“Creative” versus “Creating”: Lessons from the Elders of Surrey

Even though I use it on a daily basis, I find the word “creative” to be a little problematic in helping people and organisations to bring more creativity into their lives. The main problem, as I see it, is that the word has been ‘thingified‘ to such an extent that it has turned creativity into a deceptively concrete ‘thing’ that results in it being spoken about as if it is a boy scout badge to be attained or a super power that some have and other’s don’t.  I often begin talks by asking the audience “Hands up who is creative!”  This question seems to make the majority of people at least a little uncomfortable.  Those who consider themselves to not be creative feel a bit deficient, those that believe they are creative feel under pressure by declaring it and everybody else seems internally conflicted, agitated or confused by the yes-or-no nature of the question.

The reason I ask this question is not because I am interested in the answer.  It is simply to start to explore the notion that the word “creative” is an unhelpful starting point when looking to bring more creativity into one’s life.  By challenging this we start to realise that it isn’t a black and white fact that some people are creative and others are not. Realising and accepting this means that we can liberate ourselves from the self-imposed pressure to become something that we believe we are not and simply focus on the act of creating – a process that requires increased awareness as opposed to increased effort. By de-thingifying the word “creative” and turning it into a lively verb, we suddenly have a plethora of opportunities to explore and experiment in the act of “creating”: anything from art, music, writing, movement, poetry through to simply experimenting with a new route home from the office, creating a new recipe by adding a new ingredient, making up a story, talking of a great idea with somebody else or creating a plan to go somewhere different on holiday (etc.)  The content and outcome is somewhat irrelevant, it is being fully awake and aware during the process of creating that seems to shift and liberate things inside of us.

I often have to qualify my assertion in Can Scorpions Smoke? that everybody has a frozen creative genius inside by adding that I am not suggesting that everybody can become a Rembrant, a John Lennon or a Frank Gehry (ie. aspirational “Creative Heroes” as defined by society’s traditional sense of the word).  What I am strongly advocating though is that everybody has a more creative version of themselves buried inside and all they need to do to unleash it is give themselves permission to engage in wanton acts of creating.  What they do as a result of that permission is unique and “genius” to that individual.

I was recently reminded of The Giraffe Project, an experiment I conducted in late 2012 where I asked 100 random people to draw a giraffe.  Towards the end of the project I noticed that, whilst I had a broad spectrum of contributors, I had no drawings from anybody over the age of 70, so I arranged a visit to a local retirement home to draw giraffes with the elders of Surrey.  The time I spent with this small group of volunteers was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiments I’ve done.   It was initially also one of the most challenging! I had imagined that the residents of the home would throw themselves into the task of drawing giraffes as a welcome break to their routine, but when I arrived I was rather abruptly interrogated by them.  “Who are you and where are you from?”, “What’s the point in what we’re doing?“,  “What are we going to get out of it?“,  “Why do we have to do it?” – all very legitimate but naively unexpected challenges.  I tried several different ways of explaining The Giraffe Project and my interest in creativity but we kept on going round in circles and I started to feel rather anxious and embarrassed.

Then one elderly lady called out “Why don’t you draw one first and then we’ll see if we want to join in.”  I was devoid of any other options so I found a flip chart and drew a rather misshapen giraffe using a green marker pen whilst they all looked on.  As I started to colour it in and add detail with the blue pen (I only had the two colours!) I noticed that the group had started to scribble on their papers.  Some were smiling as they did it, some were concentrating intensely but all of them seemed engrossed.  They occasionally paused, laughed, compared notes and offered praise or a playful critique of each other’s work.  Then, after about 15 minutes, they finished and shared what they had drawn.  It was this moment that was so moving.  The beautifully imperfect giraffes weren’t just pieces of art but artefacts of a wonderful moment of co-creating: a process in which these 80-90 year women (and one man) had given themselves and each other permission to create.  It was only when I eventually moved from encouraging them to do something creative to joining them in an act of creating that the permission was established, the pressure to perform was removed and everybody chose to engage in the process.

Through regarding our time together as an act of creating rather than an effort to be creative, what the pictures looked like was irrelevant.  One kind and gentle lady had severe Parkinsons disease and, even though she apologised to me for the appearance of her beautiful creation, said that she thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful process of creating it. The outcome was irrelevant, the group and I had simply enjoyed a fleeting moment of indulging ourselves and each other in an otherwise pointless act of creating.

Below are some of the pictures they created.  Though not many, they remain my favourites from the whole Giraffe Project Experiment.

Giraffe g6 g2 g3 g5

You can view the entire Giraffe Project gallery here and read more about the experiment here.