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How To Be Creative At Any Age

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by Karen Tilstra

am a student of creativity, even did postgraduate work in the field; however, no creativity theory, class or book taught me more about creativity than a little old lady I met half-way around the world while working in Southeast Asia. 

It all began the moment I stepped off the plane in a remote island in Indonesia. As I made my way across the tarmac, I noticed an older woman wearing a batik moo-moo and a pair of running shoes. She was holding two coconuts in one hand and a machete in the other.  

“Welcome to Manado”, the woman called out to me. “I’m Gayle. I’ll take you to your new home; but first, try the best drink in the country,” she said as she sliced off the tops of each coconut. “Drink up.”

I took one of the coconuts but, I must admit, hesitated to “drink up.” Gayle saw my hesitation and inserted a straw into the top of my coconut, “There you go, that will make it easier. First lesson in this country,” she said. “Coconut water is clean and readily available, a good thing in a country lacking proper water sanitation facilities. If you don’t like the taste, learn to like it. It’s called surviving in a new environment.” She motioned me to follow her.

I managed a smile and sipped at the coconut water. Minutes later, she was weaving a jeep through traffic while pointing to the mountain that loomed before us, “See up there, that’s where you’ll live. Probably the most spectacular home you’ll ever have,” She said cutting off a jeep.“It’s not everyone who gets to live on the side of a volcano.” 

“A volcano?” I questioned. “Sounds risky!”

“It could be, but ol’ Kalabt hasn’t erupted in 500 years; so I say, ‘only worry when it’s necessary’. Anyway, worrying is overrated!” She laughed right out loud.  

Then, without notice she cranked the steering wheel to the right and swung the jeep onto a dirt road scattered with chickens, goats and three boys playing ball. “Let’s get lunch.” She stopped the car in front of a small house. As we entered, a young girl greeted us with a warm bundle of something wrapped in shiny green leaves. She pointed to a small wicker table across the room. The floor was hard packed dirt and I was surprised how clean it looked. Ironic, I thought.

Gayle plopped down at the table, “Meet the all mighty banana leaf,” she said, holding the leaf packet up to me. “Use it as a plate, wrapping paper, umbrella or toilet paper, whatever you need it to be. In this country it’s man’s best friend.”

I stared at Gayle as she continued raving about the banana leaf, but I silently wondered how I could eat whatever was inside. Gayle, satisfied she had sold me on the leaf, unwrapped her leaf package exposing a mixture of cooked vegetables covered in a brownish sauce. One look and I was sure I couldn’t eat it.

“Today’s lunch, Gado-Gado, vegetables topped in peanut sauce,” she said pointing to the mixture. “This is goooood stuff”, she took a big bite with a large spoon. “This is a national dish and super healthy. You’ll get used to it for a host of reasons. Suspend judgment and try it”. I followed Gayle’s instruction. I tried it and she was right, it was good.

Over that meal, I learned that Gayle was a retired AT&T worker, had 5 grown children, and an ex-husband who had ‘hightailed’ it off with a younger woman. And to top it all off, he took their savings and sold the house out from under her.

“Wow,” I said between bites of Gado Gado, “I think I would have sued the old guy.” “Yes, that’s what everyone said; but, I figured I didn’t have that many years left. I knew this was a wrong that couldn’t be righted. So, I took on the mantra, ‘This too shall pass.’ Then I applied for this job of teaching foreign university professors’ children here in this island paradise,” she said. 

“I think that is a total cop-out,” I said right out loud. Gayle seemed more and more clueless.

“That’s what it might look like,” she answered. “I’ve never regretted the decision to come here.” She paused and looked out the window, “And what’s really exciting, three of my grandchildren have spent the summer with me. Life can’t get any better than that! I even taught them to scuba dive in Indonesia’s world class coral reefs.”

As we finished our banana leaf lunch, we headed for my new home. “I’m not much into advice giving,” Gayle said, “But before you disregard the mantra ‘this too shall pass,’ try it.  It will open doors, peoples’ hearts, and transforms the way you live.”  

“It just sounds so passive,” I said. “Time will tell,” is all she said.

Before long I was settled into the routine of teaching. Gayle lived across the lawn in a thatched roof bungalow. On weekends, Gayle’s house was abuzz with activity and laughter as Indonesian and expat children came to play with her vast collection of Legos. Several times a year Gayle arranged exhibits of the children’s creations. Then, when the holidays rolled around, her house was once again open to children and adults alike, as she hosted parties, soirees, and what she called ‘cultural exchanges’.

Political unrest in Indonesia cut short my time, so within two years I was back in California and Gayle was living in the mid-west, near her children. But, those two years working alongside Gayle changed the way I looked at everything. Gayle had taught me life is what you make it. There is unending love, happiness, and creativity in the world. I learned that everyone has creative and leadership capacity. It’s our job to discover and develop it!

“That’s our God-given task, to discover our potential and share it with the world,” that’s what Gayle said. If she said it once, she said it a thousand times. It wasn’t until later, as a wife and mother, that I realized just how much of a creative genius Gayle was. When I began my postdoctoral work in creativity, I noticed that every creativity expert or theory I studied reminded me of Gayle. 

Psychologists of the mid-twentieth century tried to tell us that our creative spirits fade as we grow older, but findings from new research show us that our creativity doesn’t fade. Those living longer today prove this to be true. For example, Lucille Ball didn’t begin her acting career until she was 41. Colonel Sanders launched KFC after he was 65. 

Think back to when you were 5 years old, your innate creative spirit was alive and thriving; however, along the way many of us lose touch with our creative self through education, work, and life in general. It’s understandable, not inevitable. It’s by our trying to be what society expects from us that we drift away from our creative selves. Research shows us we can reconnect with our creative self. We can all BE A GAYLE.

Just in case you haven’t had a Gayle in your life, here are some simple ways you can reconnect with your creative self, whatever your age:

  • See with fresh eyes (even if your eyesight is fading)
  • Suspend Judgment (for at least 5 minutes)
  • Have a YES-AND attitude (Say YES AND instead of NO BUT)
  • Laugh each day (the crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow)
  • Don’t be afraid to fail (we learn more from our failures than our successes)
  • Try something new each day or week (big or small – just something new)
  • Embrace with an open mind, heart, and will (Be present with what is happening)
  • Make friends with someone from another generation (You just might learn something)
  • Forgive (forgiveness makes us become learners instead of judgers)

It’s neither complicated nor rocket science –- if a little old lady half-way across the world can do it, we all can.

So, when faced with problems, stress, and unhappiness, embrace Gayle’s mantra “This too shall pass” and try one of the above suggestions. Live the life God intended you to live. 

Be a Gayle and let your creative spirit soar – the world is waiting.

Image by pdbreen

Karen is an Educational Psychologist with a doctoral degree in Creativity, Innovation, and Leadership. When she's not busy being creative at home, you can find her teaching others to be creative at work. Karen is co-founder and director of Florida Hospital's Innovation Lab, in Orlando Florida.

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