Thursday, February 21, 2013

Role-Playing and Creativity

OK. Bare with me, it's been awhile. Shaking some rust off... so here goes...

I'm comfortable playing the rebel. That's my role. I'm often a motivated, vocal contrarian to popular opinions. I don't mind speaking up. I don't take anything at face value... I figure out where I stand for myself, and once I have I won't hesitate to explain why. I'm blunt and honest and even though I'm highly sensitive to what others are feeling, I still struggle with being tender.

I was born and raised in the middle of a big family. When I was younger I acted out. I don't know exactly why (I had a decent upbringing), but I was a bit of a problem child. I always seemed to get in fights at school, and I was a magnet for bullies. I was always in conflict with some student or teacher or principal. In elementary school, I spent many hours in the principals office (She used to stare at me for minutes without blinking, like a psychopath. It wasn't helpful). Every Thursday in fifth grade I had to spend one period with the school counselor to talk about how life is a road and there are "speed bumps" in it. I remember feeling like a victim, like nobody understood that I was actually the good guy. I didn't feel like I could trust the "establishment" to understand me. Maybe I acted out for attention. Maybe I didn't get enough at home, in a big family, where others needs were prioritized over mine. What I did back then could have been easily labeled by any decent child psychologist... but I'm still that kid. Even without those subconscious desires to get attention (Part of me loathes direct attention, just please say nice things behind my back), I still thrive on being counter-culture. I have been trained to be comfortable doing what the rest don't. I am playing a role.

Much of us get caught up in Role-Playing. I might've been the Black Sheep, but you might be the Nerd, Bully, Jock, Skater, Hipster, Goofball, Good Girl, Scapegoat, Slut, Stoner, whatever... maybe my terms are out of date, but you get what I'm saying. 

The thing about playing a role is that it perpetuates it's own existence. The more you "nerd it up" in the library, the more you desire to be a super nerd. The more you play sports on a team, the more you want to be team captain. The more gold stars you get for being good, the more you want to be the valedictorian. The more I got in trouble, the more I got in trouble. You're partially motivated by peer-coach-teacher-validation of your role, but you're also motivated simply because people see you as that role, and your world seems to make sense when you act according to how they see you.

The roles in families are the hardest roles to break. You might think you're an adult, and then you go home for Christmas and realize you're acting like a 15-year-old, and the same things that annoyed you about your family twenty years ago still do. The thing is, everyone HAS changed, hang out with them one on one and you'll see that, but you get that family culture back together and people start reverting to their old roles. We can't help it, we've been primed our whole lives to act in that role, it's a hard one to shake (i.e. parents trying to parent their adult children).

I think I lucked out in High School because my role was more of an attitude role than a cultural role. It didn't dictate what group I spent my time with. I hung with the nerds in the library, I collected comic books and played online games, I also was a state athlete, voted "most artistic" and I was in advanced science and english classes. What's hilarious is I was even selected and trained to be a "Peer Mediator." I prided myself in not caring while still performing. I was arrogant, but it didn't end up working out (See blog post "One Small Story of Regret").

So there was something positive about my role. It allowed me to get some different experiences, to be a bit of a chameleon and, because of my competitive nature, try to excel and a number of things. I think my role might have been good for me.

The problem of roles is that they are pervasive and hard to escape. The question is, "Can Role-Playing be used for good?"

Scientists for years have done studies on "priming," and things like it, to conclude that how you see yourself greatly effects your overall performance. It is apparently true that if you embrace a role, you will become better suited for it... that it's not all the subconscious at work. When you are intentional about being something, you are more likely to be it (by a huge percentage), than those who simply fall into it.

We tend to think of roles as strict boundaries. We say things like "not everyone" and "I can't" because it's more comfortable to believe that we are limited to our roles.  Seth Godin argues that everyone is a creator and has the ability to create something. He talks about the idea of generosity, and that anytime you create something with some level of generosity, you are an artist. That means when you do work that matters, that is brave and generous and helpful to society, you are creating art. Your work is unique to anyone else's. It's the alternative to being a cog in the machine, which is fine if you are fine with it, but Godin gives permission to all people unsatisfied with their roles to awaken their inner artist and create something beautiful. He tells people who desire MORE to be intentional about BEING an artist, to embrace their roles and get rid of those excuses and comparisons. 

Godin has inspired millions with his books, because people have realized that the idea of viewing themselves as purveyors of "more" has helped them create more and do more, resulting in more good for more people and a better, more fulfilling life for themselves. Positive thinking FTW.

For the last decade or so, I've played the vocational role of artist (or musician, or songwriter), or whatever you want to call it. But I haven't always embraced it. I kind of fell into it, and I'd say for the first half of my twenties I was confused about how to BE it. I think my motivations were off... because I had a lot of jealousy and pride and bitterness about the way things were going. I was also trying to play the role of Rock Star or Tortured Musician or Cool Guy with an exceptional lifestyle. Now, at almost thirty years of age, I think I've settled down a bit. I'm a Husband, I'm a Dad, I'm a Provider, I'm a Small Business Owner, but very intentionally, I'm a Creator...

This tends to flow well with my view of life in general. I mean, I believe we were all created with some basic characteristics of our Creator. We have the ability, unlike the other animals, to create much like our Creator does. We can build boats and roads and cities and cars and make music and art and architecture and love. We are mini-creators.

When I embrace the role of Creator, that role given to me by my Creator, I suddenly and without question become more creative. There is also responsibility that comes with it. It requires doing the work. Embracing any role requires action to be proven. I have to sit in my basement and make cohesive sounding noises for hours on end... that's what is required of my role, the role I choose to play. My previous role as Rebel or my future role as Old Guy matter very little when I embrace the role I want to play. I'm kind of sad I wasted time on those false-rolls in my early twenties, the one's that lacked generosity and were self-absorbed (mostly, Cool Guy).

I have not yet arrived, and the more I learn, the more I realize how behind I am. I wish I'd been more diligent in my youth. My Rebel-role made me waste so much time, but perhaps it was all needed to get me to this point. 

So, if you feel restless and unfulfilled and you're one of those folks who can take good advice to heart (i.e. NOT like me), then ask yourself this cliche-yet-important question: Will you be brave and generous and intentionally embrace your Creator role?


  1. Very "Creative" Matt! This is the creative stuff we've missed from you! Not sure I follow it all, but some of it I get all too well! There is a role that some of us prefer, the Fly On The Wall role where we deliberately try to remain unnoticed and feel somewhat safe in our annomousity! But as you said we were made in the image of Our Creator, so if we can embrace that we will be free to Create!

  2. Thanks Matt, this is awesome and encouraging. I appreciate your honesty also. It always amazes me that we can take what our Creator has given us, the foundational elements and raw materials, and ourselves imitate him in creating as our role. I think we were all meant to create, in different ways. We aren't meant to just consume. I read an article recently that said it similarly, that your role in society is important based on what you offer to society (as opposed to just being a nice guy; we are to give or offer something). Here's the link to the article (below), a good read (with profanity though). I also am a musician, and it's been difficult to embrace the role, though I've always felt the need to create so strongly inside. For the past two years, I've been more intentional about putting hard work to my music for my band.