While we tend to think of play as spontaneous, I’ve learned that I need to schedule longer extended periods of creative play. I put these dates on my calendar weeks in advance and treat them like a work meeting or a training. No matter how busy I am, I cannot turn this play date into a workday. I recently renamed these play dates my “Have a Greyt Day” days as a memorial to my greyhound who reminded me to embrace curiosity, take time to rest, and play everyday.
These Greyt Days have a few rules:
- There are no to do lists or time deadlines. The joy is in the journey.
- Take a break and rest whenever you want.
- Be curious.
- Be open to surprises.
- If I am tempted to work on something education-related, I need to sketch out my idea on my whiteboard and then walk away.
I start out by sketching a picture of Athena (one of our two Great Danes) and then using AI to turn my sketch into something with more of an urban street art vibe. I ask for it to remain in black and white, so I can then go into Photoshop and add the colors myself. In the end, I have something that I love. There’s a good chance I’ll be using this picture as inspiration for one that I’ll actually paint on a canvas and add to my office:
I then get distracted by an idea. I haven’t done a writing prompt in a month or so and it’s football season. What would it be like to do a prompt where students reinvent fantasy football to have actual elements of fantasy? I scribble out a few ideas on the whiteboard and then take Zeus (or other Great Dane) for a quick walk. My mind is reeling through the process of going from a sketch to an AI and then back to a sketch. When I come back, I make 3 t-shirt designs blending together the human and the AI elements. One of them is a prompt where I take my sketch of Athena and ask for sunglasses. Another is a silly Venn Diagram I create. A third is a vintage style counter-surfing dog. But then I abandon the AI and play around with flat design style that I create from scratch and ultimately land on a pug design.
Then I take a break to lift weights and listen to an Adam Grant audio book. It has my wheels spinning, so I go to my whiteboard and sketch out more ideas for blog posts I want to write. I then go back to the AI and ask for a series of 1950’s and 1960’s midcentury Christmas cartoon styles for Ms. B Saves Christmas. I take a break to have lunch and then I head back to my office where I read some of Micahel Lewis’s new book Going Infinite (which is a great read) and start trying to draw character sketches of Ms. B based on what the AI has shown me. I get frustrated and take a nap, then move on to a different set of drawings. I experience a flood of new ideas that I sketch out on the whiteboard and then I move back to drawing.
After nine hours, I head back inside. I’m feeling calm but energized. I’m excited about new projects I want to do. And yet, I battle a sense of guilt. I feel unproductive and I wonder if the day would have been better spent doing grading, lesson planning, and writing a blog post. But I’m also reminded that a day of being unproductive is vital for creative productivity. Extended play will make my work better. This day has been a reminder of some of the paradoxes within creative work. So, I’d like to share a few of those here.
Ten Surprising Truths About Creativity
The following are ten surprising truths about creativity.
1. Consuming is vital for creativity.
Notice that in my Greyt Day, I planned to be engaged in creative play. However, I listened to an audiobook while working out. This then inspired a bunch of new blog posts that I want to write. I took a break to read a book from Michael Lewis and ended up jotting down improvements I want to make when telling a non-fiction story. Even my creative process with AI was heavily influenced by consuming. I asked it to generate specific visuals that then inspired my own sketches.
While it’s easy to pit creativity and consumption against each other, critical consuming is vital for creative work. When you engage in critical consuming, you become more inspired and ultimately, you will create better content.
This is why it’s important for students to learn the art of curation. Check out the following sketch video explaining the curation process:
This curation process can function as a bridge between consuming and creating. It’s where students develop their tastes and ultimately find their voices. We are all collage artists influenced by a mashup of the works that we love. If we want students to become better makes, they need to be better consumers.
2. Constraint opens up possibilities.
Think outside the box. It’s a popular idea. It’s the story of the lone artist going away and making something radically different. But what if that’s not always the case? What if creativity isn’t always about thinking outside the box? What it involves thinking differently about the box?
Ever watched a child play with a refrigerator box? It becomes a car, an airplane, a robot suit, a table, and a tunnel. Think of Minecraft or Legos. They are basically variations on stacking boxes. And yet, the simplicity and lack of options actually unleash the power of creativity.
This is the idea of creative constraint.
When we embrace creative constraint, we think more divergently. As a teacher, this might mean adding a tight time deadline, limiting the materials, or creating a narrow challenge for students to solve. Students then work through tons of iterations until they create something original. However, this requires the permission to make mistakes. Which leads to the next idea . . .
3. Slack is necessary for grit.
When I was in 8th grade, I hit a place of writer’s block while working on my script for the National History Day Project. My teacher said, “Tell you what. Today, just give me 200 mediocre words.”
This seems counterintuitive but she was holding me to a higher standard but lowering the standards. She was giving me slack so I could develop grit. Mrs. Smoot knew that I needed the permission to make mistakes and fail forward. So, she lowered the barrier of entry so that I could build momentum.
As educators, we need to hold students to high standards. We want them to reach their creative potential. But we also need to create low-risk moments when they can make mistakes and grow. It might be a rapid prototyping activity where they build things quickly and iterate. It might be an initial activity that seems easy but builds into something harder. It might involve taking a gradual release approach to student choice. Whatever it may be, we are designing moments of slack to build grit. I’ll give a small example from the LAUNCH Cycle:
Notice that it starts out as low-pressure and pretty open. Students experience slack as they ask their initial questions. But then, as they begin to research, the expectations increase. They do interviews, needs assessment, or online research. They analyze data. The expectations might seem higher. Then, as they navigate idea, there’s initial slack. Students put out lots of ideas with no fear of judgment. But then as they plan, it becomes higher stakes again as they are forced to make decisions. As they prototype and revise their work, there’s slack. But the revision process leads them to a public launch, which tends to be really high stakes. The slack leads to the grit.
4. Play makes us more disciplined in creative work.
There’s a cultural perception that pits play against work. Play is the break from productivity. It’s the break from serious work. It’s the comic relief of life. That’s what I felt yesterday when I left for the end of the day and felt guilty about being unproductive. And yet, play is actually really serious. The more we play, the more we become curious and intrinsically motivated. What often feels like a waste of time ends up leading to us being more disciplined in our work and more resilient when we face challenges.
There’s a great story in Adam Grant’s new book Hidden Potential. He shares the story of a group of students who fell in love with chess and eventually won the championship. Grant tells the story of the Harlem-based Raging Rooks, who didn’t have the same resources and funding as other schools. And yet, they won multiple championships under the leadership of Maurice Ashley.
What’s fascinating is that he didn’t train the chess players systematically with a focus on discipline. Instead, he focused on play. He made it fun. He worked backwards to see if they could figure out different ways to checkmate an opponent. He sparked curiosity and the students fell in love with the game. This internal motivation, fueled by curiosity, led the chess players to organize their own practices outside of school and cajole their coach into a summer sessions.
In other words, there’s something deeply serious about play.Play is typically associated with fun and lightheartedness, but it can also serve serious and educational purposes, fostering creativity in unexpected ways. Play can bring out childlike wonder and imagination, but it also requires a level of maturity and cognitive complexity to engage in creative problem-solving. Play can be relaxing and stress-relieving, yet intense and immersive play experiences can lead to highly creative outcomes.
I love what Arthur Molella, Lemelson Center Director said back in 2002, “Play is serious business. At stake for us are the ways we socialize and teach future generations of scientists, inventors, artists, explorers, and other individuals who will shape the work in which we live. It is safe to say that humans, as a species, have always had a concept of play. But only recently has play begun getting the serious attention it deserves as a source of discovery.”
If we want students to be resilient and disciplined in their creative work, the answer might just be to add more play.
What begins as play turns into natural wonder and curiosity. This fuels experimentation and through that these experiments you land on something creative. I realize that this isn’t easy. It requires more systemic flexibility at the school-wide level. But if you want to incorporate elements of play into your current systems, a great starting place is A Pedagogy of Play, which you can download for free.
5. Rest is vital for productivity.
On three separate occasions yesterday, I chose to rest. I’ve learned that rest is vital for creative work. One of the strategies I’ve used for years is going for long walks when I’m stuck. I remember thinking that this was some kind of profound life hack that I had stumbled upon. But then I read about how Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens both used long walks as a way to make sense out of complex ideas. Think that’s crazy in a world of social media? There’s a great contemporary example. Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote the lyrics of Hamilton while taking his dog for a walk each day.
Researchers have actually tested this with treadmills. Graduate students who took a break from puzzles and walked on treadmills performed higher on divergent thinking and problem-solving tests than those who continued to work on the same puzzles.
It’s no accident that we often have breakthrough ideas when we take a shower or get up from a nap. This period away from our work might seem unproductive. However, our minds are unconsciously forming synaptic connections that lead to problem-solving. Ultimately, this makes us more productive.
In fact, there’s a ton of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting. He shares the example of researchers and the hours they spend researching. Those who spent the most hours per week doing research actually had the fewest number of articles written and published. Why? They hit a place where the work became a grind while they mistakenly believed they were being productive.
There’s a great article on this phenomenon, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.
We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.
As a teacher, you can incorporate brain breaks. If your school allows, you can add more recess time. You can allow students a certain number of breaks where they can go for a walk.
6. Quantity leads to quality.
As a huge fan of PBL, I have occasionally found myself saying, “Choose quality over quantity.” However, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. While I think there is power in spending time revising and reworking a longer creative work, sometimes we simply need to create more. We need to move quickly through new works in order to refine our skills and improve. I recently wrote about how we can crush self-doubt in creative work. We often move slowly and have to take a “snailed it” approach:
But over time, you get faster. You develop creative fluency. As this happens, you become both faster and more skilled in your creative work. Over time, this allows us to become prolific in what we do.
Professor Adam Grant once did an analysis of certain key composers and found that the ones we regard as geniuses aren’t actually that much better than their peers. The key differential is that they simply wrote more concertos. But many of their works were mundane, derivative, and forgettable. In other words, Mozart wasn’t necessarily a genius. He simply made more music.
It has me thinking of modern music. I love Elton John’s music. However, even his best albums (Honky Chateau, Madman Across the Water) have largely forgettable songs with 2-4 gems mixed in. The same is true of some of my favorite contemporary bands and artists: Iron & Wine, the Lumineers, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists. The key element? They simply make more music.
So, it has me thinking about students and creativity. Yes, we need deep dive creative projects. We need those authentic projects where they refine their work and iterate. But also, we need lots of small creative works: drawings, paintings, problems, essays. Lots and lots of tiny creative works that add up to something epic.
7. Creating for yourself can help you reach others.
I co-wrote about called Launch, which is all about the empathy-driven design process. There’s something powerful that happens when students develop empathy with an audience and it leads to a deeply human creative work.
And yet . . .
There is another reality within creative work. Sometimes you simply have to create work that resonates with you, as the artist, author, or maker. Sometimes you have an idea of something you need to create and you have no idea if anyone will even like it. You’re not thinking about an audience. You’re simply asking yourself, “Would I like this?” When you eventually share it out with the world, there’s often a segment of the population similar to you who will say, “This is exactly what I needed.”
Earlier in this blog post, I shared the video about Jasmine. That wasn’t built on empathy. That wasn’t even really related to my education content. That was for me. But surprisingly, it has resonated with others. Similarly, when I wrote Miss B Saves Christmas, I meant it as a silly joke about teachers and handwriting. I shared it out on a Winter Break and had no idea how many people would like it.
I still believe in the power of empathy. But I also think that when you create for yourself, it isn’t necessarily selfish. It’s often humble. You feel the freedom to take risks and be quirky. And that quirkiness is precisely what makes your work accessible to others.
8. Structure is necessary for spontaneity.
Earlier, I mentioned play. And on the surface, play is messy. However, play often requires parameters and restraint. It often incldues rules and procedures. True, creativity sometimes emerges from chaos and spontaneity, but it also requires structure and organization to develop ideas effectively. Creativity may require a snailed it mindset, but it can also benefit from a sense of urgency and the pressure of deadlines. We need structure to thrive in our creative work.
Note that yesterday, I had a largely unstructured day. But I also scheduled the day in advance. I set up rules and parameters for myself. I followed a pretty systematic process of prompt engineering as I played around with AI. A day later, I’m highly structured in my creative work. I have systems in place for grading, lesson planning, writing a blog post, and making a sketch video. I’m taking the ideas from my whiteboard and turning them into projects.
I’ve written before about how structure is vital for project-based learning. When we have protocols, systems, deadlines, and benchmarks, we reduce the cognitive load for students. But when these structures are in place, we can then break some of the rules. We can be more flexible and adapt the systems to our immediate context. When solid structures are in place, we can be more spontaneous and and engage in divergent thinking.
9. Boredom makes things interesting.
We leave in a culture of amusement where we actively fight against boredom. However, boredom is often a gift and a discipline. Here’s what I mean:
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Einstein’s greatest scientific discoveries occurred while he was working a tedious job in the patent office. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying while working as a night supervisor at a university power plant. Science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote her most legendary works while she was a dishwasher, telemarketer, and potato chip inspector.
Furthermore, creative thinkers often use boredom strategically to improve cognition and aid in problem solving. Author Neil Gaiman begins his writing process by setting aside all distractions and deliberately making himself bored. Here’s how he describes the process:
I think it’s about where ideas come from, they come from daydreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there … The trouble with these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment … it’s really hard to get bored. I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer.’ I say ‘great, get bored.’ (Newport, 2016)
If we want to come up with interesting ideas, we need to embrace boredom.
10. Quitting is necessary for perseverance.
Talk to any prolific artist, author, or entrepreneur and you’ll discover they have a set of unfinished products. Some of these are failed experiments. Others are projects they have placed on hold to incubate before eventually coming back to them. Sometimes they simply got more excited about a new project and put another one on hold.
I mention this because in PBL, I used to feel like a failure if my students didn’t finish a project. Eventually, though, I realized that it wasn’t about the product or even the process. It was about the learning. If students mastered the standards, they were successful. I created a continuum for how we view unfinished projects:
Regardless of the industry or the discipline, there are a few ways we abandon projects. Note that these go on a spectrum from unfinished to finished.
- Scrap It: This is a permanent delete option, where you realize that the project was simply a really bad idea.
- File It Away: Here’s where you feel stuck, so you leave the project unfinished and then potentially pick it up months or even years later.
- Iterate: Here, you don’t shelve the project entirely, but instead, you choose to make massive revisions. You might even mash it up with a different project.
- Keep it private: With this option, you still finish your project but you ultimately choose not to share it with an audience. Here, you’re not abandoning the project so much as abandoning the launch.
Note that some of the most prolific creative types of all kinds of projects in all four of those categories. Creative work is inherently messy and that means our projects don’t always turn out perfectly. But even if the final product is a dud, that doesn’t mean the learning was a dud. Some of our deepest learning occurs when we reflect on failed experiments.
I’ve seen so many people define themselves as failures because of a string of failed projects. We need to be open about the fact that not every work will be successful. Sometimes we will leave certain work unfinished. Perseverance isn’t always about continuing when it gets hard. It’s also about quitting when it’s hard to quit. It’s about letting go and finding a new route.