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Everyone Was an Artist in Kindergarten

Creativity is contingent on willingness to be judged. At some point, many people lose that.
"Fillette aux nattes et au chapeau vert"
Pablo Picasso, 1956
(Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology/Flickr)

ASPEN, Colo.—Tom Kelley is an innovation consultant. He is also the author of a recent best-selling book on creativity. So when Kelley told his audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival—hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic—today to think back to kindergarten in order to understand how to harness creativity, they thought back to kindergarten.

(I thought about the couple things I remember from kindergarten, but I don't really have enough contiguous memories to just hang out in them. So I imagined what other people's kindergartens were like, which killed the time. Boy, some nice kindergartens.)

Kelley explained that his creativity-consultant predecessor Gordon MacKenzie—who was something of a legend in the world of greeting-card writing at Hallmark in the 1980s, where he operated as the company's Creative Paradox, a title he created—used to go around and speak at schools. He would ask each grade to raise their hands, "Any artists here?"

And in kindergarten, everybody was an artist. Not just an artist, but a two-hands artist: "Me! Me! Me! I'm an artist!"

By the first grade, it was still 100 percent, but it was with one hand. Then it progressed. When MacKenzie talked to the sixth-graders, he would get two or three people raising their hands, nervously looking around like everyone was going to think they were weird.

He reassured them it was okay to be an artist.

"A lot of this starts happening in the fourth grade," Kelley said. "That's a pretty pivotal moment in terms of identifying as creative."

It's not just a fear of failure, Kelley said. It's a fear of being judged. Creativity is as much about the ability to come up with ideas as it is about the courage to act on those ideas. He calls it creative confidence (and called his fraternally co-authored book the same). Everyone is innately creative, it posits; creators are just people who act. And, of course, they don't always succeed.

Kelley suggested the line of thought, "I'm not gonna be perfect, but I'm gonna try stuff." If you like that as an actual mantra, maybe next time you're on the fence about something, say it aloud. Or whisper it repeatedly, always. 

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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