Author and design expert Margot Potter recently asked the question, “Is free stuff killing creativity?” in her essay on how free content devalues creativity in the DIY and crafts industry. But for those of us outside of the industry, free stuff has negative consequences too. It is killing our own creativity, because everything is just a Google search away. We don’t need to come up with a cool poem for our husband’s birthday card because we can find one online. We don’t need to devise our own recipe for corn salsa or s’mores dip because we can find 100 to choose from on Epicurious, all ranked, reviewed and with suggested alterations. We don’t need to dig into our grey matter to develop a Sunday School craft for 16 kids using only pipe cleaners and toilet paper rolls because we can find a zillion on Pinterest. Other people have done all the thinking and testing for us.
Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate being able to Google the proper temperature at which to cook a flank steak as much as the next busy home cook. But not having to figure stuff out on our own is most definitely taking a hit on our creativity. Why DIY when someone else has already devised, tested and taken the guesswork out of it?
Here’s the deal: If we are constantly relying on other people to feed our needs, to do the hard work for us, to solve our problems, then we’re closing off whole parts of our development as humans. Imagination and problem-solving are part of what separates us from other animals. Creativity contributes to our sense of self-worth and our ability to be fully functioning humans.
And I’m not talking about the paint-by-numbers “creating” that is really just following directions. I’m talking about the complex, higher-level thinking and problem-solving that leads to breakthroughs on the level of Watson and Crick’s double-helix, Paul Simon’s Graceland album and the slipper sock. These things simply wouldn’t have existed without someone breaking outside the bounds of what was already known to work, what was accepted as the traditional solution.
Research has shown that when we continually abdicate our thinking to machines (or other humans), there’s a price to pay. For instance, relying solely on GPS devices to get us from Point A to Point B has resulted in a decreased spatial navigation ability. If we no longer have to figure out what to make for dinner with a pound of ground beef and a few tired asparagus stalks, don’t be surprised when we also lose our ability to devise unique solutions in the workplace, or figure out how to be at a parent-teacher conference, a dance recital and a surprise 60th birthday simultaneously.
Sure, I may be overstating the risk a bit, but with good reason. Problem-solving and creativity are skills, and if we don’t use ’em, we’re gonna lose ’em. So because I hate calling out problems without suggesting some ways to mitigate the issue, here are four ways to fight back and keep your creativity in top-notch shape:
1. Figure it out on your own. Instead of jumping on the Web to find a cute Valentine’s Day craft for your kid’s class, brainstorm some ideas first. Even if you end up popping onto Paging Supermom in the end, having gone through the idea-generating process first will get your creative juices flowing. It’s like running a mile before sitting down to watch the Tour de France on TV.
2. Use the Internet as a jumping-off point. Google away when you need a fun bar cookie recipe with no nuts for an upcoming cookie swap, but then make the recipe your own. Combine two or more, or add a little somethin’-somethin’ to make your recipe unique.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Making a mistake is not the end of the world, but we’re all so busy that we want to get it “right,” and so we rely on the “experts” to tell us what to do. Set aside experimentation time so you can try out new ideas without 40 dinner guests waiting for dinner in the other room.
4. Find your end point, but devise your own path. So you want to build a raised bed for the garden? Find a great photo example and then, instead of following the instructions step-by-step, try to deconstruct the project using the knowledge you already have. You just might come up with a better design.
Creativity is your birthright. Claim it and live it, even if it means some of your family dinners are less than edible. It’ll give your kids something to tell their therapists.