To Go Forward Creatively, Try Looking Back

To Go Forward Creatively, Try Looking Back

Create August 17, 2020 / By Larry Robertson
To Go Forward Creatively, Try Looking Back

Our tendency in creating is to look ahead, but the past and past travelers have much to teach us.

When we create, we disproportionately think in a forward mode. After all, creating is about the new and novel, so really it’s no surprise that our thoughts aim there. But when we do so too strictly, we risk missing something the most accomplished creators would argue is more fundamental and powerful. 

For my second book, The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity, I had the humbling fortune to interview nearly 70 MacArthur Fellows. I learned a great deal from them individually, but even more from the patterns across them. One of those patterns was a reference, indeed a reverence, to the connectivity and continuance of creativity, that is, recognizing creativity as an ongoing human cycle of people, ideas, thoughts, and acts, rather than a staccato disconnected series of novel ideas and outputs. 

MacArthur and mathematician Maria Chudnovsky captured the insight well. “My work stands on the shoulders of many before me,” she said. When she thinks of her own work in the context of a legacy, she said that’s when her ability to create comes most into focus. “What I am reminded to see in what I hope to accomplish or create, is something simple, elegant, and beautiful enough to serve others in ways that those before me have aided and inspired me. Approaching creativity that way is both my motivation and my reward.” It’s a profound statement on creativity as something that reaches back, not just forward, and forward in ways that go far beyond our work as creators. Maria was far from the only Fellow to make this observation. 

It isn’t simply about looking back at what’s been created before. It’s reaching back to the creators themselves, borrowing and building on the lessons. I was reminded of this a few months ago as our youngest child was wrapping up her senior year of high school, getting ready to go to college, and then out into the world to create. Some of us await the knowledge of what we want to create to be awakened in us, and some know it from the start. From the time she was a little child, our daughter has dreamed of becoming a teacher—one of the most inherently creative professions on the planet, one that for all its presumed structure, requires creative shifts and the ability to adapt on a daily, even minute-to-minute basis. On the path to applying colleges over the past year, in many respects she’s followed well-worn paths, all of them decidedly marked with signs pointing forward. But on the cusp of choosing where to spend the next four years, she had a backwards thought (and no, I did not prompt it). She began to wonder how those she admired in this profession actually arrive at the place where they became the kind of incredible educators she aspired to be. So, she put a pause on looking forward and asked those she admired most to look back. 

All told, she spoke or emailed with nearly a dozen educators, from her own teachers and school administrators, to neighbors and family friends. They ranged in age from their mid-60s, backward to their late 20s. No two were alike in path or experience. But still they echoed patterns. Like Maria, each spoke strongly of the role of others in their evolution—what they learned from others, what others exposed them to or encouraged them to explore, how relationships not only mattered, but rippled through time. The important patterns, the valuable insights from having walked the path before she did, the nuance within each response, none of it none of it was visible looking forwards.

Tellingly, as she spoke with those who’d travelled the teaching path before her, they too found themselves glanced backwards, recalling what others had opened their eyes to. And then they paid it forward to her. “Pay attention to happenstance.” “Network with your heart, not your resume.” “Stay out of teachers lounges, and move purposely towards those with no time for lounging.” “Trust yourself, but keep checking that you’re being true to yourself.” 

Age doesn’t preclude any of us from the mining the asset of looking backwards, only a choice not to does. Intuitively you know creativity is a journey without a map. Why not at least borrow a compass? As you create the new, each turn in the path ahead holds more than a dash of the unanticipated. More often than not, it’s the past and the people who’ve been there that help us see the future sooner and more vividly than we could have ever imagined on our own or simply looking to what lies ahead. Pause for a moment. Glance back over your shoulder. And enjoy the view behind, before you forge ahead. It may be the most creative thing you do today.

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