Creativity is a Swallowed Bluebird

Monday a friend and I traveled two hours to Tufts University to hear an “expert” speak about creativity.  The lecture opened with an opportunity for us to be creative, to collaboratively share in the luxury of divergent thought.  We were asked to creatively solve a problem.  The facilitator posed the question,

Ordination by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

“You want to take your friend for a walk around the lake to view the beautiful fauna and wildlife.  Unfortunately, your friend is disabled, and in a wheelchair, and the terrain is intermittently rocky, muddy, or sandy.  How can you take your friend around the lake?”

Answers were flying!

“Bring some boards!”

“Fly them on a helicopter!”

“Put foam on the wheels!”

“Throw down a tarp!”

“Take a canoe!”

“Carry them!”

And my favorite, “Ride horses!”

Unfortunately, the answers were shot down by the facilitator as quickly as they were suggested, like clay pigeons.

“No, it will scare the animals.”

“No, they won’t be able to see the fauna close enough.”

“No, that’s too costly.”

“No, it would be disrespectful to carry your friend.”

The ideas slowed down.  Was there a “right” answer?  And how quickly did our group revert to our school days when we wanted to endear ourselves to the teacher?  Rather than trying to solve the problem, the group was trying to guess the answer.  I kept my idea to myself, protected it, and waited diligently.  Alas, there was no correct answer.  The discussion ended; it had been an exercise in ideation with no closure, no convergence, no reflection, no solved problem.

The irony is that this creativity “expert” couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Her intentions were good, but the environment she was creating wasn’t safe for sharing; it changed from divergence to who-can-arrive-at-the-answer-first. So ingrained in me is my early education, that I hadn’t realized that by hiding my idea I was losing my chance to share my creativity. So ingrained was traditional education in the facilitator as well, that she didn’t realize she was shooting down more than ideas, she was shooting down creative collaboration.

In grade school we swallow down our original thoughts gradually, keeping them near.  Then we do the same in our universities and at work.  How can an employee be innovative, creative, or daydream divergent thoughts when the boss/teacher is looking for production, for that ONE person with THE answer?  What do we reward in our industrial-era systems?   Do we allow space for failure?  The successful employees, like successful students, come up with the ideas that “endear themselves” to their superiors.  Ideas will support and compliment authority as long as authority lacks the courage to be vulnerable.  The brilliant ideas will continue to be held close to the breast, wings clipped, as long as they are a threat to traditional authority figures. Top-down management cowardly avoids the vulnerable; growth is retarded.  Cross-functional management courageously leans into the vulnerable; growth is accelerated.

In traditional settings, creativity is like Charles Bukowski’s Bluebird, slowly swallowed deeper and deeper. Businesses need creative people but don’t support creative thinking. Schools are so busy teaching the “right”

answers for standardized tests that there’s little time to foster creative thinking. Yet, creativity doesn’t ever disappear, it’s still “singing a little in there, I haven’t let him quite die, and we sleep together like that with our secret pact…”.

Bluebird, by Charles Bukowski

there’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out

but I pour whiskey on him

and inhale

cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

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2 thoughts on “Creativity is a Swallowed Bluebird

  1. Birdie,
    Thanks for your comment on LinkedIn and for this insightful blog post. It’s disheartening to read about creativity experts whose actions contradict their theories. What a disappointment that talk at Tufts must have been. Keep holding the mirror to our faces: we need to see what’s not working and do what does.

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