PeterPan&Hairballs

(Photo courtesy of juliannazobrist.com)

PeterPan&Hairballs

Excerpted from Pull It Off” by Julianna Zobrist. (Copyright 2018) Used with permission from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 

I would love to see Peter Pan take an art class.

I can imagine the little mischief-maker dressed in his typical green garb listening to his art teacher (but only close enough to get the basic idea) and then taking complete creative liberty on the canvas. Head down. Never looking around or glancing about at other students’ work. Completely and wholeheartedly invested in what is in front of him. Oh, I’ll just draw this giant pirate ship that can magically float through the air while a tick-tocking crocodile follows close behind.

What is it about children that allows them to be so fearlessly creative and expressive? At what point do we take our eyes off our own canvas and start glancing around at others’? At what point do we begin to measure our own self-expression against others’?

It seems that children flourish where adults fail. Children are more creative and are naturally inclined to invent. Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They embrace their own ignorance instead of ignoring it. They are willing to explore, investigate, and put their ideas to the test because failure is futile. Unlike adults, they don’t care what people think of their ideas, and they have little to no concern with reality.

But, sure, growing up can have its benefits. Our brain- power sharpens and our willpower strengthens. We set goals and hone skills. But there is a price to pay with all this growing up—we lose our precious naiveté that enables creativity. Picasso was right when he said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

And at what point do we begin to believe I am not an artist?

Well, as it turns out, a study was conducted by Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University to explore just that. Some psychologists divided a large group of undergraduates into two groups. The first group was given the following prompt: You are seven years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?

The second group was given the same prompt minus the first sentence. Rather than imagining themselves as seven years old, they approached the question with their own adult mindset.

Next, the psychologists asked their subjects to  take ten minutes to write a response. Afterward, the subjects were given various tests of creativity, such as inventing alternative uses for an old tire or completing incomplete sketches. Zabelina and Robinson found that “individuals [in] the mindset condition involving childlike thinking . . . exhibited higher levels of creative originality than did those in the control condition.”

The proof is in the pudding.

Gordon MacKenzie, a card maker at Hallmark for thirty years, wrote a brilliant and inspiring book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball. It has been in my top five favorite books for a while now. There is one part that really stuck with me. It describes when he visited schools to teach welding to children:

“Hi! My name is Gordon MacKenzie, and among other things, I am an artist. I’ll bet there are artists here, too . . . How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands?”

The pattern of responses never varied.

First Grade:

En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.

Second Grade:

About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.

Third Grade:

At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously.

And so on up through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands. By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so . . .

If you and I had been sitting cross-legged next to  one another in that class in first grade, we would have wildly raised our hands and  unapologetically  agreed  that we are artistic and creative. You and I would have been filled with full confidence in our own individual artistry. But as we learn to compare, we learn the devastating art of disregarding our creativity because it does not measure up to what so-and-so is doing. The killer of creativity is this: devaluing our intrinsic self-expression and play.

So, how do we learn to play again? How do we shake the feelings of insecurity and fear of perception in order to imagine and express ourselves in meaningful ways? Here are ten simple things that yours truly does to dig up that magical childlike lack of inhibition:

  1. Try enjoying the rain and dancing in it the way a child does.
  2. Buy a disco ball and turn it on for breakfasts in the morning with the kiddos. If you get the battery-operated kind, turn it on in the car for a girls’ night. Basically, disco balls just make life better.
  3. There is something about having to climb over two rows of seats in the car and being able to look out a back window that just gives me a different perspective on life. Any time we can offer ourselves a unique perspective on life, it will spark new thoughts and imagination and creativity. Plus, it’ll keep ya limber.
  4. Team up with a bestie or with your mom or spouse, and every other month send each other an art medium to experiment with. You can start off easy with something like canvas, and give yourself a couple weeks to finish. As you experiment with different art forms, you will have to begin to get more creative. Use foam and see what you can create, or try clay and see what you sculpt. The more you do this, the easier it will get!
  5. The next time you sit down at your piano or key- board or guitar to write a song, break the rules. Don’t focus on two verses, a bridge, and a chorus; just write.
  6. Why do kids love paper airplanes so much? Duh, because they’re fun. Go make one.
  7. Around the dinner table we like to ask our children bizarre unrealistic questions to spark imagination—and of course answer them our- selves too. If you could have one superhuman power, what would it be and why? If you had   to wear only one color for the rest of your life, which color would you choose and why? If you could have a house made out of anything, what would you have and why? (By the way, mine would totally be gummy bears.)
  8. As we grow into adulthood, we grow in confidence of our opinions. However, what I observe in myself sometimes is that I might grow in confidence, but I grow away from my confidence to answer the question, “Why? Why am I so convinced of this opinion I have?” If you ask a child why they think or believe something, rarely (and never in the case of my own kids) do I hear the reply “I don’t know.” Why is that? Because they are in the process of learning. The reasoning be- hind their replies is never far behind.
  9. Never stop learning. Perhaps you have the time to take an online class. Perhaps you only have time for a monthly book club with the other neighborhood stay-at-home moms and dads. Maybe you have always wanted to take a cooking class or a dance class or a fencing class. What- ever you do, just continue to learn new things.
  10. Practice the art of intrinsic response. Collect art simply because it makes you feel something, not because it matches your house. Open up your creative mind to connect with like-minded creatives. I’ve always said I would rather have an empty wall than a meaningless wall. Do not buy art (from Target or HomeGoods or the most ex- pensive gallery in NYC) just to fill space. Allow yourself the enjoyment of happening upon art that makes you feel something . . . wonder, contentment, glumness, uncertainty, or puzzlement.

The most childlike woman I’ve ever known is my eighty-five-year-old aunt Marilyn. Childish she most certainly is not. Gracing a full spread in Fortune magazine back in the 1970s for her business savvy and prowess as  a female, Aunt Marilyn has discovered the importance of maintaining her childlike intuition. She comically refers to herself as the Energizer Bunny, bending her knees to brace herself for a full-on hug from my sprinting children. She never apologizes for things she does not need to apologize for (she orders her hash browns “extra crispy” and will smile graciously and ask for them to be sent back if they are not cooked to her liking). Walking into Aunt Marilyn’s home is like walking into a life-sized pop-up book full of her memories and travels. Every knickknack has   a story, and every piece of art brings stars to her eyes     as she recounts the memories she and her late husband made through their lives together. Despite battling cancer, Aunt Marilyn continues to send birthday gifts to each of my children and is always up for a shopping trip when she and I are together. She knows what she loves, much like my little Kruse in the nail salon, and does not apologize for it. She offers to jump in the back seat whenever we pick her up for brunch. When I asked her what she believes has helped her maintain her childlike lack of inhibition, she giggled and said, “I eat breakfast standing up. In fact, rarely do I sit down.”