Your Creativity Matters: A Parable from the Toy Industry

In the early days of the Pandemic ™ and the massive loss of income and impact on livelihoods to follow, LLC Twitter dispensed its unique brand of sage advice: Why not just start your own business? This is the perfect time to become your own boss!

What I love about the Band Commonly Known as “$100 will get you started in this business opportunity, but you need to sell x widgets a month to keep you active otherwise you lose your investment” is their optimism. Most people who adhere to the principles of LLC Twitter are not malicious with their evangelism – they are merely misguided and lack the capacity for practical analysis. In order to get the $100 to get started in whatever scheme they are peddling one either needs to have:

 1) a traditional job and salary from which to pay that amount or

 2) access to someone with a traditional job and salary who would be willing to loan you the money.

Nevertheless, the core of the sentiment they tend to espouse holds true. When large-scale life altering incidents like a pandemic, economic downturn or mass layoffs occur, it is a good opportunity to reflect and do some self  (re)discovery. I have yet to come across one person who has not been amazed by what they’ve found.

A few months ago I got a message in my inbox from an aspiring author. He wanted advise on how to self-publish his first book, and I happily walked him through the process.

“Do you mind if I share what my book is about?” he asked.

I told him I would be honored if he did. His topic was unusual and it’s not the type of book that we typically see feted on bestsellers lists. This gave him pause as to whether he should pursue the project at all.

“Do you think it’s important, Malaka?”

“If it’s important to you, then it is important,” I replied.

And it’s true. At some point, each of us has to face the reality that there is no such thing as total acceptance. We will never be without our critics or detractors. Sometimes, your work will only have significance for a small number of people or an audience of one. Though the idea defies conventional notions about pride and narcissism, your personal opinion of the importance of your work matters. Your creativity matters.

My children inspire me to look at the world in new ways and remind me that every single choice my husband and I make in our parenting journey has an eternal impact. I was reminded of (and humbled by) this on Saturday morning when our eldest came down to greet us. As usual, she had thoughts brewing.

“Did you only buy us Black dolls on purpose when we were growing up?”

She tends to blurt things that have no bearing on the general goings on (in this case the episode of Knight Rider I was watching), but I’ve had 15 years to adjust to this habit.

“Yes. Absolutely,” I replied.

“I see. Because we only had Princess Tiana dolls.”

“Your grandmother bought you Tiana. I bought you a whole lot of other Black dolls. And it was intentional. I wanted to counterbalance the onslaught of whiteness you would be seeing on TV and books.”

She grinned broadly and did a Tiger fist pump. “I thought so!”

“If I could have, I would’ve bought you dolls from every culture…”

“…but they didn’t have them.”

“I did manage to get you an Asian Barbie though…”

“…but that was, like, way later.”

(Sorry if this dialogue is confusing. She and I tend to interrupt and finish each other’s sentences.)

“Anyway, I just came down here to say thanks for doing that, Mom. It was really helpful.”

Then she took food from my fridge and left.

Our conversation made me reflect on my own childhood. Today’s young parents will take it for granted, but there was a time when there were absolutely NO Black dolls for girls to play with. Or if they did, they looked like this:

The only Black doll I had growing up was similar to this…and I had to sew it myself.

Barbie dolls were definitely out of my family’s price range, and so to compensate the Ohio side of my family procured those dollar store knock offs with the bad wigs, hollow limbs and plastic shoes that you had to snap in half to place on your doll’s feet. (The best part about playing with those dolls was that you could name them whatever you wanted, because they sure weren’t ‘Barbie’.)

I never questioned that dolls should be white and pretty and Black dolls should be ugly and uninteresting. Similar to how we’ve accepted that there is only one right way to prepare beans. And then in the early 2000s – just around the time I’d had my first kid – Taofick Okoya, a Nigerian doll maker began making Black dolls who sported different hair styles and whose skin came in a variety of tones. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. As Africans who are accustomed to consuming, rather than producing, this was not something we knew we needed. If creative forces like Okoya had accepted the status quo, Black dolls would remain much as they had for decades – flat and uninteresting.

We no longer question why representation matters. It’s considered a logical response to the nuanced inequalities that exist in the world in which we operate. It’s hard to imagine a time when there were no dolls that came in different body shapes, represented different abilities and so forth, but there was such a time. When a small group of people took a brave step to question convention and conjure their innate creativity, the world adjusted and was changed forever.

The same applies to you.

Perhaps you’ve been fearful or apprehensive or don’t see the utility in your creative power. Now is a good time to stop second-guessing your worth. Li Jin is a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. She argues that every person on earth has some deep knowledge or experience or skill in something. I firmly believe that too. I urge you to believe in the gift that lives in you.

What has the COVID-19 pandemic shown you about yourself? How has it altered your approach to creativity? Has it inspired you or sucked you dry? Discuss!