It might sound strange, but I really like to listen to people who talk about and read writers who write about being creative. I'm fascinated by the creative process. If you’re like me, though, you have likely (subconsciously) categorized people into two groups: creative and not creative. I understand our tendency to make this distinction, because when I compare my paintings to Claude Monet’s, for example, it’s clear who is the master and who is the Pinterst fail. In my view, we make these erroneous categorizations because we have too narrow of a definition of creativity.
By virtue of being alive, everyone is creative in their particular way.
For some, the expression of creativity is linear and engineered. For others, it's paint-splattered and chaotic. Regardless of what the finished product looks like or what the finished product is, creativity is not so much a quality as much as it is a muscle. It atrophies if it’s never put to work. Moreover, I’d argue that all work is creative.
In a recent podcast, Annie Downs was interviewing one of my very favorite “creatives”, Andrew Peterson. In passing she remarked to him that he is a person who, if he doesn't do his work, she can't do hers. Andrew’s work is so excellent, so important, so fueling, so inspiring to her creative process that when he does what he does, it influences her own work for the better. I had never really considered that exact phrasing before, but I reflexively agreed with a verbal, "Yes!" Annie taxonomized what I intuitively practice but had never formally acknowledged or properly named.
Creativity inspires creativity, and work builds upon work.
In the past I have been guilty of assuming that creativity happens in a vacuum or is a solitary act. Maybe you have, too. It's easy to imagine an art studio littered with canvases in various states of completion. The edges of the room are dimly lit, and in the spot-lighted center sits a lone, tortured painter at his easel working on his pièce de résistance in an 80's-type Duran Duran angsty musical montage as if he alone is the source of his own artistic genius. While some work must be accomplished in solitude, the notion that it all happens in a vacuum is preposterous, and I can demonstrate it with one visit to any museum on any given day. Because you know what you see more of than paintings at an art museum? Other artists studying the paintings, sketching the statues, using the works of others as as fuel for their own.
Respiration is the process of pulling oxygen from the atmosphere and pairing it with the glucose from food resulting in the synthesis of energy. In the same way, the material I create is not the result of sitting still and waiting for the mysterious creative lightening to strike. Rather, it’s the result of consuming materials from my atmosphere and synthesizing them into something uniquely mine. Just as a person ceases to generate energy (i.e. will die) when he is denied glucose OR oxygen (one without the other is useless), creativity dies where there is a vacuum of ideas, music, thought, structure, tools, and visual art. When others don’t do their work, I can’t do mine, and neither can you.
To those of you who don’t view yourself as a “creative,” I wonder who told you that? Did you learn it when you were small? Did you compare your drawings to someone else’s and decide that yours came up short? Did you color outside the lines in all different directions while other kids kept their strokes even, unidirectional and strictly within the borders? Did you have interests that lay outside of art class and so told yourself that your skills were, therefore, not artistic? Did someone tell you that your work was just work and not, what it really is, a form of creating— a necessary addition to the atmosphere where it can be picked up by someone else and used to generate something new?
In his instruction regarding the theology of work, Tim Keller says that “all work is necessary for human flourishing.” His point is that all work makes a difference in the world regardless of whether it is considered by many to be menial or meaningful. While I am thankful for physicians who study half their lives to practice medicine, I am equally thankful for the men who haul my trash away two times a week. It could be argued that their work has as much bearing on my health as my doctor’s. If garbage collectors don’t do their jobs, the quality of the lives of everyone they serve suffers. It might be difficult to imagine what garbage collectors are creating, unless, of course, you realize they provide a necessary element to generate other new things. By emptying our garbage cans, they are creating space. (As an aside, I have a little boy who has been fascinated with all large vehicles since he was aware of the world around him. While we have lived in several places since he was born, we have yet to have a single garbage crew who hasn’t been delighted to slow their pace, blow the baritone horn, and demonstrate how all the trash gets squished by the compactor for my equally delighted boy watching from the curb. My son has never wanted to rush to visit the doctor, but you have not seen haste until you’ve witnessed a five-year-old boy who hears the trash truck coming down the street. Garbage men also create entertainment…for the right audience.)
A few weeks ago our air conditioner leaked into our bedroom. The damage was extensive enough that we had to tear out about a third of the ceiling. My husband and I were able to make most of the repairs ourselves (by that, I mean that I was able to sweetly hand him the tools he needed when he needed them and he was able to make the repairs—see how he couldn’t do his work unless I did mine???). The only thing that we hired someone to do was to tape and float the drywall. Since the texture couldn’t be matched, Kendrick, who we hired, told us that he would have to scrape all the texture in the whole room and did we want smooth finish or a new texture? I have been fantasizing about being so fancy as to live in a house without textured ceilings since Joanna Gaines told me that’s what I want, so I was excited about a smooth finish! It almost made up for the grief and sweat of the whole situation. Here’s what I learned from that event: floating drywall isn’t a job. It is three parts hard labor, and ninety seven parts craftsmanship. The work that young man did was beautiful and flawless. He said he would come back to fix any of the imperfections once we primed and could see them better. I’m not lying when I tell you that there was not a single bump or indentation anywhere on our ceiling. Not only did he do the job for which we hired him, he engaged his craft. The consequence of his perfection was that we ended up remodeling almost the entire room which we had not been motivated to touch since the day we moved in almost four years ago. When the ordeal began, my objective was just to repair the damage, but after Kendrick did his work, it made the rest of the room look sad. It felt like if we didn’t update everything else, we would be dishonoring Kendrick. The work he completed inspired us to complete our own. And now, our room is my favorite room in the house. It’s clean and calm and lovely.
You may think I’m overselling the ceiling. I’m not. It actually is a really big deal to me. Acknowledging Kendrick’s skill and the cascading effect it had in our home has served to remind me that work is holy and creativity is sacred. Doing what is mine to do with the knowledge that it might enable or (dare I dream?) inspire someone else to do theirs is a way of elevating in my own estimation the small role I play in helping humanity flourish. It banishes my apathy and restrains my laziness. Without Kendrick, I might have blown off writing today. I might have told myself that sitting behind my computer screen in what I wore to bed and pecking at my keyboard is no more useful than if I had chosen to stare at the wall. I might have convinced myself that my part is so small and matters so little that it would never be missed if I didn’t do it. What a special form of arrogance it is to imagine I can predict the effects my work has on the world around me! What conceit, what selfishness it is for me to decide which effects are worthy of my effort and which are not!
Whether you’re a CEO making six figures or a mom-at-home making beds, your work matters.
What you create, the task you perform, is a foundation upon which someone else will build. It’s an element someone else needs for their own endeavors.
All work is necessary for human flourishing. Your work is necessary for human flourishing. And even when I can’t see how, mine is, too.
What work do others do that matters to you? What things do you need others to keep doing so that you can do the things you do? What are the creative endeavors of others that fuel your own creativity? Share them in the comments. I’d love to know!
Now, go do your work.