My daughter, now eighteen, is happily doing a creative writing degree and I would like to tell you that the road there wasn't rocky, but it was. It started with a family meal where she, at thirteen, proudly stated that she wanted to be a writer, a statement met by chorus of "well that's not a real job" disapproval. And it continued from friends, teachers, interested strangers on the street, all asking why would a bright girl want to go and study creative writing, I mean it wasn't really a proper degree, was it?
Luckily, my daughter didn't listen to them, but many do. In my work I come across many young people who through family or societal pressure have turned down their dreams of art in favour of a more stable and professional path such as economics. Film directors studying business because their parents think they must have a backup plan. Budding artists, writers and film producers becoming investment bankers, lawyers and economists.
Why is a creative degree a lesser alternative? Why are creative careers seen as so risky? Why are we so fearful as a society that we end up telling gifted artists to become bankers?
I understand, creative careers are more risky, you tend to not be employed, not have a steady pay cheque and often have long periods waiting for your next commission. But what is more of a risk, putting the mental health of a young person in jeopardy over a steady income?
A lot of the young creative people I speak with who are doing academic degrees feel lost, frustrated and alone. They are finding a release through self-harming, depressing and some even contemplating suicide. Often diagnosed with anxiety and depression, their parents are hiring psychologists and therapists to help their child get through a course that is so badly suited for them. And the words 'stick with a degree so they can get a job' echo through their heads as they try desperately to find a creative release through the weight of studying facts, figures and equations.
Creativity isn't just a way of thinking that you can switch off; it is a way of being in the world. Creative's tend to be more introspective, more self-aware and have a greater sense of the dark and uncomfortable parts of themselves. In fact, in some recent research Barron and Donald MacKinnon found that the average writer was in the top 15% of the general population on all measures of psychopathology, the conclusion being that creative people score highly on some of the characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness.
It leads me to ask, are we putting undue stress on creative youngsters that is leading them to mental illness, all because creative degrees are not seen as a viable option?
And I can only see this happening more if we don't start to see creativity as a proper career option. Young people appear to be getting more creative in their thinking; partly I am sure due to growing up with media that allows them to use their creativity at an early age. Gaming for example has been shown to make children quicker, more creative and multi-faceted thinkers.
And I for one feel happy about this. In a world with so many problems, isn't it about time that creative thinkers got a chance to air their views and feel validated for them. Our country is ruled by the academic elite and an army of logical thinkers; surely we need some new thinking to break us out of our old, out-of-date paradigms.
The creative brain is particularly good at activating certain brain networks not so easily accessible to logical thinkers. This allows them to more easily construct meaning out of experiences, reflect on emotional and mental states of being, all critical to developing a more compassionate thinking style.
Creative thinkers are the maverick, compassionate thinkers of the world, the ones who see solutions to problems others may not have even thought of. Their unique brains allow them to draw on a wide range of strengths, characteristics and thinking styles in their work. Societal and political norms only change when creativity steps in and challenges the status quo.
So creativity, in my opinion, should never be considered a second-class citizen to academia. Creative degrees should never carry less weight or lose out in favour of a more professional path. And an artist should never feel that investment banking is a better option.
So please let's give creative degrees the respect they deserve. And my plea to parents - if your child is creative, let them be so.