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Cowgirls vs. Creativity Assassins: It’s Time to Pick a Side

What do you want to be when you grow up?” I recently asked a five year-old girl.

“A cowgirl,” she said without missing a beat. “So I can ride cows.”

“I know the word ‘cowgirl’ must be confusing,” I explained with a laugh, “but cowgirls actually ride horses.”

“I know,” she said. “Not me. I want to ride cows.”

“Tell me more,” I said after a brief pause. “Why cows instead of horses?”

“Because cows aren’t as rough as horses. They may be slow, but they won’t buck you off. And you can drink their milk when you’re done riding them. You can’t do that with a horse.”

Okay. I had to admit, she’d put forth a strong case for riding cows. As I pondered her new concept of a cowgirl, I flashed back to my own youth. Specifically, the moment I stood before my first grade class on career day.

“When I grow up, I want to be Daphne from Scooby Doo,” I responded, when asked by my teacher. She promptly told me that was impossible and said to try again. “When I grow up, I want to be a mermaid.” She told me that this, too, was beyond reality. Nearing tears, I finally blurted out that I wanted to be a dancer on Solid Gold.

She told me to sit down.

Oddly enough, I experienced another flashback; this one taking me back to my college days. I vividly remembered sitting down with course catalogs and career booklets from my university covering every square inch of my desk. My elbows were planted on the table, head resting in my hands as I wept. First semester into my sophomore year, it was time to declare a major, and I STILL didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I had to wonder if these events from my life were connected. I wondered what would have happened if my teacher hadn’t been so quick to shut me down when I had told her that I wanted to be Daphne from the Scooby Doo cartoon. What if she’d simply said these words: tell me more?

I might have said that I really liked Daphne because she solved mysteries and had a big, loveable dog that followed her around. And who knows? I might have become a K-9 cop! Or if I’d had to explain what fascinated me about mermaids? I might have said that I loved their shimmery, colorful tails and the fact that they lived in a mysterious world under the sea. Maybe I would have been inspired to become a fashion designer. Or a fantasy writer.

But I’d never had the chance to explore those ideas. My dreams had been summarily dismissed because they didn’t fit neatly within the practical guidelines of our career day speeches. We were taught as children to follow the formulas, to stay inside the lines. Then we were told what a valuable asset creativity is, and how it should be nurtured and encouraged throughout our lives. But there are limitations imposed. We can only be creative when we’re prompted or given permission to do so… right? When creative thinking presents itself within a natural context and a five year-old says that he wants to be a robot from outer space when he grows up, what do we do with that? We shut it down.

As adults we encounter the same kind of out-of-the-box thinking every day at work and in our personal lives, and we do the same thing – we kill it. We redirect to something that makes more sense to us.

We pass up the opportunity to explore new ideas by simply saying, “tell me more.”

So when a five year-old girl told me that she wanted to be a cowgirl who rides cows, I resisted the urge to redirect her. Hearing about her love of milk – and her insightful comments about the gentleness of cows – made me wonder if there’s a future dairy farmer or a veterinarian somewhere inside her.

Who knows? Next week she may decide she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. Or an archaeologist. Or a teenage mutant ninja turtle. And she would need to hear from the adults in her life that all of that would be okay.

We as adults need to give ourselves and those around us the same permission to truly embrace and welcome creative thinking.

To explore unconventional ideas. To simply say “tell me more,” and expect that we might just be pleasantly surprised with what follows.

It’s okay, boys and girls of all ages. Really. Dream big.

Ride that cow.

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