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Make Creativity the Focus of Your Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

According to Dan Berrett, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, some of the most influential and important advances in human history, such as Einstein’s positing of the theory of General Relativity, happened not because of the raw power of an individual intellect, but rather due to the boundlessness of curiosity and creativity of that person.  The problem is that creativity and innovation are neither formal subjects on college and university campuses, nor are they emphasized in many major courses of study. These are, according to Berrett, and much of the writing on Education Unbound, the critical elements needed by college graduates entering a rapidly changing, hyper-connected, global workforce where the jobs of tomorrow don’t even exist today.


A few institutions, such as Stanford are requiring creativity inspiring classes for their incoming students (Berrett, 2013), but in general, those currently enrolled in higher education cannot rely on their institutions to teach them to be creative. That said how can you, as a student, ensure that you are gaining the training that you need to be the kind of innovator who can succeed in a challenging global marketplace driven by innovation?

Fortunately the tools and resources are available right now to help you cultivate your creativity. All you have to do is put them to use. Here’s how:

Step 1: Embrace Interdisciplinarity: While many of you may be attending college with a specific job or career path in mind, you should be mindful of the pace at which the world changes in the 21st Century. That job you have your heart set on today may no-longer exist in five or ten years, or it may have morphed into something  entirely new. One way to prepare yourself for these unforeseen changes is to expand your knowledge base while the opportunity is available. Although your business or pre-med major may not require extensive outside course work, you should take every available opportunity to "learn outside the box."

If a chance presents itself to take an elective, or to choose between two courses, you should stray as far afield as possible. Choose the wacky course that doesn’t seem like it is relevant to your career. Then, not only learn what is being taught, but figure out how it can apply to your core interest. Even in the strangest matches (chemistry and art history for example) connections exist. In this case, think about the chemical processes of aging and what can be done at the molecular level to preserve or restore ancient or classic works of art. These connections may not be obvious or easy to make, but that is great! The more challenging the connection, the more you will exercise and develop your creativity – which is the goal of this post after all.

Step 2: Explore Your Passion: While being a lawyer, doctor, psychologist, etc. may seem like a great career to pursue, don’t forget that you are likely to be stuck in that profession for the next 40+ years. One way to ensure that you are not trapped doing something you don’t like is to combine an area that you are passionate about with this mainstream, stable career aspiration. If your passion is athletics or sports why not focus on becoming a sports agent, orthopedic surgeon, sports psychologist, or something else that combines your passion with your aspiration.

You need not pursue this specialized path in order to embrace your passion either. Just taking courses in subjects that you are passionate about may inspire your creativity to branch out in new and exciting ways. I had a student who was a sociology major and took a documentary film production course with me simply because she was interested in the process. She discovered that she had a passion for film and its ability to create powerful feminist narratives. She is now pursuing a career in the film industry. A passion that she never knew she had has inspired her and now allows her to creatively pursue a career that combines her interests and a passion that she discovered by embracing interdisciplinarity.

Step 3: Find Your Muse: While working outside of your chosen area of study is great, if you really want to be inspired to be creative, take a class or two in the arts: theatre, dance, painting, photography, creative writing, etc. The nature of these fields will push you to expand your understanding of the world. As an example, learning to act can teach you many skills that will be useful regardless of the career you choose to pursue. You can learn the art of timing, creating a convincing, confident character for job interviews, or other acting-specific skills that have application far beyond the stage or screen.

Beyond these concrete and usable skills, participating in the arts will also teach you to see the world in new and different ways. Imagine the power of being able to look through a realist, cubist, or impressionist lens at a problem confronting you in a job? The ability to see a problem and the world through a different perspective will set you apart in the working world and help you overcome any obstacles set in your path. This episode of the interactive, environmental play Out of Order, presents an example of combining theatre and environmental science.
 

Step 4: Read a Good Book (or 20): The Common Core Curriculum being approved for schools across the country is threatening to remove fiction literature from high schools. This is absolutely the wrong path to pursue if you are interested in becoming the kind of creative genius that Berrett discusses. Fiction in particular allows you to explore the world from different points of view. Literature is a treasure trove of creativity. Exploring both the great works of literature and more obscure offerings, can spark your own creative flame. Horror author Stephen King believes that the reading of fiction keeps your mind nimble and alert and helps you to understand and overcome unforeseen events that may arise in your life (Danse Macabre, 1981).

However, the benefits of reading books are not limited to fiction, exploring texts about your passion can present another way of accessing the creativity that will help you adapt and create new jobs as the world changes around you. For example, reading my personal favorite work of non-fiction, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, can help you understand and recognize unique opportunities to be successful when they are presented to you.

Step 5: Get Outside of the Ivory Tower: Finally, while I love higher education and believe that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue a college degree as a way of making the entire society better, there is much that you can learn by stepping off campus. You can find opportunities to follow your passion or just enhance your mainstream career opportunities by getting out into the community and engaging with people. Some ways that you can get off campus are to take on an internship, either in your planned field of employment, or in an area that interests you. You can volunteer in a local school, community center, homeless shelter, or soup kitchen. You can volunteer to coach youth sports, or mentor as a big brother or sister. If your passion is not something readily available, start a group or organization that promotes or supports it. You never know, it might lead to a new and exciting career based on what you love.

Applying Your Creativity After Graduation
We are still in a recession, and the most recent job creation numbers were pretty uninspiring, so finding employment in your chose field may not be easy. As a new college graduate you may well be competing with people with years of experience in the area and great references. You may think that all you have is a diploma, but if you have embraced creativity in your education, you may have much more than you imagine. While this goes against mainstream advice, you should be willing to apply for jobs that you think you can bring value to beyond the base description, even if you may not be a perfect match. Make what you provide beyond the norm clear in your application letters and be prepared to not only demonstrate how you meet the basic requirements in an interview, but also to explain clearly and concisely where you add value beyond anyone else. Don’t be surprised if you fail a few times. Persistence is part of the creative process and you will need it in order to be successful in this challenging global economy.

Image courtesy of Naypong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net