The other day, my son was playing with a Lego train set he received as a gift. It’s an assortment of Legos, but it’s meant to build a train with, and it includes various train parts – bases for each train car, a Lego caboose, a front car with a chimney and a seat for a driver.
He was building a train, ordering the cars to his liking, making Lego towers atop each car, and of course, carefully deciding where he would place the Dalmatian dog.
When the Legos were all used up, he walked across the room, grabbed a bin of blocks, and said, “Now I’m going to build another train.”
I listened as he explained to me the large rectangular blocks were cars, the cylinder blocks were wheels, the other blocks were things I didn’t quite understand but were part of his elaborate train scene.
All put together, the thing hardly looked like a train at all, but – compared to the more literal train made of Legos – it was far more interesting to look at, and took far more creativity from him to create.
In watching him, something struck me: in his mind, the regular set of blocks was just as good a toolkit for building a train as the other set with all its specific train parts. Absolutely just as good.
I was surprised to notice my kneejerk reaction. Even though I’m someone who loves creativity and does creative work every day, and thinks about how to nurture creativity in my kid, I needed a minute to catch up to what he was thinking. I was in the mindset of, “that thing over there is the train set, this thing is the block set.”
He didn’t hold the belief that one of these was the set for building trains and one of them wasn’t. He didn’t yet have years of images of trains that tell him a train is this but not that. And most profound of all, he didn’t have the messaging we all get: that there is a better way and a worse way to build a train.
He was operating with a sort of absence of beliefs, stories, rules, without the conditioned understanding of context adults have every time they look at or encounter any object, any word of speech from another human being, any thought of their own.
That freedom from context allowed him to be more creative.
That is true for all of us. We become creative when we find a way to forget our beliefs, stories, rules, about what’s supposed to happen – on the blank page, or in the presentation, or in the program design, or in the conversation.
If we can’t forget, we can at least suspend our ideas about this, and happily and deliberately let them slip away, to let something new come through. We forget how we are supposed to do it. We pretend there is no right way.
Forty years ago, someone had to forget the “rule” that computers were for business use, in order to envision the “wild idea” that people might keep them for personal use. Someone had to forget the convention that cars were bought and owned, in order to envision that people might share cars and book them for a few hours at a time, as they now do through the many car-sharing programs that exist in every major city. Someone had to forget the tried and true and universal “rule” that a publisher was needed to help an author create a book, in order to envision self-publishing.
Someone had to see the rule that only land-owning white men could vote, not as a given, but a constraint that could give way to something different. Someone had to unknow, or unlearn, the rule that children should be seen and not heard, in order to imagine a different kind of parenting, and a different vision of childhood.
On a practical level, the challenge for women in particular, is that the rules that surround us were not shaped by us. By this I mean both the legislated rules and the cultural “agreements” – the assumptions, norms and conventions that we live with. They were formed largely from a masculine perspective, with all the strengths and weaknesses, the bright lights and the blind spots, that come with that. They were formed at a time when that masculine perspective operated with an even more complete marginalization of the feminine than it does now.
So here we women are, having had a lifetime of absorbing rules and agreements that are not what we would have created, not what matches what we experience and not what we know inwardly – even as we constantly confront that alien culture outside of us.
This makes the work of our forgetting the rules, the norms, the narratives of how it needs to be, both harder and more imperative.
We’ve got to set aside the conditioning we’ve absorbed, let it go and send it to some far away place. We’ve got to suspend the assumptions – the particular ones – about how we need to look and what to eat and how to be a mom and how to be a wife and what it means to lead. We also need to suspend the bedrock assumptions that permeate the fabric of our society – what are humans here for? what is my responsibility to others? what should a civilization give, and be?
Sometimes, some blessed times, we don’t need to forget because sometimes, we are like my son and we have the gift of never having learned the rules for the thing we want to do. If you are approaching a new subject, entering a new industry, doing a new kind of project, or trying to create something novel of any kind, you have this opportunity. You might think you have a particular deficit of training or qualifications, but I would urge you to see if that absence is a kind of gift, that allows you to come to the work with a fresher perspective. When you know fewer of the world’s rules and conventions about how things get done, you’re freer to invent and skip straight to the more evolved way, without having to untangle yourself from old limited thinking.
So suspend the rules of how it’s supposed to be done. See where you’ve been blessedly untrained, and make the most of that gift.
And from there, make something brave and new.
photo credit: Daiga Ellaby