Why Creativity in the Student Affairs Workplace Makes Everything Better
There was nobody more dead serious about creativity than my dad. An abstract painter his entire adult life and an art instructor in postsecondary for more than 30 years, the act of being creative and the results of creativity were the pinnacle of thinking to him; the most stellar of human achievements. Academy Awards night was holy time. Listening to a movie score played by an orchestra was church. Galleries were silent, sacred places of colour, beauty, and making. When, in 1990, a Conservative MP said of the National Gallery’s acquisition of Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire” that, “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about ten minutes would do the trick,” my dad was sickened and furious. This comment was the height of ignorance.
I mention my dad to admit my bias. Not just by my father, I was raised and am still nurtured in a family of artists and creative people. It’s in my blood even though it’s not always apparent in what I do.
So what was I thinking when I offered, in a careless and blasé way, to write about creativity and Student Affairs work on this blog? To write and think about creativity is to explore and mine the vast and varied territory that made my dad who he was—a person I still grieve for and am in awe of. To write about creativity is to think about a mystery that is also one of the most poignant ways to make sense of human experience.
Suddenly I’m daunted by this task.
But creativity can be invoked in almost everyone and in many situations. My dad knew that too. That’s why he taught art and creativity. Even though we don’t always understand it, struggle to define it, and are surprised when we find it, creativity is both commonplace and important. It’s fundamental to who we are and what we need.
Which leads me to Student Affairs work and being creative. Luckily, I find in the research the sort of respect and reverence for creativity that my dad had. It’s complicated, the research says. We’re only beginning to know it scientifically. And it’s fundamental to leading a meaningful life.
This is what I learned. Forget the left brain/right brain stuff. That’s old news. Recent research in neuroscience finds that creativity engages multiple regions of the brain in complex connection networks and in a dynamic way in response to the specific creative task at hand. Turns out that the creative brain looks more like what happens when Serena Williams engages her whole self in returning a wicked serve and not really like the left brain switch turned off so that the right brain, previously in the dark, can be flicked on. Rather, it’s a whole brain thing that, in a recent and ongoing study of creative people across fields, from artistic to scientific, is not necessarily connected to a genius IQ and most often requires a long process phase—exploration, investigation, integrative thinking, incubation, a rest period, and then novel discovery when the mind is often somewhere else entirely.
Drawing on neuroscience research and our current fascination with creativity and innovation, contemporary essayists are exploring the distinction between creativity as a way of being and creativity as a result of being creative. While in our contemporary, market-driven culture, creative products—concepts and things—are valued more than creativity as a state of being, there is acknowledgement that now, in history, and in other cultures, living and experiencing the world creatively is inherently worthwhile and meaningful in and of itself. What does that look like? It looks like observing, interpreting, and embellishing experience with your own sensibility. It looks like infusing the world, when you meet it—through action and thought—with the uniqueness of the self. A creative product may or may not come from this. It’s still a human mystery.
And thinkers in the world of technology, in particular, are wondering how to create the conditions for creativity in industry, because creativity in work brings more innovation, productivity, and workplace well-being. When an employee is engaged in a creative project, they feel part of something larger than themselves which contributes to a sense that work has meaning and purpose. Being creative at work puts people into a state of flow—where time drops away, the needs of the body are forgotten, and all energy is in the thinking and the project. Flow is pleasurable. It’s good when employees feel pleasure in their work. When creativity leads to a tangible product, there is pride of ownership and satisfaction. Again, lending meaning to the world of work. But trust has to be there too, and support for risk. Creativity comes with the possibility of painful failure (which is why creativity is also connected to depression in the research). If there is no trust amongst employees and in their leader, there is no creativity.
So why does creativity in the Student Affairs workplace make everything better? Because creativity, the state of being and what’s made, creates personal well-being, pleasure, satisfaction, pride, integrative and complex thinking, and a sense of meaning for the individual. These human attributes and qualities are important to promote, for our staff so that they can experience them, but also for our students, who are sometimes vulnerable, and certainly guided by our staff.
Creativity is a magic of being human. It is an asset at our disposal when we find it and cultivate it. How can we do that in Student Affairs? As a leader, I can cultivate creativity by giving the people I am guiding latitude in their work, their curiosity, and their exploration. I can build a community of trust so that my employees know that making mistakes is inevitable and okay. I can encourage a diversity of thinking and instil confidence in people so that they can present their unique view. I can lead by example. Be out there, trying to infuse myself in what I do—with authenticity, fear, and joy all at the same time. I can make a big flop, which I’ve done, or I can make something beautiful, which I’ve also done.
I’m inspired to do all of this by my dad.
To help my creative process for this piece, I found inspiration in the works of others. If you’d like to delve farther into the magic of creativity, Flow, and a meaningful life, please give them a read: