Close your eyes and conjure up the image of a creative person. Who comes to mind?
Do you see a woman wearing coveralls splattered in paint, standing in front of a canvas, a paintbrush dangling from her fingertips? Maybe you picture a sinewy man whose long dark hair has fallen around his face as he gazes down at the guitar slung from his shoulders, while the smoke from his cigarette curls upward from his lips. Or you might envision a different man, sitting in the corner of a coffee shop: one with unkempt hair, a wrinkled oxford shirt and corduroys. He might have a drink in one hand and a pen in the other as he scribbles the plot outline for his next novel in his moleskin notebook.
When we think of creative people, we often think of the stereotypes of the artist, the musician, the writer. But creativity is not limited to the artistic world. Picture instead an inventor like Thomas Edison or a scientist like Marie Curie. From the business world, we might think of a Steven Jobs or Richard Branson. The creative visions of these people have changed the way we live.
Now look into your own life. Who were those people you've encountered who did things in a novel way: maybe a teacher who generated your passion in the classroom; maybe a work colleague who developed a more efficient way of accomplishing a task. What about you? When have you been at your most creative? How did that feel? Do you have your most creative thoughts in the shower, right before falling asleep, on a run after a long day at work, or on a walk through nature? What do you do with these ideas?
Daniel Pink writes that the American business world today requires "A Whole New Mind" in the way we approach our work. Technology has resulted in many of our routine jobs being outsourced to countries like India and China. To stay competitive, we must embrace our creative selves. Pink implores us to move from our traditional logical and systematic "left brain" culture to one that seeks out innovation, a more "right brain" approach. In this new competitive landscape, those who can think outside the box will be more valued than those who are merely focused on getting the job done. Pink writes, "It's no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that is merely functional. Today it's economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging."
I find it interesting that we often have a love/hate relationship with the creative. Today we laud as genius the insights of Einstein's special relativity or Picasso's first experiments with cubism, yet it took years before their contemporaries recognized the value of their work. Thinking back to our earlier stereotypes of creative people, how often do we tack on the negative, while at the same time we celebrate the accomplishments of these types? We often judge creative people as different, moody, flighty, disorganized, troubled or, worse, tortured. In organizations, creative ideas are often rejected as too risky, and creative thinking is discouraged in favor of a known status quo.
What does all of this have to do with religion and spirituality? In an earlier post (Re-imagining God in the 21st Century), I wrote that I view God as the creative source that continuously sustains existence. I read Genesis, not as a scientific or history textbook on how the universe came to be, but as a mythological interpretation of God as this creative source of existence. In other words, we can see God as the ultimate center of creativity.
Creativity is one of the characteristics of the universe. The evolution of the cosmos from the big bang to today is characterized by a movement toward life, toward diversity, and toward consciousness. In quantum mechanics, subatomic particles can appear in a vacuum. An apple tree creates when a seed from one of its fruits falls to the soil and grows into a new tree. As humans, we are able to take creativity to a new level. In other words, nature itself (dare I use the word creation?) is characterized by creativity.
For children creativity comes naturally. Children understand instinctively how to play. Creativity is really nothing more than playing with ideas. In his enlightening TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson notes how children are creative because they do not fear being wrong. Yet our schools and our businesses educate creativity out of people. We learn early that being wrong loses you points. When you ask a classroom of kindergarteners how many of them are good artists, nearly all will raise their hands. Ask the same question to middle school students and only a fraction will raise their hands. Edison experimented for years before he found the right filament that would work in a light bulb. He famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." I wonder how many people today would be willing to find that many ways that don't work.
From my own experience, I only have to look to my writing to find the close relationship between creativity and failure. My first novel, The Breath of God, a thriller that explores the connection between Eastern and Western spirituality, is finally hitting bookstores this month. I began the book six years ago with energy, ideas, and a secret desire to sit across the sofa from Oprah. As someone used to success, the process of opening the many envelopes from literary agents and publishers that began with "We're sorry ... " was disheartening. After I got over the depression each rejection brought, I returned to the book, rewriting and improving it. Then I sent it out again, and received more rejections. Gradually, through this process the book became better. Many times I could have given up. I've thrown over 300 pages of writing into the trash. I've completely rewritten three of my main characters including my protagonist. All of this has been painful, but at some point along the long road of rejection, I recognized that failure was part of the process of creativity. Now, the book will finally be out!
I find it interesting to think of the interaction between failure and creative growth in terms of the natural world as well. When we look at the process of evolution, we can see how it has allowed for life and consciousness to develop from inert matter. At the same time, evolution has its own mistakes, dead ends, and Edison-like failures. Evolution results in widespread extinctions of other life forms; it allows for birth defects, cancer, and disease. In theology we often hear about the Problem of Evil and Suffering: why does a loving God allow suffering? But a God that is the ongoing nexus of creativity (powering the natural world) means that the very process of divine creativity necessarily results in suffering, yet these "creative failures" are what lead to life, to consciousness, and to growth itself.
We each have creative centers that are intrinsic to who we are. How can you today embrace your own inner creative self? Can you allow yourself to fail so that you can reach new heights of growth? How can you develop your divine creative talents and put them to use with your work, your family, or your hobbies?