A Safe Place to Play

[September 25, 2009]

Check any quotations source to see how preoccupied Western culture is with creativity. People devote entire books to it. Despite the place creativity holds in our society, however, I doubt we do enough as an industry to nurture and protect our own creative resources.

I say “protect” because creativity, a byproduct of our subjective experience of the world, is as fragile as everything human. Now, relax. Admitting your own fragility doesn’t make you any less of a hip-dope-sick-this-century-cow-person. It’s a simple reality, and one you face whenever a loved one ends up in the ICU.

Despite our cultural fixation on creativity, we also have countless cultural habits destined to discourage it. Creativity is routinely suppressed by:

•Authoritarians: “Stop fooling around and do your homework.”
•Realists: “You’ll never make any money at it.”
•Skeptics: “Who do you think you are, Picasso?

It’s also discouraged by cultural stereotypes like the “dissipated artist,” the “misunderstood genius,” and the “thin line between madness and genius.”

Oh, please. If you spoke in such reductive terms about any other group of people you’d be socially ostracized and, in some cases, subject to criminal prosecution.

Yet creatives hear and internalize these clichés every day. Ironically, a recent study at UC San Diego shows that, contrary to stereotype, healthy habits, like getting enough sleep, have a measureable impact on creativity.

Then there’s the word “genius” itself, the single greatest barrier to fostering creativity. Your friendly neighborhood skeptics tell you only geniuses are creative. If you’re not one, they say, you’re just wasting your time. Not coincidentally, skeptics are also the people most likely to claim they know genius when they see it.

Fortunately, in the last few decades, psychologists seem to have established that creativity is not actually dependent on genius. They’ve discovered the roots of creativity in our early development and suggest a direct link between creativity and a capacity for play. To be creative, you simply have to have been a child.  

Now, as I see it, play is essential to our creative process. And like children’s play, the process is highly structured. First, “let’s pretend…” defines a flexible set of guidelines. Next, rules pop up (“that’s not fair”) and need to be observed—but only if they make the game more fun.  

The thought of children at play leads me back to the need to nurture and protect our fragile creative resources. Have you taken a look, lately, at the sleep-deprived creatives whose work load you just tripled? They’d be a lot more productive if you gave them time to experiment and play—plus a little love and attention.  

That’s because, in order to conceive something fresh, vibrant and motivating, creatives need to make themselves fragile again, as open and vulnerable as children. They don’t need marketing theories or webinars or brainstorming or imperious glares at the clock.

What they need is a safe place to play.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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