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It’s no secret that I like to make stuff.  My wife and I co-wrote Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard  and I have been blown away when classrooms choose it as a read aloud. I worked with two other people on creating Write About, a digital publishing platform. As a teacher, I like to develop projects and units that kids will enjoy. I sketch out silly pictures on my white board (on our wordplay wall). As a dad, I love playing Legos with my kids and making pillow forts.

So, on some level, I thrive on creativity. Along the way, I have found certain counterintuitive truths about creativity. These were the types of things that challenged my paradigms about what it means to be creative and to do creative work.

  1. Sometimes you have to look backward to look forward: For all the talk of innovation and new ideas, there is a present tense echo chamber that can exist and when you’re inside of it you miss the great voices of the past. Sometimes the most innovative ideas are ones that we buried by accident.
  2. Routines lead to spontaneity: I used to think creativity was all about doing work when I felt inspired. What I’ve learned is that some of the most creative thoughts that I’ve had occurred in the midst of routine. It’s why I keep a writing schedule. I may feel uninspired but sometimes just getting it out leads to a breakthrough.
  3. Limitations create opportunities: We talk about people who “think outside the box” but I some of the best work happens when we take the box and repurpose it (just watch a little kid with a refrigerator box). It happens when we take a set of limitations and hack a work around that ends up being creative.
  4. “Consuming” is necessary for creating: There’s this false dichotomy out there about seeing kids as consumers versus creators. And yet those who are the most creative are typically people who consume (read, analyze, talk about, etc.) media in their creative area.
  5. I am most creative when I am not trying to be creative: I have this fear of being derivative when making stuff. I get worried that my work will look too much like someone else’s. However, when I have tried too hard to make something different the end result has been something blandly weird — something that says, “this dude is trying too hard.” I am much more likely to be creative when I start out with a goal (a story, a challenge, a lesson) and then I try and make it happen.
  6. Creativity isn’t finite. I remember using the term “creative juices” and imagining that creativity was this finite set of “stuff” inside of me that I had to save up so that my creativity didn’t dry up. Now I realize that it’s not like that at all. It’s more like a muscle that either grows or atrophies.
  7. Creativity isn’t always fun. I had this picture of creative work as something that is always enjoyable. Go look up creativity on Google images and you’ll see pictures of kids with finger paint and color objects popping out of your head. What they don’t include are those agonizing moments when you want to give up and you are convinced your story sucks or your painting is ruined or that dish you are trying to make will turn out awful. We say “embrace failure” but in the moment those mistakes suck. They are gut-wrenching. Creative work encompasses a range of emotions and “fun” is just one of them.
So, with this list in mind, I am going to start a short blog series called The Paradox of Creativity, where I explore this topic in-depth.

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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


  • jonharper70 says:

    John this post resonates with me on so many levels. Ever since I started blogging about a year ago it has become habit and something that I "must" do. Recently I feel as if I have been trying to force my writing and that has hampered my creativity. I think sometimes I am waiting for the keys to tell the stories when is essence, for me, it is life's stories or the stories in my head that move the keys. By the way I am currently trying to have some "Adult Genius Hour Time". Here's to hoping it goes well.

  • John, prior to reading this blog post I had never really thought about creativity in this sort of way. The point you made about creativity not always being fun really hit home with me. I can remember from high school the amount of pain staking hours that it would take to get a project done because in my mind it had to be done creatively. Where some people would just do the minimum in order to pass and be stress free I could not. I think that your idea that "consuming is necessary for creating" was a great idea. Students need to be exposed to all sorts of mediums in order to really generate new and fresh ideas. You're ideas seem thought out and genuine and I find your posts helpful for me as a future educator.

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