How To Make (Psychological and Emotional) Space to Create.

My children spend more time building with Lego than just about anything else. While they covet and save up for sets like any good little American consumers, they spent most of their time re-mixing those sets (and their thousands of eBay purchased random pieces) into wildly new creations.

Seriously, some of the stuff they come up with is just incredible. They use pieces in ways that I’m sure the designers at Lego never intended. Ons the shelf in the other room there are elaborate dragons with hinged tails, spooky temples, and strange little machines with gears.

Almost always, what they make is surprising, unexpected, startlingly new.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a worshipful paean to my children’s creativity. I’m not saying that their Lego models are going to end up in MoMA. It’s just that I want to share some observations from when a totally different thing enters the picture: the Lego building challenges.

They get these Lego magazines bundles of advertisements in the mail (thanks to my mom, who faithfully ships them overseas) and each features “building challenge” contests as well as pictures of children with their winning creations. There’s a prize of a $100 gift card for some of the contests.

For days after they read about a new “challenge” (build a dream home, build some kind of robot, etc.) they’ll work and re-work a project and pester us to photograph them and worry about whether or not they’ll win…and here’s the surprising part, the part you are not allowed to tell my children:

When they are building for the contest–for that $100 gift card and their picture in the magazine, their creations are startlingly less creative

All of a sudden, they are timid and anxious about their creations. They’ll ask me what I think of them–something they never do otherwise; usually they just present their work to me with the jubilance of people who know what they’ve accomplished is good–and, honestly, their for-contest work is always inferior to their regular work.

Why does this matter?

Because I think it shows us something important about motivation and its effect on creativity.

Most of the time, the kids build with Lego simply because that is what they love to do. They are pleasing no one but themselves. There is no point to the work except the work itself. There is no limit on the time spent working except the time they choose to spend on it.

So most of the time, they build in a state of flow, which is:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

(psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –say”CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”–in a Wired interview.)

If their only concern is the work, their work is amazing, and they work with confidence and pleasure. As soon as there’s a carrot–an extrinsic reward–their creative juices seem to dry up, and they’re building replicas of some other kid’s idea and worrying about whether they’ll ‘win.’

This is not a new idea, or a strange one. It’s the idea that has driven alternative models of education and employment.

“There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.”

(Florian Wagner)

When we were both in graduate school, my friend and I reminded each other to find our “no pressure zones.” For us that involved a lot of intentional non-procrastination and striving actually to enjoy what we were learning. It also involved studying together in pleasant locations and drinking lattes.

Sometimes I am all but paralyzed by the fear of doing what I do badly OR by the desire for external affirmation. When I am in that mode, pretty much everything I write, say, draw, or cook is total crap. It’s when you move into the pleasure and rhythm of the work itself, I find, that things turn out well, which is annoying because I’m basically saying that I think people–or at least I–work best when I manage not to be so worried about how it will turn out, but instead to be absorbed in the work itself.

For me, faith is a part of this, because I find it very, very difficult not to seek extrinsic rewards and affirmation, but remembering God’s grace allows me to offer it to myself and others, and to stop trying to keep score.

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” (Robert Farrar Capon)

Your thoughts?

About Rachel Marie Stone
  • dad

    Beautifully written, and absolutely true.

    I’ve learned that the best way to do illustration work is to forget that it’s a gig and pretend I’m just doodling for my own amusement. An exception to this is stuff done for the boys, like Dinosaur Island. Then I draw while imagining them watching over my shoulder.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      On the BrainPickings.org blog–which you should read religiously–there was a great observation (I forget where, exactly) that many classics of children’s literature and literature more broadly actually grew out of one person creating something for a specific loved one. (Edward Bear–Winnie-the-Pooh–is an illustrious example.)

      • http://circespeaks.wordpress.com Circe

        Alice in Wonderland is my favorite of that genre. I am fairly certain (without truly believing the same) that I am Alice. Sometimes I am in Wonderland; other times in Wonderment; the excursions to Neverland are much less delightful. And what would life be without Lewis Carroll and Laura Ingalls Wilder inviting me into their very different, yet wonderful worlds?

  • Jeanette

    This is one of your best. As a former preschool teacher, I longed for enough time to allow the children to really get involved with what they were doing and not have to work “by the clock.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a most fascinating subject.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      Thanks, Mom! Recently I’ve been inspired by the Brain Pickings blog. But even more, by seeing how the kids’ creativity seems to plummet when there’s an extrinsic motivation. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching.

  • http://circespeaks.wordpress.com Circe

    Thank you, Rachel.

    You spoke straight to the pressing pain in my heart, as I decide whether or not to finish a dissertation. I can only do it for me, my own way, and not to satisfy committee members who either don’t care much or project their own experiences onto my work. This reminds me of how to go forward with deciding whether to go forward.

    Circe

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      I am glad to hear that my words were timely for you, Circe. To get the creative work done–whether it is building, writing, or drawing–we often have to find ways to silence the critical voices…to find a way NOT to think about what he might say or what she might say. As I noted in reply to my dad, some of the best creations grew from the creative efforts of one person trying to please a loved one…and sometimes, one person simply trying to please him or her self. Best wishes as you write your dissertation!

  • http://larryshllenberger.com Larry Shallenberger

    This is brilliant and true. If you look up Thom and Joani Schultz’s book, “The Dirt on Learning”, you find a collection of studies that confirm competition is a disincentive to learning. This is why I abhor Bible memory competitions, stars for attendance, and “rewards” in Sunday School setting.

    Great post.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      thanks, Larry!

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Can you imagine the joy God experiences in his creation? it’s beyond our ken, but something we get to share in none the less. What grace.

    And speaking of grace, I have to disagree with that closing quote you use. I don’t think it’s true that “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” I think grace itself prevails over such certainties and causes them to collapse. That’s why it’s called grace.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rachelmariestone Rachel Marie Stone

      True that, Tim! That IS what makes it grace.

  • Pingback: Good posts from the Christian Blogosphere, Late August 2013 (Vol. 4) - Dreaming Beneath the Spires


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X