Unhappy Lawyers and the Myth of “I’m not creative”

When I say “use your creativity” to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I get some highly revealing responses. Sadly, a common reaction is “I’m not creative.” I blame traditional schooling, Martha Stewart and Pinterest, and our consumerist society for this false belief. Every human being is born creative. At its most basic, creativity is solving a problem for which there is no known (to them) solution, or for which the current solution isn’t working. The artistic expression part of creativity is often just icing on the cake. Icing is yummy, mind you, but it’s not the whole cake.

School Conformity Nukes Creativity

With their focus on correct answers and conformity, schools tend to squash the creativity of all but the most abundantly talented creatives. As Dan Pink points out in his book A Whole New Mind (which you need to read if you haven’t), when children in 1st grade were asked if they are artists, all the hands flew up. By 6th grade, none of the hands went up. (pp. 68-69)

rubber ducks in colors
Education’s idea of creativity. Hey, the ducks may be in rows, but look at those different colors!

My own belief is that tween social pressure—when, developmentally, conformity pressure crescendos—exacerbates the message kids have gotten from most of their teachers: There is one correct answer, and one correct way to get there. Creativity is weird, and should be hidden from view.

Standardized tests ram this message down everyone’s throat. I’ve seen this pressure to conform thinking to a standard pathway again and again in worksheets my 4th grade son has brought home over the years. Far too many times, when he explains how he got to his “wrong” answer, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s not the standard way of thinking, but it’s a reasonable way of approaching the problem. Often, he shows a deeper understanding of the problem than the standard answer does.

Standard solutions are the antithesis of creative solutions. We are always in need of creative solutions, since, as Albert Einstein wisely observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The Productization of Creativity

Before Martha Stewart, home crafts were as much about being creative with the supplies you had as they were about producing a particular result. Yes, those crafts from the 70s and 80s often weren’t polished and professional, but they were genuine and usually solved a problem. And they exuded a charm that only truly handmade items can. (Note the trend the last few years of mass-producing items that are supposed to look homemade.) With the advent of making perfect home crafts, a lot of the creativity has died off. People focus not on creating a solution, but on duplicating a product precisely.

Too many adults have completely internalized this message, to the point that at kid craft hours at our local library, I see parents  “helping” their child pick out every element of a project, such as color scheme, shapes to be used, etc. These parents even correct their kids’ distribution of sequins and glitter on the paper plate to give the work more symmetry. Yes, kids are getting the message that it’s not about process, it’s all about product. This saddens me. Mimicking a product does not allow for much exploration and innovation. It becomes another exercise in getting things right.

Pinterest feeds the idea that creativity is all about the end product. There are millions (literally) of pictures of exquisitely executed projects, all of which reinforce the message that creativity = perfect execution. Pinterest doesn’t have to be used this way, of course; I often find great ideas that become a starting point for my own solutions. There’s no problem with needing inspiration, as long as you don’t stop with simply aping your inspiration. What the images on Pinterest don’t show is all of the failures, the ugly beta versions, or the rough first try. There are sites that do, like Craftfail.com, which I highly recommend not only as an antidote to Pinterest perfection, but also just for a good laugh.

Consumerism Kills Creativity

The stealth factor in squashing creativity is our consumeristic culture. The ability to purchase “perfect” solutions for just about any problem you might have seems like a real boon to most people. Yet these pre-packaged solutions are not without cost.

Sometimes the cost is environmental. For example, our quest for uniform, pretty storage  and organization solutions means that perfectly serviceable containers are thrown away.

Often, the cost is increased flabbiness of our creativity muscles. We don’t try to figure out how to reuse, spiff up, or otherwise make do with what we’ve got, and accept that sometimes imperfect solutions are just fine.

In buying solutions, we also condition ourselves to expect perfection and immediate gratification when we want change, and get flabby in the patience and perseverance departments when we can wave a credit card and poof! the solution arrives on our doorstep the next day.

Prepackaged solutions take away something else important from us: our sense of accomplishment. There is a quiet thrill in making something that suits you, and only you.  Rather than spending hours hunched over your computer searching for something standard that somehow fits all your needs, you could customize your life with your hands and your brain. You could learn a new skill. That’s some powerful stuff. It lessens the cog-in-the-wheel feeling many of us have.

Crafting your own imperfect solutions also feeds your faith in yourself and your abilities. You learn that if something doesn’t work the first time, you simply need to rethink it, rather than giving up at the first sign of trouble. You get a much better sense of when you’ve put enough effort into something, and when pushing through is the better choice.

Now, your homework assignment: Notice the parallels between your stymied career search and your belief that you aren’t creative. Draw them, write them, dance them, sing them—whatever gets you to notice them.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys connect with their innate creativity, and use it to make their lives and careers better. If you need help with your creativity homework, contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a discounted sample coaching session.

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