“I’m not creative”

Sometimes students tell me they’re not creative. Nonsense.

Ancient Romans believed that every person had a “genius”, or what the ancient Greeks called a “daemon”. It was thought to be a literal, yet unknowable spirit that lived inside the walls of an artist’s studio, underneath the desk of a senator, or between the books of a writer’s shelf. The daemon sent inspiration to humans, whispering sonatas, novels, paintings, or new legislation. In short, the ancients believed in magic.

This is a beautiful worldview, even if not a scientific one. A neuroscientist would point to the specific brain regions and wavelengths that inspire creativity, and while those findings have advanced human knowledge, it hasn’t led to more human creativity, and it’s certainly not an interesting way to live. Even if a daemon is only a metaphor to live by, so be it. We need metaphors to live by.

The daemon took a beating by the Renaissance starting in Europe in the 14th Century, when the human being became the center of the universe. No longer did we see a person as having a genius, but as being a genius. No longer could people dissociate themselves from their creativity; one was either a genius, or one was not. 

The daemon was all but killed by the industrial revolution, as we sought efficiency over creativity, money over beauty, compliance over ingenuity. We put people on assembly lines and asked them if they’d please punch-in and punch-out on a clock. We invented jobs, employees, bosses, and even “vacations”, where, maybe, a person could take two weeks to serve the daemon. Art became a niche, something you did in your spare time rather than in the workplace. If you were really good, or really lucky, or both, you could make a career of your art. 

Today, people are largely scared of their creativity, because the daemon doesn’t care what you think of her whispers, whether you’re delighted or terrified by them. The daemon wants her work made, and petty human feelings are no concern of hers. The daemon could tell you to quit your job, speak up in a meeting, or start a business. If you’re scared to do something, it’s most certain the daemon is whispering to you.

We’ve spent the last 150 years training people to be cogs in a machine–in school, at home, and every day on the job–and while that used to be efficient, it’s failing now. Cogs work, but cogs are replaceable, and if a robot can do your job faster or cheaper than you can you’ll one day be replaced.

We need artists now; not just painters, writers, and sculptors, but people who treat their work like art; people who see problems and discover solutions. Yes, I want my doctor to have her anatomy memorized, but I mostly want her to figure out how I can live to be 150, or how to make healthcare affordable for everyone, or even just how to cure my allergy. Robots already read X-Rays and do many surgeries better than she can.

My daemon is with me all the time, even if I only notice her occasionally. She’s there as I wake up, half-dreaming, whispering a new idea to pitch to my boss; she whispers a new piece of writing as I stand up to get another cup of coffee; she’s there as I’m falling asleep, whispering funny things to tell my colleagues tomorrow. She doesn’t rest, even when I’m too busy checking email to listen to her.

“Creativity” often tops the lists of soft skills employers are looking for. You already have it; the daemon is there. You merely need to listen.