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Creativity in a Coronavirus World

Can everyday creativity be a small silver lining during the outbreak?

These are grim and scary times. A tolerance for ambiguity is often considered to be a hallmark of a creative personality, but the complete uncertainty we are facing would daunt even the most open of people. Like many, I have been trying to seek out silver linings.

One of them, I believe, is that we are seeing an increase in everyday creativity. It is important to first note that this benefit is not enjoyed by everyone. The brave workers on the front line—from doctors to people in the supply chain—have less free time, not more. People whose jobs are at risk (or lost) are focused on more immediate needs. But many who are working from home, with no commutes or in-person meetings, find themselves with more time on their hands.

Anyone who spends time on social media has likely noticed that hidden between the political rants and virus fears is a smattering of more interesting posts sharing someone’s latest craftwork, dessert, or quip. People with school-age children are finding some harsh realities, such as that some of the online classes are much shorter than “real” classes (not to mention the absence of play dates, piano lessons, and track meets). Many families are engaged in more activities. Some are enjoyable, such as jigsaw puzzles and board games. Other activities are specifically creative. A few have gone viral (perhaps not the best word to use in these times), such as the family singing a song from Les Misérables or some dance-off videos. Most represent small—but important—moments of creativity.

The examples of everyday imagination you see on your feed or timeline may not strike you as creative-with-a-capital-C. Clever family photos, meme creation, or Zoom singalongs may, indeed, not be the Mona Lisas of our time. It is important, however, to not let such a comparison diminish their value. If creativity is a light, it does not have an on/off switch. It is not helpful to think of things as “Creative” or “Not Creative.” My view is that creativity has a dimmer switch, growing from a tiny bit creative to a little creative to creative enough to light up the whole room.

Consider the Four C Model of Creativity, which I developed with my colleague and friend Dr. Ron Beghetto. In this model, we see creativity starting at mini-c. Mini-c is small, insightful moments of creativity that are meaningful to the creator. These Mini-c bursts may not be important to anyone else (in some cases, they may not even be shared with anyone else), but they still matter. Imagine you’re spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel and you realize you’re getting bored. You decide to sprinkle a little cinnamon on top. You like the new taste. The next day, you continue to experiment. Are you the first to think of this addition? Of course not. Although we generally agree that creativity is both new and task-appropriate/useful, a creative act can be new to you (much like all of the old movies some of us are watching).

If you continue being interested and are enjoying the creative activity, then you keep practicing and receiving feedback. Maybe your doodling has progressed to the point where you are making cartoons and sharing them online. Perhaps you make your private YouTube channel of punk Sondheim covers public and start getting solid viewer response. In the pre-social-distancing world, you may have reached the stage of playing music at the local coffee shop or bar, displaying your art at nearby fairs, or trying out your new technique for teaching algebra to your classroom. This stage we call Little-c, or everyday creativity.

With enough time, deliberate practice, focus, and improvement, you may advance to Pro-c, or expert-level creativity. You have published your book about kiwi cultivation, received your scientific grant to study how a femur can experience emotion, or recorded your first digital album of ukulele music. You have entered the field and it is not only other local people who can appreciate your efforts but also the experts and gatekeepers. It is important to note that we are describing a typical path; revolutionary creators may never be accepted by a field because their works are so challenging or disquieting.

Sometimes, a creator’s contributions outlive them and continue to influence a field and be enjoyed or used for generations after their death. Instant examples include William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, or Wolfgang Mozart, but also think of Frida Kahlo, George Washington Carver, Jerome Kern, or Stanley Milgram. You may not know all of their names, but you likely know their life’s work. This creativity is Big-C, or creative genius.

We often think about creativity in comparison with Big-C: “That’s a good melody, but it’s not Gershwin tune,” or “That’s a nice painting, but it’s not Picasso.” This tendency is unfortunate—there are so many positive aspects of creativity for the creator and others, and these beliefs will potentially cause someone to not bother pursuing a creative activity.

In coronavirus times, however, the balance shifts. As I teach my now-online classes in creativity at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, I am struck by how many students talk about finding time to return to writing or cooking or drawing. Yes, they are still doing classwork (and spending time worried and stressed, of course), but more downtime and more constraints on what can and cannot be done means they can choose what to do with their time. Many are choosing creativity, just as people of all generations and groupings are across the world.

The higher-level creativity we see in quarantine times is absolutely vital. Some renowned actors, singers, and comedians are using their gifts to do at-home performances that are lifting people’s spirits. Some accomplished inventors and businesspeople are shifting gears to try to make masks or ventilators using fewer resources. Most essentially, the top doctors and scientists around the globe are working toward treatments and, ideally, a vaccine.

But do not let the existence of possible superstars stifle your own creativity. You don’t have to be working for a cure or entertaining millions for your ideas to have value for yourself, your friends, or the larger community. Creative activities can help you reduce stress, handle trauma, and improve your mood—all of which are particularly helpful at the current moment.

For more information on my writings and work on creativity, go to my website.

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