When Janet Echelman’s paints went missing, she didn’t let it stop her from making art for her upcoming show deadline. In this classic talk from TED2011, “Taking imagination seriously,” Echelman tells the story of her determination to use the materials surrounding her as inspiration. Despite numerous rejections from art school, she found that her constant creativity has helped her become an unorthodox public artist unbound by tradition.
Today’s TED Weekends on the Huffington Post highlights this talk, exploring the concept of Imagination Innovation. Below, find two essays that accompany this visionary talk on the site.
One of the most gratifying results of my TED Talk has been to see volunteers translate it into 33 languages — from Armenian and Arabic to Turkish and Vietnamese — and receive comments from people around the world about how my story is affecting their lives.
I heard from Pedro Perea in Madrid, a volunteer at a juvenile prison who brings translated TED Talks to teenage inmates:
“They usually give up when confronting difficulties. But when your talk ended, they applauded, which means more than they just liked it: you can see a new energy in their faces, the energy of ‘I can also do difficult things’. Their usual excuses for not trying to change themselves started to disappear … they saw that persevering brings results.”
I was stunned. I could never have imagined my story traveling across oceans and languages to reach this audience, translating to different circumstances, my story of being rejected by art schools yet going on to become an artist on my own.
We have so mystified, romanticized, and idealized creativity, so convinced ourselves that it remains primarily the purview of artists or “geniuses,” that far too many people believe that they are not creative. In fact, they have not been allowed, or allowed themselves, to use the creativity that they and just about everyone else is born with. All human beings have a capacity for creativity because of how our brain works.
When we learn about some object, for instance, we store that knowledge in different parts of our brain. Its name goes one place, its shape and color in another, its weight and feel in yet another, and contextual information about it — its purpose, where it came from, how it is made — in yet another still. When we next encounter that object, our brain almost instantaneously recombines that information, enabling us to identify it, to use it, and to think or talk about it.
Our educational system largely tests this recombinant ability. Pupils get graded upon how well they retrieve the information that they have learned and they get marked down if they get some aspect it wrong: misspelling the word, misidentifying something, or misunderstanding some other aspect of it. Education has so focused on the correctness of our knowledge and the accuracy of our memory that it has almost completely repressed the complementary skill of creativity.