Creativity and Outlets: Impacting life, work and education
Updated: Mar 13
By Michael Whaby
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein
As a biomedical PhD student, I find it hard to step away from my work, and if it weren’t for my outlets, I would never do anything but do and/or think about work. Outlets like writing (ta-da), playing guitar (see GIF below), and going to the gym provide me with some sanity. These outlets, I believe, have a direct impact on my personal and intellectual well-being. Not only do they give me an “escape” from work, but they also help me develop skills and habits that contribute to my desired lifestyle.
(Yes, 'tis a GIF of me playing a song that I wrote on guitar)
Discipline and creativity come to mind when I think of my outlets. I think back to the many years—literal years—I spent teaching myself to play guitar, the pain and perceived inconvenience of going to the gym consistently, and the amount of time put into writing. Discipline is to thank for the consistent practice and work put in to obtain these new skills and habits. I believe that discipline and practice are often pre-requisites for creativity. For instance, it would be hard to make a guitar solo if you’ve never learned to play guitar. Only after obtaining certain skills and knowledge could creativity be efficiently engaged.
Being able to engage in and employ creativity provides a sense of euphoria that work alone doesn’t always provide. I often find that upon returning to work after, say, a weekend where I got some productive creative work done, I feel re-charged, whereas if I spend my whole weekend studying for an exam, I’m usually drained—even though this is sometimes necessary to get the grades you need. It sounds like a quick fix to a bad work week; however, productive creative work might take as much time and energy as studying would, yet the effects can be quite different.
Here, I want to talk about creativity a little bit more. I also want to elaborate on some research that sought to address whether creative outlets and activities do, in fact, have an impact on work and overall well-being. Lastly, I want to touch on some thoughts about creativity in education—particularly regarding medical education. By the end, I hope to convince you that taking time for outlets and creativity is usually not counter-productive; it’s quite the opposite.
Creativity, outlets, and work
In the quote that introduces this post, Einstein implies that creativity requires intelligence. I’d argue that discipline, as I stated before, plays a role as well—there are definitely intelligent people lacking creative potential. Creativity can be thought of in stages: there is creative potential, creative accomplishment, and creative talent. Creative potential is what it sounds like—having the potential to produce creative work. Creative accomplishment is actually making something creative, while creative talent refers to the consistent production of creative work. You can imagine that each of these stages requires intelligence, but also practice to gain some form of mastery that will allow for stage progression.
Creativity in one field, even in the context of a creative outlet, can provide benefits, skills, or knowledge that carry over into another field. For example, I practice to become a better, more consistent writer not only for this blog, but as a PhD student there are many tasks that rigorous writing is essential for. In this regard, the benefits to me are clear. But there’s more to it: In a study from San Francisco State University, they actually found a correlation between creative activity and positive performance-related outcomes at work. Their findings suggest that encouraging creative interventions in the workplace could benefit employees not only in terms of their well-being, but also in regard to their work performance.
Interestingly, the one experience that was not observed as significant in this study was detachment—the ability of employees to disengage from work. However, this makes sense if the creative outlet or activity is something that can provide benefit to work. When I write, I don’t feel detached from my work, I actually feel better about it. It’s easy to over-think and induce stress when pressed by deadlines and failed experiments (which happens more often than not in research…I think). But writing, for instance, offers reflection, practice, and the ability to potentially help others. This makes me anything but detached, I feel even more engaged.
Creativity and medical education
I think many would agree that the heavily metrics-driven application process for medical school lacks encouragement for creativity or originality. Even though metrics (i.e. MCAT) and academic advancement are pre-requisites for medical students, there is not always a direct relation between academic success and clinical competency. Regarding this, Michael Green, M.D., a professor at Penn State University, reflected on this quote in an article published in the Journal of Medical Humanities:
“…medical education needs to revise its opinion of the kind of students we want, the curricula we propose to offer and the type of teacher we wish to develop.
There needs to be a focus on ‘ﬁt’.
We need to encourage the ability to wonder.” – Shee Lippell
How can medical students really have the capacity to wonder amidst all of the information that is required of them to memorize and then utilize? The analogy of drinking water from a firehose is often used when students describe medical school, referring to the copious amounts of information blasted in a small period of time with no opportunity to even think or question.
The fact that brain capacity is such an important facet of success in medicine raises a question that relates to all realms of education: Is all of the information that students spend time learning really going to add long-term benefit to their careers? From experience, I would say no—not for scientists, and surely not for physicians either. If a focus could be placed on garnering the skills necessary to think and learn independently, rather than being force-fed information that may or may not be applicable, then students might find more room for wondering, questioning, and creative thinking. Remember, however, that creative thinking in a specific field requires a foundation of knowledge in that domain. Implementing this focus into education would require “trimming the fat” and replacing nonessential information with meaningful learning experiences that will provide life-long benefits, not just benefits that end once a grade is awarded.
The key takeaway here is that good, creative, and even novel work tends to originate from multiple roots. Keeping your mind trapped in one domain is like painting a picture in black and white. But if you start to add more colors you might be surprised with the outcome in ways that you never expected. The world that we live in is not black and white, and adding color and drawing outside of the lines is how innovation happens. If we can encourage this type of behavior, especially in education and in the workplace, then we might start to see a better trend in originality and overall satisfaction—a feeling that is overwhelmingly absent in students and employees alike.
Baptiste Barbot, Maud Besançon & Todd Lubart (2015) Creative potential in educational settings: its nature, measure, and nurture. Education, 3-13, 43:4, 371-381, DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2015.1020643.
Eschleman, K.J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G. and Barelka, A. (2014), Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance‐related outcomes. J Occup Organ Psychol, 87: 579-598. doi:10.1111/joop.12064.
Green, M., Myers, K., Watson, K., Czerwiec, M., Shapiro, D., & Draus, S. (2016). Creativity in medical education: The value of having medical students make stuff. Journal of Medical Humanities, 37(4), 475-483. DOI 10.1007/s10912-016-9397-1.
TED Radio Hour: Jumpstarting Creativity (https://open.spotify.com/episode/04a2YPvR4O9d6yI0CU614p).