During my first day of high school, my new English teacher had everybody get to know one another by sharing a couple of facts about themselves to the room. The first girl who went— well, I can’t remember what she said, beyond, “I hate math.” The teacher responded by saying, “That’s OK. I find people who hate math tend to do really well with English.”
This was news to me. Math and English had always been my two favorite subjects. I found numbers and logic problems to be reassuring, almost soothing. (Like Cady says in Mean Girls about math: “It’s the same in every country.”) My teacher probably only said that to make my math-averse classmate feel better, but it added to my mini-identity crisis that had begun the year before, when my portfolio application to the writing program at an arts’ high school was rejected for not being “creative” enough. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer when I grew up. I had this romantic belief that I was born to be a writer, but pop psychology seemed to be telling me that “left-brained” people (i.e., people who tend to be more logical and analytical) are less suited to creative, “right brained” endeavors. The whole right-brained vs. left-brained duality has no grounding in actual fact, I later learned, but having fully believed this myth at the time, it seemed to support I was doomed to a life of being an unimaginative bore.
I am 25 now, and I work full time as a professional freelance writer. I publish all sorts of things: essays, reviews, criticisms, but my favorite things to publish are creative humor pieces. I don’t think I was born to be a writer, but I don’t think anyone is really born to be anything. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. And because I am a person that thrives under structure, of course I had to dissect why and how I work the way I do.
1. Rethink the whole idea of “creativity.”
I. Recognize that creativity is not limited to the arts. Being a creative person doesn’t mean you have to be an artist living La Vie Boheme in Paris wearing a beret (though if you do decide that’s your style direction, more power to you). No matter what you want to be when you grow up, it is a helpful skill to be able to make something out of nothing, or to approach topics from unpredictable angles. I am reading a book with the best title right now: It’s called The Joy of X, and it’s all about how some of the most essential mathematical formulas were developed by people who stretched their brain powers like Silly Putty to work out solutions to equations. A lot of the math that I learned in high school—like the Pythagorean theorem or the value of pi—was initially discovered by people who looked at regular triangles and circles once upon a time and were able to think outside the box (or the “regular hexahedron” if you will—just some geometry humor for you!!).
I think a lot about Rookie writer Hazel’s interview with tbe astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson—specifically, the part where he says:
In the history of science, there are three kinds of discoveries you can make. One of them is what you expected to be there—confirming your understanding of nature. Another one is, you don’t find what you expect to be there, so you have to go back and rethink everything. And sometimes when you’re forced to go back and rethink things you end up making discoveries you had not previously anticipated.
The sciences, obviously, involve a lot of analysis and and adhering to rules, but it also involves constantly restructuring the way you think about the world and finding new ways to approach old matter in order to better understand it. (It doesn’t hurt that the universe is endlessly fascinating as well, which Tyson also gets into in the end of that interview.)
This is true for other careers as well! Last year, I interviewed a taxidermist at a natural history museum named Allis Markham. Her job combines sculpture, craft, and biology. She spoke of styles unique to iconic taxidermists that she admires, and says about her work, “If you look at a Venn diagram of science and art, taxidermy is where they meet.”
These jobs are just two examples out of many, but I love them because they prove that the different skills and interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When science and math work together with art, magic happens (but not MAGIC magic. Logic magic).
II. Recognize that being analytical can fuel creativity.
The arts are filled with math geeks. Sometimes this manifests itself in obvious ways, like when an episode of Futurama created a functioning mathematical theorem to make a wacky plot work. Going back a few more years, Leonardo da Vinci (you know, the guy who painted the Mona Lisa?) was a mathematician who filled his visual art with references to math and science. Even if you are the type of person who is constantly falling asleep during your first period calculus class, how neat is it that this (not-so) secret language of numbers permeates cartoons and other lauded works of fine art?