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I’ve been reading about creativity, and I can guess at what you might be thinking.

They write books about that?

I used to think the same way. Either you have it. Or you don’t. What’s there to write about?

You might be surprised. Almost 38 years ago, for instance, I was born into this world as a not-creative type. But I’ve changed.

Illustration. In fifth grade, I took an admissions test for a special program that the district was offering for at-risk students. I aced the reading comprehension and numeric memory portions of the test. In fact, I earned a perfect score on the memory part – something that apparently made me kind of special. But on the section that examined creativity, I scored in the bottom quartile. My parents received a letter from the district. Out of 100 possible points, I had earned only three.

Students with low scores on this test often have trouble socializing, they’re less flexible than their peers, they struggle to break projects down into smaller tasks, to problem solve, to prioritize. They are easily overwhelmed by new situations and expectations. They struggle to express their emotions. They are considered a retention risk. At age 10, I had been identified as a potential high school dropout.

Because I wasn’t creative.

Creativity – it turns out – is important.

Fortunately, creativity can also be taught. I made it into that special program, and my teacher (whose last name reminded me of atomic number 27) helped me to do the work of creativity. I learned how to steal someone else’s idea, make a little change, and call that idea mine – a process my teacher called “piggybacking.” I learned how to use sensory prompts and word-association to quickly generate new possibilities – a process my teacher called “ideation.” I learned how to pace myself when coming up with possible solutions in order to keep from getting ahead of my ideas – a skill that my teacher said would lead to “fluency.” And I learned a lot about work.

Creativity – it turns out – is work.

Creativity, which I’ve learned to define as the process of making new connections between old ideas, seems to require the following kinds of work:

Collecting: Old ideas are everywhere. They’re in the things we do, the conversations we have, the systems and processes of our lives, our families, our communities. They’re in books and in programs and in people. Being creative requires that we collect the ideas we find. Even bad ideas.

Observing: People are constantly connecting old ideas; pay attention to what they put together, how they do it, and why.

Imagining or Experimenting: Being creative requires asking a question. What if … ? Why don’t we … ? Could I … ? Or taking a risk.

Whatever you call it, creating or connecting, what it comes down to is putting old things together in order to make new things.

So I’ve been reading about creativity. And thinking back on my childhood. And wondering … what if our community had to take that test? How would we do? And could we change?

What if our community had to take that test? How would we do? And could we change?

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