There was a period when I was little during which I refused to go by the name Alex.
For a while, I would respond only to Henry. This was a reference to the movie Rookie of the Year, which is about a twelve year-old kid, Henry Rowengartner, who becomes a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs after he breaks his arm and discovers that the injury allows him to throw faster than most major leaguers.
After that, it was Charles, after Charles Barkley, who at the time was one of the best players in the NBA. I planned to model my game after his when I eventually turned pro.
The best one, though, was probably Hakeem. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was one of the best basketball players in the world, a graceful center who led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships. I idolized The Dream, as evidenced by all the jerseys and posters I had and highlight videos I repeatedly watched. You can imagine the look on people’s faces when a four year-old Jewish boy demanded that, instead of his real name, they address him by the name of a seven foot tall Nigerian.
It was a day of reckoning for anyone who made the mistake of trying to call me Alex. I would get pissed. I couldn’t wrap my head around their inability to see that I was clearly the four year-old incarnate of a fictional adolescent pitcher in the major leagues or an NBA MVP, depending on the day. I shouldn’t have had to explain this to them.
Looking back, I don’t think I actually believed that I was another person. This wasn’t an early sign of some sort of sport-specific schizophrenia. But I did believe that I could, at will, channel my idols such that I was in fact some younger version of them. It was make-believe combined with self-actualization. This transformed the games of backyard baseball with my dad and basketball on the little Fisher-Price hoop in my room, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are some of the best memories of my childhood.
Our Creative Birthright
As ridiculous as this story is, everyone has their own version of it. Kids have an incredible capacity for building intricate imaginary worlds and fully immersing themselves in them. Inanimate plastic doll houses and action figures, blank pieces of paper, even sticks in the yard become living entities in children’s hands, complete with their own personal stories and significance. Think about all of the games and characters you concocted when you were little. All kids play make-believe. It seems that the capacity for imagination and creativity is a fundamental, innate part of who we are as humans. This is our Creative Birthright.
Yet many of us lose touch with this part of ourselves as we get older. This probably happens for a number of reasons — pressure to grow up and conform, an emphasis on pragmatism, role models who have lost touch with their own creative side — but most of it has to do with how we’re ‘educated’. We go to school and learn how to memorize and reproduce facts. We write essays that must adhere to a strict set of grammatical and structural rules. We are evaluated, on a fixed numerical scale, exclusively on the quality of our outputs rather than the process of our inputs.
This is a perfectly designed system for killing our creative spirit.
There is, of course, a relatively small minority who continue to exercise their imagination: the artists, musicians, theatre types, and so on. This is often because they show early signs of exceptional talent in these domains and therefore have a chance of producing future value (money) through these creative pursuits. Otherwise, those who elect to participate in these activities purely for fun will eventually be pressured out of them in favor of more practical and sensible endeavors. This is harmful on multiple levels.
Ironically, a diminished capacity for creativity actually hurts us on a practical level because it inhibits our ability to solve problems effectively or generate ideas that lead to meaningful change. When we repeatedly practice a structured, formulaic mode of thinking, our muscle for seeing things in new or different ways atrophies. Novel ideas seem impossible because we’ve lost our ability to imagine a world that doesn’t resemble the one in front of us. Rather than ideas and solutions that lead to material changes in our lives, we end up with feeble, uninspired modifications. Instead of an automobile, we get a horse with a more comfortable saddle.
Perhaps more important, though, is that losing touch with our Creative Birthright creates an existential void because we are not living as we were meant to.
Exercise offers a useful analogy here. We are born with the ability and need to move, which children naturally understand. They don’t need to be forced to exercise; they feel compelled to move, and so they do. But as we get older, we often lose touch with this natural fulfillment of our fundamental need for activity, and we suffer for it.
The same thing happens with creativity. We come into this world with the ability to endlessly imagine, to conceptualize something from nothing. When we’re young we naturally express this ability; we feel compelled to create, and so we do. And then we grow up and stop imagining and creating. I believe this also causes us to suffer. We’re suppressing a core part of who we are.
What Do You Want to Be?
Once I got a bit older and went back to going by my actual name, I moved on to other outlets of creativity. At first I really wanted to draw and paint. My parents got me nice charcoal pencils, a beautiful sketch book, a canvas, and various oil and acrylic paints from Texas Art Supply. But it turned out that I really sucked at both of these activities, and I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them.
What did feel more natural to me, however, was writing. I enjoyed it, and I was good at it. Writing seemed like it could be the perfect mode of creative expression for me. But for some reason, it wasn’t something I felt compelled to turn into a hobby.
I suspect this had something to do with the kinds of identity-focused questions we ask kids versus the process-oriented ones that we should: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” rather than “What do you want to do when you grow up?” When exploring creative outlets, I became more concerned with the identity that accompanied the activity than the activity itself. For whatever reason, I was interested in the idea of being an artist, but being a writer wasn’t something that sounded appealing at the time.
As a result, the only writing I did was to serve a specific purpose. One time, in an effort to convince my parents that I should be allowed to play more video games or something, I wrote a sort of treatise modeled after the Declaration of Independence. It was a sizable document, complete with detailed formatting and multi-layered persuasive reasoning. They got a kick out of it. “If you put half as much effort into your schoolwork, you’d be at the top of your class.”
The problem was that schoolwork was mind-numbing. The writing we did for school was dry and academic, never deviating from grammatical convention nor requiring any sort of imagination. While I still enjoyed the writing process itself, nothing about the essays we wrote in school inspired me to do any kind of writing outside of it.
And so I didn’t. As I got older, I continued to focus on what I wanted to be: a lawyer, then an engineer, then an economist, and eventually just someone who made money. I continued to write only when it was required, which became mostly emails.
In the rare event that I did decide to work on a creative project, I somehow failed to see the direct link between working on the project and the resultant feelings of fulfillment. Starting a company in college, outlining a children’s book (that I never wrote), and writing the occasional rap verse were all creative endeavors that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yet it never occurred to me that I might stand to benefit from being more intentional about building creative work into my daily life. As a result, any underlying creative energy mostly remained dormant, and my creative muscle atrophied.
Some part of me must have known that this was causing a void in my life. When someone would ask what I would do with my life if money wasn’t an object, I usually said “write.” The fact that my instinctual answer was a creative activity which I was most suited for should have tipped me off to what was missing. But it didn’t. I continued on living the same way, and I continued to feel an inescapable sense of discontent.
When I finally started to work on understanding my values and what was most important to me, I became much more intentional about designing a life that I wanted. A central piece of this was to stop talking about writing and start actually doing it. Hence, this blog was born.
I’m not going to claim that it’s been a panacea, but writing regularly has genuinely changed my life.
There is a feeling that is unique to creative work which cannot be arrived at any other way. It’s a feeling of engagement with the world and with yourself, of physical and psychological flow, of meaningful progress. When you’ve created something that did not previously exist, whether it’s an essay, a painting, a song, a coffee table, a strategy, or even a single play on a basketball court, you feel alive. This is not a coincidence. We are born with the ability and need to create because it’s what enables our species to survive and thrive. It’s crucial to our existence. When we lose touch with this part of ourselves, we suffer.
Putting aside the countless reforms to education that are desperately needed, there is a simple solution at the individual level: do creative stuff for fun, regularly. This can take on many forms beyond what we typically associate with creativity; the point is that you exercise your natural ability to imagine and actualize something that did not previously exist. The “for fun” part is important because it removes external pressure for subjective quality. Who knows — you might create something that directly benefits the world on some level. But even if you don’t, you are still benefiting the world by fulfilling your Creative Birthright and therefore showing up as a better version of yourself.
We stand to benefit enormously from making creativity a central part of our lives, and the upside is both practical and existential. Practically, regular exercise of our creative muscle makes us more effective in all domains. We become better thinkers, better problem-solvers, better responders. Entirely new solutions or ways forward are uncovered by virtue of a natural ability to imagine and create what is not right in front of us. It’s easy to envision the impact this could have on our day-to-day lives.
On a broader and more existential level, creative work simply makes life more fun and interesting. Our lives feel fuller and more enriched when we’re creating because we are doing what we were wired to do. Again, the exercise analogy: we’re built to move, and our experience of living is much better when we do. In the same vein, we are wired to create, and our experience of living is much better when we do.
There’s also a benefit that is both practical and existential, individual and societal: the ability to imagine a different way of living. Our species is largely defined by growth, and history is often viewed through the lens of progress. We suffer individually and collectively when we become stagnant or complacent. A crucial and often overlooked part of growth, however, is the ability to see a path that is not immediately evident. This requires imagination and creativity; growth is impossible without it. The unimaginative person fails to see the career or lifestyle change that would change their life for the better. The unimaginative society fails to build the new invention or new way of governing that would change the trajectory of human history.
Just Do It
I now write regularly, and my life is much better for it. I try not to write because I like the idea of being a writer or to meet some external standard of subjective quality, but rather to fulfill my Creative Birthright and enjoy my days. It works. I am happier, and the renewed capacity for imagination has spilled into other areas of my life.
Failing to build a habit of creative work into your life is neglecting a part of who you are. This will make your time on this earth much less interesting and enjoyable, and it will prevent you from realizing a wealth of potential that you never knew existed.
Luckily this is an easy problem to fix. You don’t have to write poetry, paint the next Sistine Chapel, or make people call you Hakeem. Find or rediscover the mode of creating that compels you, and do it consistently. I suspect this may be one of the most important things one can do. It certainly has been for me.
I've been reading your writing for the last ~hour and it is so genuine and relatable. I can feel the happiness you say you get from writing coming through the paragraphs and it's awesome.
Two things this one made me think about on top of the importance of finding/rediscovering a compelling mode of creating -
1. "What do you want to BE when you grow up?" vs "What do you want to DO when you grow up?" is a framework shift so simple and 'ah-hah' you have me feeling silly for not really noticing the distinction until now. Thank you for that.
2. Nostalgia of playing 2 vs 2 in the driveway with friends, which usually meant 'being' Shaq and Penny Hardaway versus Hakeem and some variation of Sam Cassell or Robert Horry. Good times. Great post.