We had a good thing going when we were toddlers. Then we made the very stupid decision to grow up.
I was teaching a literacy-inspired fine arts class that I had developed for a friend’s uptown preschool when I realized just how good I had once had it.
About two months in, I took on a big project with 18 two-year-olds. We were working on an abstract piece of acrylic on canvas, using “The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt as our muse. In the story the crayons in the box are on strike. Blue is tired of always being water, Black is over his eternal stint as the outline color, and Yellow and Orange are no longer on speaking terms. Until our hero in the book learns to think outside the norm of the crayon box, he’ll never be able to color again.
“Easy peasy!” I naively thought.
So I gave very little direction to my budding artists – just some complementary colors we mixed, a blank canvas, and permission to paint with their fingers.
“Let’s see how you think the colors can work together,” I said.
Of course, in my mind I had already pictured how I thought the colors should work together. Perhaps something along the lines of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline—boldness that would interact and fuse together, full of energy. Sure it would be spontaneous, but there would still be composition.
Within minutes I had abandoned the lesson. My OCD was hovering over the project like a helicopter. There was too much coral. It needed more yellow. Thumbprints were everywhere! When it was time for finger swirls, I didn’t move fast enough and before I could stop him, a little boy dipped his pointer finger in the aqua and smeared a strange looking creature smack dab in the middle of the painting. It looked like a combination between a rooster and a human. This was neither Pollock nor Kline. This was garish! The masterpiece was ruined.
But then this…
“Cool!” he said, sitting back satisfied. “That was fun!”
He was completely unaware that the aesthetic was now totally off.
Bemused, I watched as another child stuck her thumb in the acrylic and carried on, smearing away thoughtful squiggles and twists around the birdman. One by one the children approached the canvas without hesitation, confident in their abilities. It looked nothing like my idea of what it should have, but it was full of originality. And I realized that these toddlers had something I didn’t: creative freedom without worry of failure.
At some point in grade school I must have looked over at the painting of the schoolmate next to me and then back at my own. This was probably around the time when structure became more of a thing. We likely had something to follow, taped to the blackboard, a guide that I supposed left little room for deviation. Norms were setting in. “This is what your turkey hand should look like when it’s done.” The conformities went from turkey hands to bang styling, to makeup and prom dresses, to living room color palettes, weddings, and parenting. My creative spontaneity died with the turkey hand so to speak.
When we fail, we have three choices: give up, start over, or build upon it. Our decision is determined by two important questions: What is failure? Who gets to decide?
I love Pinterest just as much as the next trend follower, but am I selling out when “nailing it” means copying someone else? What if “nailed it” meant I approached a challenge without inhibition and crafted my own masterpiece reflective of my aesthetics—one that makes me sit back and say, “Cool!” Inspiration encourages. Copying burdens. Toddlers know which is more fun. They’ve nailed it.
As grown-ups, think about how much we hesitate. Meanwhile our inner toddlers would have damn done it already. I once agonized over two paint swatches for two weeks. Why? Because the teal stairwell I wanted might be too bold? Or because I actually believed the color of my stairwell was that important in the scheme of things? A three-year-old would know better.
Outside of wall colors, there are plenty of blank canvases in our lives that we allow to remain blocked by inhibition. Just recently I started a freelance piece on a topic that interests me, but one in which I am no expert. It’s still sitting there with a window on my computer screen waiting for me to make it my masterpiece. What if I can’t pull it off as a standout in the editor’s inbox? What if the editor laughs at me? A toddler wouldn’t wait.
I know enough to know that as much as I want to pin blame on the outside, I am my own inhibitor. I am the reason I don’t try and the reason I don’t grow from epic failure – whether legitimate failure or not. My tiny artists were able to embrace their creative spirit and see the birdman as nothing more than what it was: someone’s bold mark on the bigger picture.
There was a time when we couldn’t wait to grow up – to make our own rules and be whomever we wanted to be. Only now do I see the irony in this. We were freer as children.
We've grown out of what it means to be truly free.