There are many conversations taking place right now about creativity -- how our future depends on it, how our kids are losing it, how most schools are killing it, and how parents ought to be nurturing and encouraging it.
I recently attended a lecture on the topic by Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard's Technology & Entrepreneurship Center and author of "Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World." The lecture took place in an auditorium that was packed with parents, well-motivated on behalf of their kids.
As the mother of two small children, I, too, am very interested in what enables young innovators to flourish and perhaps even go on to change the world.
But I am equally interested in what reignites "old" innovators. That is, how can people well past what our culture defines as their prime awaken to mobilize dormant creativity?
"I loved your book for young innovators," I told Wagner a few days after his lecture. "But what about the rest of us? Where's our path to innovating, to changing the world?"
"The path is still there," Wagner said with a chuckle, "but it can become more difficult to find later in life."-
Why is that?
"We must work very hard to listen to ourselves, because the distractions continue to multiply."
Living a life of innovation needs no justification, but there are plenty of good reasons -- both pragmatic and otherwise -- to do so.
The link between creativity and better mental and physical health is well established by research. Creating helps make people happier, less anxious, more resilient and better equipped to problem-solve in the face of hardship.
Studies say that the stress of work is consuming many of us. And that stress can lead to weight gain, elevated glucose levels, upper-respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease.
Confucius once said that if you choose a job you love, you will never work a day in your life. Confucius must have known then what science now confirms: Passion protects us physiologically, allowing us to work longer and harder than we would be able to toiling away at a job we hate.
Imagining and creating give us a sense of purpose, Wagner says. If you lack those things, a pervasive sense of emptiness becomes the default. The great seduction later in life is that many of us fill the vacuum with false friends, material things and medication, both legal and otherwise.
The first question Wagner asks is: "Are you willing to settle for less money?" Obligations to family, children and mortgages lock many people into career paths that provide a certain income but far less satisfaction.
"I recently met someone trained as an M.D. who is teaching high school science," Wagner says. "She settled for less money but is much happier."
More questions to ask yourself: Are you giving back? Are you making a difference? Are you following your passion when you're not working, or has working become an addiction?
The creative path can be an unconventional one, and choosing it may sometimes be a difficult pursuit. Wagner offers some sound advice that can help guide the way:
Shut out the noise. At some point it's time to stop blaming family, friends and life circumstances. "Look inward," Wagner says. Ultimately the path to innovation requires a certain kind of inner strength, a spiritual discipline. It's important to cultivate the discipline of listening to yourself. Even if you have no support, the support that ultimately matters most must come from within you.
Believe in yourself and your vision. Begin by making a declaration of yourself and your intentions. Put a stake in the ground by making a statement out loud in front of a mirror. Write about your passions in a journal entry, even on a piece of paper. We all have ideas and perceptions, but you can't follow your dream and vision unless you can give it a voice.
Continue to learn. We are wired to be lifelong learners. "It's in our DNA," Wagner says. Is the spirit of curiosity still alive as you get older? Do you listen to your own questions, ideas and interests? Do you make time for them?
Wagner recommends continuing to study things that you care about and developing an area of expertise, inside or outside a formal classroom setting. Seek out teachers who are passionate about their subject. Make a sustained effort over time to master your own interests.
Redefine failure and embrace iteration. By now, you have failed -- and probably more than once. And if you haven't, you are probably playing it too safe.
Accept failure, Wagner writes, because though it "hurts like hell -- especially failing in public ... you will learn some of your most valuable lessons from failure -- far more than from your successes."
We need to redefine "failure" as a society. "It has become a pejorative in our vocabulary," Wagner says. No one wants to fail, and yet you can't pursue passion and purpose without a great deal of trial and error and multiple failures.
Wagner prefers the term "iteration," a design concept which involves the continuous prototyping, testing, analyzing and refining of an idea or product.