When a 15-year-old came around asking how to continue his hobbies during a time in his life when finances and time are a bit short, I had a simple suggestion for him: Work on developing his creativity.
Creativity has another bonus: It’s also one of 10 traits that can make you rich, if that’s important to you.I remember in an annual review I received several years ago, a manager said I come up with creative solutions to problems. I’m still not sure if that was meant as a compliment or not, but I took it as one. That ability to find odd, not-so-obvious solutions to problems saved my first employer a lot of money in a time that it really needed it. We needed to replace a project that had cost about $100,000 to create, and we had $25,000 to do it.
I did it. It required us to do things as a department that we’d never done before. We had some hiccups along the way, and we finished with just one day to spare. It was stressful. But we did it.
Up until I was about 20, I never really thought of myself as creative. I could always write, but I never was all that good at drawing and painting or playing musical instruments, which are the things we normally associate with creativity. As a junior at the University of Missouri, I took a class titled The Graphics of Journalism, taught by Dr. Birgit Wassmuth, who is now chairwoman of the Department of communications at Kennesaw State University. Dr. Wassmuth argued that everyone has creative ability, but not everyone has tapped it to its potential.
I think I got a B+ in the class (yes, MU has a plus/minus system) and I really had to work for it. It was one of the three hardest classes I took, and I don’t think many of the people who took that class would disagree.
It was a basic class that almost everyone had to take. If you were going to be a graphic designer it was a necessity, but for everyone else, it was basically intended to teach you enough skills that in an emergency, if you had to grab a camera or fire up a desktop publishing or a graphics program, you’d be able to do a decent enough job to not make your employer look like a fool.
There’ve been times when I’ve had to do all of those things during writing projects. But the biggest value in that class came in life itself.
Often there are times you have to do something and you don’t have the ideal materials on hand. It always helps to look at something and consider alternative possibilities. In my professional field, there are always 20 ways to do something. I’ve worked in the past with people who always do things “by the book,” but that can be a problem, depending on who wrote the book. Was it written by someone who’s been working with that particular subject matter for 20 years, or was it written by someone who’s only seen the product in a lab environment, not in the real world? A lot of Windows books are written by the latter type, and I’ve seen by-the-book types make decisions that box them in based on that.
But even better is the ability to look at a pile of stuff and think of answers to a simple question: What can I do with this?
The younger you are when you start doing this, the better. I guess I started early; It was nothing to me to look at a box of my friends’ toys, pull out a couple of broken toys, and make something else out of the broken pieces.
When I was in between jobs a few years ago, I looked around the house for ideas for ways to make some money until I found a permanent job. At first my phone kept ringing, so it didn’t look like I’d have much trouble finding something. But then the phone stopped, so I had to think of alternatives. My first couple of ideas didn’t pan out. The third one was a home run, and besides keeping the light on, it gave my wife an alternative to teaching, which was important because she was unhappy. Now she has a lot more flexibility and she doesn’t have to deal with parents and administration wanting her to be a pass-everyone babysitter when she wanted to be a serious teacher.
What she’s doing today isn’t for everyone, but she’s much happier now, and even in the early stages it provided enough income for us to keep the lights on until I could find a permanent job with benefits.
I guess I had the tendencies even when I was in grade school, but it wasn’t until college that someone really taught me how to cultivate it. So even though I’m not working at a magazine now, which definitely was where I would have wanted to be in 2008 if you’d asked me while I was in college, that class probably changed my life more than any other class I took in college. Knowing how to harness creativity got me out of some bad spots in life.
So I think it’s a good idea for everyone to take a class or otherwise learn how to make something, whether it’s art classes, woodworking classes, cooking, or something else.
Knowing what to use when you’re in the middle of making something and you realized you’re out of butter is a useful skill. And I don’t think it’s always a good idea to take the easy way out and borrow some from your next door neighbor.
Sometimes workarounds aren’t quite that easy, and sometimes there’s more at stake than a batch of bread.