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The Art of the Spreadsheet

What we miss when we limit creativity to "the arts" is the innumerable ways that humans express their creative nature in all kinds of work.

As a creative professional, I hear a recurring lament from people at work and elsewhere: "I'm not creative." But that's not really true: While people can be more or less creative, to say one is not creative is to misunderstand human nature.

Usually, the speaker means they can't draw. But drawing is only one facet of creativity, and it is not the whole of it any more than a turnip is the whole of food. A spreadsheet can evince as much creativity as a drawing—in some cases, more.

"I'm not creative" is untrue because all of us are made in the image of the Creator God, who is the ultimate creative personality. As his image bearers, we are creative by nature. In my case, that creativity may surface as a talent for drawing. For another, the talent is dance, and for another, weaving. But even a broad view of what we call "the arts" is far too narrow a realm in which to try to contain the range of human creativity.

Sadly, the desire to draw and paint is beaten out of most of us in elementary school—not because we're not good at it, but because we're not as good as someone else, and thus we think ourselves inadequate. While this is sad enough in itself, what makes it sadder is that this self-censorship, when one resigns forever from the club of those who draw and paint, also becomes an act of self-definition as a non-creative person. And this is not true.

Let's interrogate the self-described non-creative person a bit more. He or she likely works in an office, where the inbox is filled with memoranda and spreadsheets. Drawing and painting seem as remote as a Tahitian island.

But let's look at her work a little more closely. That spreadsheet, for example—the one that evaluates a range of vendors, their costs and ostensible benefits. For most of us, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is a tabular array of numbers. Many of my architect peers don't even know that Excel has mathematical functions built into it. In the hands of this imaginary worker, however, a spreadsheet is a nearly-magical tool that allows the exploration of a multiplicity of options at lightning speed. Our "non-creative" friend has written formulae that analyze, compare, project, and slice the vendors' data from every conceivable angle, the way a sculptor analyzes a stone before taking a mallet and chisel to it. Embedded in seemingly boring rows of numbers is a great underlying intelligence, enabled by Microsoft but applied by our friend, getting at the real meaning of the vendors' data while stripping out all of the superfluous chatter. A spreadsheet that presents information clearly, so that it can be understood easily and used to make decisions, is indeed a beautiful thing.

An artful spreadsheet

Our hypothetical friend's spreadsheet is, in fact, a work of art: even if it is not signed, framed, and hung in a gallery, it is an expression of this person's true nature—his or her gift for analysis and facility with complex mathematical and logical expressions. Have you ever seen a really complex Excel formula, one laden with "IF" statements and multiple sets of brackets? It is as intimidatingly beautiful as the whiteboard scribbling of a nuclear physicist.

And our cubicle-dwelling friend illustrates just one of the millions of ways we express our God-imaging creativity every day, at work, at home, in the kitchen, in the garden. The excellence of a spreadsheet is a function of the genius of its author. In the same way, creative people (who may not consider themselves creative) are forever inventing new products, perfecting sales pitches, writing brochures, designing flyers, composing letters, or perhaps just inventing a better route to school. We exercise our creativity every day in ways too numerous to count—even (perhaps especially) those who neither draw nor paint.

What we miss when we limit creativity to "the arts" are the innumerable ways that humans express their creative nature in all kinds of work: in spreadsheets, in repairing things, in devising helpful gadgets, in combining recipes, in shopping, in tax accountancy. There is no realm of human endeavour in which creativity does not come into play. Even a compliance officer, whose work is defined by conformance to a rigid set of requirements, must be creative in finding ways to comply with unbending regulations. For most of us, whose work is not so codified, the call to creativity is daily, or even hourly.

Here's what I want you to know: the door of God's refrigerator is very large. And on it are my sketches, and your spreadsheets (and your collaborative spreadsheet art), and someone else's business plan, and another's method for organizing Grandmother's many medications. It's all creativity, and as God himself has said, it is very good.

Help us spread the word:
David Greusel David Greusel
David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. ... read more »

Posted in Arts, Vocation.

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