Our creativity as humans is inspiring. When we creatively solve problems or express ourselves in creative ways we spark new life, and ignite ideas in others as well. In my experience with patients and in my personal life, creative outlets have played a pivotal role in mental well-being. Studies show when people are engaging in creative activities they can increase the strength of their immune systems, protect their brain cells and increase their self confidence. Research of children has found “Creative problem solving in math and science are directly related to creativity in the arts.”
Unfortunately, in many communities there’s this absurd myth that goes around and many of us believe it. The myth is: “Creative pursuits are frivolous and unimportant to everyday life (especially at work).”
The myth was told to me by the premedical community in college and unfortunately, I was amongst the many who subscribed. And believing this myth nearly extinguished my imagination. Thankfully, I had the insight to realize this erroneous belief and have since put in the efforts to keep my creativity alive.
In this article I want to do two things: 1) Tell you my story of how I nearly allowed my creative self to succumb to the crushing forces of a scientific education and 2) Talk about the common obstacles to creative pursuits, and their solutions. My hope is that your imagination and creative expression will either find some inspiration to reignite or continue to burn strong.
My inseparable childhood friend came from an astonishingly creative family. His dad was a fine art painter and sculptor, his sister a photographer, and everyone in the family had well-developed artistic skills. By the time we were in middle school my friend’s drawings and paintings were so realistic, it was difficult to distinguish them from photographs. I fell in love with art too, though I wasn’t nearly as skilled as my friend.
Through junior high and high school I took any art class I could get into and found I had an eye for black-and-white photography. After I won a few awards with my photography I was sure I’d never put my camera down. As a creative soul, I expected I’d eventually work in an artistic field. My interests in the sciences had waned, in favor of the arts. If it weren’t for love, I’d never have found myself studying science at all. But then I fell in love with a beautiful, brown-eyed girl, Nicole (whom I’m now married to!).
I begged Nicole’s physics teacher to let me into her class during the second semester of my senior year of high school. I convinced him I had a passion for learning physics and I’d excel. He let me in, but not into Nicole’s section. His teaching style, combined with my promise to do well, led to the the discovery, “Oh wow, I’m good at physics!” From there, I chose to attend a “regular” university instead of art school. I saw this as a way of hedging my bets against starving as an artist. (I was skinny enough as it was.) I went to college undeclared, believing I’d find my passion there, whatever it was. I knew I could change my major if some sudden realization washed over me that I would need a “real” job.
With this newly-acquired taste for physics, I sought out more science classes in college. The sciences filled me with wonder, and rapidly changed my worldview. What were once ordinary trees became amazingly complex symphonies humming with life. By my second year of college I had only picked up my camera a couple of times. Analytical thinking was starting to make photography a chore. I didn’t know how to show the wonder I saw in photos, so I just didn’t shoot very many. I declared myself a biology major and enrolled in the premedical program. Although I didn’t see it, that was when my creativity’s health really began to plummet.
My academic advisors told me medical school would leave me with no life outside of it. I was advised to keep my grades competitive and to prepare for endless studying, where I would always be behind. I bought this story, hook and line and sinker. I stuck to their recommendations. I focused on honing my analytical skills, and completely neglected any creative talents. I did so much schoolwork (memorizing and analyzing) that when I graduated, I was only two classes away from getting a second bachelor’s degree. Luckily, my creative thinking had survived long enough to guide me to a school that viewed the practice of medicine as an art as well as a science.
While I was packing for my move to Seattle for naturopathic medical school, I nearly forgot about my camera. I decided to take it with me, in the hopes that one day I’d pick it back up.
Med school got real hard, real quick and it wasn’t long before I needed a way to relieve the pressure. It was then that I dug out my old camera. Seattle was so picturesque, I thought it a shame if I didn’t photograph the beauty I found there. When I went out with my camera, my mind quieted. I wasn’t thinking about being behind in studying for anatomy. I forgot that I was even a med student. I was just there, taking pictures.
I discovered a photography school that rented out their darkrooms to the public. I spent entire weekends in the darkroom, developing my film and tirelessly perfecting prints. I had awoken my creative talents from their college-long coma, and they had the promise of returning to life.
In my third year of med school I chose to extend my program to a five-year course instead of four. It was a difficult choice because of the extra time and added expense, but the option allowed me more time to be Michael, an entire person. I knew in order to live the lifestyle I wanted to promote to patients, I would have to carve out time for the things that contributed to my health. The extra year allowed me to make time for my girlfriend (remember Nicole?), my photography, find mentors for my interests in mind-body medicine, occasionally attend yoga classes and take up rock climbing. Though school and clinic still took up a large portion of my time, I made the choice I wished I had made seven years earlier, to put my well-being before my academic/career ambitions.
Recently I broke a crucial piece of my photography equipment, and may not be able to fix it for several months. At first, I was quite disheartened. I had to get over a few hurdles until I then I saw this as an opportunity. I decided it was time I learn to draw. I went looking and discovered an instructional book that spoke to my interests, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, written by a psychologist and educator. The premise of the book is that anyone can draw realistically. They just need to learn to see and a few basic drawing skills. And my results thus far have astounded me! Who knew I could draw?
And this newly developing skill is again filling me with wonder and creative ideas, where there had been a lull. Maybe there’s a creative talent that you’ve dreamed of pursuing, or something you left years ago that begs to be woken up.
Roadblocks to Creativity:
When talking with patients, there can be a number of reasons why they put off pursuing their creative interests. Here are the seven most common roadblocks I hear (and sometimes use), and their solutions.
- I Don’t Have a Creative Space: Certainly it’s nice if we can dedicate an entire room to creative expression, but this isn’t necessary. It’s easy to fall into the notion that our physical space should promote or inspire our creativity, but we only need a space that allows us to practice our creative skills. For example, if your creative expression is yoga, you need a space big enough for the postures; if you want to learn to play the drums, you’ll need deaf/no neighbors; if it’s drawing you’re interested in, paper, a pencil and the kitchen table will do. Over time and practice, we may find a truly inspiring place to act creatively, but it is not a requisite.
- I Don’t Know What I’d Even Be Interested in: Try reconnecting with a creative talent/skill you’ve left. Often when we return to practicing skills after a long break, we are renewed with the joy and wonder we had when we first discovered them. It could be months, years or decades later. Our perspectives are constantly growing and changing. What caused us to put it down in the past may be irrelevant now, but we’ll only discover this if we attempt to pick it back up.
- I Don’t Have Any Skill/Equipment for What I Am Interested in: If you’re trying something new, accept that you are entry-level, and everyone must start here. When our creative expression requires equipment, we often believe we should get high quality (and high priced) stuff, but this usually puts a barrier between us and our art. If equipment costs are necessarily high, look for it used on Craigslist or eBay, or look for ads where people practice your activity. Start with the very basics. With a low investment we can get started, which is the whole point. As time goes on and the need arises, upgrading is possible. At that point, we may be able to pass on our used equipment to a beginner!
- I Won’t Ever Master/I Don’t Have a Practical Use for My Activity: Creative activities are an end in themselves. You are doing it because you’re interested and you enjoy them. You might not become famous for your creative expression, but so what? Let go of ulterior motives like recognition, and accept that an intermediate level of skill would be great! And though the skills might not be transferable to other things in your life, you might find creativity emerge in unsuspecting ways. Let your experience, not your outcomes, be the goal. You’re much more likely to enjoy your pursuits if your expectations of where it will lead you are forgotten.
- I Wouldn’t Know Where to Start: If you’re a complete novice, find someone who can teach you the basics. Maybe you have a friend or acquaintance who can show you the ropes. If not, search a bookstore, YouTube or your local community for someone to show you where to start and help you with the basic skills.
- I Don’t Even Know If I’ll Like It Once I Start: Of course you don’t! And this is all the more reason to buy low cost/used equipment. One way to continue not knowing is by not giving it a shot. Think of it like an experiment: It’s okay if you can’t prove your hypothesis, it will help you design your next experiment better.
- I Don’t Have Time: When we love to do something, we somehow find the time to make it a priority. Get out a scheduler/planner and put down all the important activities you do in a week, with the amount of time they take. Be sure to include time for commuting, eating, grooming, etc. Are there any time openings you can see? Can anything you do be done in less time if you were more focused? Can anything you do be done at a different time? What is the realistic minimum time you could spend doing your activity?
 Patterson M. Good for the Heart, Good for the Soul: The Creative Arts and Brain Health in Later Life. Generations [serial online]. Summer2011 2011;35(2):27-36. Available from: Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 19, 2012.
 Geist E. Encouraging Creativity in the Face of Administrative Convenience: How Our Schools Discourage Divergent Thinking. Education [serial online]. Fall2009 2009;130(1):141-150. Available from: Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 19, 2012.
This post was originally published on the Huffington Post.