This is a collection of recent posts, lightly edited and merged into essay format, on the topic of Authentic Creativity. It was largely inspired by my LifeDesign+ interview on YouTube with Justin Castelli. Justin’s unique ability is to help people organize and simplify their thinking down to the point of action. It’s on full display here. He helped wrestle these ideas out of me, and for that I am infinitely grateful.
How To Be Authentically Creative
I shudder writing the word “authentic.” I get frustrated when people say, “But I’m not creative!” Even the plea that “Everyone is creative” sort of bothers me. So what kind of sick torture is my brain committing by making me dwell on the expression “Authentic Creativity.” Yes, I’m so annoyed I wrote that as a statement and not even a question.
And yet – the more I think about it, the more it feels like it’s the key to happiness. At the personal level and culturally. It feels so big and full-hearted, I’m genuinely starting to believe it might even have the power to save the world from all of its current mode of self-destructive chaos.
So it’s time for a pep-talk. I’m not sure if I can tell you exactly how to do it. But I’m positive we need to try.
What exactly is “authentic creativity” anyway?
I hate when words I like get stained. By influencers or marketers or – you know who I’m talking about it. The “Be Authentic!” and “Be Creative!” army who without doubt have something stupid to sell you.
I had this college professor. I couldn’t tell you his name and maybe with the magic of the internet somebody will remember and help me find him. He was, or at least dressed the part, of the Hasidic or Orthodox Jewish tradition.
And he loved words. LOVED them. And classical music. But this is about words. Listening to him felt like I was talking to my English-teaching mother (hi Mom) and grandmother (RIP).
This teacher was always asking us, “And, do you know the etymology of that?”
This was still in the pre-smartphone era, where you could google stuff, but only in the library or where you could hook your primitive laptop up to the ethernet.
Which is a way to say, nobody ever knew the etymology of “that” – whatever “that” was, at least in the moment. So he’d tell us. And learning how etymology can help root out the essence of a word, sometimes more than a definition can, really struck me.
So much so that it’s still with me today. Thanks Professor. I hope you went on to do great things (and that you still play the AM/FM radio game of “name that song” late at night or early in the morning when the college stations play classical, jazz, and all that other stuff).
Authentic roughly translates to “principal, genuine.” Note principal here. Even Grammarly thinks it’s wrong. We’re not talking about a principle like a belief, we’re talking about a principal like in charge of a school.
Aut- (and often Auth-) is the prefix for self. Automobile = “self-driving.” Autobiography = “self + life + story.”
Authentic means “self-genuine.” Where you’re in charge. Like an author is in charge of the words.
And speaking of words, how about creativity? Creat- is “to make.” Not to be confused with kreat- with a k which is “flesh.” But change a letter sometimes and – yeah. That part’s cool too. The suffix -ivity is for “the likeness or quality of.” Here, creativity is “the likeness or quality of the act of making.”
Now consider your (I will not vomit in my mouth when I write this because… oh hell, I already have)
You, yourself, in control of the essence of the making process.
Just you. Your fingerprints. Perfectly staining every square inch of the damn thing.
There, I said it:
I can think of no higher calling than to be authentically creative.
To have inspiration delivered to your conscious awareness, and to do something about it.
And yet, every day I talk to someone who would never, ever, under any circumstance consider themselves creative. To them I say,
“But yes you are creative, I have proof.”
I know, I know – you’re NOT creative, because you work in finance. Or plumbing. Or both (portfolio managers, I see you).
Yes, you are creative though. And I have proof. Ok, maybe it’s Natalie Nixon who does, but I am the ever-translating messenger here:
I define creativity as the ability to toggle between wonder and rigor in order to solve problems and to deliver novel value. And I see inquiry, improvisation and intuition as the practices that increase those capacities.
If you can toggle between
And solve a problem, delivering novel value –
You. are. Creative.
You, yourself, in control of the essence of the making process.
Never getting stuck in wonder, despite being inspired by your curiosity.
Never getting stuck in rigor, despite getting it done.
In service to solving problems/delivering novel value.
With all the inquiry, improvisation, and intuition skills that come with the habits formed along the way.
Authentically creative, to your authentic self.
Whether you’re a finance person, a plumber, or a(n) ______.
It’s settled. You’re *officially* creative. No backsies.
Now, about those habits. A creative habit is merely a stubborn refusal to be stuck. It applies to any and all professions, vocations, and tasks. And we can all seek the call. It’s as simple as noticing a loose tooth who wants to be wiggled to freedom – once you acknowledge it, there’s just no turning back.
Plus – tooth fairy money. The existence of magic may be optional, but the existence of incentives is not.
Habits teach us we can learn to create on command. But not in a straight line. Creating on command requires we learn to get uncomfortable on command. Which is the dark side of curiosity: cultivating a yearning for learning.
This is “The Tragic (Creative) Gap.”
Part of not feeling creative is feeling uninspired. Like you’re listening for inspiration and… crickets. How are you supposed to make nothing when you have nothing?
Close your eyes. Wait, don’t do that. You’re reading.
Close your… third eye? I don’t know. Just, whatever, you know where I’m going.
Straight into the tragic, creative gap. It’s calling you. It’s always calling you.
Parker Palmer says the tragic gap is the space between the world that we know is possible, and the world as it is.
If we leave the gap and just go to the world that is possible, we might fall into “irrelevant idealism.” We’ll be putting pictures on Instagram of the wall-hanging-platitudes your sort-of-friend’s parent(s) bought at Target. Or worse, we could become the type of starving artist who believes so much in a thing nobody else cares about that we waste away, quietly, in isolated, frustrated irrelevance.
If we leave the gap and just go to the world as it is, we might fall into “corrosive cynicism.” We’ll be so sure wasting time on creating anything that doesn’t produce a buck is worthless all we’ll do is chase bucks. With spreadsheets in hand, we’ll dominate our schedules, lives, and never have time for the joys of bulls***.
But the tragic gap –
In between the ability to dream it and to do it, lies the tragic gap.
It calls us to stand in it. And when we see the world we know is possible on one side, and the world as it is on the other, we can make a bridge. No matter how small.
No matter how big either.
A bridge over the gap.
And that’s authentic creativity. That’s the tragic (creative) gap. It’s the bridge between habit and curiosity, overlooking inspiration and creativity.
Seeing the bridge only you can see, and then setting out to try to build it. Not necessarily to succeed, and not necessarily for profit, just to try. The act of being creative is the act of accepting inspiration as always being a step, a reach, a look, a smell, or a thought away.
And we can always see it when we accept our calling to sit in the tragic (creative) gap.
WAIT – hang in here with me for a few minutes more.
This isn’t just about a phase of life. This is about a way of life. No age limit in either direction.
You can be authentically creative at any age too.
Curiosity knows no age. It knows no job, no identity, no structure. It’s just there, blowing past boundaries and inviting us to follow. The external inspiration – I’ll call it the muse – speaks first, and nobody knows from where. I do know you have to be curious to notice.
One more time for the people in the back: YOU HAVE TO BE CURIOUS TO NOTICE THE MUSE IS SPEAKING.
Which is why people love to say, “But everybody was curious when they were a child.” And they’re not wrong. Kids are understandably way more curious about little bits of magic flittering by.
But adults can do it too. They can recognize the muse is speaking, have their curiosity piqued, and resolve to do something creative about it. This part DOES correlate with age, or at least it seems to, because,
You can be creative at any age, but it won’t be the same type of creativity.
And that’s a good thing.
Developmentally speaking at least – which brings us to Carl Jung and James Hollis.
Inspired by Jung, Hollis says humans have 3 phases of life.
Childhood is characterized by magical thinking – where wishes seem possible if not downright probable. Between the magic of our parents/adults, and a lack of awareness of limits or boundaries (“I can eat ALL the sugar!”), childhood is about nearly unbridled exploration.
Heroic thinking emerges as we grow into disappointment, but forge ahead with hope. We leave home, maybe start a career, and seek to build a life. It’s the nudge from the nest, a test of the belief “if they can fly, so can I.”
And then midlife hits. The crisis part. Earlier for some, later for others, and unfortunately never for many.
Realistic thinking occurs when the projections have collapsed, the hopes and expectations have died, and the limitations of our talents, intelligence, and courage itself have met a wall.
As Hollis explains in The Middle Passage,
So life calls us all to a different perspective, a settling of the youthful hubris and inflation, and teaches the difference between hope and knowledge and wisdom. Hope is based on what might be. Knowledge is the valued lesson of experience. Wisdom is always humbling, never inflationary… The realistic thinking of midlife has as its necessary goal the righting of a balance, the restoration of the person to a humble but dignified relationship to the universe.
Creativity follows us through these phases. More specifically, the muse leads, curiosity notices, and our creativity follows. Think of people in your life who this reminds you of:
Magical thinking is great for making-believe and crayonic art.
Heroic thinking is exceptional for launching new ideas and taking daring risks.
And realistic thinking is the most profound of all. It’s the understanding that life is never the whole and only the parts. Just like our perceptions and our identity. It exists on the other side of the middle passage, when we understand rebirth. How it can happen, repeatedly.
Sitting between wonder and rigor is a calling. A habit to re-take our seat. A habit that evolves with age and experience.
Because our authentic identities shift and change too. Many times, if we are so lucky. And with each new identity comes a new phase of life, to think magically, then heroically, and then realistically, as we evolve within our environments.
True wisdom is woven into the progression of our identities. That’s why it usually only shows up when a person has a few grey hairs. You have to earn it. It’s a badge of honor to be able to think magically, heroically, and realistically all at once, across time and age and environment. And if you think it’s rare, just watch a grandparent play with their grandchild.
So yes – you can be creative at any age, just know each age opens up the ability to be creative in different ways.
Magical in exploration, heroic in getting the idea down, and realistic in ultimately sharing it.
The path to wisdom is in learning to cultivate a habit, of taking our seat in the tragic (creative) gap, in each phase of life.
We start by getting good at moving from inhibitions to expressions.
This is a fancy way to say: we need to consciously make habits. Anybody can get inspired and make something once by almost accident. But that’s not what identities are made of. We need trends. We are called to find them as much as we are called out by them.
Just like a muse needs creativity, our curiosity needs us to make habits. It’s the final stop on our cycle of reinvention. It’s the last crucial step to uncover, discover, or recover our genuine selves.
I’m already on the record saying it takes a mix of practice, performance, persistence, patience, and patterns. These are habitual. And the gym we train our 5 P’s in is…
the tragic (creative) gap, wherever you are in life.
Wherever you are, however old you are, whatever is going on – take your seat, and get to work.
Practice being present in the gap. Perform (aka share) your work with others. Do it persistently. Have patience when you get frustrated. Notice the patterns that free you and block you.
Set the curiosity switch to “on.” Toggle between wonder and rigor. Find the joy in the resistance of holding the space.
A few tips and reminders for maintaining curiosity, getting creative, and building a habit in your tragic (creative) gap:
Be careful not to think too magically. Don’t get drawn to being irrelevantly idealistic. A world of only possibility is not a real world.
Be careful not to think too heroically. Don’t get drawn into being corrosively cynical. A world of only doing makes Jack (and Jill, and _____) a seriously dull human.
But take great care to take your seat – in between the world that you in your heart know is possible, and the world that you in your head accept as it is. It’s only the tragic gap if no one builds a bridge. And you’re taking your seat to do creatively do it.
Let the muse in to rumble with the mixing of wonder and rigor as your curiosity follows. Embrace the creative and realistic approach to solving the problem your curiosity presents. A problem. Any problem that bridges the two and presents a solution and provides novel value.
A solution for you, and a solution for the world. Think about how this scales up when you, me, and a billion or 3 of our closest friends join in.
It can’t be an old world. Not with novel. Novel comes from the nov- prefix meaning “new.”
A creation is taking anything, nothing, or something, and making at least one new thing with it.
And when you create, you are being authentically creative.
When we create, we are being authentically creative.
Genuine to ourselves. Individually and collectively. Made new and made freshly valuable.
No matter your age, no matter how creative you believe yourself to be or not be, take your seat and listen for the muse.
Be curious. Be creative. Be habitual.
In authenticity, in community.
Again, and again, and again.
ps. if interested, here’s the talk that inspired this essay: