One of the challenges of staying creatively engaged, especially when working in an organization with predictable systems and expectations, is that we can easily fall prey to making false assumptions about what’s effective and what’s not. Sometimes these assumptions can cause us to put unhealthy limits on our creative process or to gravitate toward mediocrity. In my new book, The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, I share one example of how this played out in our family:
A few years ago my family visited Lake Erie for a long Fourth of July holiday. As evening approached, we were preparing to walk to the pier to watch the fireworks when our 5-year-old middle son started getting nervous. We explained that fireworks are fun and that there was no reason to be afraid, but he was having none of it. We finally convinced him to make the trek to the lake, but he protested all the way. When we arrived at the perfect vantage point and began setting up our blankets, his protests grew frantic.
“Owen,” I said, “fireworks are perfectly safe. They’re not going to fall on you.”
“I’m not worried about them falling on me,” Owen replied. “Fireworks make my feet fuzzy.”
“They make your feet fuzzy?” I replied, puzzled.
“Yes. Like at Disney World.”
We had taken a vacation to Disney World the previous year, and because his short legs prevented him from keeping up, Owen had ridden my shoulders around the park. At one point an unexpected plume of fireworks startled him. At the time, he had been sitting on my shoulders for an hour or so, and his legs had fallen asleep. Shaken out of his reverie by the fireworks, he realized that he had lost all feeling in his feet. His four-year-old mind assumed that it was the fireworks that had made his feet “fuzzy.”
For more than a year, I realized, Owen had carried this assumption with him and had lived in terror of feet-zapping fireworks. I was eventually able to convince him that fireworks have absolutely nothing to do with what he felt in his feet when he was on my shoulders, but to this day he is still a little nervous around them.
What my son experienced is something we must guard against in our creative work. Our minds are excellent at solving problems and forming patterns. It’s the primary reason we’re able to survive past the age of two. We learn from our experiences, and some of those lessons keep us from making mistakes that could significantly harm us, like touching a hot stove or punching someone bigger than us. But this ability to connect the dots can also cause us to adopt false assumptions about cause and effect.
For example, it’s easy to assume that because something has always been done a certain way, that must be the one and only right way to do it. We sometimes develop the assumption that because a system or method brought us success in one instance, it will always do so. Or we may assume that because something didn’t work in one instance, it will never work under any circumstances. Any of these assumptions can, over time, be disastrous to our creative process because they limit how we look at problems. Every church creative knows this as the ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ excuse, but it’s surprisingly easy to internalize this excuse and not recognize it in ourselves.
It’s critical to regularly take stock of assumptions and analyze whether they are limiting our creativity. These assumptions not only prevent us from looking in potentially useful places, they also keep us from taking creative risks that could lead to brilliant work.
Have you ever discovered you were living with a false assumption in your life?