/ 16 June 2024

Embrace the creativity of a child on Youth Day

39th Anniversary Of Youth Day In South Africa
In the past, the youth played a pivotal role in fighting for democracy and negotiating for the new South Africa, but now it seems the youth are ignored. (Photo by Cornell Tukiri/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Youth Day has me thinking about my childhood. I adored Harry Chapin, an American folk singer. One of his greatest story-songs, Flowers Are Red, tells of a small boy who coloured his pictures in kindergarten with joy and abandon until his teacher insisted again and again: “Flowers are red and leaves are green, there’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.” 

The boy protested: “There are so many colours in the rainbow,” but punishment and repetition eventually taught him that conformity, not freedom, is the best method of survival — a message most of us have learned, to our detriment.

This sad moral is the opposite of the meaning of 16 June, a holiday celebrating the power of youth protest. Creative expression formed part of the youths’ defiant contribution to the struggle through grafitti, poetry, protest music, and their ability to adapt and innovate helped them overcome. As we roll forward off the back of our most innovative elections yet, the natural creative mindset of youth is one we adults would do well to adopt.

We, as a nation, barely qualify as youth, squeaking in at the age of 31. And I’m not talking about youth in that “35 or under” context, because, by the age of eight, school has started to stifle our creativity, and by 15, 90% of us have lost access to the creative genius that helped us become who we are.

So in the rest of this article, I’m asking you to focus not just on youth, but on small children. We need creative energy to build a successful society. So let’s take a few minutes to reconnect to our own child-like qualities that can lead us to greater creativity. 

Here’s a list of a few, including some simple tips. Please think of a problem you are coping with right now, something you have been stuck on for months or even decades. Then as you go through this list, apply the principle and see how it can help you generate more creative solutions to unstuck South Africa — as well as you in your own struggle for freedom.

Children are impatiently curious, eager to seek out new knowledge. Consider your two-year-old’s favourite word: Why? If you doubt the curiosity of children, just hang out with some on Christmas Eve. Young minds seek out new ideas by being a high-volume demand for novelty. 

Tip: Go beyond your first solution. Generate a list of at least 20 alternatives. Look at your challenge with excitement to discover. Maximise your curiosity by discovering how many possibilities for new actions there actually are.

Hand in hand with curiosity comes wonder — delight at the mysteries of the universe. Children find magic in the mundane. They view the world with fresh eyes free of grown-ups’ jaded cynicism. They actively seek the extraordinary in the details of everyday life — from the delicate beauty of a flower in a pot on the windowsill to the expanse of distant stars.

Tip: Seek something new in everything you encounter. Approach your problem with transcendent joy and create new ways to view it. What new wonderful ways of looking at your difficulty can help you bring new value to the area you are seeking to triumph in? 

Children have an infinite ability for imagination, experimentation and play — to dream, envision and create worlds beyond the constraints of reality. Their minds are truly blank canvases waiting to be painted by themselves. Rules do not constrain them no matter how much we try to force the rules on them. They dodge convention and view failure as an opportunity to grow. They are willing to challenge the status quo and question norms. They don’t see obstacles as problems but as part of the game. 

Tip: Embrace the mindset that everything you do is an experiment. Whether in science, art or entrepreneurship, notice that the biggest winners are those with the boldest footsteps. Don’t worry if you might look silly. 

Think like Miles Davis, who once said, “Don’t be afraid of mistakes. There aren’t any.”

Children are also adaptable and flexible. In a world characterised by change and uncertainty, young people possess a remarkable ability to think on their feet as new circumstances arise, and to bob and weave and surf the tides of surprise

Tip: Let go of your rigid thinking and entrenched beliefs. Consider doing the opposite of what you think is right. Explore multiple alternative perspectives. 

Children are authentic in their expression. Young people embrace their voice without apology or compromise. They are not afraid to be themselves and to share their truth. They don’t understand the meaning of adversity. 

Tip: Tap into your intuition and passion and rediscover what is most genuine. Try coming from your heart instead of your logical thoughts. Share openly and speak your mind. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself.

Children are fearless. They do not run away from risks. This is why, as parents, we spend so much time fixing bruised foreheads and scraped knees, patching up dog bites, and cleaning up broken shards of pottery pulled off high shelves or jugs of milk left too close to the edge of the table. Children dive into new experiences unafraid to be judged or ridiculed and so don’t censor themselves. And this fearlessness makes all of the qualities I listed above this paragraph all the more potent.

Tip: Liberate your creative spirit with a strong dose of courage. Figure out what scares you the most in addressing your problem — and do precisely that. Push the boundaries of possibility by refusing to make protection your concern. 

As we commemorate Youth Day, let us honour the achievements of our youth by allowing them to inspire us with their creative genius. Their example can help us shape a vibrant, dynamic, resilient nation. 

Write to the Mail & Guardian or contact me on LinkedIn or email at [email protected] and let us know what you got from trying out the above suggestions on your stuck project.

In the meantime, appreciate the children in your life: your own kids, your nieces and nephews, grandchildren, children in your neighbourhood, and friends. Pay attention to how they maintain a creative mindset, and watch how they embody these creative principles in every aspect of their life. 

Keep in mind the literal meaning of “appreciate” is “to add value”. 

How can you bring greater value to the lives of the children around you? 

Most importantly, check in with your own inner child, and pump your creativity tank to full. Be a role model by taking action to cause creative solutions. Bring the power of your infinite creativity to help life work for yourself, South Africa, and everyone.

Michael Lee is an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day and a Radio 702 creativity contributor.