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I’m sitting at a computer, staring at the flashing cursor. I know it’s not sentient, but I swear it’s taunting me. “Just go on with it. Try and make something.”

I’m in the third hour of a project. It’s a free design thinking challenge that I’ll be releasing soon. I’ve already finished with the fun part. I’ve created a fast-paced sketchy video along with an interactive notebook for students. However, this part is different. It’s the teacher side of the resource. It requires me to think differently than I did as a teacher (where I preferred to create my own lesson plans). It requires me to make fewer assumptions about the audience. This is part is tedious and slow. It’s the kind of detail work that’s hard for me.

And so, I plug away at it. When I’m finished, I will have spent eight to ten hours on something that looks like it took an hour to make. By contrast, the student journal and sketchy video took a grand total of two hours. Tomorrow morning, I’ll get up early and spend half an hour creating a multi-lesson slideshow and it might take me forty-five minutes tops.

The Power of Creative Endurance

I mention all of this, because it reminds me of this idea of creative endurance. See, I can spend three hours without a break creating a sketchy video. I can get lost in a world of my own creation, writing fiction for a full day. However, I have a hard time writing instructions. I struggle with the notion of audience and purpose and making things explicit when it’s a lesson plan or a syllabus.

I’d love to say that it’s all about big picture or details, but that’s not exactly it. It’s actually more about creative endurance, and, more specifically, creative fluency.

Nobody tells you this, but when you first start making stuff, you’re really slow at it. You’re also really bad at it. So, you’re both bad at your craft and you’re slow. Genius combination, right?

However, somewhere along the line, you get faster. Then, at some point, you realize that you’re crazy fast. You’re the chef you can chop an onion in four seconds. You’re the writer who crafts a draft in a month. You’ve become that person.

There’s this sense of automaticity to it. You aren’t second-guessing every move. You have a sense of what you are doing and where you are going. It’s not emotionally exhausting and it’s not mentally exhausting. If anything, it feels normal.

But when you’re new at something, it’s slow. It’s painful, even. You suck at it. And when you realize you suck at it, you feel defeated. You second-guess every move. You are thinking so intently about every step that you sometimes feel like you are going nowhere. Over time, though, it becomes the backdrop. You’ve moved past the mechanics and you know what you’re doing.

It’s a bit like driving a car. Remember when you sucked at driving? Remember when your heart would race if you went on the freeway? Remember when you had to tell yourself to turn on the turn signal? Well, that’s what it’s like when you are new at a creative process. You’re suddenly the pimple-faced new driver trying to avoid an accident.

I mention this, because I notice students who have never hit a place of creative fluency. They have no creative endurance. They give up quickly. They get frustrated too easily. They need too many instructions. But, honestly, it’s because creativity has always been icing on the cake (which, honestly, is precisely what makes carrot cake a cake and not a loaf of zucchini bread). It’s always been a “when we get to it” activity. It’s been the culminating project. Then suddenly you have students who struggle to get anything done. However, it’s not laziness. It’s actually the byproduct of rarely getting the chance to make anything.

The hard part is that there is no easy answer. The only way you learn to drive is by driving. The only way you get endurance as a runner is by running. And the only way you get endurance in creativity is by making more stuff. So, maybe that’s the simple answer. Students should spend less time testing and more time making.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Nancy Wilson says:

    John, Your comment about multiple hours of effort appearing as an hour of time spent seems to sum up my Masters program in Educational Technology – you really Are Bad at things in the beginning. But that is OK, because we learn from our mistakes, or should be able to. This, too,
    reminded me of a video I just watched titled "Austin's Butterfly" – you probably watched it eons ago. I plan to show it to my 7th graders, but wonder if they will 'get' the message of perseverance. Maybe I need to give them something to 'make' to see how they do. They did great last year with Mother's Day cards (Geometry tie-in, shapes) Thanks for your insight! Nancy/Concordia U, Irvine, CA (Hawthorne)

  • AGLL says:

    John, I wonder also if students struggle with creativity because they are always driven to find the right, (or perfect), answer and in many cases, when asked to be creative, there is no "right" answer? Many students are afraid to "fail" and creativity has a built in failure system which the struggle with. As far as creative endurance on the teacher end, the hardest part for me is the first five minutes where my mind is going many different directions. Once I channel my brain to focus on the task at hand, things usually fall into place. Thanks for the great read!

  • Rachelle Gonzales says:

    Hi John, I like your description on the process of reaching creative fluency…how working on your craft is not only slow but also bad at the beginning. As a classroom teacher, it is such a challenge to emphasize the appreciation of creativity and the time it takes to become fluent at your craft. Thankfully, we now have the ISTE Standards that gives us the liberty to focus on creativity and innovation in the classroom, along with engaging students to become fluent learners with the tools they are provided to enhance their learning. However, the challenge is how do we find a balance between creating a learning environment for our students that will give them time to create while still preparing them to succeed academically, regardless of testing. I greatly agree with you that students ought to spend less time testing and more time making. My students are always engaged more when creating and I see how they get absolute pleasure from it. Hopefully, in the near future more time will be invested in creativity in the classroom than ever before. Thanks for your wonderful read!

  • Sarah Sparks says:

    Great description of the process of creative thinking. It can be hard at first, and so many students (and adults) struggle and get frustrated with the process. Providing more opportunities for young people to explore and build, where there is not any one right answer would be a great step in building these skills. Ideal = Makerspaces in every school perhaps?

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