Living paycheck to paycheck, creatively speaking

Between ages 3 and 10, I lived in Mesa, Arizona. The winters in Mesa are beautiful, but the summers are hell. Like, pretty much literally. Temperatures in the summer average well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes reaching 120+ degrees.

I remember my 4th grade year particularly well because my classroom was in “the portables,” as they were called by us Ishikawa Dragons. “The portables” was an unattractive cluster of prefabricated metal boxes behind the playground. Being in a portable meant dealing with a longer walk to class, scorpions and other critters, and, worst of all, sucky A/C.

That school year, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon was spent completing math packets–aka “super packets” or something similarly catchy. There were 15 different math packets that increased in difficulty from 1 to 15. Everyone started with 1 and worked their way up at their own pace. I didn’t really like math–although to be fair, I don’t think anyone liked math then (and/or now?)–so my “super” strategy was to work my butt off during the first couple weeks, gain a comfortable lead on my peers, and then chill the rest of the semester–using super packet time to draw pictures or something.

My strategy went great, initially. In fact, my teacher, noticing my super duper super packet skills, allowed me to skip a few packet levels. Once I felt that my lead was cushy enough, I started to slack off. Weeks would pass without me completing even five math problems. My peers were slowly gaining on me, but I didn’t mind. Sure, my teacher was probably disappointed that her child prodigy student was a flop (fine, she probably never considered me a child prodigy) but as long as I at least blended in with the other students, I was ok. Until I wasn’t ok.

Eventually, my fellow 4th grade dragons started catching up to me and then, one by one, began surpassing me in the super packets. I was no longer a leader. I was no longer blending in. I was a straggler. But that wasn’t the worst part.

When I decided it was time for me to take the super packets seriously again, I found that I had fallen out of the math habit. I didn’t know how to do a lot of the problems. By taking my super packet hiatus, I hadn’t just pressed pause on my math skills, I had regressed. My peers who had stayed consistent strengthened their math skills and their problem solving skills. I had severely weakened both.

I eventually dropped out of elementary school and went on to start a one billion dollar tech company. Joke.

It’s amazing how these little childhood memories end up being profound learning experiences for me years after the fact. This memory has ended up being, perhaps, one of my most meaningful lessons in creativity.

It’s tempting to hoard ideas and save them for rainy days. It’s tempting to work ahead in order to compensate for future laziness. When it comes to creative work, these temptations are dangerous. Creativity is not merely an idea bank, it is a machine that needs regular maintenance. In order to keep our creative machine going, we need to constantly flex our creative muscles, we need to consistently put ourselves in situations that force us to be creative. Scary? Sometimes–it’s never fun feeling like you have run out of ideas. Worth it? You bet–every time you feel you are scraping the bottom of the barrel for creative ideas, you are forcing yourself to be vulnerable, to be open to the raw powers of creative inspiration. That is when the magic happens.

In the words of Paul Arden:

If you hoard your ideas you will end up living off your reserves and eventually become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. The more you give away the more comes back to you.

Creativity: The more you give away, the more comes back to you.

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