And how to change that.

On occasion, my wife will help a friend’s son or daughter with a college essay. She’s a fine writer herself and she can typically coax a good piece out of a kid. Yesterday she was working with a seventeen-year-old high school student (call her Kris) who’d essentially given her life over to modern dance. Kris had been a devotee since kindergarten and, for the last several years, not a week had passed when she wasn’t doing something related to dance.

As she went through several drafts of her essay, my wife noticed that Kris was able to beautifully articulate the challenges she faced; grueling practices, painful fitness training with heavy weights, and a litany of comments from choreographers and other dancers proffering the idea that at five-two, 120 pounds, Kris simply didn’t have the body to dance at the professional level. But what she couldn’t express was her love of movement itself. After many attempts to define why she was so passionate about dance, she’d written only that she found it “fun.” The shallow description was more than a matter of Kris’s youth, or her not possessing adequate writing skills. Kris just seemed very ambivalent.

All this was borne out after my wife probed a bit and found that at the root of Kris’s ostensible love for dance lies a deep need to connect with her father, a former principal dancer in a regional company, who’d been divorced from her mother since Kris was an infant. It was a preponderance of fear, not love, that drove Kris into dancing, a fear of not being close to her dad. But why is love even relevant when speaking about a creative endeavor?

There’s a critical misunderstanding of the over-used C word. The first thing most of us think of when we hear that someone is creative is: artist, poet, musician, or entrepreneur. That’s not to say that creative people don’t fall into those categories, but what I’m suggesting is that creativity is a state of mind rather than a set of skills in a particular area. Creativity isn’t only about mastery; it is, at its root, a joyful willingness to engage with the world. It is a fearless state of alertness to detail. Whether we’re swinging on a drum kit in a bebop trio or kneeling on the floor playing with a toddler, our level of creativity is determined by our openness to a given situation — and also our love for it. Creative people share three qualities that I call specific, present and true:

1. Specific: They break down their big goals into small, doable pieces.

2. Present: They take action on those pieces in the here and now — they don’t postpone them for some time in a nebulous future.

3. True: The things they are engaged in are things that they feel passionately about. They are not overly compelled from outside motivators.

Kris has specific and present down pat. She diligently practices the details of her routines and gets up early for conditioning sessions at the Y. That’s no mean feat. Most people who dream about bringing their ideas into the world neglect those first two, very critical steps. But where Kris is challenged creatively is in the last category: true.

Someone pursuing a goal in which the majority of her motivations are coming from some external source — such as Kris’s involvement in dance, primarily to please her dad — will have a very hard time creating resilience against the inevitable challenges she will face in the pursuit of that goal. Not to mention, the difficulty she will have in deriving any joy from it. One telltale sign that a particular creative goal isn’t engaging a person on this “truer level” will be her inability to speak or write with any impact about her love for that thing.

When Kris comes to see this more clearly she’ll be able to use some of her boundless energy to expand her life, not by quitting dance, but by doing more and more of the things she truly loves. That would make her far happier, far more engaged with the world — and in a very real sense, a far more creative person.

Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. He is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps unlock innate creativity. Clients include The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, The UCLA School of Nursing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. Himmelman is also an alum of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern. His latest book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October 2016 and is available on Random House Tarcher/Perigee

“There’s deep wisdom here along with very practical tools for translating our ideas into the real world.” — Arianna Huffington

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Originally published at on October 11, 2016.

Originally published at