we’ve clarified the difference between “art” and “creativity,” because painting is an artform that requires practice. But they didn’t know that, so they decided that creativity wasn’t for them and gave up on coming up with anything new ever.
It’s sad to see someone stuck this way, and it’s demeaning to the rest of us to assume that coming up with new ideas and solutions is solely our responsibility. It erases the importance of practice and learning and open-mindedness, selling us all short. It limits us to “creatives” and “not creatives”, expecting us to know our place and stick to what we’re comfortable with.
We’re All Creative Types
Albert Einstein, known to most of us as a scientist and the father of relativity theory, was a big proponent of creativity. He is attributed to one of my favorite quotes:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”Albert Einstein
This might seem shocking if you think of science as a rigid field of math and quantitative research. But Einstein’s journey to discovering the theory of relativity involved something he called “thought experiments,” essentially using his imagination to work through a problem. Creativity is required in science because it helps us reach for that which is beyond what we already know. It helps us see farther than reality and consider new ideas that haven’t yet been discovered or proven. Those ideas might be wrong, but at least we took the time to test them and prove that they were wrong. We still got something out of it that we didn’t have before.
Imagination and knowledge are more powerful together than they could ever be separate. It pains me to think that we try to strip creativity and logic apart so early in life. I challenge you to think about how you can start being more creative in your everyday life, whether you’re an accountant, an engineer, a hair stylist, etc. I guarantee that if you consider the possibilities and make an active effort to foster creativity in your life, great things will follow.
Exercises for Practicing Creativity
Here’s some exercises that I’ve come up with that might help you reconnect with your creativity and/or grow it further.
Reread a Favorite Childhood Book/Movie
Did you have a favorite book when you were a child? One that has stuck in your mind all these years later? Consider returning to it as an adult. Things we are drawn to as children often encourage imagination and play, which are two things we lose touch with as we grow older. This exercise can help you to rekindle your wonder and desire for imagination and creative play. Consider the following questions:
What feelings did you have for this book/movie when you were young? How does that contrast with how you feel about it now?
Did the world in this book/movie feel bigger to you back then? Did you play games or invent your own stories for it?
What about this book do you think drew your attention as a child? Do you find that to still be true today?
Try a New Hobby or Activity
There’s a lot of hype for something called beginner’s mind right now, and with good reason. When you’re new to something, you’re approaching it with a clean slate. You have little to no idea of how it’s done, what expected of you, or how things are “supposed” to go. This means it can often feel freeing because you’re not hemmed in by the rigidity of expectations. Of course you’re going to be bad at it at first: that’s the expectation for trying something new. This can help take the pressure of creation off so you can enjoy the process.
Lots of hobbies involve creativity, and not just ones we’d think of as typically artsy. Here’s a list of hobbies that involve some creative input: I dare you to pick one from this list that you’ve never tried and give it a go! Write back in the comments which one you picked and how it went.
Make a Tiktok or other social media video
Painting (From acrylics to water colors to oils to gouache, you’re sure to find something you like)
Drawing (All you need is a pencil/pen and paper!)
Photography (Getting started with your smartphone makes this cheap and easy!)
Computer programming/coding (Look into app design or game; what problems could you solve?)
Writing (Novels, blogs, plays, and autobiographies are a few options)
Gardening (Picking flowers and designing how you’d like to plant them is very creative)
Building models or LEGOs (Bonus points if you don’t follow instructions)
Singing or playing an instrument
Cooking (Try coming up with your own recipes if you’re not used to it)
Make a website
Start a blog
Make your own soap or body care products
Finding Accidental Faces in Inanimate Objects
This activity is easy and free! You don’t have to document it, but it’s more fun if you do. As you go about everyday life, try to look for faces in unexpected places. Humans are actually geared to find faces where they aren’t, so once you start seeing them, they’ll crop up everywhere!
People Watching Stories
As you’re going about your daily life, you probably have times where you’re stuck in line or waiting for something. Instead of pulling out your phone and scrolling, try looking around you at the other people. Observe them (discreetly, of course, no need to stare) and imagine who they are and where they might be going. Your imagined stories can range from the banal (the guy in the tie is on his work lunch break) to the fantastic (that old lady knitting is a sorceress who’s weaving a spell into that scarf). I often find that I get some of my best ideas when I’m forced to entertain myself during an otherwise boring wait or car drive. See if you can, too!
Want to learn more about creativity? Here are a few resources that can help you get even further:
D.I.Y. Magic: A Strange & Whimsical Guide to Creativity by Anthony Alvarado
How to Be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith (Anything by Smith is worth a read!)
The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin (More of an exploration of archetypes and harnessing the unexpected in your work than a deep-dive into tarot)