Personal Growth

One Unusual Way to Unblock Your Creativity: Borrow a 4-Year-Old

If you're suffering from a creative block of some kind, the internet isn't short on suggestions. There are journals to buy, TED talks to watch, and artists' advice to read, all purporting to help you get your creative mojo back. But perhaps the sweetest, freshest solution for this problem comes from artist and author Austin Kleon. His idea: Just borrow a kid.

The Freshest Eyes Around

Kleon is an artist, prolific blogger, and the author of three books on creativity. He's also the father of two small boys. You might at first think that those two sentences are in tension. Wouldn't the responsibilities and distractions of family life make it harder to turn out so much creative work? As one British literary critic famously put it, "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway."

But Kleon has fought back against the stereotype that caring for kids and being creative don't mix. In fact, on his blog, he insists children can be a magic elixir for unblocking creativity. Of course, time spent changing diapers and handing out yogurts is time not spent on your work. But what kids eat up in time, they can give back in inspiration.

"This weekend we visited the Umlauf Sculpture Garden here in Austin," reports Kleon in one post. "Towards the end of our visit, I spent at least half an hour at the very edge of the garden with my back to the beautiful art and scenery, watching the cars whiz by on Robert E. Lee Road. Going to an art museum with a two-year-old will make you rethink what's interesting and what's art. (After all, what are cars but fast, colorful, kinetic sculptures?)"

Traditionalists might say that Kleon's child pulled him away from art. Kleon sees it instead as a case of being inspired by his child to see the world with fresh eyes. Looking at the same old stuff in a new way? That's key to creativity.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry is one of the many artists who agree with Kleon. "When I came to the university," she has said of her work as a teacher, "one thing that struck me was how miserable the grad students were. I thought, I wonder if I could pair them up with four-year-olds?" She started a program to do just that, hoping her "students would learn to borrow the kids' state of mind and learn to approach problems in a way that was less tight and focused, a way that was happier and set the conditions for discovery."

In short, kids remind us not to take things too seriously, to be adventurous, to really see our weird and gorgeous world — all important sources of inspiration. Or as Kleon put it in an interview about his kids, "watching them draw and write and make music has taught me to tap into that kind of raw and free and wild energy in my own work ... Basically, they've reminded me how much creative work is about play."

Not Just for Parents

You don't even have to have your own kid knocking around the house to steal this trick. Grab a niece or nephew, offer to babysit a good friend's child, or volunteer at a local school. The key to unblocking yourself is often to break out of the received wisdom and self-consciousness that constrain how you think about the problems you're facing. Kids know next to nothing, so they're naturally excellent at letting their eyes and minds guide them, rather than their preconceptions and fears. All you have to do to steal a little bit of this mentality for yourself is hang out with a kid, keep an open mind, and listen.

Or as Kleon simply puts it: "Borrow a kid. Spend some time trying to see through their eyes. You will discover new things."

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Read more from Austin Kleon in his 2019 book, "Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman July 5, 2019

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