My children spend more time building with Lego than just about anything else. While they covet and save up for sets like any good little American consumers, they spent most of their time re-mixing those sets (and their thousands of eBay purchased random pieces) into wildly new creations.
Seriously, some of the stuff they come up with is just incredible. They use pieces in ways that I’m sure the designers at Lego never intended. On the shelf in the other room there are elaborate dragons with hinged tails, spooky temples, and strange little machines with gears.
Almost always, what they make is surprising, unexpected, startlingly new.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a worshipful paean to my children’s creativity. I’m not saying that their Lego models are going to end up in MoMA. It’s just that I want to share some observations from when a totally different thing enters the picture: the Lego building challenges.
They get these Lego magazines bundles of advertisements in the mail (thanks to my mom, who faithfully ships them overseas) and each features “building challenge” contests as well as pictures of children with their winning creations. There’s a prize of a $100 gift card for some of the contests.
For days after they read about a new “challenge” (build a dream home, build some kind of robot, etc.) they’ll work and re-work a project and pester us to photograph them and worry about whether or not they’ll win. Here’s the surprising part, the part you are not allowed to tell my children:
When they are building for the contest — for that $100 gift card and their picture in the magazine — their creations are startlingly less creative.
All of a sudden, they are timid and anxious about their creations. They’ll ask me what I think of them, something they never do otherwise — usually they just present their work to me with the jubilance of people who know what they’ve accomplished is good. Honestly, their for-contest work is always inferior to their regular work.
Why does this matter?
Because I think it shows us something important about motivation and its effect on creativity.
Most of the time, the kids build with Lego simply because that is what they love to do. They are pleasing no one but themselves. There is no point to the work except the work itself. There is no limit on the time spent working except the time they choose to spend on it.
So most of the time, they build in a state of flow, which is, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a Wired interview :
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
If their only concern is the work, their work is amazing, and they work with confidence and pleasure. As soon as there’s a carrot — an extrinsic reward — their creative juices seem to dry up, and they’re building replicas of some other kid’s idea and worrying about whether they’ll ‘win.’
When we were both in graduate school, my friend and I reminded each other to find our “no pressure zones.” For us that involved a lot of intentional non-procrastination and striving actually to enjoy what we were learning. It also involved studying together in pleasant locations and drinking lattes.
Sometimes I am all but paralyzed by the fear of doing what I do badly OR by the desire for external affirmation. When I am in that mode, pretty much everything I write, say, draw, or cook is total crap. It’s when you move into the pleasure and rhythm of the work itself, I find, that things turn out well, which is annoying because I’m basically saying that I think people — or at least I — work best when I manage not to be so worried about how it will turn out, but instead to be absorbed in the work itself.
For me, faith is a part of this, because I find it very, very difficult not to seek extrinsic rewards and affirmation, but remembering God’s grace allows me to offer it to myself and others, and to stop trying to keep score.
“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed,” wrote  Robert Farrar Capon.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food  (InterVarsity Press, March 2013) and a regular contributor to Christianity Today's her.meneutics blog. She has contributed to Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, Flourish, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She blogs at RachelMarieStone.com and lives in Malawi, Africa, where she teaches English at Zomba Theological College.