You’re a Creative and You May Not Know It

The best things in life money can’t buy.  

That’s a cliche. And we all say it. 

Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, says what modern research suggests,  “Once you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness.” But when you say money doesn't buy happiness, like we all have at some point in our lives...

Do you feel it in your chest?

Often, we’re going for more money and more acclaim, but it’s creativity that gives you something more valuable than those two impostors. 

Creativity gives you self-exploration. And struggling to explore limits inside yourself is a reward that a check cannot cash.

We work for money, but money can’t teach you to be at ease with a room full of people staring at you. Only a combination of practice, failure, and vulnerability gives you that power.

As an educator, I’ve had my knowledge, authority, and character tested for 6,552 classroom hours. So, when I get up to speak publicly--I’m not worried. 

And I don’t think, “I’m ready for this class period because I have my degree in education, I’ve passed the PRAXIS exam, and I earn almost $45k a year.”

As a comedian, I’ve been ignored, heckled, and told to give up while trying to make people laugh. 

And that happened in my 11th grade English class too.

So, when someone tells me that they don’t agree with my opinion or I look stupid in the shirt I’m wearing--I don’t sweat it. 

Often, we work and desire validation for what we do. When you’re young, it’s a gold star, praise from the coach, or summa cum laude. In the “real world,” you’re trying to be a top performer in your office. But, validation, acclaim, clout, recognition, they're all empty without authentic creativity and self-expression.  

It's like when your smartwatch miscalculates your activity, but you know all you’ve done is wave your hand to ask you for more kale chips. Seeing that number doesn’t make you feel good. Working toward something that you actually earned  is what makes you feel good.

Because without the actual work, and I mean the internal work of pushing through difficulties to become a sharper version of you, that external praise is empty. 

It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the struggle to get those numbers. 

I used to reinforce this idea with my students. Some of them didn’t care about school, and most of the ones that did were only working for the grade. 

I’d say, “The goal of school is getting a good grade? Ok.“

Then I’d point to each student individually.

“You get a 95. You get a 98. You? I like you; you get 100.”

Do you feel accomplished now? Do you feel different?

No. Because a grade is just a number or a letter on a piece of paper that is SUPPOSED to signify what you’ve accomplished.

And it reinforces external validation. 

Adults, with all our stockpiled wisdom, think, “Yeah, I didn’t buy into grades in high school, and it’s silly to buy into them for your self-worth.” But I would argue, when you become an adult, money becomes to us what grades are to students, and the same plot unfolds.

And yes, money is a lot more valuable because it can buy healthcare, a car, and a Dyson vacuum. 

And, no, they won’t accept 11th grade history papers as down payment for a jetski. No matter how tight the thesis is. 

If you care about what you do for those eight or so hours a day, you want to do well. And you want to be recognized for it. And compensated for it. Money is used for motivation, and it is SUPPOSED to signify what you’ve accomplished.  

But we all know people with more money than what they’ve accomplished. 

Students sometimes think that they don’t want to learn or do any classwork but still get an A. That would be the dream, right? But if you get an “A” without the internal struggle, you won’t feel challenged, curious, accomplished, or fulfilled. And more than an easy life, kids need those things.

People sometimes think that they want to win the lottery so they never have to work and can stay on a beach. But if you stay on the beach for more than a few days, you won’t feel challenged, curious, accomplished, or fulfilled.  And more than an easy life, you need those things.  

The purpose of school is not to get a good grade; the purpose is to be a lifelong learner.

The purpose of money is to get you the things you need, not to make you feel whole.

When you don’t put in “A” work, and you get an “A,” you don’t feel proud because you know inside yourself, somewhere, that the measure that matters most is not external validation, which is precarious, but the limits to which you pushed yourself. 

I didn’t become a teacher because I love semicolons, my pay, and high school poetry. I became a teacher because my 11th-grade teacher, Mr. Guerrero, turned back the work that got me solid C’s throughout all of my NYC public schooling and said, 

“I know you can do better than this.” 

And at the end of that assignment, which I don’t remember my grade for, and I turned in three more times, I felt more intelligent, more powerful, and more capable than I ever felt. I teach because I want my students to know what they are capable of.

I study education and how people learn, and I was surprised to learn how much our own identity and self-beliefs factor into our ability to do things and learn from the things we do.

In kids and adults, this looks like, “I’m not a math person.”

“I don’t know how you do that; I’m not a creative person.”

But the goal of creativity is not to be good at creativity (whatever that means).

The goal is not to get an “A” or make a lot of money (which are the metrics our hustle-focused culture understands.)

The goal isn’t the end result. The goal is to create, and as we say in our equity-centered design thinking training, it is about the process. And enjoy all the messy parts of it by accepting there is no “right way.” And that is the way.

Have you created a new lesson or activity that ended up falling flat? Cool. You’re doing it; you’re a creative.  

Did you bake a terrible cake after watching a baking show? Cool. You’re doing creativity.

And you don’t need followers to prove it because you’re not just making yeast rise or stirring the good parts of your lesson together. You’re baking parts of yourself into the final product. When you come with the intention of enjoying the process you feel the reward. And your heart will feel flambé-d.

I’ll take it easy on the baking shows. What I really want you to know is:

Creativity as a process is the metric of success that matters. Because when you treat creativity as a process, learning and improvement is the product. 

You’re a successful creative. You don’t need to wear a beret or a turtleneck to prove it. 

I do. But you don’t have to.

When I look back at my small accomplishments in comedy, I don’t think about winning a new comedian contest. Instead, I think about the man in Greeley who came up to me to give me dap with his eyes shining, from laughter or something else, to tell me that watching me on stage felt like he was talking to his boys back home. 

I think about the woman who heard my jokes about being mixed and told me that she grew up with people asking her, “What are you?” and trying to find a funny way to deal with it.

She settled on, “I’m a human; what are you?”

As an educator, I don’t think about my English Language Learner’s improvement scores on the I-Ready or PSAT or SAT. Instead, I think about my mistakes in Spanish with my Guatemalan student.  And how much we laughed at my mistakes. But I kept going until he felt comfortable enough to start making his own mistakes in English. Humor can be a great teacher. 

At the end of the year, He ran past me in the hall and yelled, “wassup Mister,” with his new friends running alongside him.

That’s the way we’re wired--with all the stats and info, or “A”’s and dollars, we’re still emotional creatures that are emotionally motivated and inextricably linked to stories. Our own especially.  We’re all creative creatures. And we’re all creating our story. 

Starting right now, at the end of this sentence. How does your story of today start?

You’re a Creative and You May Not Know It