This fall I was a Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, GA . One day I was in the drive-thru lane at McDonald's, in a sketchy part of town.
Seeing a SCAD sticker on my window, the woman on the other side of the window said, "So you teach at SCAD? Hmmmm. I really need an idea for my Halloween costume this year. See, I want to be a cat. But I don't want the same old Wal-Mart costume in a bag."
I told her I was sure there are a lot of options out there.
"Can you give me some ideas?" she asked.
SCAD has a school of Fibers, where students learn how to create with fabric, design fabric, do all things fabric. I knew some of those kids.
"Sure. I know some people who could toss out some ideas. Give me your cell number." She wrote it down with her name, Katherine, and handed it to me. I proceeded to the next window to pick up my Diet Coke.
The next day I'm talking to some Fibers students. Just casual conversation. I told them the story, and asked them to just throw out what comes to mind. Any idea.
"This is for the lady at McDonald's?"
"That's so weird." (Laughter)
"Yeah I know... So what do you think?" I said. "Black tights and a black top, and wire whiskers? A sheet, dyed black, worn like a sarong?"
"Was this the McDonald's on Victory Drive?"
"Strange. (Laughter). That's so funny. Like, how did she ask you?"
"She just did. Give me an idea. Just one, top of your head."
"That's crazy, man. (Laughter) Well, I'm outa here. See you guys later," said one or the other as they dispersed in different directions.
I had that same experience with various people, all who see themselves as strong creative thinkers. Not one idea. Finally, about a week later, I just called Katherine's cell and left her those ideas I already mentioned above, plus one that employed a shiny black one-piece bathing suit. (I could have just texted these to her instead of calling, but I didn't want some boyfriend seeing "Hey Katherine, let's talk about that little cat costume of yours," and coming after me.)
Total time required on my part: only about 8 minutes while driving somewhere.
So here's what I learned this year, or learned yet again: unfortunately, most "creative people" live with their creative input receptors turned off. They separate their creative time from their daily life. They can't solve the simple costume problem for someone who needs a hand, because they've compartmentalized their world in such a way that creativity and McDonald's employees don't mix. So they can't even begin.
So the important input they need from day-to-day life experience isn't there. Poor input, poor output. At the same time, their pump is never primed and ready to creatively solve a problem, quickly. They have to warm it up first. So, they lose the input necessary to solve problems in unexpected ways, while all the while, allowing that mental muscle they use to create, atrophy.
Those of us who greet unexpected experiences openly always go to bed at night a little more enriched by humanity, and a better understanding of all the ways we tick. And over time, we not only become more efficient communicators and problem solvers, we become more effective ones, too.
Not all aspects of, and secrets to, creativity can be taught. But this one can be: interact with the world you are creating for. And not just when you want to, but when it wants to.