Creativity isn’t faring well in modern America. With our increased emphasis on test-and-regurgitate in schools, and teacher evaluations tied to hard data instead of inspired lesson plans, our nation’s children are growing up without having practiced creativity in the classroom. The right-swing of our educational system has created a whole generation of children who, as in the famous Mr. Holland’s Opus quote:
“Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”
But that’s not the only problem facing creativity. In the past decade, we’ve virtually eliminated one of creativity’s best partners for adults and children alike. We’ve gleefully kissed that partner goodbye and moved on with our lives without considering the consequences. We’ve picked up our iPhones and Kindles, Netflix and Candy Crush, and filled the space once taken up by this irritating but vital component of creativity.
That partner is boredom.
Technology no longer allows us to be bored. Stand in line at the post office or the supermarket, and you’ll see everyone staring at the screens in their hands. Enter any living room, and you’ll see five to ten pieces of distraction-gifting technology visible to the naked eye. If we are alone with our thoughts for more than a few seconds, we reach for our phones. I’ll admit, I do this just as much as the next person. My brain craves attention, and I’m always looking for something new to focus on. But I’m trying to stop, because I see what it’s doing to my creativity.
Creativity needs space to work. Space in your life, and space in your head. You’ve heard people say that they get their best ideas in the shower, or while exercising. That’s because those are two spaces where people allow their minds to wander. And when minds wander, they often delve into creative thoughts. I have gotten almost every new idea for blog posts, plot twists in my fiction writing, and new lesson plans during those distraction-free times of showering, driving, walking, and doing the dishes. That’s a lot of ideas I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t allowed myself to be bored for a few minutes. I don’t get ideas when I’ve turned Netflix on to fold the laundry, or put on a podcast while I make dinner. My brain activity grows flat and hollowed out; it feels lethargic, like a body after a hot bath.
This is not to say that distraction isn’t wonderful and useful. I’m grateful that I can turn to my favorite TV show any time I want, to make me feel connected with that world after a hard day. I like the challenge of playing Words with Friends on my phone. I’m thrilled that having a small, portable e-reader means I can be reading literally everywhere. But just because you can do something everywhere doesn’t mean that you should.
The next time you’re waiting in line and your hand twitches toward your phone, wait a minute. Look around. Notice the customers in line with you, or the cashier. Play a game where you try to figure out one thing about that person’s inner life, or make up a story about where she goes when she’s done there. Observe the world around you. Or just stand and breathe, and take your own emotional temperature. Have you had a good day? A bad day? What are you grateful for at that exact moment? What was the most interesting thing that happened to you in the last two hours? Questions like these help your brain climb aboard a new train of thought. Follow that train and see where it goes. You may find it even more interesting than beating the next level in Candy Crush.