How often do you think of yourself as pursuing a creative profession?

I have to admit that in a Psychology graduate program, that was a hard leap to make at first. “Creative professional” were not the first words that came to mind.

“Scientist”? Yes.

“Helping professional”? Definitely.

Part Full-time Nerd”? I wear that label with pride.

“Creative professional”? This one is a little more of a stretch.

As I would guess many of us do, I tend to group the “creative professions” into those which center around the fine arts (i.e., painting, sculpting, illustrating, etc), writing, musicians, singers, etc. Psychologists, especially Clinical Health Psychologists, don’t easily fit into that category. Sure, you can make an argument that doing research is a creative endeavor and and I would whole-heartedly agree. You could even argue that that working with clients requires a creative mentality. One size does not fit all (though I am sure some would argue to the contrary). But still, categorizing myself as a creative professional is not a ready association. Or at least it wasn’t until recently, when I read “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert.

You might know her from her memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” (or maybe you saw the movie). In her new book, she forays into the world of creativity with the mission to help us all embrace our inner-creative and get to making.

According to Gilbert, if you are alive, you are a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers and creatives. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.

Being creative doesn’t have to be about writing stories, or painting pictures, or playing instruments (though it certainly can include these things). Creativity is also, just as importantly, about styling your hair and choosing your outfit. It’s about the throw pillows you choose for your home and the selfies you take. It’s about singing at the stoplight, its about helping your kids learn how to count using gummy bears and pennies, and its about finding research ideas that ignite warm and fuzzy feelings of curiosity inside of you. Because all of those things are creations. The act of making, in whatever small way, opens you to the potential of living a creative life without the fear of failure, no matter what your idea of failure is. It puts you in touch with the inner (and often hidden) artist within you.

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

While I began to consider myself as “creative” and apply this to my graduate identity, I experienced a mixture of excitement and fear. On the one hand, I was so excited to embrace that I am in a creative profession. To me, creativity is what sets the great scientists apart from the rest. It is where the truly innovative studies and research designs come from. It is where the ideas (both big and small) come from that keep the field moving forward. It is what allows interventions to be modified, even if just ever so slightly, such that the treatment can resonate with each client we work with, no matter what their background is. It is the force that inspires future generations to pursue a satisfying and exhilarating career.

On the other hand, while I was excited, there also existed a sense of both fear and apprehension as I attempted to own this label. Yes, I wanted to be creative but I struggle with fear on both sides of the creative gulf: I fear the results of the hard work itself will not meet my own expectations, and I fear that my hard work will not be received in a way that meets my own expectations. That fear gets in the way of my ability to create without (self)judgment. It is a viscous and downward spiral- I get a creative and potentially unique/quirky/innovative idea, I get excited, the fear creeps in, I start to doubt my creative motivations, I doubt the quality of my idea and my capability to implement the idea, I consider giving up on the idea, and I begin consider resigning myself to riding the wave of status qua moving forward. It just seems easier. It just seems safer. If you are an academic, graduate student, (nay, if you are a human being) my guess would be that you can relate to this cycle in some way.

I think the key to breaking out of this cycle is curiosity. Finding those things that we  genuinely want to know more about. This can be an idea, or this is can be a sense of curiosity to see what we can make. What we are capable of. Regardless, the key to breaking out of this cycle of fear is finding those ideas or things that ignite a warm, rosy glow if interest deep within you. Finding those things that you just cant get out of your head, that you absolutely need to know more about, or that you absolutely need to try/experience.

It is about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than fear. It is about knowing that there isn’t anything at stake in the act of creating besides satisfying curiosity.

If you simply create (or make, if that’s a more comfortable word for you) because you do, because you want to see what you can make, then you have no expectations and failure is no longer an option. Fear, to paraphrase Gilbert, will still come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive.

In my brief tenure as a psychologist, it is the “creatives” that have inspired me to continue on. Their passion, curiosity, and desire to just explore things that they are interested in for the sake of interest, with no expectation to publish or get a grant or change lives, etc, is what made me want to be a scientist and what continues to motivate me.

When I started grad school I committed myself to curiosity. I was going to pursue the things I was interested in. This has led to about a million ideas. Many of them have fizzled but a few have stuck. I have been lucky to have a few which I cannot get out of my head. They keep me up at night. I dream about them. I think about them all day. And they are accompanied by that warm rosy feeling. It took me about a year to get over my fear of sharing them with my advisor, but once I did it completely changed my experience. I no longer think my ideas are something to be ashamed of. Rather, they are an extension of myself and a chance to get to know existence more intimately. Sharing all my random thoughts with him has, at times, made him want to pull his hair out. But it has prompted some really interesting conversations and has helped shape our relationship such that it is more collegial. More importantly, by sharing my ideas I have come to be proud of them, of my curiosity, and of my creativity.

I have found that curiosity is like a muscle, it you work it, it gets stronger.

Allowing the ideas to flow generates more ideas. I email about 10% of my ideas to my advisor and share maybe 10% with others in brain-storming sessions. The rest? I write some of them down to return to at some later point. Others don’t stick and I just let them flow through me. With each idea, whether it is a keeper or not, I take a moment to thank my mind and the universe for a brief glimpse at creative introspection. I thank them for making my life a little richer and more colorful in that moment, for helping me feel a little more connected. With that sense of gratitude, I can let the ideas go and have freedom to either pursue what I am working on already or be on the lookout for the next one. Sometimes the ideas come back. Oftentimes they don’t. Either way, it is OK.

I have found that by redefining creativity as the process of simply making and by redefining my end goal as simply an opportunity to pursue an interesting idea, I have come to love my work. Sure, grad school is stressful. But I really do believe I have the most amazing career out there. I get to be curious and creative every single day.  I have stumbled into a career that is intellectually satisfying AND fun. I really do feel lucky and credit a change in perspective as the key to making the whole experience manageable. If you are looking for some creative inspiration, I recommend Liz Gilbert’s book. If you have already read it, I would love to know what you thought about it and if you have been able to apply any of the concepts to your own life.

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