Getting In Touch With Your Inner Third Grader (The art of seeing things for what they are not yet)


Most weeks I’ll get an email or a call from a CEO or an HR executive. She’ll tell me she’s running a half-day meeting and ask if I can I help. “I’d love to try,” I’ll say. “What are your goals?” At this point I’ll brace myself because I sense the C-word is coming. “We want to get our people to be more comfortable with creativity,” she’ll say. And it’s not like I blame her. Since there isn’t a better word in the English language to describe what she wants than creativity, we must all resort to using it. To be fair, it’s not like I’d always had an issue with the word. Until I began deliberating weaning myself off it, I used it all the time. At my publisher’s insistence, I even included it in the subtitle of my recent book. Have a good look at it:


There it is in all its misunderstood, overused splendor. And here’s a funny thing. This is how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it:

Creativity —The quality of being creative

Ok, I see. Merriam-Webster is using the word: creative to describe the word: creativity. Just to be clear, let’s look up the word ‘creative’ and see where that leads us.

Creative—Marked by the ability or power to create

Hmmm… you do realize that by making the mistake of using a word to define itself, even stalwart and reliable Merriam-Webster proves that it doesn’t really know what the word means either? And yet we rely on the word creativity all the time. Lately, the word has begun to remind me of a strange game I used to play as a kid. I’d lie in bed in the dark and say a common word over and over until it lost all meaning, until it reverted to some indecipherable syllabic utterance. I recall doing this successfully with the word —rope. Now, for the most part, I feel the same way about the word creativity, and yet avoiding it is almost impossible.

So these days when I get a phone call like the one I just described I’ll ever so gently put the question back in the CEO’s court. I’ll do this, not to be annoying, but to move beyond a vague term to help focus the conversation around specific outcomes. Some of the questions that might arise are:

· If your people were more creative, what kinds of things would you see them doing that are different from what they’re doing now?

· If your people were more creative, how would that change the nature of their inquiries and conversations?

· What kind of mental energy do you believe creative people display and how would they evince this in your business?

· What kind of physical energy and resilience might you find in a creative person and what specific behaviors in are you looking to change in your organization?

· Most importantly, how would you use the spark of creativity as a catalyst to innovate new products, services, or culture within your organization?

My experiences working with people over the last several years to open their minds to new possibilities (notice, I didn’t say: “to make them more creative”) have told me that yes; it is possible to get people to think in new ways. And for companies looking to stay relevant, having people with the ability to look at their resources and intuit “what’s next” should be considered an organization-wide imperative.

The skill of seeing things for what they are not yet is something every child has. I call it getting in touch with your inner-third-grader. Sadly, it’s a skill many of us lose around the time of adolescence —or even earlier. Accessing the skill requires letting go, if only for a moment, of your competence. I can already hear you asking, “Wait a minute…my competence? You’re telling me to let go of something I’ve worked so hard to achieve?” Yes, I am. I realize it’s hard because it’s the very thing that you feel affords you the most psychological protection. Fear of what might happen if you stepped outside of your area of expertise is why you have so much native resistance to actually doing it. It might sound odd, but mastery is often the enemy of creativity. (Ok, you caught me. Sometimes you just have to say the C-word.)

I was in New Orleans with my wife about three months ago. We stopped in City Park for some iced tea and I heard an amazing guitarist, an Argentinian guy named Martin Morretto, who was blowing my mind with his technique. I bought his CD and when I got home I emailed him and asked if he’d give me lessons over Skype. Here’s why I’m telling you this. I’m a professional guitarist and songwriter, I’ve played since I was twelve and I consider myself a pretty able musician. But when I sat down with Martin for my first lesson I was thrust back —somewhat ignominiously, I might add —into stark beginner-dom. It was a weird and painful experience, and when I told Martin how I was feeling he just laughed and said, “I know exactly what you mean. I’m constantly putting my fingers in shapes that make me feel like a beginner.”

And that’s my point. When someone calls me and asks if I can help their people become more creative, what I believe they’re really saying is: ‘Can you help our employees regain the adventuresome spirit of childhood, can you help them see the world through beginner’s eyes again?’ The idea of reclaiming a childlike mindset is one that’s been used successfully, not only with artists and poets, but also with Fortune 100 leaders and people in positions of command in the United States Military. When people are working day in and day out in the furrows of their own competency, they are not learning, they are not growing —and that is an important factor in the results of an alarming 2012 Gallup Poll on employee engagement. The poll shows that 87% of workers worldwide do not define themselves as engaged in their work. The effects of that disengagement are real and they are serious. Here’s how the Harvard Business Review reported on the findings:

“Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.”

“Unengaged employees are essentially checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.”

“Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.”

I believe that… (And indulge me once more for using the C-word)… creativity is born the moment we connect with our sense of childlike wonder. It comes to us with great power and urgency when we view the world, not as something rote and known, but as a place of great mystery and possibility. A strong link with our Inner-Third-Grader is the best breeding ground for deep engagement —and engagement is where we will always find the most… (Ok, now you can say the word this time)




Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. He is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps unlock innate creativity. Clients include The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, The UCLA School of Nursing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. Himmelman is also an alum of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern. His latest book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October 2016 and is available on Random House Tarcher/Perigee

“There’s deep wisdom here along with very practical tools for translating our ideas into the real world.” — Arianna Huffington



One thought on “Getting In Touch With Your Inner Third Grader (The art of seeing things for what they are not yet)

  1. When I’m asked about creativity – I ask them if they’re merely looking to develop skill sets for *doing* things that are considered creative . . . or are they really interested in *being* creative? Invariably, their next question is “what’s the difference?” – to which I respond “That’s the part you need to figure out before we can continue this conversation.”

    So after watching them wrestle with that question out loud, taking a few stabs at what they imagine “I” think the difference might be (instead of knowing it for themselves) – I’ll ask “Do you know what needs to be created?” And after a awkward pause, believing at first, my question to be rhetorical, they’ll answer with some variation of “I don’t know”. After allowing their answers to hang uncomfortably, I’ll reply “And that’s the difference!”

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