I took an optional summer geometry class in high school. My friends and I enrolled in the accelerated 6-week course to qualify for Algebra II during the school year. Yes, we were nerds, and yes, I’m okay admitting it.
On the surface, geometry is all shapes and angles. Yet, underneath the polygons and isosceles triangles are complex mathematical proofs.
One afternoon, the teacher put us in groups and provided a complex equation. She tasked us with solving the equation using tested proofs or theorems found in our textbook.
We were stuck. We could solve the equation but proving the answer escaped us. A friend in the group took a break and went to the bathroom. When he came back, he proclaimed, “I’ve got it!”
He started writing an entirely new mathematical theorem developed in the bathroom. Within a few minutes, he proved the equation. My friend dubbed the Bathroom-Triangle Theorem of Mathematics. We presented the work to the teacher and she promptly told us we were wrong. Using an untested and unpublished theorem was against the rules.
I argued with the teacher, explaining all theorems are untested when first developed. They are all theories explained using a chain of reasoning, built upon a previous understanding of mathematics. In our case, the Bathroom-Triangle Theorem explained the mathematical equation without fail and even explained subsequent equations.
The teacher didn’t budge. We were forced to use the options from our textbook. To my knowledge, the Bathroom-Triangle Theorem was never used again. The stroke of creativity encountered in a high school bathroom may have changed mathematics forever, but we’ll never know.
The most-watched TED talk of all time is an exploration of creativity and institutionalization. Recorded in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson asks a simple question: Do Schools Kill Creativity?
Robinson explains little children are not afraid of being wrong. They dance and draw and are wildly imaginative. Yet, our education is built upon a system of right and wrong. There is no room for creativity or art in such a rigid world where you are either right or wrong. The system taught us the textbook’s theorems were correct, and therefore anything outside the book ( or the box) was wrong. It’s a mathematical proof in its own right.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” Sir Robinson says, “you won’t come up with anything original.”
Over the last few years, the rate at which I publish and share ideas with the world dropped significantly. I’ve made every excuse for the reason: I’ve been busy at work, burnt out, lacked ideas. Just like relying solely on textbook theorems, all these reasons are simply excuses.
The thing is, I haven’t stopped writing. There are a staggering number of ideas and outlines in my notes. I journal twice-a-day to capture my thoughts. I write a few thousand words daily between personal and professional work. I’m just not fleshing anything out and publishing it into the world.
You can chalk part of not publishing to being lazy. I’ll admit that. However, maybe the reason is precisely what Sir Robinson posits. What if, as I’ve grown as a writer and developed a larger audience, I’ve become more afraid of being perceived wrong?
Creating something, in my case writing, requires putting a little piece of ourselves out into the world to experience. As we’re taught in school, there is a right and wrong. Something original like the Bathroom-Triangle Theorem is always wrong, simply because it’s new and untested. But what if it’s not? What if it is once again encouraged?
My friend’s theorem connected different mathematical proofs into a new concept. Despite not being able to use his creation, my friend was unfazed by the Bathroom-Triangle Theorem incident. He went on to be our class valedictorian with a full scholarship to college.
Steve Jobs once said, “creativity is just connecting things.” Writing combines inspiration with storytelling to get the reader thinking.
I may not develop new mathematical theories, but I hope my creative outlets encourage people to think and contemplate the world around them. I want to write and I’m only holding myself back with excuses and fear.
In his Masterclass, Neil Gaiman says to be a writer, you must be willing to walk down the street naked. You must be ready to expose yourself for all to see, laid bare without regard.
For my birthday this week, I invested in myself in multiple ways. Some of these are monetary investments to further my creative journey. Others are abstract investments into my time and mentality, pushing that inner-critic out of the way and creating without fear.
Whatever your form of creativity, do not fear it. Do not give in to that voice telling you it’s not worth the time. Resurrect your imagination and see where it takes you.
Today, these are the words I needed to hear. Maybe they are the words you need as well. Go, create, and then share it with the world.