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Cotton Ball Clouds and Creativity

When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my dad took my sister and me to run some errands. We stopped at his credit union and discovered that they were hosting a coloring contest for kids. They handed us each a piece of paper that had the same design for everyone to draw on.

We did our best to color our pictures beautifully. I seem to recall that there was a prize for the best one, though I don't remember what it was. I also don't remember what the image was that we were bringing to life, except that it had clouds on it.

The clouds were important because in addition to using crayons to fill in the landscape, my sister got some cotton balls and glued them to her paper where the clouds were. The color was perfect, but the texture was what really stood out. If you could reach up and feel the clouds in the sky, this was what they would feel like.

I have no idea how she came up with this idea. Maybe she had seen it—or something like it—somewhere else. Or maybe it sprang directly from her imagination as she envisioned how clouds might feel.

What I do know is that she won the competition. Her picture was the only one that was 3D. It literally popped off the page in an entirely unique and creative way. This is one of my earliest memories of creativity.

Flash-forward a few years and one of my classes in middle school was hosting another coloring contest. I remembered my sister's winning masterpiece from years before and glued cotton balls on my coloring sheet.

Again, there was only one piece that used a 3D design element in the entire class. Mine wasn't the most sophisticated drawing, but it did stand out—literally—among the others hanging on the wall.

When I was selected as one of the winners in that contest, I wondered if I could still call my art creative or unique. After all, I had merely borrowed my sister's earlier idea. But no one else had done anything like it.

Thinking back on both of these experiences, I wonder how much of our creativity is really just an uncommon idea borrowed from someone or somewhere else? If everyone in my middle school class had made their papers 3D, would mine have been more creative if it was only comprised of colored pencil drawings or paint?

In other words, do you have to understand the crowd you're in in order to stand out? I'm not sure what the answer is, but I remain curious about how creativity and uniqueness relate. And I especially love the way seeing an idea for the first time pops out at you in that unexpected way that makes time slow down and life come into focus.

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