Unused creativity never just disappears. It comes back to haunt you.

Why it’s so hard to identify as an artist (Creative expression at work, part 1)

Eric Krafcheck has a passion for songwriting. An actuary by day, he produces, records and mixes his own songs by night. But growing up, he didn’t think of himself as a creative person.

“I’ve always been musically inclined,” said Eric, now 28. “But I never at the time considered myself a creative person because of my own stereotypes and preconceived notions as to what a creative person was. I assumed all artists and creative people were eccentric and dramatic individuals who wear their hearts on their sleeves and loose-fitting hippy-like attire. I didn’t fit into that stereotype that I formed in my head, so I never really thought of myself as a creative person.”

Eric’s childhood was filled with activities that he now recognizes as expressions of his creativity: playing Roller Coaster Tycoon for hours on end designing his own amusement parks, sketching drill designs for marching band shows in his notebooks, and submitting twice the number of required poems for an assignment in AP Lit.

For many people, getting seriously involved in a form of creative expression requires getting over the idea that there are creative types, and that you’re not one of them.

Author and social work researcher Brene Brown speaks powerfully about the impact of this belief that she has witnessed among thousands of people in her research.

“There is no such thing as creative people and non-creative people,” she writes. “There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.

In her writing, Brene Brown often speaks about creative scars, art wounds, the painful memories of a moment when someone told us our drawing didn’t look good, or that we had no talent for art, or that we should stick with numbers and words.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a confident and successful leader and innovator in the nonprofit world, and she mentioned that she couldn’t draw a straight line to save her life. She said it with absolute certainty, as proof of a known fact about herself, that she was not a creative type.

But yet, I was in the process of interviewing her about a new business model for a social enterprise that she was creating.

How can we think of ourselves as creators, but not creative?

It’s hard to find a business today that doesn’t list innovation as one of its core values or goals. Innovation is the process of creating something new, whether that’s a method, idea, or product. So in theory, every business today should place a premium value on creativity and creative expression, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The explanation I hear most often from people who don’t think of themselves as creative is that they can’t draw. After I took two semesters of drawing in college, I realized that drawing was a skill that anyone could learn. It has rules, techniques, and tricks just like anything else we’ve ever learned to do: solving math problems, playing the piano, or climbing a rock wall.

It’s ironic to me that people are stuck on drawing as the test for creativity. While drawing does involve creating — you start with a blank piece of paper, and you create an image — it can be one of the least imaginative forms of creative expression. If instagram likes are any indication, people seem to be the most impressed by a drawing of a face with photographic perfection, or a rendering of a cityscape in pen and ink with architectural precision. I’m a sucker for these images, too, but what we’re really celebrating is someone’s ability to make a perfect copy of something in real life on a piece of paper. Many of the same people who marvel at that talent write off their own ability to think of new ideas or solve problems that they’ve never seen before, forgetting that those exercises involve just as much creativity as drawing, and maybe even more.

A few days ago, I had coffee with a guy who is beginning a freelance writing career after working in operations for years. As part of his preparation for a new career, he went to a career change workshop, and did some personality and aptitude tests. Only when the tests came back overwhelmingly pointing him towards a creative career did he begin to think of himself as creative, or really begin to think that he could make a career out of writing.

Leah Kohlenberg, a full-time artist, had to overcome a lot of frustration when she “decided to become an artist rather suddenly, at age 32, with no background or training.” At 49, Leah now teaches art classes geared especially for journalists, her former profession.

“So for the first three years, I worked daily, took classes, and cried a lot,” Leah said. “Because I couldn’t stand the fact that I wasn’t good. It was humiliating to me. I stuck with it, because ultimately, the process was more interesting — the ultimate challenge — than the finished product to me.”

Leah finds that making time for creative expression is crucial to maintaining her mental health.

“Drawing and painting feels so necessary to me, and the daily routine is crucial to me feeling focused, balanced, productive, intellectually sharp and spiritually open,” she said. “I really notice when I’m not in the studio, I get grumpy, resentful and … well let’s just say everyone I come in contact with is better off with me doing a daily practice.”

I’ve been getting into drawing since taking a sketchbook along with me to Southeast Asia and learning techniques by looking over my friend Kelly’s shoulder as she sketched temples, boats, and bridges. I haven’t cried over my drawings yet, but I’ve definitely written many of them off as “bad.” Nicole would tell me they were great, but I would tell her she was looking at them through her love goggles.

But then, this summer, Nicole and I visited her parents, and spent some time in her mom’s art studio. Linda is a wonderful artist, and in the last 10 years she has honed her skills at scientific illustration. But even as we looked through some of her masterpieces, she observed flaws in her own work — a bird claw was pointing the wrong way here, a shadow wasn’t quite right there.

I’ve gotten significantly better since the beginning of the year, and it’s cool to look through my sketchbooks and see the progress. But I’m realizing that part of the fun of dabbling at drawing or any art form is never being satisfied. Never reaching perfection. Even an incredible artist like Linda can still find fault with her work.

Like Leah said, I’m growing to love the challenge of continually growing through mistakes. It’s really no different from learning to run or cook. If you could achieve perfection easily and without pain, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun nor as captivating.

Lisa Santiago, 27, had to overcome the pressure to be perfect in order to get back into ballet after a five-year break.

“Since that moment three years ago when I decided I wasn’t ready to let go of dancing, I’ve had a lot of self-doubt and excuses as to why I shouldn’t go back,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of value placed on precise technique in ballet, which is different from some other types of dance which more highly value the creative freedom of movement. I had to restructure what dancing again was going to be for me in order for me to feel confident in going. Once I let go of my expectations and began giving myself grace for where I was now in my dance abilities, I began to gain the courage to actually go back to classes, and it has been so much more fun because of it.”

It’s encouraging for me to hear that people I’ve looked up to as accomplished artists still have to fight the same inhibitions I do to get into or back into their art.

I’ve started posting my sketches on Instagram, but identifying as an “artist” still feels foreign to me — almost unfair to the “real” artists out there. But one of my friends recently gave me a new mantra: “If you call yourself an artist, you’re an artist.” There’s no entrance exam or pre-qualification required. If you can get over the inhibitions that keep you from engaging with your creative side and practicing some form of art, you’re an artist.

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