Yesterday was ‘back to school” day in our house. It’s an odd time of the year: a feeling of melancholy blended with a sense of possibility, an exciting new start. As we hand our children over to their teachers, we hope for them to learn and grow and have their individual talents nurtured. A big ask for anyone in charge of 30 energetic, diverse, fragile little beings.
As I dropped my younger daughter in the playground, I caught sight of one of my favourite teachers in the school. She taught my elder daughter, Izzy, back when she was 7 years old and amongst the everyday patience, kindness and guidance she showed her, she also did a small but extraordinary thing. Izzy had recently been told a joke. A joke she adored because it was long, so could be told with a little theatre; had a cracking punchline, which guaranteed a spontaneous, genuine laugh, and …. most appealing of all … it was very rude.
This teacher had told me she loved Izzy’s sense of humour and always looked forward to chatting to her or listening to her contributions in class. One day, during a quiet one-to-one, Izzy decided to treat this teacher to a performance of this new, favourite joke. If I tell you it involved the misadventures of a hard-of-hearing man who had somehow called his house “Hairy Bottom” and had a cat called Willy, I don’t think you need to stretch your imagination too far when it comes to the nature of the punchline. I asked Izzy, with some horror, what this teacher had said at the end of the joke. “Oh, she just smiled ….” said Izzy “I know she thought it was funny.”
That’s it. That’s all this teacher did. Smile at a rude joke. But she smiled and resisted the temptation to tell her off or advise her against telling any more jokes. She let it be and let Izzy enjoy the thrill of another satisfied audience. She did the unexpected. Six years on, it’s clear that Izzy has a passion for comedy and loves to make people laugh. She’s got great comic timing and delights in the fun she creates at home. I can’t help thinking that one teacher’s restraint and open-mindedness helped that gift flourish.
When children begin formal education, the notions of getting things wrong, pursuing the one correct answer, conforming to norms and adapting your behaviour and ideas to make others happy are introduced. I understand why. We need to record progress, we don’t want chaos in the classroom, there’s limited time and resources available to allow children’s flights of fancy to be indulged for too long. But WHAT A SHAME! What brilliant, confident, quirky little minds they have and wouldn’t it be good to keep that devil-may-care, try-anything and invent-your-own-reality attitude for longer. I think, if Izzy had been slapped down for telling a joke that was a little risqué, she genuinely might have lost some of her passion for trying to make people laugh and perhaps her fabulous talent would have been buried.
I believe education can kill creative confidence. The fear of being wrong, the belief that there’s one correct answer to questions can, later in life, lead us to play safe and stick with old familiar solutions to problems or responses to opportunities. The habit of following convention and not questioning accepted rules leads to formulaic thinking. It takes a conscious effort to kick out those habits and re-train your mind into more habitual creative thinking.
I recently visited the ‘Shoes - Pleasure and Pain’ exhibition at the V&A. It’s a great exhibition, showcasing some of the most brilliant creative talent and it also offers the opportunity to hear some of the great designers talk about their work. What struck me about all of them was that they all seem to have held on to creativity as an instinctive skill. The most arresting statement came from Manolo Blahnik who, when asked about his creative process, simply replied, “I know what I want to do and I do it”. Creative confidence at its most magnificent. Is it a coincidence that he was home schooled as a young child?
How do we rediscover our creative instinct then? We can’t question the fact that, as children, creativity was overflowing in all of us. If we feel some of our natural talent and fizz has been lost to traditional education and the day-to-day realities of just getting on in life, we should fight to get a little of the sparkle back. In fast-moving, ever-changing commercial environments, businesses need original thinkers. In increasingly competitive markets, inventive approaches to working can push brands ahead of competitors. In your everyday life, seeing the world around you with fresh eyes can make you feel happier and more energetic.
So as the new term starts … here’s a little creative homework to undo a little of your education and jolt your mind back to your wide-eyed, school-age self. Good luck!
- Take a new route to work/the gym/school in the morning or alter your morning routine. This will bounce your mind out of habitual thinking.
- Read an unfamiliar magazine or newspaper, something you’d never ordinarily pick up. New perspectives and unusual ideas give your mind a refreshing jolt.
- Try something you know you’ll be terrible at and relish the failure or simply start to celebrate some everyday disasters. Letting go of the need to get everything right is hugely liberating and will make taking risks feel less daunting.
- Ask “why” a little more. We don’t always commit to conversations and get to the heart of what people are really trying to tell us. Asking “why” more can gets you into the habit of being more curious.
- Select a problem that is bugging you then sit down with paper and pens and illustrate this problem. You'll see it from an entirely new perspective, as you're forced to think about it in a different way. Drawing will positively stimulate your brain.