“The creative adult,” Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote, “is the child who survived.”
This is a haunting truth for adults: Knowing that a long time ago, in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, creativity came naturally to us. And that somewhere along the way, we lost it.
Why is creativity so much easier for kids than it is for adults?
There are lots of reasons, as Quora’s in-house neuroscientist points out. Children’s imaginations are less constrained by rational thought patterns, ingrained social norms, and the double-edged sword of success — which leads us to “stick with what works” rather than trying out new and unexpected ways of doing things.
Also, let’s face it, the stakes of creativity are a little lower when your mom will gleefully frame any finger painting that you put your heart into. (Your boss likely won’t take the same approach for that new proposal, although if they do, we’d really like to meet them.)
Whatever the reasons, the world could use more childlike creative thinking.
So here are five ways that we adults can learn from the way that kids approach creativity:
1. Process is more important than product.
As adults, we tend to focus on the creative result far more often than the creative process itself. We see the fruits of others’ creative labors, and we judge our success by our ability to produce “something that looks like that.”
We judge the success of our painting class based on the quality of our final painting, rather than on the experience of the creative process that got us there. Same goes for music, dance, or any other creative project that we take on. For adults, the creative destination trumps the creative journey.
Not so for kids.
Kids love creative activities for a lot of reasons, but the final product is pretty low on that list. They value the process itself — the experimentation, the self-expression, the curiosity, the learning curve.
Frankly, in our experience, the main reason they end up loving the end result is simply because it’s an artifact that reminds them of the creative struggle that got them there. And that’s something to be proud of.
2. Naivety is a good thing.
We adults tend to approach most creative endeavors with some very strong predetermined convictions, particularly to do with our own talents.
“I can’t draw.”
“I can’t paint.”
“I could never make something like that.”
No, you can’t. Yet.
You couldn’t walk for quite some time either, or iron a shirt, or caption Instagram photos with that mic-dropping hashtag.
Adults’ certainty around our abilities (or more importantly, our lack thereof) is an enormous barrier to our willingness to give new things a shot and see what happens.
Kids don’t feel this. If they judged themselves with the same labels that we apply to adults, they would be equally incapable of doing everything!
But that’s the point. They are blissfully ignorant of their so-called inabilities. Motivated by their curiosity, they simply dive in because no one told them that they couldn’t. Their naivety is their strength, and before long, they develop the very skill they weren’t supposed to have.
(Stanford professor and creativity expert Carol Dweck calls this the “growth mindset,” where people believe that they can improve their intelligence and talent through hard work. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset, where people believe that these basic qualities are simply fixed traits.)
So treat yourself to a little self-ignorance. Forget about the voice that tells you, “I can’t possibly do that,” and go do that. Your naivety might just unlock something inside of you.
3. Instruction is overrated.
It is often said that “you can’t teach creativity.”
And there’s some truth to that.
In a fascinating study on some of today’s most creative minds, neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen points out that many of the people who we now consider to be creative geniuses share a common story: They dropped out of school.
“Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own,” she writes. “They preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information.”
Now, we’re talking about extremes here, and we’re certainly not advocating for anyone to drop out of school. But her study sheds light on an important point: that spoon-fed instructions can sometimes get in the way of our ability to freely express our natural creativity.
Stanford psychologist Manish Saggar puts it more succinctly: “Technique overrides intuition. The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”
Kids aren’t worried about crossing every T and dotting every I in their creative endeavors. They follow their gut, and see where it takes them. And the more that we cement in the way things are “supposed to be done,” the more we block ourselves from tapping into our natural creative instincts.
(This, by the way, is why we embrace self-directed learning in our creative studios at Steve & Kate’s Camp, rather than telling kids what to do.)
So ditch the rule book, and see where your imagination takes you.
4. Beating yourself up is truly pointless.
We adults are no strangers to being hard on ourselves.
Self-help books have built up a $10-billion-a-year industry for a reason: because we beat ourselves up over pretty much every possible part of our lives — health, productivity, parenting and, yes, creativity.
But here’s a reassuring truth about your creative self-doubt: Even the world’s most creative minds have crappy ideas.
Nancy Andreasen’s study on creative geniuses found even they have bad ideas, but the difference is that they were willing to stick with them to see where they might go: “Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all these connections actually exist. Still, a willingness to go after those ideas — to try them out, to resist the skepticism of others around you in order to find out if they are great, is essential.”
Kids are exactly the same. When they have an idea, and they don’t know how it will work, they fill in the blanks by giving it their best shot. If it doesn’t work out, so what? They learn, and they try again.
So take the pressure off of having Einstein-quality “eureka!” moments every time you embark on a creative journey. It’ll make the journey more fun, and keep you from the self-doubt that can quickly halt your progress.
5. Stop trying to be perfectly original.
One last creative tendency that many adults suffer from is the seemingly endless quest for our creative projects to be absolutely original, unlike anything the world has ever seen.
We want to write the Great American novel.
We want to build the unicorn startup.
We want to be “discovered” for the transcendent piece of art we’ve created in a paint-your-own-pottery cafe.
Given that creativity is such a personal, emotional process of self-expression, it makes total sense that we would want our creative projects to be as unique and different as we are as people.
But here’s the wakeup call: Nothing is really that original.
(In fact, the very idea that “there are no new ideas” isn’t even a new idea.)
Here’s Mark Twain on the subject of original ideas: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Originality is about taking bits and pieces of the old and remixing them into the new. Austin Kleon took this a step further in his wonderful creative manifesto, Steal Like An Artist, where he gives readers permission to steal other ideas and make them into their own.
Kids do this naturally. They take inspiration and run with it. They steal their favorite Pixar characters and make up new stories with them. They see the world around them as a palette of inputs to use as they see fit. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re able to knock out creative projects at a level that most of our are jealous of.
“Just do it.”
Nike didn’t write their tagline with the intention of motivating you to be more creative, but they might as well have – because the first step to being creative is , shockingly , to go create something.
Kids don’t have a notebook filled with half-baked ideas and dreams of things they will get around to “one day” when the time is right.
They just do it. When they don’t know, they give it a shot. They learn from the experience, they grow in unexpected ways, and they unlock creative insights that they wouldn’t have otherwise found.
In the blunt (but wise) words of Dr. Seuss, “Adults are just obsolete children.”
But the child within us is always there, waiting to be reawakened. Hopefully, these little lessons will help you get there.