“Everyone is creative:” A conversation with MeaningSphere Guide Dale Walker
Before becoming a MeaningSphere Guide, Dale Walker worked in innovation and design thinking. He shares why he believes everyone is creative and offers tips for bringing more creativity to your work.
Ali Boston: First things first, do you consider yourself a creative person? And if so, have you always considered yourself a creative person?
Dale Walker: The short answer is yes, I definitely do consider myself a creative person. Probably as far back as I can remember, I would have answered yes to that question. But what I want to add is, I take exception to classifying people or calling someone creative or not creative. I really do think that, without trying to come across as cliched, everyone is creative. I think we all have the same amount of creativity, it is just a matter of how and where we apply that creativity that is what leads us to think of certain people, or ourselves, as creative or not. So yes, absolutely, I think I'm a creative person. I always have been. But I also think everyone's creative.
Ali: So what exactly is creativity? How would you describe it?
Dale: I think it's a pretty simple definition: creativity is the act or the process of creating something new. That's it in a nutshell, which is incredibly broad. I think that something new can really be anything, it could be tangible objects, you could be making new drinking vessels, you could be making a painting that's never been seen before. It could also be new ideas or concepts that you’re creating.
Scientists coming up with new hypotheses is a creative act. Parents telling bedtime stories to their kids is a creative act. And even I'd say, coming up with new ways of doing things, new processes or methods, that’s also an act of creativity. So if you find a new way to hard boil an egg that no one's ever thought of before, that in itself is a creative act, regardless of the fact that you end up with the same results as everyone else. With all of these examples, someone is either creating a new thing or a new way of doing things. That’s why I think everyone is creative, because we can’t function unless we’re doing these things on a daily basis.
Ali: That makes so much sense. We often talk about creativity as though it’s this grand, elusive thing that’s inaccessible to most of us, but what you’re saying is that it’s something that we do all the time, even if we don’t recognize it or call it creativity.
Dale: I think we tend to confuse artistry and artfulness with creativity. We tend to go: okay, someone who paints or draws or writes or sings is a creative person and is doing something creative. And we often create a divide between creatives and technical people. But both can and do coexist.
Ali: Why do you think that adults especially often think of themselves as not creative?
Dale: It comes from a few places. It’s definitely important to acknowledge that lots of people feel that way. I used to do a lot of work in the innovation space, working on consulting projects, applying design thinking, and I found that often when we came to the brainstorming stage using post-it notes, lots of people would go: “I can’t do this. I’m not creative.” And they would zone out. Loads of people feel this way. I think it’s rooted in self-confidence. There’s a great book that I read a few years ago written by the founders of IDEO, a design consultancy, called Creative Confidence and it makes a lot of the same observations. My own thinking, also reshaped from reading that book, is that we’re all creative, but what many people lack is that creative confidence to go and apply their creativity.
An element of it is our experience of schooling and education, which in so many ways is not good at encouraging us to be creative and even discourages creativity in some instances. If I think back to my own experience of school, the areas where we were encouraged to be creative was in art class or in music classes. But so much of the way we're educated is being told the “right” way to do things, and then you're assessed on your ability to regurgitate that exact same way of doing things, which means you're not encouraged, or even given the space to come up with new ideas or new ways of doing things.
Occasionally, I come across memes that show that in its purest and worst form. Parents who share photos of their kid’s homework where they got marked wrong in, for example, a math question where they're given a simple arithmetic problem and then told to show their working out and they get zero out of 10 because they got to the right answer, but they didn't do it the same way as the teacher showed them to do it. I think that’s an example of a child being creative, finding a solution in a different way and then being told by someone in authority, you've done that wrong. Don't do it again. I think that happens over and over again as we're growing up. And so is it a surprise that so many adults think they aren’t creative?
The other experience I think many people have is on the more artistic side of things where you perhaps did create something – be it a painting, a drawing, a story in English class – and all it takes is for your friends, your parents or a teacher to dismiss it or to laugh at it. Creative Confidence gives the example of one of the authors who had a friend in school who was told to draw a picture of a horse and what he presented looked like a snake. The teacher laughed and said: that's not a horse. And the kid took his drawing of a horse and threw it in the bin and that was it. I think many people have a similar experience which just chips away at that confidence again and again. And repeated experiences like that result in adults who don't believe in their own ability to be creative.
Ali: So what would you say are the benefits of creativity?
Dale: I'll answer this question from a kind of big picture perspective, which is that there are countless benefits at a societal and economic level to creativity. I come back to the definition of creativity as the act of creating something new. The arc of human development is essentially a record of the application of our creativity. So any technological revolution that we have had, for example, the Industrial Revolution, that was all to do with new ways of doing things, new processes, new inventions, societal changes, cultural changes - all forms of creativity. What we've achieved in the past, that's all predicated on our creativity. Creativity is really at the heart of our growth as human beings.
The same can be said if we think in terms of business or the world of work, creativity – the act of creating something new – is fundamental to business success. It’s how we come up with new products. We call it innovation but really it's the application of creativity.
Ali: And then, what are the benefits of creativity to the individual, especially in a work context?
Dale: Agency is an important factor when it comes to whether we find our work meaningful or not. And creativity is wrapped up with this idea that we can make our own choices and decisions at work – that we have agency essentially. In many ways, not being given the opportunity to express your creativity is similar to having your agency taken away, to being unable to freely express yourself. Which is why I think exploring your relationship with creativity is an important part to finding meaning in your work.
Ali: How do you stay connected to your own creativity? Are there any routines or rituals that you follow?
Dale: I don’t have routines or rituals exactly, but one of the things that I do across all spheres, whether I'm working on something artistic or even in a work context, is to always look for inspiration. I really subscribe to the idea that a lot of creativity and coming up with new things is mixing different and old ideas and things in new and interesting ways. I try to maximize my exposure to different ideas and ways of doing things, to give myself as much source material to draw upon as possible to then come up with new ideas on my own. So that could apply to painting, going to galleries when I get the opportunity, using sites like Instagram to look at how other people are painting or doing artistic things. It gives me new ideas. Or if I’m working on organizational change-related projects at work, to go out and consume as much material as I can on how others are doing that. And I’m not necessarily thinking okay, how do I apply this directly, but how can I now try something new? It's probably the closest I come to a routine or a way of enabling myself to be creative.
Ali: What are your tips for teams wanting to explore creativity together?
Dale: So one of the first things to do – and this applies individually as well as organizationally – is to get over the myth that creativity is this spontaneous thing that just happens. A lot of creativity comes from repetition, from process, and from routine. So that's a helpful mindset shift to make. If creativity isn’t a spontaneous, magical thing then that means we can create the conditions to enable it. And so then, we can look for different tools to help a team or organization be more creative, whether that is digital tools like Miro, or Mural or online mind mapping tools that allow people to collaborate better. The big one that a lot of people recognize and use is design thinking. The design thinking approach, which has had many years of development, is a sequential method for generating new ideas, figuring out which ones may or may not work in the situation that you need them to, testing and experimenting with them and then ultimately coming up with something that you can apply. It's a process that you can apply and repeat at different levels in a variety of fields.
The other big one is culture. If we can create an organization or a team culture that is free of judgment that enables people to contribute without fear of being judged or laughed at. Having that kind of culture goes a long way towards helping people feel more creative and therefore contribute more creatively to their work.
It’s become a bit cliche for organizations to talk about embracing failure. The idea comes from the fact that a big part of the creative process is experimenting. In Creative Confidence, they use the example of historical figures who we think of as supremely creative individuals – people such as Thomas Edison or Michelangelo. We look back on history and think of these moments of incredible creativity, such as inventing the light bulb or painting the Sistine Chapel. And we forget the fact that Edison did tens of thousands of experiments with different ways of creating light and Michelangelo painted thousands of paintings. So it’s about having a mindset and encouraging people to experiment to try things without fear of being judged or when it doesn't work as planned.
We are all, whether we’re aware of it or not, on a constant journey to find meaning in our lives and, by extension, in our work. Creativity is so inextricably linked with meaning that finding an outlet for your creativity – whether you consider yourself creative or not – may just give you a giant leap forwards in that journey.
Dale Walker is a project manager and innovation specialist with experience in sustainability and circular economy as well as leadership development. Dale is currently supporting MeaningSphere in the design and delivery of Meaning Circles.
Ali Boston writes about the worlds of work and technology (fictional and non-fictional). She works on projects that help realize an inclusive and sustainable future of work.
Our monthly thought-starters come to you from our team of Guides, who are trained to help you make the most of your MeaningSphere experience. They're on hand to help members of our community explore the big question: "What is the meaning of my work to me?" Find out more about our Guide services here.
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