How we grow out of our creativity

If you ask a kindergartner to tell you a story, chances are you'll hear a nonsensical and fabulous tale. If you put a chocolate chip cookie on a counter and forbid the child from using a chair to reach it, chances are she'll find a few alternate routes to that cookie

Children are born inherently creative. They act on it unselfconsciously when they are young, willing to dance, draw or create at a moment's notice. We all begin with enormous creative capacity, but how does our willingness to act on it diminish as we grow older?

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I confronted this question when I participated in my first fiction writing workshop last year. The instructor gave us a series of prompts, and each time, I stared at a blank screen with unmitigated fear.

I was convinced that my fiction would be poorly disguised autobiography. And that it would be terrible. And that others would see just how terrible it was. So terrible that it wasn't worth making a fool of myself.

I envied how easily my children could slip into pretend stories, where make-believe dialogue didn't sound contrived or wooden, and plot was just a four-letter word.

I called a friend, who happens to teach creative writing, late one night while struggling with this task.

"I can't do this," I told her. "Of course you can," she said. She reminded me that I wasn't being graded. The story, no matter how badly written, was not going to affect my professional reputation. So, with the stakes so low, why I was so afraid to exercise a new writing muscle? Because I was scared of doing it wrong. I didn't want to do it poorly. It was safer to stay in the zones where I felt comfortable and competent.

We unlearn creativity, according to Josh Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming, A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity.

"Instead of growing into our creativity, we grow out of it," he said.

Fear is the main culprit, he says. We are conditioned through years of schooling to strive for the "right" answer.

We are punished for making mistakes. We are rewarded for following rules.

"People learn from an early age to get in line," he said. So, we judge others and judge ourselves when we make a mistake or - heaven forbid - fail. We talk ourselves out of creativity and hold ourselves back from big ideas.

When is divergent thinking valued? When and where are we allowed to fail?

This system does an incredible disservice to our children, Linkner argues, especially in an age when creative thinking and innovation are precisely the skills needed to meet the challenges of our world, to succeed in work and life.

But creativity can be learned, experts say. It can be nurtured and developed through practice. Consider asking more questions starting with why, what if and why not, Linkner says.

For example, if your family is having dinner at a Chinese restaurant, ask your child to imagine what he would do if he owned it.

The University of Missouri extension program suggested these ideas:

- Hand your child a piece of clay and ask her to imagine she is the clay.

- Place your child in a different time and space. For instance, how would he or she cook a meal without electricity?

- Ask your child to describe a problem or event with pictures instead of words.

- Ask your child to solve a problem using the most fantastic solution he or she can imagine.

These sound like fun conversations. My own children were encouraging during my creative-writing fits.

"Just try again," they would say.

So, I did. And it was never as terrible as I imagined it would be before I began.

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