Creativity is in the Open Space

roger's farm
Last year, as the pandemic spread across the world and many of us were quarantined at home, I found myself with significant unstructured time on my hands. I was not out doing seminars or teaching classes, socializing with friends or going to my favorite restaurants.

Yes, there were Zoom calls and writing projects, but the sense of urgency around any of those activities was gone. I began staying up late, binge-watching Netflix, and then sleeping late into the morning. I remarked to several friends that I wasn’t doing very well with all of the unstructured time. Many were having the same experience.

Then early last month, I noticed that I had begun to appreciate the unstructured time that opened up after I finished my work. I am not sure what caused the mind-shift, but I was no longer trying to fill that time. And, soon, I noticed that it was the end of the day. I didn’t feel that I was wasting time and I also didn’t feel that I had to fill every minute of the day with “productive” work.
I am writing this Innovation Espresso® on an airplane on my way to Colorado to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday. I grew up on a farm in Northern Colorado and one of the things I love about coming back to our farm is the sky. That amazing, vast blue sky.

A number of years ago my sister built a “sky deck” on the property. She uses it to host events like weddings and community gatherings. The deck is about 20 feet above the ground and when you are on it you are above the rooflines of all of the other buildings on the farm.

party in the pasture
You can see for miles from the sky deck.
On the sky deck, I have watched thunder storms roll in from Wyoming and traced the landing lights of airplanes at night on their approach to Denver International Airport. To the west I can take in 75 miles of the front range of the Rocky Mountains.
For me that sky deck is one of the most creative places in the world, as is our farm.

I was an only child for the first 11 years of my life and the nearest neighbors that I could play with were miles away. The junk pile on the farm is where my Dad would put old pieces of machinery, lumber from torn down buildings, and those things that you just couldn’t throw away because “someday, it just might come in handy.”

When I was growing up, Saturday and Sunday afternoons could get pretty boring on the farm. I would find myself wandering around that junk pile imagining what I could build. My dad and I used that “junk” to build rafts out of 50-gallon barrels, a go-cart out of an old lawnmower engine and my red wagon, and a treehouse complete with windows, an upper deck and a wood stove made out of large juice cans.

I believe that the time I spent being “bored” on the farm actually enhanced my ability to be creative as a child and later as an adult. As I dug into this topic, I found that I wasn’t the only person who benefited from boredom. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said “boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity,” and author J.R.R. Tolkien created “The Hobbit” when he was a professor bored of grading papers.

irrigated field

A number of years ago, a study was published by Kyung Hee Kim on what she called the “creativity crisis.” The study reported an alarming decline in creative thinking.

“The results indicate creative thinking is declining over time among Americans of all ages, especially in kindergarten through third grade. The decline is steady and persistent, from 1990 to present… The decline begins in young children, which is especially concerning as it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.”

I think creativity is declining so dramatically because we haven’t allowed children to be bored. They are bombarded with organized sporting activities and lured into video games where game designers have done the creative work for them.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma, one of the biggest enemies of beneficial boredom are smartphones; the constant companion of many children in America.

“Our brain is flooded with dopamine… and then we end up becoming desensitized, needing more and more stimulation to get us away from that boredom.”

Bottom line: It is OK to be bored. Because when you are bored, your imagination kicks in, and your brain goes to a creative place.
So, don’t be afraid of the open space. Don’t worry about being bored. Imagine yourself standing on the sky deck taking in those amazing vistas of open space and those new ideas just coming at you!

Breathtaking.

tractor view

P.S. I did have a wonderful opportunity to use that 2020 open space to be creative. Last fall I began producing a series of video lessons on innovation for the eLearning platform OpenSesame. OpenSesame is the most comprehensive catalog of eLearning courses from the world’s top publishers. Right now, three of the lessons are on the OpenSesame platform, with a full library available by June. Preview them here.

References: Kyung Hee Kim (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-boredom-could-make-you-more-creative/

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