Full disclosure: I am an artist. My job is to write and to write takes creativity and creative people are artists, regardless of their métier. Ask anyone whose job it is to take an ominous blank Word document or empty camera roll or white canvas or whatever else and make something (preferably good) appear on it and you’ll hear about the unique mental and emotional vexation that comes with being a professional creative. For those in the arts—be they writers, painters, designers, musicians, filmmakers, illustrators, photographers, basket weavers, etc.—being creative for a living is both a blessing and a curse; you get paid to do what you love and what you feel you’ve been called to do, but you carry your work around in your brain 24/7 and you spend days at a time without leaving the house.
Okay maybe that last one is just me.
However, there’s an important point to be made on this topic that many don’t consider: creativity is not solely reserved for those in traditionally creative fields.
And while I do firmly believe that people are either born creative or they are not, I simultaneously believe that creativity can be applied to any vocation, not just those that fall within the arts. What many people don’t realize is that creativity is not exclusive to those who carry a mystifying job title like “poet” or “actor,” it is something that can be applied by anyone in any field.
For example, when I was in high school, I had a math teacher I’ll call Mrs. H. This teacher would choose a theme at the beginning of each quarter for her incoming class and on the first day of the new quarter she would announce it in some grandiose way. She would then take pictures of each class member, print the photos, and then allow each student to be responsible for creating a miniature replica of themselves applicable to the theme. For example, when I was in her class she chose “Greek mythology” as our collective motif. I meticulously cut and pasted my head onto the body of the winged messenger Hermes, and completed the look with a glowing head wreath I fashioned out of gold glitter. My figure was velcroed alongside my classmates’ on a visual timeline of the class syllabus that had been marked on the wall by Mrs. H. After each assignment, quiz, or test, we could move our figurine along the wall if we passed and for those who reached the end, a full size candy bar of their choice was waiting. For those who stumbled along the path to Mount Olympus, Mrs. H allowed them to go back and fix mistakes for partial credit. During this “make-up” period, those who passed were encouraged to go around and help those who needed to correct their mistakes, thus creating a positive feeling of community in the class.
While this may seem elementary to some, I don’t remember anyone in the class murmuring that it was stupid or infantile. It was a fun way for everyone to get through the class, and especially for someone like me who put the F in failure when it came to mathematics, it was about the only thing I enjoyed about that class.
My point is that nobody considers teaching to be a creative endeavor. In fact, many consider it to be an extremely far departure from creativity. Some even refer to school teachers as creativity killers. But the fact remains that our pleasantly plump middle-aged high school Algebra II teacher, Mrs. H brought an undeniable creativity to her “non-creative” job. And while I’m fairly certain she wasn’t reading Proust during her lunch hour or going to the local indie cinema over the weekend to catch the latest arthouse feature, I realize now that she was highly creative when it came to her job.
In an article for Psychology Today, Hoffstra University ethics professor Arthur Dobrin writes that “creativity is discovering that which is most important in your surroundings, then coaxing that reality into the visible through finding what is unique in you and in others.” This is exactly what Mrs H. was doing for our class. She understood fully that she was teaching a subject that many teenagers consider to be dull, so she created an atmosphere that helped bring out the personality and individuality from each of her students. I don’t think it’s any surprise that I passed Mrs. H’s class with the best grade I ever swung in the math department.
More currently, I recently talked to my friend Kevin who works at an SEO/content marketing company in Silicon Valley. Kevin’s job is essentially a sales position, meaning his role is to seek new clients and reel them in on the company’s analytics platform. As anyone who has seen a sales department knows, being a salesman revolves almost entirely around hard quotas and an even harder incentive: selling in order to keep your job. The nature of sales combined with the pressure that comes with it creates what could be possibly one of the least creative atmospheres ever.
But Kevin’s department is different.
“We like to keep things loose so we don’t have any cubicles or anything; everything is open air,” says Kevin, 27. “And instead of having our goal numbers hanging over our heads all day, we’ve written our favorite funny movie quotes on the walls.” Kevin also tells me that a banner-size March Madness bracket decorated with dry-erase markers currently adorns the wall and that there are annual awards given for superlatives within the office such as “shiniest shoes,” “best facial hair,” and “most unique laugh.”
“It’s different than any place I’ve ever worked, that’s for sure,” says Kevin.
While Kevin’s office still might not be the paragon of creation, a little spontaneity and employee self-expression has clearly gone a long way to take some pressure off the salesmen and create a positive work environment in an otherwise sterile sphere.
So next time you think that your creative brain has been lobotomized simply because you don’t wash paint off your clothes after a long day or give your mom work updates like “just polishing my last revision of the spec script,” remember that creativity is a boundless virtue that can be applied in many different ways. A creative person is one who puts their unique mark on whatever it is they do. So whether your job falls within the realm of the arts or not, it doesn’t really matter—all that matters is that you’re innovating within the space you’ve been given.
Robbie Tripp is a writer, public speaker, and author of Create Rebellion, an abstract manifesto for disruptive creativity. He lives and creates in San Francisco with his beautiful wife Sarah. Learn more at www.robbietripp.com.