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Creativity & The New Normal

Published on 20th April 2020

A few weeks before our daily realities changed to the ‘new normal’, and such routine things became impossible, I visited a good friend of mine.

As we sat there shooting the breeze about our salad days, my friend’s son, Luke, was blissfully engrossed in his impressive collection of Hot Wheels cars. Luke is 6, and while he’s one of the coolest cats I know (with a sartorial flair to rival Kanye’s), on the whole he’s a fairly regular little guy.

But as I watched him play, I was struck by something fascinating. This kid was directing his own production. He had divided his cars into a cast of opposing protagonists – there were heroes and villains. He had designed a location set, comprised of a haphazard selection of plant pots, books and doggy chew toys. He had devised a plot, in which the good guys had to stop the bad guys… at all costs.

And he was improvising a narrative as he went, with different tones of voice (not to mention accents) for the heroes and the villains. There was even a plot twist – the appearance of a fearsome dinosaur looked set to bring our heroes’ mission to a monstrous finale, but for the last minute intervention of none other than SpongeBob SquarePants, that champion of good guys everywhere.

Luke’s improvised dramatic production got me reflecting on something I’ve always felt to be true – from a young age we all have the capacity to express our imagination and creativity, we just need to keep relearning how as we go. James Victore touches on this viewpoint in his book ‘Feck Perfuction – Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life’. He states:

As kids we’re all weird. We have our interests and activities, and we like to run at them full throttle. As we get older we realise there’s a price to standing out, so we shrink from our weirdness in fear of anyone finding out who we really are. Being weird or different – even creative – should not be a source of shame or embarrassment but a torch to be held high.

The scientist George Land conducted a study in 1968 which found that ‘non-creative’ behaviour is learned. So when someone says “I dunno, I’m not a creative person” what they’re really saying is “I’ve been conditioned to believe I’m not creative”. Whether by teachers, peer conformity or parental expectations, over time some of us can unlearn the propensity for day-dreaming and risk-taking that we had as ‘weird’ kids.

In trying to define what creativity actually is, the truth is there are as many explanations as there are Hot Wheel cars in Luke’s toy box. Most revolve around finding connections and generating solutions to problems. Personally, I like to think of creativity as simply a vehicle for ideas and imagination. Now, in this new normal, faced with seemingly endless rolling news reports of terrifying statistics, it could be argued there’s no better time to relearn the importance of imagination and creativity for our collective emotional wellbeing. And there is indeed evidence to suggest this might be happening.

A recent Kantar report, which analysed almost 9000 instagram posts since the onset of social distancing, found a distinct trend away from pouting selfies and superficial memes towards a more thoughtful, reflective, arguably creative approach. Whether that’s through information dissemination and social commentary, people sharing how they’re adapting to their new circumstances, or simply showcasing their art and craft creations, as a human family we seem to be relighting those creative torches Victore spoke about.

As MXB’s Creative Director I’ve had the privilege of advising clients on ways to connect with their customers to provide inspiration and support from their unique brand perspectives during this period of uncertainty. And on a national level, enforced social distancing has certainly moved brands as diverse as Vodafone & BirdsEye towards leveraging similar, user generated approaches in their advertising.

From appearing in brand ads, hosting orchestral recitals on Zoom, to the touching, funny and emotional tributes to the real heroes of the NHS, people are expressing themselves individually and collectively in more creative and interesting ways. The change is tangible, and somehow helps bring us closer.

When the big things happen in life, there are always learnings to be had. I like to think that one of the good things to come out of this new normal will be a greater understanding that we’re all predisposed with the capacity to be imaginative, empathetic and yes, creative. And if that means being a little weird, that’s ok by me.

(By the way, the heroes won. Luke reckons they always do in the end).