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Usain Bolt's Creativity

September 7, 2015

Despite often falling behind schedule and having to go through the monotony of maintaining a website, I love having this outlet and writing here -- it's a rather nice and freeing escape from the academic and scrutinized writing for schoolwork. No conventions to follow, no styles, no regulations, and no risks. It's great.

There're many subtle undertones that go with writing "for school", and one of the many necessarily evils of writing academic papers for junior high and high school courses is referencing sources correctly. There's really no point to referencing sources in high school papers (besides correctly crediting the creator) because nobody's going to actually refer back to the sources to learn more. High school papers (with rare exceptions) aren't written to share new information with the rest of the world; it's so whoever's evaluating it can see you know how to research and use English correctly.*

To escape that monotony (or, more likely, to make myself feel like I'm doing something to escape it), a few weeks ago, I made a Chrome extension that essentially makes citing websites a click of a button,** and to nobody's surprise, it's a feature in popular demand, from what I can tell by the stats.

I actually came up with the concept several months before, towards the end of last academic year, but never really got around to it until the end of the summer. I wanted an easier (and more reliable) way to cite web sources without wasting too much time on it, so I wanted to make something that did exactly that -- string together citations for me, and truthfully, it wasn't very hard. Of course, knowing how to code is a prerequisite, but that's a few hours on Codecademy in 2015. But the basic concept is mind-blowingly simple: look for keywords (e.g. "Written by", "Published...", etc.) on a website, get the information next to it, and string all the words together in the right order -- i.e. a reasonably intelligent 12-year old could understand how it worked. So once I actually got started, it was probably less than two nights of work to get the basic functionality up and running. It just took me three months to actually get around to it.

Once I actually got started, it was probably less than two nights of work to get the basic functionality up and running. It just took me three months to actually get around to it.

And that's the point I want to talk about today -- why most people don't make new things, and how you can (make useful and creative things).

But first, let's clear something up. Being creative isn't the same thing as having the ability to create amazing, original works of art. Is one thing a prerequisite for another? Yes, sure. But there's an important difference, and it's the difference between having muscles in your body and being Usain Bolt.

Explanation: creativity is the capacity to create something original. If you can have an idea that's reasonably original, you are creative. Period. It doesn't require you to execute on those ideas, it doesn't require you to be skilled at executing them, and it doesn't require you to be certified or popular. Let me paraphrase that: if you've ever thought about puppy-sized elephants, had crazy weird nightmares, or wanted the computer to cite your sources for you, congratuations! You are creative. And anyone who says otherwise annoys me, and needs an updated dictionary.

The gap between the people who are creative and those who appear or are accepted as creative, then, isn't any lack of inherent mental skill. Instead, the difference is that one brings those ideas to life, into an actual artwork or product, while the other just sits there with ideas. To paraphrase that, the difference between, say, you and the Apple design team is that while both have had ideas about calling from a watch, only one has actually made a product out of the idea. You are now, essentially, just about as creative as Apple's world-class design team.*

Creativity is the capacity to create something original. If you can have an idea that's reasonably original, you are creative. Period.

Sassy hyperboles aside, the point I want to make very clear is that we typically look at people with the ability to make ideas into reality and call it creativity, when the capacity to be creative is less of an acquired skill and more of a given. What we celebrate as creativity is usually the ability to take those same ideas we all have, recognize that that's a useful or fun idea, and carry it out.

The difference between an artist and the average person isn't in any difference in creativity, but in how the artist chooses to bring his into reality.

The factor that distinguishes the typical person with the "creatives" of the world, then, isn't any lack of creativity itself. What they have is the mindset of recognizing good ideas and bringing them to life. And, along with it, the passion to push forward with that idea until it becomes something genuinely great.

That brings us back to the initial question: why isn't everyone in the world creating art, building businesses, and coming up with new and original solutions to day-to-day problems like mundane citations to go at the end of your English paper? It's not for lack of ideas or creativity, it's quite frankly for lack of trying -- lack of the ability or understanding to carry out the process of translating what's on our minds as an idea into an object in reality.

Despite what educational professionals might appear to be telling us, I don't think we're somehow diminishing creativity in students -- like you can't simply turn off hunger in people, I don't think we can turn off creativity. What is happening, I think, is that for a lot of us, the barrier to creating something new and original -- the barrier to being so-called "creative" -- is increased because we're not encouraged to try to bring our ideas to life, because we idolize and objectify the high-rising creatives as having something most of the world doesn't. I don't think that picture is anywhere close to the much more optimistic reality, that the difference between each of us and the artist each of us could be is much slimmer and more attainable that we're told by the world.


* I'm using all kinds of hyperboles here, but you get my point.

** Yes, it's self-promotion, but there's more to this story. Stop complaining and keep reading.