Yes, creativity. And, productivity.
How both disciplined and free-spirited thinking can lead to meaningful creative work in any area of our lives.
There I stood, sand under my bare feet, watching the morning ocean tide run up to meet my ankles, breathing in the salty air as I scanned a horizon overtaken by the rising sun. All of my senses were telling me this was time to relax, but something within me wouldn’t let go of the stress I felt.
Creativity can be a mess. Have you ever felt pressure to be creative, with no clue how to produce something meaningful from your mess of thoughts? Whether we realize it or not, we all have creative outlets; writing papers in school, fixing equipment on the farm, and having conversations with friends are all areas where our creativity can manifest itself. The tricky thing about creativity, though, is that we can’t always draw a straight line between it and productivity.
During my team’s retreat this summer, I spent several mornings on the beach at sunrise. Retreat was intended to be a time with no structure, no schedule, and no responsibilities. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t get past the to-do list building up in my head of all the things I’d have to do once we got back from retreat. I tried to make up for this “wasted” relaxation time by planning workshops and speeches while I walked up and down the shoreline, picking one thought and running with it. Still, my mind would wander. I’d start at one end of the beach thinking about a workshop on FFA opportunities and before I knew it, I was watching the waves hit the pier and I’d be struck with some random thought about the passage of time. Clearly, not all of my thinking was helping me write a workshop. Or, was it?
My stressed-out relaxation time at the beach came to a head on the third day of retreat. A thought (entirely unrelated to the idea I was trying to work out) about how to better understand people popped into my head as I noticed the way the water would drag shells up to the beach and submerge new ones each time. I captured the thought and ran it through my usual filters: can I write a speech about this? How could it become a workshop? What dichotomy does it illustrate so I can write a blog about it? Realizing it didn’t work in any of those contexts, I was disappointed. As the feeling of defeat washed over me, waves retreating back from my feet, it hit me: just because I can’t use a thought in a direct way doesn’t mean it’s useless.
I was taken back to something my good friend Caleb told me after I couldn’t manage to explain why mountains are so profound to me. “Not everything has to have a deeper, hidden meaning.” Sometimes things just are, and their existence alone is meaningful. That thought about better understanding people? It helped me listen to my teammates that night as we talked after dinner. Our random thoughts may not be our next thesis statement for a paper, and they may not be the solution to rebuilding an engine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t add value. That “free time” for our brains helps us focus better when we do need to buckle down and do the work, and we may find that the unrelated thought actually connects to our problem down the road.
Two types of creativity
Sometimes creativity will directly lead us to something productive. A thought for a speech, a story to share with a friend, or a new way to solve an algebra problem. Often the best way to generate this type of creativity is to structure it. My best speech ideas come to me when I decide on a topic, go for a run, and pay attention to where my mind takes me within the guard rails of that topic. Often the act of sitting down and writing leads me to write down ideas I didn’t even know I had until after I wrote them. Stephen Pressfield shares in his book The War of Art that the creative side of our soul is awakened by our own self-discipline, by choosing to create inspiration from within instead of waiting around for it to mysteriously appear. We can’t just sit around and wait for a good idea; they will come to us once we start looking for them. Creativity requires discipline. Yet, discipline without creativity is lifeless—hence the second form of creativity.
If we don’t let ourselves relax and our minds wander now and then, we will miss out on an entire world of meaningful thoughts that might simply be meaningful because they occurred to us. Whether we directly “use” those thoughts or not, they are like exercise for our creative side. Sometimes, the “wasted” free time is actually the refresh we need to produce something meaningful, whether we see our creativity reflected clearly or not in the finished product. The thought I had that morning on the beach didn’t give me a direct topic for the blog. Yet, here I am, writing a blog about that morning on the beach. When we live with a posture of openness by paying attention to the world around us, we’ll find ourselves with more creative ideas than we know what to do with. Sometimes it just takes time to know where they fit.
Think about when you learned how to read. At first, you had to consciously think about each letter, syllable, and sound. Now, you probably just read words. It’s the same way with our thoughts: some of them we think about, we dissect, and we decide how to best share them. Others, we don’t have to process directly for them to be valuable; they just seep into our daily pursuits, adding value without us even knowing how. Productivity, at its best, is a manifestation of creativity into something concrete: putting into practice the thoughts we have. You don’t always have to think about how your creativity will be productive. Just know that, if you truly pay attention to the world, it will be.
What’s your current creative outlet? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tag me on social media at @nffaevp and @miriamrosah and use the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.