Why Creativity Begins With Purpose (Not Passion)

I used to think all I needed to create something that mattered was passion…I was wrong. It turns out passion might start the engine and get the creative process moving, but purpose is what takes it all the way to the destination (and beyond).

Without Purpose the Process Will Stop

I learned this the hard way when I started to write my first (would be) book. It was going to be titled, “The Quantified Teacher” (I know bad title right). I wanted to “quantify” the teaching practice and record how much time I spent doing various teaching activities throughout the day. My ultimate hope was to expose some sort of truth that the teaching practice is much more than standing in front of the classroom, and our jobs require a great deal of creativity and flexibility. I recorded my activities, polled other teachers on what they did on a weekly basis, and looked through a lot of research on the subject, and then I stopped.

I never even published a blog post on my findings after initially polling teachers (shame on me). What happened was I lost some of that passion for this idea and never had enough purpose to carry it all the way to the finish line. I realized the amount of time and effort I would have to put into writing this book, and it wasn’t worth it. Why? Because my purpose was not strong enough.

This wasn’t the only time my passion fizzled out…

Six months after shutting down our teacher lesson plan and collaboration site “Collabo”, two other companies received multi-million dollar rounds with painstakingly similar ideas. What was worse is how much better they were at executing and shipping than our team was.

We started “Collabo” as a place for teachers to share lesson plans and resources, but more importantly, as a space where we could collaborate together on all the ideas we were “talking about” on Twitter and social media. I was very passionate about the role collaboration plays in education, and I still am, but as a group we never had the true purpose to leave the classroom and run with this site full-time.

Colllabo in it's infancy.

I received a call from a friend a few months after we shut down Collabo and he said “I’m sure you heard about those two companies closing big rounds… Don’t worry about it, just use it as validation that you were on to something. And that you had the timing close to perfect. Most people never make it that far. Now you can reflect on what it means to ship a product.”

Learning From Failure

To be honest, I wasn’t devastated. I realized “Collabo” was more of a side project to us (we all kept our real jobs as teachers) and I knew that I gave up control long ago, when we brought in a programmer from the outside. The thing that hurt was trying to internally look at my own reasons and purpose for starting our company.

I don’t want my work to be just another fad in education. I’ve been great at jumping on fads my entire life. From Pong to Pokemon, skateboarding to rollerblading, cargo sweatpants to skinny jeans, Nextel to Razor to Blackberry to iPhone…this list could go on. I’m constantly looking out for the next new thing. I thoroughly enjoy adopting and embracing most things “new.”

As a teacher this has helped me because my classes stay innovative, and I stay up-to date on what is happening in education and around the world. As a coach this has helped me because I’m always looking for new ways to motivate and game plan. But as a creative this has given me a tendency to move onto the “next big thing” instead of focusing on what’s important.

Right now, I’m focusing on purpose first, and creativity flows out of that desire to really make something that impacts now and will continue to impact in the future.

In the last year I’ve learned to really focus on projects that I’m not only passionate about, but also have a purpose that can carry me through the difficult times in the creative process. I’ve gone from a passionate creator, to a purposeful creator. And it’s made all the difference.

Purpose, Grit, and Finishing

This is not a new phenomenon. Leaders, politicians, businesses, and teachers have seen over time the effects a driving purpose can have on everything from winning an election to selling more of a product. Psychologists like Walter Mischel have been studying and researching this in depth since the 1960’s, when he launched the “Marshmallow Test” and found the benefits of “self-control” outweighed IQ.

In education right now, the buzz word is “GRIT”. Penn Professor Angela Duckworth is one of the leading researchers in the field of Grit, and her work has made waves.Duckworth analyzed a Catherine Morris Cox study of 300 recognized geniuses and found two specific qualities that she believed to be a better predictor of high achievement than anything else:

  1. The tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”
  2. The tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.

Duckworth called the presence of these two qualities, Grit. Her (and her colleagues) devised a short test to measure an individual’s “Grit Score”. What I find fascinating about her work is how “purpose” can be a driving force behind a person’s grit. A recent New York Times article summarizes her work (and findings) this way:

People who accomplished great things, [Duckworth] noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.

Passion without dedication often leads to nothing. As I mentioned above in my story, passion is not enough. When I look at what creative projects I’ve successfully finished and published, they come from a similar equation:

  • Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom – I was passionate about publishing a real book but never could even create a proposal until I found a true purpose. My purpose for this book is to show teachers, parents, and administrators that inquiry-driven learning experiences foster innovative students, teachers, and schools.
  • Classroom Questions – A podcast that started with the purpose to answer real everyday questions that teachers had about engagement, technology, and so much more.
  • Learning By Choice – My second book was focused on providing teachers with other ways to bring choice into their classrooms without having to fully implement a Genius Hour or 20% Time style project. This purpose still drives me as I’m finishing up the expanded version of this book (coming soon!).
  • 2030 Schools and Project: Global Inform – The purpose of creating a project where students can affect real change around human rights violations and the 2030 Global Goals is still igniting today.
  • Launch – The book on design thinking and creativity I wrote with John Spencer is titled “Launch” and being released later this year. I’ve never been prouder of anything I have created.

Passion with real purpose gave me the “grit” to finish what I started in the creative process.

Adding Purpose to the Learning Process

When I ran the 20% time project in my classroom, a few things were immediately apparent to me:

1. My students had a hard time uncovering passion in the school setting.

2. I had a difficult time helping them find their passion.

3. Almost all of the successful projects had a driving purpose behind them.

The past few years, as I’ve helped out other teachers who are running inquiry-based projects like 20% time and Genius Hour, I’m always asking students what their purpose is in whatever they are working on. I explain that it’s also what I ask myself when I’m working on something creative. Their purpose could be to change the world, or make a video game that 1000 people play, or start a band. But as long as they truly care about that purpose…they’ll have the dedication needed to keep going when the process is difficult.

How often is the only “purpose” for learning tied to grades? How often is the only “purpose” for work tied to money? What happens to learners who don’t care about grades, and workers who want more purpose in their job than just a paycheck? Chances are they stall out, fail to move forward, and move on to something else.

If we want creative students, we’ll have to allow them to choose a purpose for much of their learning. If we want creative teachers and leaders, we need to allow for purposes other than financial compensation. The creative process can not be forced and it cannot be fake. It must contain purpose or it will never be finished.

What’s your purpose?

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  • […] was reading a blog post arguing that creativity is more purpose driven than passion driven.  I think there is a lot of […]

  • L.Waters says:

    Basic concepts of “just because its hard, doesn’t mean we don’t do it. Take the challenge if its hard. Failure as an outcome of the challenge is ok. It gives us the chance to take a fresh look and try again.”

  • Renee says:

    Your comment resonate with me as our school district and my school prepares to embark on a journey of “innovativeness”. We are reinventing how school “looks and feels” to students and teachers. Your articles have helped me to “see” what the future can look like. This will be my new idea for the future…” I’m focusing on purpose first, and creativity flows out of that desire to really make something that impacts now and will continue to impact in the future.”

  • Pharan says:

    Dear AJ,
    Another wonderful read. I get so pumped when I engage with your work. I want to be the first in Australia to read Launch! Make sure you email me, so I can get a copy or few.

    My purpose: I want to dedicate my life to champion the cause of education through radically rethinking how we teach and learn. I know this has many layers of complexity and that it will be the task that will guide and inspire the majority of my life’s actions and words. It gets me excited and I want to share this with others.

    Yours in admiration,


  • […] Davis on twitter that discussed the need for providing students with a purpose for creativity. Why Creativity Begins With Purpose (Not Passion)  has me pondering ways that I can provide my students with a better understanding of the why behind […]

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