Kill Creativity. Kill it Now.

In a follow-up to my post on The Death of Creativity? is this from an article from MSN:

A national push to make public schools more rigorous and hold teachers more accountable has led to a vast expansion of testing in kindergarten. And more exams are on the way, including a test meant to determine whether 5-year-olds are on track to succeed in college and career.

Yes, you read that right. We’re not talking about tests that pick out genuine disabilities like Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, speech impediments, or similar. No, all kids will now be taking tests beginning in kindergarten so that administrators can “identify the critical thinking skills that employers prize.”

I remember only a little bit about kindergarten, but it involved coloring, glue sticks and safety scissors in the kiddy equivalent of a cigar box, and one monumentally successful Easter egg hunt by yours truly (I got the coveted silver egg and won a large chocolate bunny).

But now it seems that kids will be learning how to be good employees. So much for “children’s garden.” It will now be known as “kinderfabrik.”

And, on a related note, all of this test-taking over the last decade or so has really paid off for our newest crop of high school students approaching college: SAT scores are lowest since 1972.

One thing I don’t agree with in the SAT article is the “blaming” of minorities for lowering the SAT scores. Um, why aren’t minorities getting the same education as white kids? This whole “No Child Left Behind” thing was supposed to help equalize educational disparities between poorer districts and richer ones. You can’t say, “Well, test scores are down because a lot of non-white children are taking the test.” Those non-white children are supposed to have the same education as white children!

And, honestly, how hard is it for the SAT to make a separate data category for kids who don’t speak English as a first language, so you can separate them from the others? That would make sense, since it would allow you to track their progress and see if you’re doing a good job helping them learn English.

If we had a kid, we’d have to find a way to homeschool, because public education is just getting ridiculous.

This, unfortunately, gives me an idea for a story. It will be set in the future where the government regulates all forms of art (and who get to make it). But those people who are born creative will not be denied.

The Death of Creativity?

Psychology Today has an interesting article about the link between children’s freedom and their creativity (hint: helicopter parents and structured play ruin creativity).

I’ve been following the comments, because they’re as interesting as the article. Most people (myself included) talk about unstructured childhoods, imagination, and how that’s translated into what we do as adults.

Survival Skills

When I was growing up in the 80’s, I played outside (as did almost every other kid, in cities or in suburbia). When my husband was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, he said that he would get on his bike and ride for miles, hike in the woods, and play with other kids, and his mother didn’t know where he was some (even most) of the time. There was no such thing as staying in visual range; you were on a leash if you had to stay within audio range.

We had to come in for supper or by dark, but in the summer, I often played in the yard after dark. My mother complained not because it was dark, but because I got so many bug bites.

Neither one of us owned a helmet growing up–even though we rode bikes on rural streets. Bug spray was almost never used (even though the South has a lot of biting bugs). Sunscreen was only used when swimming or at the beach. I used to climb a pine tree at my grandmother’s, and I would get high enough in it to see over the roof of her house.

Oh, my God, how did we ever survive?

We learned to take care of ourselves.

Honeybees were much more numerous then than now, and they were a hazard of running barefoot. I learned to pay attention to where I was running–and avoid patches of clover–and when I did step on a bee, I sat down, flicked the stinger out, then went on my way. And when I wasn’t stepping on bees, I was running over gravel or pinecones or sycamore balls. I just got tough.

Today, I see so many kids–big kids–bawling over bumps that probably won’t even leave a bruise and running to their parents, who fuss over them as if they’d broken a bone. And I think to myself, “We had a name for kids like that when I was growing up: ‘crybabies.'” (“Mama’s boy” was an acceptable alternative.)

Learning to Be an Adult

Learning to be physically self-reliant is part of growing up (and something every kid and teen needs to learn). But today’s kids are going to college and are increasingly unable to pick out their own schedule or talk to their professor about a grade or absence. College professors are now frequently bombarded by parents who talk for their child.

Even in the business world, some HR managers are finding that mama or daddy are setting up junior’s interviews and are calling, incensed, when junior doesn’t get the job (would you hire an adult who can’t even handle an interview on their own? I wouldn’t).

Just imagine! my mother and stepfather helped me find an apartment when I was a sophomore in college, and my dad moved me in, but I called and set up the electricity and cable and telephones for me and my roommate. (I sat down with a phone book in a friend’s dorm room and just called the utility companies!) We kept up with our bills and paid them on time. We bought food and cooked for ourselves. And we kept the place reasonably clean.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s okay to ask your parents for advice. I still occasionally ask mine for advice and I did a lot when I was younger. Asking for help and/or information when you realize you are going into uncharted waters is smart and a good learning opportunity. But there’s a difference between asking for advice (especially in private; I would have never asked an employer to send hiring information directly to my mother!) and asking someone else to do everything for you.

The Consequences of Dependence

One college student stated that growing up with over-protective parents has made her less spontaneous and more hesitant.

Spontaneity is not always a great thing in the college set (especially when it involves drinking or sex), but it’s bad to go into the real world with no confidence. People who hesitate miss out on good job opportunities and are less likely to negotiate for better pay. And people who are timid and not able to think for themselves will miss out on management positions or self-employment or investment opportunities. They are not likely to work in sales or marketing or stocks or anything else which involves measured risk-taking (all jobs which have the potential to be very lucrative).

The other problem with hovering, over-protective parents is that they stifle creativity. When children aren’t allowed outside, that cuts their world-experience in half. Most of my imagination was exercised outside, because I didn’t have much in the way of outdoor toys; I made up uses for sticks and leaves and plants. My playhouse was under a bush or tree.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boys_Playing_Stickball,_Havana,_Cuba,_1999.jpgDo you know what we didn’t have in the 80’s? Play dates. I have always found that concept laughable, because it sounds so yuppie. Whenever there were kids close enough to play with, we met up and played. My mother did insist that we play in our yard (which was really large and nice), but other than that, she didn’t bother us (again, she wasn’t in visual range, except to check we were still there from time to time). Whenever Michelle or Jody wandered over from across the street, that’s when we played. And we played until a mother called us inside.

Other people reminisce about the local kids in their day meeting up at the common play place or going door-to-door to round up enough kids to play a game. Parents didn’t organize play; kids did.

The irony is that parents want their kids to be social, and yet they don’t let their kids arrange the social meet-ups. So kids actually don’t learn how to approach other kids, offer invitations, and arrange the meet-up details. (This also quashes spontaneity; fewer “hey, come home with me” offers.)

Most of my childhood, though, I was alone. I had no siblings and there was only a brief period when there were other kids in my subdivision. I had friends at school that I played with, but when I came home, I almost always played alone. Now, if you’ve a regular reader here, you might question whether too much time alone affected my sanity, but you can’t deny that I’m a productive, law-abiding, and self-sufficient member of society.

Which proves that you don’t have to structure every minute of your kid’s day or keep them flitting around like a social butterfly in order to give them a good childhood. In fact, Susan Cain says that everyone (introverts, especially, but extroverts, too) needs time alone to think and organize their thoughts. Too much social and group activity can suppress creativity, reduce complex thought, and cause emotional problems for introverts.

The Wrong Attitude

Now, some people–like me and the author of the Psychology Today article–think that a loss of creativity and independent thought is a bad thing. We see fewer job opportunities and less art and innovation in the future. America could lose the one industry she still really has: innovation. (Israel is already overtaking us in medical and computer development.)

But one commenter on article had this to say:

Subject: No longer of value

I would propose that creativity is no longer valued in American society and therefore we are intentionally teaching/structuring it out of children so that they can be successful. As a previous neuroscientist and now as a medical writer, I’ve observed that creativity is greatly frowned upon. Grants based on new ideas that deviate from the status-quo way of thinking are unfunded by the government and pharma companies. Government regulations stifle innovation in the communication of medical and pharmacologic advances. Companies brand employees who explore new modes of thinking or ways of doing things as “unproductive”.

Everything he says is correct. However, rather than saying we need to fix those things, he concludes that we need to just stop being creative because it’s not lucrative:

Although I agree that creativity goes hand-in-hand with intelligence, we should consider whether or not America society is really interested in creative and intelligent individuals. Unless the answer is affirmative, we would do our children a disservice by promoting their creative drive.

The anonymous poster is saying, in effect, the same thing: don’t encourage creativity because there’s no money/jobs in it. And it’s something I heard sometime while I was in college: I would not get a job with a major in history and minor in creative writing (unless I wanted to teach–which I didn’t), and that I needed to go into computers or business or something more practical in order to make a living. (Incidentally, every person I’ve met in the legal field had a history or English degree.)

What this discounts, however, is that creative people are often self-employed. They don’t need someone else to provide them with a job; they make their own. People who innovate and take risks often start their own businesses.

Why Encourage Creativity, Risk-Taking, and Free-Thought

Tim Ferris is not only a writer (The 4-Hour Workweek and other 4Hour titles), but he was (and still is) a young entrepreneur. In fact, he was so successful with his own businesses, he now does consulting to help other people with their businesses. (Watch “A Day in the Life of Tim Ferris;” it’s pretty interesting.)

Some time back, I interviewed Scott H. Young, who innovates new study techniques to help people learn better and faster. He supports himself with his e-book courses and his blog.

My own goal is to be a full-time writer in the next year or two. Catherine Ryan Howard and a number of other independent authors have been able to quit the 9-to-5 grind or employ themselves during the Recession with their writing.

Most entrepreneurs get started by seeing a problem (in itself a skill set) and then tinker (and fail!) until they came up with a solution. Then they take that idea, put drive behind it, and do what it takes to make it successful–either by opening their own business or selling the patent.

Is Stifled Creativity Deadly?

Not every person is a creative, free-thinker type. The world needs accountants who aren’t really creative when it comes to filling out tax returns. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if it’s your talent. But you can’t turn everyone into an accountant or data entry clerk or factory worker. Not only does this lack of new business development ruin the American economy, but you’re also ruining the lives of real people. People who are naturally creative, but who aren’t allowed to create freely, are more likely to be depressed or have personal and family problems. This can also lead to delinquent, even criminal behavior in teens and adults.

Lamp made in prison from magazines pages folded like origami.

You want to see creative? Watch a documentary on prisons. You may dismiss–even recoil–from the homemade shanks and tattoo machines, but it takes some smart, innovate people to invent some of the things that are made in prison. One inmate on a documentary admitted that he needed to stay busy with big, detailed projects (he built his niece a dollhouse in the prison’s hobby shop) that because it “kept him out of trouble.”

I can’t help but wonder if a lot of people in prison would have turned out better if they had been given a legitimate outlet for their busy minds at a younger age.

Conclusion

School and childhood is not about prepping people to have a job, but rather to have a life. You have to give your kids/students skill sets that allow them to cope with whatever comes their way.

Yes, they’re going to fail. Yes, they’re going to get hurt–physically and emotionally. No, they’re not going to be great at everything or win every contest (and I don’t think you should even put a kid older than 4 or 5 in a game/contest where “there are no losers.”) If we don’t have the freedom to try and fail, we won’t learn what we need to try and succeed. And if we never fail as children and learn to get over it, life as adult is going to suck a whole lot.

What to Do When You’re too Creative

I have been slowly coming to the realization that this is my life. I feel pulled in too many directions; there’s too much on my plate; there are things I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but never seem to have the time and/or energy to do it.

I sat down one day and accounted for my time. I found that I have 2.5 non-consecutive hours per weekday for working on projects and relaxing/ having fun, plus two weekend days.

Then I made another list of things which I am trying to get done or would like to get done. I had fifteen items on my list. And that doesn’t count the fact that one of those items–medieval re-enacting–has many sub-hobbies, such as sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, illumination, basketweaving, shoe-making, etc. If I were to count up all the sub-hobbies that I do or want to do, my project list would nearly double.

Is it any wonder, then, that there has been dirt and containers sitting on my porch for a year because I never got around to gardening last year? Is it any wonder that when I started seedlings last year, I neglected them and they died and I never replanted? Is it surprising that I started a costuming experiment (and, if successful, I would like to publish a research paper on it) but I put it aside when it was only half-completed and I still haven’t finished it 3 (or has it been 4?) years later? Or that I have a large embroidery project about 1/4th complete and sitting in a frame in my living room, collecting dust?

Even more embarrassing is that all I need to do on my first book are some grammar and typo corrections. When I have those done, I can send it to a publisher. Yet I’ve barely completed any of them and it’s probably been close to a year since I started. My second book needs its first round of edits (I think of these as serious edits, where entire scenes and even parts of the plot may be changed), but I’ve not worked on it in quite a while. I’ve made no progress on my third book either. And my romance book needs its first round of edits, then a round of typo edits so I can send it to a publisher.

I think this is probably true for a lot of creative types. We don’t get a great idea or want to learn a new skill–we have a lot of ideas and want to do a lot things. I know when I’m in a creative mood–and this was true of me even when I was a child making crafts to sell–I come up with ideas faster than I can implement them–each better than the last. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I can’t type it fast enough. Woe be to me if I’m somewhere where I can’t immediately write down a new idea in my head; if I wait, I’ll lose it. (This is, incidentally, why I write my stories out of order; I have to write what’s on my mind and figure out a way to connect the pieces later.)

Judaism talks about the fact that there are two forces in the world which are ultimately represented by male and female (this concept is also found Taoism–as most commonly illustrated by the yin-yang symbol). One force, which is male, is creative and contains unlimited potential. Men make millions of sperm, any one of which–or all of them–can become a child. The female force, however, is limiting action. A woman’s ovary only produces a single egg per cycle and she’s born with a limited number of eggs. But once the child is conceived, she builds it into a human being.

Male = potential, but also procrastination and incompleteness
Female = action and completion, but also limitation and stagnation

If you look at a yin-yang, there is no hard dividing line between the two opposites; they’re supposed to flow gently in and out of each other. Also, a solid kernel of each must reside in the other.

My problem is that I’ve been too yang lately; I’m not in balance. I’m constantly coming up with ideas for projects–even starting some of them–but finishing next to none of them. That’s why I have to give up some of my hobbies/projects to work on others. As the old saying goes, something has to give.

Blogger/Writer Scott Young mentions in a post that he has the same problem:

My old notebooks are filled of half-started ideas, vague projects and uncompleted dreams. It took me awhile to realize that this enthusiasm was great, but unless I was able to direct and focus it, my ideas would forever remain inside my head.

What changed was that I realized being a quick starter and rare finisher is just another form of debilitating perfectionism. Instead of sticking through the practical realities of my goals, I wanted to start again, where every idea was perfect in conception.

Once I realized that finishing, not starting, was the key, I started putting emphasis on it. I’d finish projects that had flaws, just because I had committed to finishing them. I’d try to make my existing path work instead of finding a new one. I’d start less, because I took my commitments to start more seriously.

Sound familiar?

He goes on to an interesting idea. He essentially separates experiments from commitments. What’s the difference? My understanding of the concept is that an experiment is something you do for fun–something you just try. In short, you have no goal. For instance, I took a class on basketweaving and later bought myself a kit to make a basket. I need to be realistic: while I enjoy basketweaving–and it’s great to have a basic knowledge of the skill, in case, you know, I ever live through the apocalypse and I need to make myself baskets to aid me in my fetching and toting of foodstuffs–I don’t want to become a professional basketweaver. I don’t even want to make it my primary hobby. I just want to learn the basics and then be done with it.

However, I do want to be a professional writer. That’s my goal, and I need to do work which will help me reach (and retain) that goal.

That’s the difference between an experiment and a commitment: one is generally short-term, one is generally long term; one is for fun and has no real goal, but the other is serious and has a goal which needs to be obtained; one you try out, to see if you like it, but the other you commit to finishing.

Once you have identified what you actually want to accomplish versus that which just seems like something fun which you might like to do, then what? My thought is that you need to limit both, but much more so the experiments. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any experiments–you should–but I think one at a time is plenty. Do one and do it until you’re bored with it or find something you’d like to do better. Then, instead of telling yourself you’ll do both, drop the first thing and move on.

You can handle more commitments, but how many depends on how much time you have. I’m thinking one commitment per 8 hours of free time. I have roughly four 8-hour periods per week. So which four commitments will I undertake? (Remember, this is down from a list of 15+!)

  1. Conversion. I am going to spend the next year working with a rabbi to convert. This means reading and writing assignments, plus meetings and synagogue attendance weekly. If I also throw in a little Hebrew study on my Sabbaths, boom, there’s one 8-hour period filled up. Needless to say, my goal is to become a Jew and to read a portion of Torah.
  2. Home Improvements. As finances allow, I want to do some redecorating–namely I want to faux plaster and paint our paneled walls. This will cover a multitude of sins–like cat-scratches–and get us out of freaking 1986. (I think this will also make us enjoy our home more; when something is ugly to you, you can hardly appreciate it.) My goal is to redo the bedroom and the kitchen over the next year. This, along with general home upkeep (i.e. cleaning) will take up my Sundays.
  3. Writing. This also includes blogging, marketing, and publishing. I do this mostly in the evenings after work. My goal this year is to 1) finish the edits on my first book and submit it to a publisher; 2) finish the edits on my romance novel and submit it to a publisher; 3) publish 2 more short stories. Notice my goals are about finishing my work; I never lack for energy to start it.
  4. Exercise. The only way I lose weight is if I exercise. Walking a half-mile every once in a while or doing yoga on the Wii once a week is not sufficient. My ass needs to be out of the bed every morning and doing 20-30 minutes of something 7 days a week. Plus, I need to leave the house early so I can park 1/2 mile from work and walk the rest of the way. Being outside twice a day has the added bonus of getting me some Vitamin D, plus I do some good thinking while I’m walking. My goal for this year is to be able to touch my toes and do a real/full push-up (you may laugh, but unless you’re a gym rat, you likely can’t do them either; if you don’t work on your strength and flexibility regularly, you lose both).

My experiment for the year is gardening. As soon as I get back from vacation next week, I’m going to start some seedlings and plant some things. And when funds allow, I also want to turn the section of our backyard known as the “Lawnmower Death Strip” into a rock garden (so we never have to attempt to mow or weedeat it again). If I kill my garden, I don’t like doing it, don’t do it at all, etc. then I will forever abandon the idea of one day turning our 5 acres into a self-sustaining mini-farm or a thing of landscaped beauty and I will give away my containers and dirt. So, worst-case scenario, come October I will be rid of buckets and dirt sitting on our porch. At best, I will like gardening and eating what I produce, so it will become a yearly commitment.

Everything that’s not part of one of those goals is going to be suspended. I am going to shelve my sewing machines and clear off my sewing table (which is really a junk table right now, there are so many unfinished projects on it) so I can use it to pursue one of my goals. (Imagine being able to sit down at a clear table and draft story outlines, gardening plans, or read!)

Now it’s time to evaluate your life and:

  1. Find out how much free time you really have. When I figured my time, I subtracted time spent sleeping, eating, bathing/grooming, working, and commuting from 24 hours. These are the things that I do everyday, 5-7 days a week, all year long. You may need to subtract hours for watching television, reading, playing on the computer or anything else that you do religiously and/or can’t do without.
  2. Figure out how many 8 hour blocks of time you have available to you. If you have a partial day, you may want to round up so you can do another commitment, or you may want to round down and give yourself some down time. If you have a very small chunk of time, you may want to go back up to #1 and see if you’ve allotted time daily for something (like TV watching) that you might be willing to give up in order to do something else.
  3. Pick one commitment to do per 8-hour block of time, plus add on one experiment. Whatever is not on your to-do list, don’t do it.

What if your problem is not having too much to do but not doing anything at all? (I.e. you’re stagnating or feel bored with life.) This list works for you, too, only instead of narrowing your focus, fill up your time. At least do an experiment (everyone should do an experiment; it’s what keeps life interesting).

If you’re feeling constantly stressed, have health issues, or are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then don’t take on the maximum number of commitments. Leave time open to just relax. Veg in front of the TV or with a book; nap; spend time alone in a park or quiet place. Sometimes your “commitment” has to be to your health and sanity.

The other benefit to defining (and limiting) your commitments and setting goals is that there is suddenly no room for anything else. If you are a person who constantly says “yes,” making a list (and putting it where you can see it regularly!) will help you say, “no.” If you are asked to chair some committee or lead some project, or bake cookies for the entire school, you can just consult your list of commitments–if that sort of volunteer is not on your list, then just say “no.”

My list is a year-long list because it’s going to take me a year to accomplish #1 and #2. I’m hoping to make exercise an integral and habitual part of my day, so next year–when I sit down and do all of this again–it will be a line item on my day, just like sleeping and eating. There’s also the hope than in a few years my writing will become my full-time job, so I’ll be doing it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I will free that slot for something else.

I suppose you could make your list for less than a year–namely if your commitments are short in duration. If you are the type of person who seems to live life on fast forward, you may take on one experiment and/or one commitment per month, two months, or quarterly. If you have more leisure time than the average American, you may reach goals in 6 months that would take others a year to do. So there’s some flexibility, but do remember this is not about setting short-term goals but things which require a lot of time and effort.