I was babysitting my nieces and nephews earlier this year, trying to read a book while the kids played Minecraft on the Xbox. I like to skim through through books on creativity at the beginning of every New Year as a way to focus and kickstart my energy.
But the kids’ squabbling made it hard to focus on Twyla Tharp’s classic The Creative Habit.
“Jason, you said you would help me build a house now,” Declan, 5, whined to his older brother.
“But I want to finish this tower while I still have the instructions fresh in my mind,” 13-year-old Jason replied. He had just finished binge-watching Minecraft tutorials on YouTube.
“But night is coming soon, and I need a place to hide when the creepers come!”
Declan and Jason continued to squabble. Their sister Meg, 7, played on her own, quietly working on their game’s farm. When Declan and Jason saw what she was doing, though, they immediately stopped their arguing.
“Meg!” Declan and Jason said together. “You can’t harvest those crops yet!” And thus a new argument began.
With the constant bickering, I would never be able to finish my book. I threw it down on the nearby table, ready to lecture my niece and nephews over a silly game. It was time to exert some authority over the situation.
But then I actually watched what they were doing, as they agreed to work together to build Jason’s tower. Suddenly it hit me: I had a perfect example of creativity happening right in front of my eyes.
The Creative Habit stayed unread as I grew more impressed at how well the kids inadvertently followed the best creativity advice I’d read. Forget Twyla Tharp and other creativity “gurus” — you can get the best tips for creativity by watching a group of kids play Minecraft.
Many of us want to boost our creative edge. Whether you’re making an app, a painting or even just your kid’s lunch for the day, your life is full of opportunities to infuse your personal stamp and ingenuity into the world.
We look at lofty examples of creative excellence looking for tips and tricks to boost their own talents: Old Masters like Leonardo Davinci, or technology makers like Apple. But great examples also emerge from humbler origins.
Minecraft, of course, is the building game hugely popular with kids of all ages. I initially wrote the game off when I first saw it — its basic 8-bit design didn’t seem too inviting or inspiring. Without obvious tutorials or instructions, kids often need to find other kids to work with and seek out outside learning resources. This makes Minecraft an unusually active gaming subculture, complete with its own “celebrities” and gurus.
But once pick up the basics of surviving, hunting, growing and buikding, the game offers a powerful canvas to unleash creativity. Kids love its open-ended nature — you can build anything within it, from cities to recreations of architectural marvels to rainforests. The only real limitation is your imagination.
Not only do kids exercise their imagination in Minecraft, but they also hone skills needed to take initial inspirations into finished projects and products: creative thinking, geometry, critical planning, resource management, goal- and priority-setting, communication and teamwork.
Minecraft isn’t just a game — it’s a training ground for a new generation of creative thinkers and makers.
Before they could learn these skills, though, my niece and nephews needed to stop squabbling.
One look at the Minecraft terrain my nephews and niece built showed a landscape as chaotic as their interpersonal dynamic — it was a series of botched, abandoned buildings and fields, random mounds and fields, and general construction anarchy. It was the result of “messing around” and learning how to use the game itself.
The randomness bothered my oldest nephew Jason, who wanted to build something more cohesive. He liked recreating his favorite works of architecture. But this didn’t interest his younger siblings very much.
Jason would start a building, only to have his younger brother take it apart or knock it down. The younger kids’ feelings were often hurt when their older brother would “clean up” their so-called “messes.” They needed to find a way to stop fighting and work together.
Then Jason hit upon an idea. “Guys, how about we build a rollercoaster?” he suggested.
The two little kids paused for a second, considering the idea. And then they grinned. “Yeah!” they yelled together. “Let’s build the biggest rollercoaster ever!”
“Let’s build the whole Six Flags park!”
“Let’s build TEN rollercoasters!”
In an instant, divisive squabbling had turned into frenzied brainstorming, and a ragamuffin group transformed into a real team. They also stumbled upon a great lesson of creativity: have a great vision, something exciting and fun to achieve.
Sounds basic, but for many would-be creatives, there’s nothing more paralyzing than a blank page, canvas or screen.
The wide-open possibility can bring up insecurity, not to mention fear of failure. Or they feel they “should” be doing something, but that sense of obligation crushes the joy of the creative experience. Or they get caught up in “planning paralysis” and never actually start.
Kids, though, often just dive right in if it seems fun, and worry about the particulars as they go. They don’t worry about the idea’s market viability, or whether or not it’s a strategic move to career success — they just want to follow through on something that seems fun.
Creative people need their own version of the Minecraft rollercoaster, if only to focus their energy and get them started. It can be a story idea, a product you want to build, or the type of home you want to create for your family, as long as it genuinely excites you and makes you passionate about creating.
The kids worked on their rollercoaster for the new few days. Jason and Declan worked on the larger structure, while Meg happily built carts for the coaster itself.
But like many intrepid creatives, they soon ran into obstacles. First, they realized they wanted to build their rollercoaster closer to the ocean, so they had to start over. Then they realized they needed more material. Then they realized they needed to decide just how big their coaster was going to be in order to plan out how much material they needed.
Their rollercoaster, they realized, was going to be a bigger challenge than they thought. They were still excited by the idea of a rollercoaster in Minecraft, but they weren’t sure if they were up for the challenge.
“This is hard,” Declan said, feeling discouraged. Even Jason was often stumped.
Every creative seems to hit this point in a project or idea — when something seems just out of their grasp, or they realize the level of work needed is much larger than they allotted for.
Often grown-up creatives abandon a project at this point — how many of us have the remnants of half-finished projects, manuscripts or other work we’ve abandoned when we get to a discouraging phase?
But Minecraft kids often don’t give up, because they’re always perpetually learning in the game. The open-ended nature of the game means kids are always innovating new things to build, which requires using skills in new ways, or learning new ones.
So when the kids hit their personal wall, my niece and nephews did what lots of Minecraft kids do when they get stuck — they went to YouTube and looked up some of their favorite Minecraft tutorial teachers. They pooled their knowledge and taught each other what they knew.
They kept working on his basic skills and craft, and updated their personal knowledge base. They naturally practiced another great lesson of creativity: cultivating perpetual beginner’s mind is one way to keep your interest high and your challenges fresh in a game.
Our creative roadblocks often come because we take for granted what we already know, but truly mastering a craft means constantly sharpening the tools in your box.
Great geniuses of the past — think painters like Picasso and Matisse — revisited old skills or ideas they previously mastered. If you’re feeling stuck or daunted, seek out new techniques, information, influences and innovations in your field or craft to rejuvenate your mind and imagination.
It’s one thing to have great ideas and to hone your creative edge, but it’s another matter entirely to bring ideas to completion.
Yet finishing is often what separates successful creatives, who can sustain their inspiration and energy over the course of a career, versus those who merely aspire to the creative life.
But it can be hard to focus, especially in an age of constant electronic distraction, and it’s easy to mistake a lot of electronic busywork for actual work.
Burnout can also be a hazard, as well, especially if you’re chipping away at a large or complex project.
My niece and nephews easily hit those obstacles, especially once they realized their dream of an amusement park full of rollercoasters in Minecraft would take a lot longer than anticipated. But they showed as much dedication, discipline and diligence as any grownup company, working on their Minecraft rollercoasters for weeks.
How did a group of kids sustain this work ethic? The structure of Minecraft actually offers a valuable tool for creative productivity: monsters.
Minecraft features accelerated day and night cycles. At night, everyone has to go inside, unless they want to risk falling prey to spiders, zombies, creepers and other monsters in the game.
Some might think the constant interruptions would prove a pain to work around, but kids often make these enforced breaks work for them.
It forces them to break down larger tasks into smaller, more discrete ones, helping to break down complex projects into stages and tasks.
And most importantly, it forces them to take a break from the work in general, where they can either work on something else, regroup with their team and restrategize and assess their efforts. And if you’ve ever seen a group of kids rush around before a bell rings to get something done, you know how an enforced break can give a surge of energy and initiative to a dragging task.
I could see this at work while observing my nieces and nephews work on their amusement park in Minecraft. Meg is a natural clock-watcher, and would regularly chirp, “Creepers are coming!”
This served as a warning bell for her brothers to quickly finish up their tasks, whether it was building tracks or digging trenches. Then they would regroup to a building as the monsters crept in, and take the chance to discuss what they wanted to do next.
How does this translate to more grown-up forms of creative work? There are no creepers or zombies in the real world, so you’ll have to enforce short, frequent deadlines upon yourself to put some self-imposed pressure into your timetable.
A lot of independent workers and creatives swear by the so-called “Pomodoro” technique: you break down your day or your work into 25-minute intervals, and take a quick 5-minute break after each “pomodoro.”
Each pomodoro can be dedicated to a single task, project — say, “finish a chapter” or “prep ingredients for family dinner” — and the breaks can help keep your energy focused, as well as offer a chance to regroup and reassess. Not as fun as being potentially killed by zombies, skeletons and spiders, but it works just as well.
Short, frequent time pressures work best when you have a specific plan to follow — more open-ended creative tasks like brainstorming and strategic planning often go best when they’re free of pressure and time constraints, according to the Harvard Business Review.
But the “creepers gonna creep” approach of Minecraft helps when there’s a strategy or plan to execute — and get things done quickly.
The kids plugged away at their rollercoasters and made progress. But they periodically got into arguments, as siblings often do.
“Declan, you need to place the tracks closer together,” Jason complains. “You know it won’t work if they’re spaced out too far.”
“I’m doing what you told me,” Declan says, feeling defensive. “Don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.”
“I’m not blaming, Declan –”
“I’m doing the best I can. It looks better if they’re farther apart.”
“We can’t just change now, we have to redo the whole thing. But maybe we can do it for the next rollercoaster. But for now, you have to put them closer together –”
“You’re not the boss of me!” Declan shouts.
At first I was tempted to lecture them on the energy and time they wasted bickering among themselves. Turns out, though, they were on the right track — open, respectful disagreement is actually a hallmark of healthy creative teamwork.
Granted, on first appearance, replicating squabbles over “being bossed around” would be a recipe for disaster when it comes to grown-up workplaces or groups.
But kids do possess a gift for one of the most underrated qualities of an intensely creative group working together: they are honest, open and candid with one another. Openness and candor are key ingredients in creating a group atmosphere where people feel safe and secure enough to talk through and try out even so-called “bad” ideas — a valuable trait for any creative environment.
Acclaimed braintrusts like Pixar cite candor as a key quality in their creative culture, according to Fast Company. They put protocols and policies in place that explicitly laud and value openness, honesty and candor in their creative processes.
Candor, of course, doesn’t mean being rude or blunt — at the heart of candor is a genuine caring for the project, and the person’s role in it. Projects, not personalities, are put under the intense lens of scrutiny, and feedback may be brutal, but it’s focused on the work, not the person who created it.
Candor allows creative people to take risks, as well, because they know they’re protected by the rigors of a feedback system that won’t allow mediocre or subpar work to fall through the cracks.
Which brings us to one of the most important creative lessons we can glean from kids playing Minecraft to apply to all attempts at creativity — we can’t be afraid to experiment, try something new and fail. It’s only when we are willing to risk failure that we can achieve something truly great.
Watching my niece and nephews work at their rollercoasters and amusement park in the game, I was struck by how many dead ends they hit in terms of designing their project — and yet how often they pressed on and even had fun.
Their Minecraft got littered with half-finished attempts and even the rollercoasters they finished looked far from what they imagined.
Yet they kept going, squabbling, arguing, redoing their vision, taking time to goof on, going back to learn new skills and then applying what they learned. And slowly but surely, their rollercoasters began to take shape.
A few weeks after they began, I checked in with them periodically on their project. “How’s it going, guys?” I’d ask.
Sometimes they’d report on their progress with enthusiasm. Other times they seemed discouraged and disorganized. And sometimes they’d stop temporarily, and play another game. But inevitably they would return back to their rollercoaster attempt.
And then one day, they finished — they managed to put together a complete rollercoaster in their Minecraft terrain. I came over for a family gathering and they showed me their work. It wasn’t perfect, but they were proud for coming so far together.
“That’s great, you guys,” I said. “What are you going to do next?”
“Build another one!” they shouted together.
I admired their up-and-at-em spirit, as well as their intrepid creative inspiration. “How is this next one going to be different?” I asked, trying to be encouraging.
“It’ll be by a beach!”
“I think we should build a bridge next.”
Of course, that sparked an argument among the trio. But after watching them, I knew it was just part of their Minecrafting, and part of their creative process in general. After all, great creativity can be found in the strangest places and under the most unlikely guises — even among a group of kids playing a video game.
Who knows? Today my niece and nephews are working on virtual rollercoasters in Minecraft — maybe tomorrow they’ll be making apps, movies or something equally amazing. Once they stop bickering, of course… ♦