This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 9: Thinking Different
I used to be a rat.
Not, it’s important you understand, the Ray Liotta “Never rat on your friends” kind of rat, but the 12-year-old -kid-on-stage-in-a-rat-costume kind.
It’s quite a cringe-worthy memory now, but the time I spent in my youth (and quite a bit of my adult life) in amateur dramatics has fundamentally shaped the way I think and act in every aspect of my life.
Looking back on it, I guess you’d say my family was quite theatrical; we all had some kind of involvement in amateur dramatics, either on the stage or behind the scenes. I guess it was inevitable that I’d find myself drawn to the theatre from a young age. Initially, my parents weren’t sure that I’d take to it; would the shy, retiring rat on the back row ever step into the limelight?
They needn’t have worried. The year after my rodent debut I burst forth onto center stage, hungry for the rush of adrenaline and the giddy ego boost of an audience’s applause. Throughout my teen years I sang (reasonably), danced (badly) and reveled in the musical pageantry. Throughout this period I learned some valuable lessons:
Address your audience. You can’t make eye contact with 1,000 people, but look at the floor and you won’t connect with them.
Enunciation is key. When you’re exhorting on stage or being amplified through an aging speaker system, every half-pronounced syllable disappears into the ether, leaving the audience wondering what the hell you’re saying.
Everything needs to be BIG. On the amateur stage at least, larger-than-life translates the best. Demure hand gestures and subtle facial movements don’t cut it.
Stuff goes wrong; Deal with it. Tools don’t work, scenery falls down, voices squeak and costumes malfunction. When something goes awry, you deal with it and press on. There are no do-overs in theatre.
Fast-forward twenty years to my current career, where I’ve consistently been told my strengths include my confidence, eloquence, and charisma. I have no scientific proof to back up my claims, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I owe these strengths – the things that differentiate me from my peers – to this creative streak of my youth.
Where does creativity come from? I’ve no idea what sets apart someone who is considered “creative”. I’m not even sure I meet that particular qualification: I suck at anything artistic (drawing, painting etc), I’ve never written anything musical and I’ve never invented anything. But I love to sing, I’ve written the odd poem in my time and this magazine is testament (for better or worse) to my creative writing.
What I found in my creative pursuits is that they challenged me to do things I wouldn’t do of my own volition, in a very public setting. I learned that achieving success and being praised publicly is an incredibly high; and that public failure can be crushing but is ultimately temporary. Being on display bestowed me with a much thicker skin than I’d have otherwise had; It certainly dispelled any misgivings or hesitation I may have had about putting myself on display.
I wasn’t always this way. I have a vivid memory of my mom telling me to sing a song for my family one Christmas that I’d recently performed on stage; I was so nervous I had to sit on the stairs and sing while they strained to hear me in the next room. I wasn’t inherently confident; I became confident through practice.
It’s often said that people are “gifted” and that may be true; genetics must surely have played a part in Mozart being able to compose music at the age of 5. But it’s too easy to dismiss your own talents or capabilities because you think you lack the required quotient of talent or “gift”. I still recall exchanging an email with this month’s guest, Mike Rohde, telling him that I loved his book but I wished I could draw like him. “It’s about the ideas, not the art!” he replied. I’ll never be able to draw the wonderful images that Mike can produce, but my own ideas come to life in my sketch notes in their own, imitable way and they never fail to fascinate those who see them.
Creativity isn’t about the production of something that achieves critical acclaim, it’s about producing something personal. Any creative individual or endeavor that I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with has had the characteristic imprint of those people who created it. True creativity is instantly recognizable because it is unusual; unsettling even. Whether it’s the quirky way you dress or your particular choice of phrase, your own creativity will shine through if you choose to express it in a way that’s unique to you, without attempting to achieve a level of acceptance or conformity.
People’s feelings about creativity are often polarized; some put it up onto a pedestal as a lofty, almost supernatural characteristic that bestows great powers onto those lucky few who have it. Others dismiss it entirely, characterizing it as ‘kookiness’ or ‘airy fairy'[^I suspect “Airy Fairy” is a British term, though there will no doubt be a US equivalent.]. But there’s a great spectrum of creativity, from those who bask in it and who make it their living and raison d’être to those who have the odd inspired flash, or who like to doodle on the back of their diaries in lectures. It’s not a binary thing and it can be learned as well as intuited.
Individuals and corporations often want to cultivate more creative cultures, and take steps to encourage a more creative environment. From the stereotypical beanbags and Segways to more subtle space planning and air conditioning, environment certainly plays its part in stimulating creativity. Those shuttered into cubicles and placed under strict protocols are less likely to be struck with creative inspiration unless that inspiration is drawn from a need to break out of the constraints placed upon them. But there are other factors too – you can practice techniques to break a problem or task down or force yourself to escape from conformist thinking. Tools such as De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which has been around for decades, or concept fans can be a good blend of structure and creative thinking.
Of course, there’s also the opportunity to take a much more lateral skew and force yourself into creative situations. Mike Vardy often talks about his time doing improvisation, which must surely be a source for some of his creative moments; I, of course, have my rat (and other assorted animals over the years) experience to draw upon.
However you choose to incubate your own creativity, it’s important to recognize that there’s a broad spectrum of creativity and that both its inception and its outputs can differ wildly in their form, nature and perceived quality. It doesn’t matter whether it’s popular; what matters is that it is unique.