A version of this post can also be found at The University of Cambridge’s Centre of Social Innovation Blog
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. – Pablo Picasso
Every morning I pore over quotes and post ten of them to twitter. Why? For some strange reason, the quotes help me start the day with focus. I have come across the Picasso quote many times and every time I read it, I re-read it—again, again, and again.
In his book “Steve Jobs”, Walter Isaacson reflects on a conversation between Jobs and Bob Dylan discussing creativity and composition. Dylan ponders his heyday of song writing saying “that doesn’t happen anymore, I just can’t write them that way anymore…” Then Bob pauses and says to Jobs in his raspy voice and a smirk, “But I still can sing them.”
Even Bob Dylan feels that he “grew up?” I don’t want to grow up and lose that sense of the creative.
CREATIVE—and remaining an artist
Sir Ken Robinson has a wonderful story in his TED Talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” about a little girl who announced to her teacher she was drawing a picture of God. The teacher replied, “But nobody knows what God looks like,” to which the nascent artist responded, “They sure will in a minute.”
She was not afraid that her drawing was incorrect. Being wrong and erring are an organic part of the creative process. Yet schools and other organizations (dare I say the military) condemn mistakes—and want us to just grow up. Thus, by the time children “grow up” they’re mistake averse as well.
Every education system worldwide places math and languages at the top of the stack and ranks the arts at the bottom. In the US, we hear about the need to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees. We do the same thing in the military. There are far more college scholarships available for STEM degrees as opposed to the “arts”. This is because public education originated to meet the needs of industrialization—but times are changing.
What age are we in today? One could argue we are on the verge of yet a third industrial revolution, but in the same breath we hear about the information age or perhaps the post-information age, the conceptual age, or the age of artificial intelligence. No matter the age, we need creatives— and creatives have enhanced every age from the dawn of time.
There are myriad of books, articles, and dissertations written on the need to be creative, yet we seem to discourage the pursuit of natural abilities, or even worse, we stigmatize people for demonstrating brilliance in the arts—well unless you are Bob Dylan—and even Bob is having a tough time today and losing his creativity.
PASSION—and remaining an artist
The good news is the very “structure of education” is in flux. Thus, as leaders, educators, and mentors we must “radically rethink” our narrow concept of how we define intelligence. People can think through movement, sight, or sound because intelligence is indeed truly “diverse”.
Following our passion is the key finding this diversity. Some of the greatest leaders throughout history had a passion for the arts and a penchant for creativity. Ponder the leadership and creativity of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, George Washington, George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower—all exceptional leaders (with their flaws) and all incredibly creative and very embracive of the art of creativity all while following their passion.
The most powerful leaders are creatives in some way, shape, or form and they give us perspective on our condition (good or bad) and greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices. Moreover, they challenge, excite, and motivate.
SCHOOLS—and remaining an artist
Our schools must allow students to follow and flourish in their passion. What gets rewarded is reinforced. Obsession with standardized test scores assaults imagination, the creative, and critical thinking, narrowing curriculum and classroom experience around the lifeless task of filling in bubbles with number two pencil beneath a myriad of multiple-“choice” questions crafted in distant, corporate cubicles—deadens the minds of our youngsters and forces ultimate conformity at an early age.
Putting our family where our mouth is—we have homeschooled our three boys up until high school. The future is still a bit opaque but thus far we have a college sophomore who is an amazing orator (placing at the US national level in speech and debate), a writer, a social justice leader, and musician—not to mention on scholarship. Our 16 year old is rocking the honor roll in his high school while focused on art and writing with awards for his drawings at the local level. Our 10 year old is still schooled at home with creativity oozing from his pores (he just presented me with a highly technical drawing of Cat-X—a soon to be comic book sensation).
This is not about homeschooling—these young men are creative—we have allowed them to follow their passion, to nurture their creative nature, and allow them to remain artists. Perhaps they will not be millionaires, but they will be creatives and our world needs more.
Even Elon Musk is homeschooling in his own way—he started his own school. The school is Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars” in southern California. Musk describes a school without the traditional grade structure of American primary education, with the goal of catering to students’ aptitudes and passions not by arbitrary schedules but in real time, and using problem-solving methods to teach critical thinking. Musk, a father of five, says he started the school simply for his own children—the school now has 14 pupils (with a total of 20 scheduled to attend this fall).
So embrace the creative, the passion, the diversity. And maybe we should be more intentional in remaining artists, and rethink growing up—or at least birthdays.