You Are a Creative: One of the Keys to Happiness

“Corporate policies and procedures are designed with one aim: to harness a man to the plow and make him produce. But the soul refuses to be harnessed; it knows nothing of Day Timers and deadlines and P&L statements. The soul longs for passion, for freedom, for life.”

—John Eldredge

This is one of my favorite quotes from John Eldredge, a writer and Christian thinker whom I have admired for a long time. Something about this quote resonates deep inside of me. I’ve felt the way a cubicle can suffocate, even without that fourth wall. I’ve experienced enough office politics to have my own political talk show on AM radio. And I know what it’s like to hit impossible goals and deadlines that only bring someone else’s dream closer to reality. As Eldredge says, “the soul longs for passion, for freedom, for life.” And that’s a tall order to bring to a job—no matter where you work.

I used to believe I was among the few who struggle to stay inside the lines, fill out their TPS reports on time, and find joy in the mundane. I thought there was something wrong with me. Maybe there’s a spiritual issue I need to work on, I thought. Maybe I’m just spoiled and ungrateful. Those things may be true, but the longer I live and work, the more I realize I’m not so alone.

I discovered that no matter where I am—and I’m not just talking about my job—I’m much happier when I’m able to pour myself into something creative. (Hence, this blog, books, articles, etc.) That got me thinking: could it be the same for everyone? Could there be something in the work of creativity that, just maybe, we all have in common? I think there is, and it just might be a long-lost secret to a full life.

Creativity in Three Parts

Creativity is tough to define because it takes so many forms, so many expressions. Are a writer and a painter really doing the same thing? A figure skater and an inventor? On one level—the level of skills and talents—no, they’re doing completely different tasks. But at the heart, I think all these people are, in fact, working from the same core desires: power, imagination, and risk.

Let me explain.

To do creative work, a person must have some level of power. A painter can’t paint his masterpiece if he’s not in control of his brushes or his palette. A writer can’t give herself over to the great American novel without command of a pen or a keyboard. A creative person must, in a sense, be the god of the world they’re creating. This is true of everything from scientific discovery to Lego construction—the more power a person has, the more creativity he or she can express.

There are, of course, dangers to having too much authority. Think Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy versus The Lord of the Rings. Once Jackson had proven he could rule the box office with Rings, he was given free reign over the prequel series, and it suffered for it. (There was just no good reason to turn one book into three movies.) Boundaries are good, but a generous measure of authority is needed for good creative work to flow.

Then, of course, there is imagination. However, don’t think pink dragons in the sky. Instead, consider imagination as dreaming up what’s possible and then taking steps to make that dream a reality. For a writer, this could be thinking up a fantasy world with those aforementioned pink dragons and setting it all down on paper with just the right words. For Steve Jobs, it was the iPhone. For Adele, it was music that everyone in the car can agree on.

As with authority, there are limits to imagination. For the act of imagining to matter, it has to be expressed. A writer who keeps all her ideas tucked away in her mind is like an expectant mother who refuses to give birth. Steve Jobs’ concept drawings for the iPhone on their own wouldn’t have changed the world a lick. And an Adele who’s afraid to take center stage would have left families fighting over the car radio.

And speaking of being afraid to take the stage, that’s the final element in all creative work: every creative act is a risk. Words on paper are there for the world to read. Paintings are hung to be seen and interpreted. Dance routines are performed to be viewed and enjoyed. And in each of these, there is an artist who’s saying, “Here’s what I made. It’s a part of me. What do you think (of me)?” It’s a vulnerable spot to be in, not unlike asking a girl out on a first date. But it’s part of being creative. If has to be, because power and imagination require a person to pour herself into her work. And in that, there is the possibility of rejection, of “Let’s just be friends, okay?”

Power, imagination, and risk. These are the things our souls long for, because in them, we come alive.

Slaves have no power. They cannot afford to dream the impossible and make it happen. And any risks they take may come at the cost of their very lives. But with freedom comes a new way to be human, though I’m discovering it’s actually a very old way—the oldest, in fact. And it doesn’t take being a writer or a poet or an inventor to live this kind of life. It was meant for all of us. We are all creatives.

What do you think? Have you found this to be true in your own experience? Is there something I’ve missed? I’d love to hear if this resonates with you or if I’m way off the mark.

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