Creativity vs. Problem Solving

Every overwhelmed employee can feel more joy by learning this one important distinction.

Creativity vs. Problem Solving

Creativity scares the heck out of me, because it is usually an expression of our true selves.

Oh sure, there were times I created something by assignment – that drawing of a tree comes to mind in fifth grade, the one that was laughed at by Sister Margaret Mary and the whole class. How sad it became the defining moment in my idea of whether or not I had any artistic talent.

I grew up in a home with an artist and never thought I had what it took. I never drew again until I took a drawing class at night in my early 40s and learned creating something, even if it’s less than stellar, can be invigorating.

If we spend all day solving problems, the day feels full but we can feel empty.

Solving problems means we are trying to make something disappear, resolve itself, or diminish. If we spend our day working to make something go away, our efforts are, by this very definition, negative.

Working to make something go away sucks the life out of us because our every thought is engaged in ways to create a vacuum.

And that’s both discouraging and exhausting.

If you talk to people who solve problems for a living, they are often overwhelmed, under appreciated, and looking forward to the weekend, their vacation, or their retirement. They just want to get tenure, get vested, or reach the required number of years in their company so they can retire…

…and do nothing.

They’ll tell you they want to golf, read, travel, relax, and sleep. In short, they want to stop doing what they do.

If you spend your entire working career looking forward to the end of it, you are likely a problem solver.

Don’t get me wrong, problem solving is one of my skills. “There isn’t a problem I can’t solve” is the mantra of most effective problem solvers. As a Naval Officer, you are trained in that way from the start; hand me a problem, tell me the outcome you desire, and off you go.

Young Naval Officers are entrusted with enormous responsibility in their early twenties – people, lives, equipment, logistics, budgets – they are expected to get more done than is possible with less resources than is available.

Problem solving is elevated to an art form.

Commendation medal write-ups describe how the awardee overcame the toughest odds to get the job done.

I suspect this is true in most companies as well, the employees who solve the hairiest problems with the fewest resources in the timeliest fashion are the ones lauded as heroes. And rightfully so, companies and organizations thrive on having problems get solved.

But solving problems for a living is draining.

It’s like math.

I like math and I can be good at it when I give it my full attention. Much of math is about using a formula and solving problems. There’s a beautiful symmetry and order to the process and when I solve a problem I feel satisfied.

But math, at least for me, has never given me the chills the way writing can. Starting with a blank page and ending with something brand new fills me up.

Music is based on math. Once I understood music theory, the notes all made more sense, but adding my own spin to a piece makes the song my own.

When was the last time you heard of an artist retiring? Painters, sculptors, writers, inventors, designers, crafters, musicians, chefs, singers, actors, quilters, and entrepreneurs hardly ever retire because the work they do is creative.

They start with nothing and birth something into existence. Something that wasn’t there before.

Where problem solving is negative, creativity is positive.

Where problem solving is exhausting, creativity is energizing.

Creators don’t retire because what they do brings them alive. It is fulfilling. It lights them up. When we create something, anything, we are tapping into the fundamental need for expression. It literally puts us in touch with who we truly are.

I know where you’re thinking and no, it doesn’t count. Creative problem solving is not creativity, it is just problem solving on a higher level. You are still working to make something go away.

Look, maybe you drive a cab, or rebuild computers, or work in a dress shop, or answer phones at a real estate company. Maybe you are a vice president, or teach fourth graders, or intubate accident victims, or clean windows, or deliver the quarterly spread sheets. Whatever you do, you can always find a little room in the margins to be a creator.

To bring creativity into your problem-solving life simply seek ways to make something new.

Something that never existed before.

Something that doesn’t solve a problem but stands on its own because it’s beautiful or useful or just makes you grin.

Here’s what I want you to do.

Take just 15 minutes today and write out the outline for that screen play you keep talking about, or that idea for a casserole recipe that keeps rattling around in your head. Pluck out a tune on your dusty piano or dig out that box of finger paints and sit at your kitchen counter and play. Maybe you could draw out the floor plan for that cabin in the woods you’ve been dreaming about all these years.

It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is you in your full, creative glory breathing life into something new simply to see it unfold.

And don’t worry about how good it is, this isn’t about meeting any kind of standard, this is just for you to feel that spark again.

Created in His image, you were born to create.

Don’t let all that stuff that won’t matter in a hundred years rob you or the world of that gift hidden inside you just begging to be born. Go make something. Then hit me up in the comments below and let me know how it felt.

Leadership and Success Expert

Dr. Ann Vertel is a leadership and success expert, motivational psychologist, and 20-year Naval Officer. She speaks, trains, coaches, and consults on personal leadership, professional development, and how to take charge of your life, your career, and everything in between. Want her to speak to your organization? Learn more…

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2 thoughts on “Creativity vs. Problem Solving

  1. Ann, this is great insight. I love what you said, “If you spend your entire working career looking forward to the end of it, you are likely a problem solver.” This is so true!

    I’ve found that my creative impulses get drained by problem solving…and no matter how I try to spin it (“solve the problem…creatively!”) it’s not the same. Nowadays I take my time off to really engage with art: deconstruct great storytelling, playing music, staying inspired. Thanks for this post and insight.

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