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Creative Freedom: An Oxymoron?

Creative Freedom is a term that gets thrown around a lot.  In the artistic and advertising worlds people tend to talk about creativity and freedom as though the words are more or less interchangeable.  "Be creative with it" one might say.  "You've got complete freedom here."  At best, the assumption is that when we are free to do what we want we are creative.  However, creativity and freedom do not mean the same thing, and they don't always go together.  In fact, I think many times the two realities can be rather antithetical to one another.  It almost makes the term creative freedom an oxymoron—almost.

They don't mean the same thing.

That's a pretty bold claim, so let me try to ease you into what I mean.  Let's start with dispelling the inference that the two words mean the same thing.

The word Creative means having the quality of creating.  That's not a very helpful definition though.  The word Create means to bring into being something that is unique that wouldn't ordinarily develop naturally.  This gets much closer to what we usually mean when we say it.  When we say creative we usually mean something different, something that makes us go, "I wouldn't have thought of that."

The word Freedom means the state of being free.  This is almost as unhelpful as the first definition, but being free contrasts being confined or restrained.  This agrees with the sentiment of the normal use of the word as well.  When we say freedom (in the creative context) we mean something autonomous, something that "can do whatever it wants."

They don't always go together.

I have a creative job.  I create things for a living.  I bring things into being that would not have otherwise ordinarily developed naturally.  I come up with things that my clients can't or won't come up with on their own.  People assume that because my job is creative that I have a lot of freedom in my job.  That's simply not true.  I don't have a boss; I have hundreds of them, and they decide everyday whether or not they will pay me.  I have deadlines, guidelines, standards, requirements, trends and even preferences constraining all of my projects.  On any given project, I only get to have my way with about a third of it because my client and their clients must be considered as well.  I am and must be creative, but I am not and cannot very often be free.

When I am free, when I do get to do whatever I want, I am usually not very creative.  Creativity is hard work; it is mentally and physically taxing.  To be creative for a living—as something you have to do—you must take time to recuperate when you get a chance to do something that you want to do.  I don't paint nearly as often as I once did.  I don't write nearly as often as I once did.  Why?  Because when I am free to do what I want, I just want to read or play with my kids or wrestle with my dog or talk to my wife.  These things aren't creative per se, but they replenish and inspire me for the next day of necessary creativity.  When I am free, I do the things that revive the soul rather than things that express the soul.  When I am free, I am not often creative.

Even when they do, they don't.

My college days were a time of heightened freedom and creativity.  I was free to do what I wanted whenever I wanted (which is why I went to class so seldom).  I wrote a lot, and I painted a lot, and I drank a lot of coffee.  It is easy to assume that my heightened freedom was the cause of my heightened creativity, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I painted, not because I was free to do so, but because I absolutely had to paint.  The constraint, though self-imposed, was real.  I wrote, not because I was free to express myself, but because I would die if I didn't.  Even my progress was fueled by constrains rather than freedom.  I experimented with different styles and mediums all the time because of the self-imposed constraints of the past.  I refused to do the same thing twice.

It seems backwards, doesn't it?

It might seem backwards, but when we truly feel free (the emphasis here is on feel) we tend to be less creative.  When we are free, we tend to relax, and creativity is hard work.  Necessity, however, makes us work.  Restraints demand more creativity.  Here is a quick exercise to illustrate the point.

Project A: Tell me about your company.
Guidelines: None.
Deadline: None.

Project B: Tell me about you company.
Guidelines: You may only use one sentence.
Deadline: 5 minutes.

OK, on which one were you more creative?  Neither, right?  'Cause you didn't do them—you didn't have to.

Let's pretend that you did do them.  Project A would have yielded either a disorganized stream of consciousness or a wrote elevator speech that you have rehearsed time and time again.  Project B would have yielded carefully chosen words that are meant to convey and compel more than your normative speech.  It would have brought into being a new way of expressing something very old that would not have ordinarily developed naturally.  In short, it would have been more creative.