In 2020, my creativity felt a lot like a bouncing ping pong ball. Some days the rap of the hollow white ball on the table was rapid and constant – your eyes and ears could scarcely keep track of its rapid-fire tapping. Other days, it hit with one dull thud and then flew off the table, not to be found for the rest of the day.
In other words, my creativity was all over the place.
Some days I’d have tons of ideas, but little energy to focus on any one of them. If I was lucky, I might write one or two of them down to return to later. On other days, I was dull and lethargic, wondering if I’d ever be able to come up with a much-needed and creative solution to a problem that was screaming to be solved.
Honestly, this hit-or-miss creative reaction to incredible change isn’t surprising. It’s almost predictable. In times of incredible change, like the ones we face due to a pandemic, a long-overdue racial justice reckoning, and an onslaught of natural disasters brought on by climate change, our creativity is likely to be unstable, at best. Completely drained, at worst.
On the whole, I do think that 2020 – even though exhausting and unpredictable – engendered more creativity from me and others than in any other year that I can remember. Why would that be? Constraints. The added constraints are the reasons for more creativity.
Creative friends, you are probably shouting at this page, “No! No! I hate being constrained. I can’t be creative!” I know, I know. Being constrained can feel heavy, confining and claustrophobic. But, here’s the thing: Our instincts are to find a way out of that heavy, confining situation and energy and chart a new way forward. Perhaps we are upset not that we cannot be creative, but that we cannot be creative in the usual, comfortable ways? And if we are too comfortable, are we really being creative at all?
Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, “A Beautiful Constraint,” show – through research and storytelling – that teams who lean into the discomfort of constraints and ask powerful questions are better able to use the constraints to their advantage and come out with a creative solution. In other words, the constraints actually open opportunities for creativity and innovation precisely because you cannot do the usual things in the ways that are most comfortable.
I learned this basic principle when I was working with youth as a pastor and chaplain. If I put a bunch of craft and art supplies on a table and told young people to have fun, do whatever they wanted, they darted their eyes from me to the table, perplexed. They didn’t really know how to start. But if I gave them some basic prompt or simple task, giving purpose to the bounty of supplies before them, they would jump in and tackle the project. They just needed a few constraints. (Not that teenagers would EVER tell you that they needed constraints.)
Just think of the advances we’ve made in the use of technology alone. We’ve had massive online professional events and meetings. Television series have recorded through videoconferencing. We’ve held virtual races, attended online cooking, painting, writing and exercise classes, and held family birthdays and holidays, all over some kind of digital platform. The constraint of not being able to gather in person has sparked uses of technologies that we never imagined before and accelerated the development of and changes to technologies at a rate that must baffle even Silicon Valley techies.
Now, I know that with the adoption of these new ways, there is a bit lost of the old. I can and should acknowledge the pain and loss of that grief. It is very real. It hurts.
But let’s also give ourselves credit for all the creativity these constraints have inspired. In a few years, once we have a little perspective on Notorious 2020, we just may see this as one of the most creative years of our lives.
That creativity is not something I easily wish to release. How about you?
Go Deeper: Spark your creativity with me and filmmaker Lindy Boustedt during our week-long Sparking Creativity Retreat Feb. 3-10. You will get daily prompts for creative practices, three live Zoom sessions for community building, reflection, mindfulness practices and FUN, and, most importantly, time for rest and renewal that will ignite your creativity for the year to come!
Learn more about me on my website and see more gatherings on my Eventbrite page.