On occasion, my wife will help one of her friend's son or daughter with a college essay. She’s a fine writer herself and she can typically coax a good piece out of a kid. Yesterday she was working with Geoff, a seventeen-year-old high school student who’d essentially given his life over to acting. Geoff had been a devotee since kindergarten and for the last several years, not a week had passed when he wasn’t doing something theater related.
As he went through several drafts of his essay, my wife noticed that Geoffwas able to beautifully articulate the challenges he faced; grueling rehearsals, demoralizing auditions, and a litany of comments from directors and other actors proffering the hurtful idea that at five-three, Geoff simply didn’t have the body to act at the professional level. But what he couldn’t express was his love of acting itself. After many attempts to define why he was so passionate about the theater, he’d written only that he found it “fun.” The shallow description was more than a matter of Geoff'’s youth, or his not possessing adequate writing skills. Geoff just seemed very ambivalent.
All this was borne out after my wife probed a bit and found that at the root of Geoff'’s ostensible love for acting lies a deep need to connect with his father, a former actor in a regional Shakespeare company, who’d been divorced from his mother since Geoff was an infant. It was a preponderance of fear, not love, that drove Geoff into acting, a fear of not being close to his dad. But why is love even relevant when speaking about a creative endeavor?
There’s a critical misunderstanding of the over-used C word. The first thing most of us think of when we hear that someone is creative is: artist, poet, musician, or entrepreneur. That’s not to say that creative people don’t fall into those categories, but what I’m suggesting is that creativity is a state of mind rather than a set of skills in a particular area.
Creativity isn’t only about mastery; it is, at its root, a joyful willingness to engage with the world. It is a fearless state of alertness to detail. Whether we’re swinging on a drum kit in a bebop trio or kneeling on the floor playing with a toddler, our level of creativity is determined by our openness to a given situation — and also our intense love for it. Creative people share three qualities that I call specific, present and true:
Specific:They break down their big goals into small, doable pieces.
Present:They take action on those pieces in the here and now — they don’t postpone them for some time in a nebulous future.
True:The things they are engaged in are things that they feel passionately about. They are not overly compelled from outside motivators.
Geoff has specific and present down pat. He diligently studies his lines and recently, he's even been getting up early to read essays by renown Russian acting coach, Konstantin Stanislavski. That’s no mean feat. Most people who dream about bringing their ideas into the world neglect those first two, very critical steps. But where Geoff is challenged creatively is in the last category: true.
Someone pursuing a goal in which the majority of his motivations are coming from some external source — such as Geoff's involvement in theater primarily to please his dad — will have a very hard time creating resilience against the inevitable challenges he will face in the pursuit of that goal. Not to mention, the difficulty he will have in deriving any joy from it. One telltale sign that a particular creative goal isn’t engaging a person on this “truer level” will be his inability to speak or write with any impact about his love for that thing.
When Geoff eventually embarks on an inward journey of self-discovery he will come to see this more clearly. He will then be able to use his boundless energy to expand his life, not by quitting acting, but by doing more and more of the things he truly loves. That would make him far happier, far more engaged with the world — and in a very real sense, a far more creative person.
This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.