Creativity: A Forgotten Key to a Happy and Fulfilling Life
by Jacob Nordby, author, The Creative Cure
When I tell people that I am a writer and creative guide, I tend to hear the response, “Oh, that sounds interesting,” often followed by, “I’m just not that creative,” or “I’ve never been a creative person.” I often perceive a note of regret in these statements, even loneliness, as if these folks were missing out on a special club they don’t deserve to join.
Nothing could be further from the truth — and yet this sentiment is widespread, which perplexes me. How could something as intrinsic as creativity by silenced by the unholy mantra of “I’m not creative”?
Perhaps you have thought or even spoken these words aloud.
It seems that most nonartists — that is, people who don’t regularly paint, write, perform, or do other traditional arts — have this tape playing in their minds. Even for those of us who have always known we are creative (in the traditional sense and beyond), if we look closely, we find a belief running in the background that says, “I’m not creative enough.”
That’s why I want to begin by reclaiming the word creativity, and broaden our notion of who belongs in this club. Painters, writers, singers, actors, and the like are creative, of course, but I know this to be true at the core of my being: every human being is creative.
Look around the room you’re in right now. Everything in it owes at least part of its existence to the creative process. From the books on the shelves, to the gentle curve of a vase, to the color painted on the walls — a human being used their imagination to shape reality. Expand your awareness further and think of skyscrapers, interconnected telecom systems, formal gardens, viral videos, or regional cuisines. The examples are endless; the world we occupy has been built by creative endeavors.
Creativity is your birthright. You were born possessing this quality. Even if you have lost or forgotten about certain aspects of your inner creative self, every breath and heartbeat can be a new opportunity to reclaim and develop this elemental part of you. In a deeper sense, I believe that each of us is meant to be an artist of life itself, shaping and creating every part of living into a work of art that reflects our true desires and whole selves.
I’d like to invite you to come back home to your inner creative self in two ways. First, by building a creative practice that revitalizes your creative birthright. And second, by teaching you to channel this creative power into other areas of your life, such as your job, your home, your relationships with others, and, most importantly, your relationship with yourself.
Even if you don’t believe it yet, this point bears repeating: Every human is creative. There is no such thing as an uncreative human. My hope is that you will claim this truth for yourself and make it your new mantra:
I am creative. I am an artist. I am creating my life.
Not only are you fundamentally creative, but you can exercise the muscle of your inner creative self. Simply saying this mantra a few times a day is a good start. The power of a mantra is that it works on your subconscious, so that even if you don’t fully believe what you are saying, you are practicing the belief until it becomes true for you.
It may not yet feel true. That’s okay. If creativity is in fact built into our DNA, as I believe is the case, how can so many people think that they’re not creative or not creative enough? Where did we go off track? As with any new understanding or shift in perspective, we’ll need to start with awareness.
If you travel back far enough in the memories of your childhood, you will likely find a version of yourself that saw things in a creative way and naturally expressed the creative impulse without even thinking about it. Results from a creativity test built for NASA by Dr. George Land showed that five-year-olds earned the highest marks of any group, scoring 98 percent. That’s because as children we drew, painted, made things, played make-believe, explored, experimented, and had a looser adherence to standard rules and systems. Kids can help us reactivate our own creativity. Have you ever played “the floor is lava”? The rules are simply those four words — pretend the floor is hot lava and you can’t touch it. Everyone immediately suspends their disbelief, leaping from chair to couch, in a matter of moments upending every rule about how we “should” behave in our living rooms.
Somewhere along the way, we traded this immersive creativity for logic, predictability, correctness, and responsibility. Our educational system, built at the dawn of the industrial revolution and largely unchanged today, churns out workers fit for factories, stamping out creativity on purpose. Perhaps someone told you “you’re not that creative” or “your art is no good,” and you believed them. You may also have experienced something traumatic, which understandably shut down your creative self, as you had to prioritize survival over imagination.
The Enemies of Creativity
Part of reversing this process is to become aware of your own habits and blocks, and learn how they got there. By bringing awareness to these enemies of creativity, you can overcome them and begin to build new habits and practices in their place. To that end, let’s look at the three primary forces that come together to dampen our creative impulses and divorce us from our inner creative self:
- Traumatic experiences
I cover these in greater depth later in my book, The Creative Cure: How Finding and Freeing Your Inner Artist can Save Your Life, as well as how to move beyond them, but here’s a snapshot of what I mean in each instance.
Socialization is the process by which we become functioning members of society. It’s how we learn to communicate with each other, behave as part of a cohesive group, and navigate within the complex social worlds we inhabit. Like so many tools, socialization can be both a positive and negative force. By the time we reach adulthood, our beliefs, behaviors, tastes, and personal goals often align with socialized norms, and no longer feel like extensions of our true creative selves. We may lose sight of where we end and society begins, creating a sense of alienation from ourselves. We may begin to believe that we are broken or “not enough.” Trying to regain a sense of belonging, we go further into the cycle of trying to adhere to social structures, cutting us off from our innate creativity even more.
Trauma is a highly sensitive topic, especially for those who have experienced severe episodes. Even for those who haven’t experienced trauma at an extreme level, this enemy of creativity remains relevant, since everybody has lived through traumatic experiences of some kind, such as divorce, bullying, loss of a loved one, or illness. The nervous system responds to trauma with a survival response, scaling back to the basic functions housed in the brain stem: fight, flight, or freeze. In order to be creative, we need to have the physical and psychological safety to use our whole brain and being freely, so trauma literally stifles creativity on a cellular level. If we experience trauma, especially in our formative years, it can lead to patterns of anxiety, destructive self-talk, inner criticism, procrastination, perfectionism, addictive behaviors, self-doubt, or feelings of being not valuable or lacking a purpose.
Rejection sits at the intersection of socialization and trauma. Like it or not, violating the written or unwritten rules of our families, religion, or society at large can lead to rejection of all kinds, which is a traumatic experience in its own right. Sociologists tell us that the fear of being rejected can be nearly as strong as the fear of death. After all, for most of human history, being banished from one’s group meant facing the terrors of nature alone, which was tantamount to death. Some of us grew up in punitive environments where we were told “you can’t do it” or “you’re not enough,” further squelching natural curiosity and the ability to take creative risks. We learned from many well-meaning caregivers to doubt who we are and what we are capable of. The biggest threat that rejection poses to our creativity is a learned resistance to making mistakes and failing. Failure is an essential element of experimentation, growth, and creative expression. We have to be able to try new things. Rejection tells us that there is a “right” way, and that your value is tied to your ability to get it right. Yet if you study the history of any individual who achieved something we value today, they walked a tough road of rejections and setbacks. We only accept and cheer their individuality after the fact. For many of us, this fear of rejection is so palpable that it stymies our creative thinking and expression by whispering in quiet voices, Don’t be different. Don’t try something new. Don’t get it wrong.
Together, socialization, traumatic experiences, and rejection work to shut down our inner creative self over the course of our lives. Over time, the individuality and wholeness we enjoy thanks to our creative nature is replaced with its opposite: conformity.
While these three enemies of creativity join forces and appear to be a formidable wall of opposition, the good news is that your creative nature remains intact beneath any layers of socialization, rejection, and trauma you may have experienced. There are many ways to move through and beyond these obstacles, and we will explore them in depth in these pages. This doesn’t have to be a long, arduous process, either. One of the most exciting things about creativity, to me, is its special power to turn a whole system or way of thinking on its head in a single moment of delight, awe, or surprise.
What if there was a practice you could do every day that gave you more energy, made daily life more fun and interesting, helped others, revealed new approaches to old problems, and connected you more deeply to your innermost hopes and dreams? Of course you’ll know by now that I’m talking about creativity. As important as food, water, and shelter, creativity sustains and gives us life.
My book doesn’t stop at giving you some ideas to be more creative. Rather, it seeks to energize your connection to the natural creative impulse that exists in all of life. After all, you yourself are the greatest creative product you can offer the world. Anything you bring forward into the world from your inner creative self will be rare, valuable, and original.
My hope is that you will establish a personal creative practice that can last the rest of your life. This practice will build your creative capacity, transform your core beliefs about yourself, and heal your connection to your inner artist.
You don’t need to add anything to your life, or fix anything about yourself. Creativity is your birthright. We are not healing the creative nature. It is already whole and healthy, hidden or buried though it may be. We are simply healing our connection to this critical part of our being — our ability to live more deeply in it and to express it in every area of our lives. Once the connection is healed, you can take this artfulness and spirit of creativity back to your work, your home, your social circles, and everywhere else you go.
Even if you don’t yet believe it yourself, I know this is true in the marrow of my bones: you are an artist, and your life is your unfolding, ever-changing masterpiece.
This article is adapted from The Creative Cure: How Finding and Freeing Your Inner Artist can Save Your Life (Hierophant Publishing, 2021), by Jacob Nordby.
Jacob Nordby is a writer, creative coach, and teacher of the popular online course Creative UnBootcamp. He is the author of Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives, and the founder of the Blessed Are the Weird Facebook community page, which has over 100,000 highly engaged followers. Visit him at jacobnordby.com.