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Using Your Gift: Creativity in the College Classroom

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Although my official title at Oklahoma State University's Institute for Creativity and Innovation is artist-in-residence, I think a better job description is provocateur-in-residence.

I see my role at Oklahoma State as someone who pokes holes in the students' minds, nudging them towards the question of why. Starting with, "why are you in college?" There are three responses: Either, "I didn't know what else to do," or "My dad said, 'go to college,' or "I already know what I want to do." As far as I'm concerned, the answers don't matter. What matters is that they learn to ask the questions, that they get to know the motivations behind their actions. I don't care what they do. I'm more concerned with why they're doing it.

I work across all departments, and everywhere I turn I see students drifting in a current without much sense of direction, or on a path someone else chose for them. I try to splash some water in their faces, get them to open their eyes, look around, and take hold of something real and meaningful in their lives to build on it. Students are in a major for all the wrong reasons, and not many people are helping them think differently.

I talk a lot about the three principles of Be An Artist Program -- attention, intention, and doing what you love. Or, as my dad used to say, first figure out what makes you happy, then figure out how to get paid to do it.

I'm not on campus to talk about myself as a songwriter. Instead, I use the songwriting process as a metaphor: find a spark -- a passion or a passionate idea. Trust it, and then think about how to bring that spark to life.

One of the most rewarding parts is the one-on-one mentoring with students. One day, two brothers from a small town in Oklahoma came to see me. They wanted to be filmmakers, and it was sort of a hopeless dream in their eyes. They didn't need a road map to L.A., but rather someone to give them the permission to be themselves; to be different, to take a risk.

I'm not these students' teacher, nor their parent, so I'm free to tell them things that they may not hear from those other quarters. And because I'm not an authority figure, they might actually pay attention.

Another student I worked with was from inner-city Tulsa. He came from rough circumstances and felt like he'd never catch up to his more privileged peers. His passion was music, but he didn't know if he could cut it. So I told him he actually had an advantage over the others. He thought, and then he got it. He knew things his peers didn't, like to never take anything for granted, and how to live on very little money -- the key to surviving as an artist! (I sometimes advise students to go get a job, learn what it means to pay their own way, then bring that knowledge and perspective to their education.) No one had ever told him that his history was his strength, not his weakness.

People talk about students lacking creativity these days. I think they are as creative as they ever were, but their biggest obstacle is fear -- fear of being who they are. A female student once told me, "I know what I love, but I'm afraid to do it." After some questioning, she told me that what she loved most in life was playing her clarinet. Some of her happiest memories were from when she in the high school marching band. But she didn't want that as part of her college identity. So, the clarinet stayed under her bed. We worked on re-imagining her relationship with the clarinet. First, take it out from under the bed. Then, maybe walk around campus holding it. Then, go walk across the lawn playing her favorite piece of music. A solo marching band! I said, someone just heard you play and smiled. That made her cry, in a good way.

Most people need some sort of permission to be their best selves. I'd like to be the guy who gives that to these students.

I believe everyone is born with a gift -- a passion, a talent, something to contribute. Lots of times we lose it or never even know what it is. Pay attention, have an intention, and do what you love everyday. Each misplaced gift is a small tragedy. Find your gift. And use it. Change your life.