Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
– Rita Mae Brown

Creativity and innovation were the big buzzwords at the MBA Leadership Conference presented by the Graduate Management Admission Council some years ago in Newport Beach, Calif. Businesses want creativity and innovation in order to win and maintain competitive advantages. Business schools want to turn out graduates versed in these skills.

So in typical business and academic fashion we set out to quantify those things. There’s nothing wrong with that and I was waiting in line to steal whatever statistics we could find. But honestly, I just don’t know how accurate or useful measures or even definitions of creativity and innovation are.

I do know that creativity is more a process than a quality. It’s highly inefficient and requires commitment, patience, and a sense of play to use. And this is true if you’re an improviser, a businessperson, a musician, or an architect. More than anything else, creativity requires doing. I don’t believe there are “creative” and “uncreative” people, just people who create and people who don’t.

Jeff DeGraff, Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan Ross Business School, presented at that GMAC conference and referred to a fascinating study. A group of ceramics artists was instructed to create (1) an “ideal” or “perfect” piece and (2) 100 pieces while focusing purely on quantity rather than quality. Judges rated each artist’s work and in each case the piece selected as “best” was not one the artist intended as best but one that came from the lot of 100. DeGraff’s sensible conclusion is that where creativity is concerned, “Quantity is quality.”

Twice shortly after that conference I happened to find myself talking to piano players who didn’t consider themselves creative. They’re adept at playing, they both said, but when it came to improvising they were terrible. “Who told you that you were terrible?” I asked each player. Both admitted that was their own opinion, which in my mind, isn’t that valuable. It’s a part of that phenomenon that makes us hate the sound of our own voices when they’re recorded.

“How much time did you spend practicing your piano improvisation?” I then asked. Each player responded that they devoted very little time to that skill, so it was no surprise they didn’t master improvisation when they didn’t work at it. One was heartbroken she didn’t sound like jazz great Bill Evans but he certainly worked for years developing his craft. If she had done the same, she might have developed a style that equaled his. Or maybe not but she certainly would have improved.

When people tell me I’m a fine improviser, I tend to reply, “Thanks but after doing this for so long it would be a shame if I weren’t.” Yes, I feel I have some native talent but it’s the work that’s made me excel. By comparison, few who have seen my rare drawings would say I’m a great artist but then I’ve spent almost no time on that since I was a kid.

Practice makes perfect? I don’t think so. But practice is the only way you’ll get good. “Practice makes permanent,” I’m told they say in the U.S. Marine Corps. Striving for perfection, as DeGraff’s example suggests, isn’t really relevant.

Practice—doing—is commitment.

Commitment means that you’re sticking around for the bad stuff. Staying around for the good stuff, whether it’s in a relationship, a job, or trying to be more creative, is a no-brainer. But commitment means you’ll stay with it through the fights, the small bonuses, and the poems you really hate.

Committing to creativity and innovation means you’re willing to accept that you might not wind up where you want to go. It means a lot of work might wind up at a dead end. The only promise is that the more you work at creativity, the better you get at the process and the more likely it is that you’ll create something wonderful. Create your 100 pieces and trust that something tremendous will be among them.

If you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might well be wondering what creativity has to do with you anyway. The way I see it, creativity is a big umbrella and underneath that umbrella are things like artistry, innovation, adaptation, problem solving, and organization. Some of these things sound pretty sexy and some don’t.

For example, how exciting is organization? Maybe it is and maybe it’s not but the fact is that if you’re good at organizing things, you have the creative talent of seeing order and patterns where other people see only chaos, just as a sculptor might look at a block of marble and see a figure where others see only rock.

I’d like to reiterate that creativity is highly valued in the business world. “According to a major IBM survey of more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, chief executives believe that—more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision—successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity. The creativity these CEOs cite applies to everyday people and not just folks like composers and dancers.

Now whether or not business really wants creativity or knows how to foster it is debatable. However there’s no denying that business thinks and says it wants creativity. So it behooves you to identify ways in which you’re creative and be able to promote them. This might sound like mere hype but I truly believe we can all benefit by recognizing our various talents. If they appeal to others as well, then so much the better. Once you’ve identified your creative talents, you might want to develop them further.

One of the problems non-artists—and even some artists—face is that they don’t think of themselves as creative and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When we start to address creativity in my business classes, I like to take an informal poll and ask who considers themselves to be creative. Usually fewer than 20 percent of students raise a hand and some of them do so tentatively.
I ask those who didn’t raise their hands why they don’t consider themselves creative. Usually I’ll hear a response like, “My second-grade teacher told me I couldn’t draw,” or, “My high-school friends made fun of my singing.”

My response to this is twofold. First, don’t confuse artistry with creativity. Second, isn’t it amazing how an offhand comment can haunt us throughout our lives, especially when it’s about something as sensitive and deep-seeded as our creativity? So many people have told me about creativity trauma they’ve suffered; something negative said by a teacher, parent, or friend has stuck with and defined them for decades. If you’ve experienced something like that, I encourage you to put it behind you and redefine yourself according to your own terms. Your opinion matters.

I also like to ask people who identify as non-creative what their skills are. Pretty much every skill they mention relates back to creativity. “I can manage people.” That’s using imagination in the form of empathy to understand and connect with those being led. “I can diagnose budget issues and suggest solutions.” That’s problem solving. “I’m a really good baker.” Well, baking is certainly creating something and any baker can tell you there are almost always unexpected problems that must be solved quickly.

We are inherently creative animals. We build things: homes, families, societies, languages, legacies, bodies of work, history, world records, etc., etc. To deny your creativity is to deny a part of your humanity. Finding your creativity is liberating, empowering, and ennobling.

“Creativity… is much romanticized,” psychotherapist Thomas Moore writes in his book, Care of the Soul. We invest it “with idealism and lofty fantasies of exceptional achievement. In this sense, most work is not creative. It is ordinary, repetitious, and democratic.

“But if we were to bring our very idea of creativity down to earth it would not have to be reserved for exceptional individuals or identified with brilliance. In ordinary life creativity means making something for the soul out of every experience.”

So don’t just sit there; do something. You will find your creativity.

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