Permission to Create

Our admiration for others often points to a spark within

Permission to Create

“Ich bin nicht mehr so kreativ wie früher”, one of my classmates said with near-perfect pronunciation in our German class last week.

The teacher (or Lehrerin) wanted to know whether we had any creative talents, like singing or dancing or painting. 

My classmate, a mechanical engineer and voracious reader, said that she had some when she was younger, but she doesn’t consider herself to be that creative anymore. The job spec has forced her to become more technical. 

This made me chuckle. 

Not in a mean way. No, more because it struck a chord. It reminded me of my former self. I’ve also said “I’m not that creative” many times before. 

My background is in numbers, maths and stats. I never saw myself as an ideas guy. I thought creative endeavours were best left to the artists and people doing it for a living. 

I stayed in my lane and left being creative to the pros.

Redefining creativity

We all start out creative. 

Like my classmate, and so many folks I speak to lament, when we are children we are naturally creative and unashamed to act on it. Creativity feels like (and really is) play when we are younger. We paint, we sketch, we build things.

But we somehow lose touch with the inner creator when we grow up.

It's not that the creativity is no longer there, it just gets buried under an 'adult' image of building a career and the seriousness surrounding that. 

We tell ourselves limiting stories. We prefer to say we’re not artistic or we’re not musical or we’re not full of ideas. 

As Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club and Choke, says:

“Somehow people have been sold on the idea that only professionals can entertain them, that only professionals can sing or tell jokes. And people are cut out of this creativity loop, and creativity is being limited to these large, centralized voices.” 

But this is a shame. 

Equating ‘real art’ with ‘being creative’, holds ‘non-real’ artists (normal people like you and me) hostage. It divides us into groups, those who are allowed to be creative and those who aren’t.

I was tired of subscribing to this belief.

Reconnecting with creativity

In my free time, I was taking lots of notes, making diary entries, jotting down what I found interesting in the books and articles I read, and, mostly, admiring people who were actually writing and sharing their ideas with the world. People breaking free from convention. Voices like Paul Graham, Steven Pressfield and Kyla Scanlon.

This admiration for creators pointed to, I believe, some deep desire to create things myself, a part of me calling out for attention. And maybe even the ability to create things myself.

“In my experience, when we project a quality or virtue onto another human being, we ourselves almost always already possess that quality, but we're afraid to embrace (and to live) that truth.” – Steven Pressfield

After years of quietening this inner voice, I finally listened to the signal and started sharing my private notes (notes I was taking anyway) online. 

Summaries of podcasts I was listening to, apps I was using, tips I was applying in sport and life. 

My thinking was simple – by open-sourcing my notes, other people could learn from them instead of simply hoarding them for myself.

Some of these notes even became essays (with visuals - a big goal of mine) later on. 

I was *finally* creating. 

At a deeper level, I think, this change was triggered by a frustration with the limited offering my technical career was giving me. I had learned everything there, and become good at my job, but I was somehow still not fulfilled. 

I could see the next 30-40 years of my life flash before my eyes. More meetings, more pricing models, maybe managing some people, getting promoted and then eventually retiring and playing lots of golf. Is this everything I had been working towards? Surely there had to be more.

I was willing to take a chance. 

Through sharing my thoughts, developing my writing habits, and picking up some visualisation skills along the way, I stepped off the default path and found something more fulfilling. Something more rewarding. 

Last week I published my 100th post on my website. A collection of (extended) notes, essays and visuals. A portfolio of work.

Some highlights from the first 100.

I moved out of the shadows of others. I stepped into the arena instead of watching from the sidelines. And I haven’t looked back since.

Combining existing skills with creative skills

Make no mistake, technical skills are valuable and hard to come by.

I give corporate a hard time, but to be honest, I learned a lot in my 9-5 job. Core skills like Excel, coding and building pricing models as well as the politicaland softer skills that come from managing people.

When you add creative skills like writing, distribution and storytelling to the mix, things get interesting.

Combining your technical skills with creative elements is where the magic happens.

Not only will you find more fulfilment (as I have), you might even become better at jour job. You’ll find new ways to solve old problems and you’ll find better ways to convey your ideas.

It’s encouraging to see more people heeding this message. Ordinary working people who are breaking from convention and making things, despite not fitting the traditional artist mold.

Like two former colleagues of mine, an actuary and a data scientist, who started their own stage production (with music and everything) about the wonders of the universe, which has been sold out for two seasons in a row. Or a friend of mine, a data engineer, who started a blog on productivity. And, yet another former colleague, also a data scientist, getting into short films (link still in the works).

This warms my heart.

It shows being creative isn’t the exclusive domain of artists.

There is space for us technical types, non-real artists like you, me and my classmate, to also create.

Permission to create

If you need to hear this - you are creative. You have permission to create.

In fact, you should.

Sure, maybe we won't become virtuosos like Picasso or Tolstoy, but the admiration for other artists points to a creative force inside of us waiting to be unleashed.

Everyone has a story to share.

We just need to permit ourselves to take the leap.

Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay.

Originally published on August 24, 2023.