“Birds Fly. Humans Create”

Last week, I joined some 25 others at a Winnipeg bar for Paint Nite. Many of those present were painting for the first time since elementary school. Nonetheless, two hours (and a few beers) later, we each walked out proudly holding the product of the evening’s work. I posted a picture of my creation online and soon received a lot of positive (and some incredulous) feedback on the painting.

That experience got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about creativity. How is it that a room full of individuals who don’t normally paint could each manage to produce a decent painting after just a couple of hours? What made that evening different from every other night?

Paint Nite organizers provide the tools: paint, brushes and canvas. They provide instruction and a safe atmosphere in which to try something new. Those attending each came with an attitude of openness and having set aside time in which there were no other competing distractions. The venue provided food and drink to keep up the spirits and blood sugar levels of those attending.

In that environment, with those tools and a little encouragement, the creative process was fruitful for even the most artistically challenged among us.

According to the CBA’s Futures report, one of the criteria for being a good lawyer is creativity. In fact, one of the over-arching themes of that report is the need for all lawyers to both develop and use creative approaches to adapt to the demands of the future of legal practice. That may feel like something of a challenge for many lawyers, who tend to think of themselves as more rational than creative.

But Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse suggests that the idea that only a few possess creative genius is something of a myth. Ashton, who was interviewed this week on CBC’s The Current believes that creative intelligence is something we all possess and that creativity is an innate human behaviour:

Birds fly. Humans create.

Ashton noted that innovation really comes about as a series of incremental steps in which we look at an existing process or thing and consider how to do it better or make improvements.

What does this mean for lawyers? The post, Put Your Creativity to Work (Yes, You) on Attorney at Work repeats some of the themes from Ashton’s interview:

Many think of creativity as a rare skill possessed by those who come up with big, breakthrough ideas — visionaries such as Steve Jobs, for example. But creativity comes in all sizes. Creativity scholars distinguish between “Big C” creativity and “Small c” creativity.

“Big C” creativity is the breakthrough kind of thinking that most people associate with “creative thinkers” such as Jobs and Thomas Edison, but it’s relatively rare. “Small c” creativity, on the other hand, describes the seemingly small ideas that can make a big difference in our lives, like a new organization system at home or project management system at work. A single “Small c” idea won’t bring fame or fortune, but lots of them will, over time, lead to incremental advances and daily improvements. And the best way to come up with a “Big C” breakthrough is to cultivate “Small c” thinking on a daily basis.

Creativity, therefore, is not about talent or some flash of inspiration. It’s about showing up and doing the work. It’s about developing a creativity habit. We’re all inherently creative. We just need to be creative.

More practically, how do risk-averse lawyers develop a creative habit? The answers are not so different than what I found in my Paint Nite experience, You need to set aside time to create, but it’s not necessary to completely carve out an isolated, distraction free space.

You need to think like a beginner. If you didn’t know anything about the problem to be solved or process to be improved, what questions would you ask? Challenge your assumptions and try to look at it through fresh eyes.

Listen to instruction, but don’t wholly rely on it. Use the tools you’re given, but make your own connections. Try something new even if it might fail, and trust your instincts.

Finally, keep at it. Embrace your innate creativity and give it ample opportunity to do its work in your life. When you make creativity a habit, you’ll find infinite opportunities to exercise it.


  1. Roger von Oech’s books (A Whack on the Side of the Head) are a bit dated but are (IMO) a great resource for anyone looking to foster their creative side in a more ‘corporate’ environment.

    Its easy to shout “be more creative” “or think outside the box” at someone. Books like that contain actual exercises and suggestions to break down barriers and actually become more creative or less constrained.