Creativity and Coming to the EdgeShare
Why are we so naturally attracted to the idea of creativity, but so often fail to think and act creatively? 'Come to the edge' and find out.
Creativity. For many, the word alone radiates a warm-and-fuzzy-feel-good feeling. Almost immediately upon hearing it, we run images in our head of creative ‘things’ – an incredible painting, a mind-bending architectural design, a business approach that succeeds year after year, a social movement that gives us pause and motivates us to change. And then just as quickly and far too often, we let creativity go. We set it aside, regarding it, even if subconsciously, as something beyond the boundaries of what we know or even think ourselves capable of… why?
- Why is it we regard creativity so highly, and yet hesitate to think and act in creative ways?
- Why do we conclude creativity to be something that only happens someplace else – in another field or another place beyond our skill or reach?
- And why is it we habitually think about creativity in reverse, focusing on the “outputs” of creativity rather than the origin of those outputs?
While often quite unaware of it, our great tendency is to build borders around ourselves and around what we think possible. But the new, the better, the possible inevitably lies beyond those borders. The simple truth is this: to act and to think creatively we must come to the edge, the edge – of what we know, what we do, and who we are – and be willing to border cross.
Why do borders form? Because our brains are designed to take what we know and do and order it. Ordering is how we make ideas tangible. It’s how we create value and some semblance of predictability. Order matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Of equal and arguably greater importance is our shared human penchant and capacity for order’s counterforce: openness.
Being open is that wondering part of our thinking – wondering about what’s possible, what could be, and in particular, what could be better. The duality of our open and order modes of thinking is what I’ve come to call our fox and our hedgehog.
There’s a single surviving line from an ancient Greek poem that reads, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” While no one can be sure just what the poet Archilochus meant, the fox is most often interpreted as adaptable, flexible, and curious, while the hedgehog is seen as more precise, predictable, and set in his ways. We all know people who exhibit tendencies so strongly fox or hedgehog that we regard them as all one and not the other. But science across a broad swath of sectors from neurology to anthropology confirms that we are both – fox and hedgehog, open and order seeking, and that each and every one of us in possession of three pounds of gray matter that thrives on a balance of both.
While there’s no formal line between our order and open inclinations, the mixture of excitement and fear and of wonder and warning that we feel when our fox and hedgehog contrast is precisely where our edge lie. Creativity, indeed life, is about perpetually coming to this edge – to seek out what’s possible, explore it, and then make it relevant and real.
As intimidating as the view out into the possible may be from inside our borders, we tend to calculate that unknown terrain to be more menacing than it most often proves to be. One reason for this is that we typically think about creativity in reverse. We begin our thoughts about creativity with those ‘outputs’ we associate with it (the incredible painting, social movement, or other work), rather than wondering where the journey to such outputs began. Most often, the scope and the completeness of those fully formed outputs make us feel like there is an insurmountable gap between where we are and creative output we’d like to produce.
Were we instead to set our sights and our thoughts on the beginning of the creative process rather than the end, we’d discover something far more tenable and less daunting. We would find that every journey to every creative output we value and admire began quite simply with the willingness of someone to come to their own edges and to peer over at what might be – not to leap over tall hurdles in a single bound or to vault straight into the middle of the great unknown, but simply to take notice, put a toe over that edge, and choose to explore one small step at a time.
True as that is, for most of us the edge still looms large. One reason it feels so intimidating is the assumption that to get to a truly creative output we need more than to come to our edges – we need to have “the big idea.” But The truth of the matter is this: every ‘big idea’ that ever was – meaning, every idea that in hindsight appears to have arrived fully formed – was in fact a result of an accumulation of lots of little ideas. Some of them worked. Others faded. Many morphed. And all of them inevitably interwove, blended, and reformed into something far beyond the original thought.
Still the mythology of the big idea – the proverbial leap from here to the moon – persists. And that daunting image of needing to have a big idea fully formed becomes a massive inhibitor. It’s also a falsehood. The unknowns that lie beyond our edges, coupled with this often unconscious belief in needing to have a big idea, are precisely what causes us to assume the edge will be like a cliff, when most often it is closer to a curb.
How do we change this? How do we come to see that the edge, rather than being our threat, is our opportunity? – our opportunity to, at the very least, more completely leverage the fullness of who we are, fox and hedgehog. One way is to acknowledge and embrace the three simple acts of creation.
The first of these acts is choice. Our current borders do not bind us. They are the result of choices already made. And they are borders of our own making. As much as we chose to make them, we can choose to reconsider them, choose to come to our edges and then explore beyond them.
In some ways choice is the easiest of the three acts of creation to embrace. Harder is the second act: reaction. Most often when we make the choice to see our borders as mutable, we do so because we expect even if subconsciously that something good will follow that choice. When it doesn’t, we have the opportunity to learn, adjust, and explore further. Alternatively, we might just as easily react defensively, walk away, or otherwise retreat back into the borders we know.
Similarly but less frequently noted, we have a choice about how to react to a positive result of crossing beyond our edges. It’s the choice between becoming complacent, expecting the positives to just keep on coming, or to bring the same focus and awareness we brought to the initial choice to come to the edge and find ways to ensure that the positives materialize. It’s a simple thing, reaction. But only if we tune into it and shape it. Doing so is precisely what raises both our comfort and our effectiveness at the edge.
The third act of creation is improvisation. Improvisation is at the heart of creativity. It ranks as a necessity rather than an option. While coming to your edges, making the choice to cross over them, and deciding how to react to whatever meets you thereafter are necessities they are not guarantees of what will materialize. In creativity there simply can be no advance script. But in choosing to come to your edges you gain something more precious than a script – you gain an invitation, to improvise and to play.
If you cast your thoughts backwards, you’ll remember that play is something we all once did naturally as children. We openly explored our edgeless world and wondered what was possible. Could it be that returning to that state of mind is precisely what opens us up to the world yet to come?
There is no simple formula for being creative. But there are elements that help us move in a direction where we can all think and act in creative ways – consider your fox and hedgehog, your edges, and the three simple acts that allow you to engage all of this. If you come to your edge, I think you’ll see for yourself what’s possible.