Killing creativity and the umbrella of genius

How many of my peers have been told that we will never find jobs?  Our industry is dying, the naysayers chant.  Journalism?  Why do you want to work at a newspaper?

First, a story.

I was in high school.  Probably the start of senior year.  I didn’t start writing in earnest until the advisor to the school paper tracked me down a few days before school let out for the summer after my sophomore year.  She asked me, actually told me, that I needed to join.  Okay.  I hadn’t given writing much thought.  A book report here, a science paper there.

I was at home some Saturday, and the plumber was working on the bathtub drain.  He hadn’t seen me in a while, and he asked what I planned to do in college.

He laughed when I said, “Writing.”  I don’t know if he meant to laugh. Perhaps he was remembering a funny conversation he’d been involved with earlier that day.  Whatever the reason, he laughed.


He swiped his finger across his nose and sniffled a little, tilting his head to one side and really preparing his next remark.  “Well, I hope you find a job.”

Mmm how I thrive on positive reinforcement.  He didn’t even pretend to be encouraging.  No “Follow your dreams.  You’ll do great!”  Cold, narrow-minded, blunt-force trauma to my skill set.

I studied genetics and zoology in high school.  I loved trigonometry, and disliked calculus, but I was versed in that mathematical field too.

“Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,” Oscar Wilde said.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I absolutely love the spirit of the message.

Glad I’m not the only soul taking notice.

Sir Ken Robinson expounded on creativity at the 2006 TED conference.  He argued that schools are actually killing creativity.

“You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds you would never get a job doing that.

“The consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

Stigmatized.  That sounds correct.

At my graduation open house, a local sports writer stopped by.  He’d followed me throughout my high school athletic career and was inquiring about what sport I was playing in college and what I would study.


Two steps back and a hand on his head later, you’d have thought I told Jeff Holt I was taking vows of silence and moving to Peru.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the monastery, but Holt was stupefied.

“I thought for sure you were going to be a doctor, lawyer, something in the sciences.”

I calmly explained that while I was quite capable of memorizing the functions of the radial collateral ligament or the intricacies of American jurisprudence, I had found myself quite crafty with words.  I valued a good word, and that other – imagine me waving my hand dismissively – stuff, didn’t ignite such a spark within me.

One more quick story, especially in light of the need to fillet it to remove any identifying details.

I had an interview over the summer in which my potential supervisor said s/he was in the presence of “geniuses,” after a conversation on the discoveries in hard science where s/he worked.

Based upon other minutiae of that conversation which I will lovingly spare you, I held that comment to mean s/he firmly discounted writers from inclusion under such an umbrella.

I was quite put off.  When was creative arts disallowed from the genius party?  I missed the meeting where our membership card was revoked, expired, or otherwise cancelled and void.

Creative enterprises have the special talent of continuing to feel liberated from the apprehension of being wrong.  In Robinson’s eyes, we have retained a fragment of our youth.

Robinson stated that children are “not frightened of being wrong…If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”

Intelligence is diverse, dynamic, interactive and distinct, Robinson said.

Of course the world has room for the nuclear chemists and particle physicists and environmental biologists.  Is it terribly difficult to apply the labels of “world-changers” and “geniuses” to choreographers, writers and artists?

“True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.”  I think this quote from Winston Churchill covers what we in journalism encounter every day.

Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) gave her 2009 TED keynote speech on nurturing creativity.

“Is it rational, is it logical, that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work they feel they were put on this earth to do?

“Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just do your job….If your job is to dance, do your dance.”

Let’s dance people, and invite the chemists and biologists, too.

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