Whence creativity?

Browsing the First Thoughts blog this morning, I read Joe Carter’s post Are We Not Bored Enough? He links to Scott Adams’ column in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal,  where Adams argues that constant stimulation is hurting our creativity. I’ve never been a fan of Dilbert, but I followed the link to see what Adams had to say.

Unfortunately, the full column is available only to subscribers. Fortunately, our department has a subscription to the paper, and I had our copy of Saturday’s paper at my desk. Unfortunately, it was soaked through, as the plastic bag the paper was put in had not been knotted, and there was no one around to bring in the paper until this morning. Fortunately, Adams’ column was in the third section, which was only mostly soaked through, and I was able to tear out the column and hang it to dry.

Of course, if I wanted to know what Adams had to say about boredom and creativity, I could have just read his blog post on July 13. The piece in the WSJ appears to be an enlarged version of that post, adding in biographical information about how bored Adams was growing up in a boring, tiny mountain town.

Joe Carter clearly doesn’t agree with Adams’ praise of boredom. “While I might agree that being constantly over-stimulated can be a problem, I’ve always found the supposed benefits of boredom to be overrated.” As he points out, the lack of original thinking that Adams points to in today’s society is hardly a new problem. Even Adams admits that it may be that we are more aware of it, rather than that it is actually worse.

I decided to see what other people had to say about the idea. Adams’ column is hardly an example of original thinking itself, I discovered. People have been worrying for a long time that today’s children are too busy with too many activities and too much canned entertainment to be creative in the way previous generations had to be. As long as I can remember, adults have been worrying about the effect of TV, because kids won’t have to create images in their minds the way they do when the read books.

The most sensible opinions seem to be those that look for a balance between leaving children too much to their own devices, and controlling their activities too much. This parenting article cautions that “Too much boredom can lead to trouble; too much supervision can kill constructive boredom—and the creativity that comes with it.” Of course, that probably requires that parents develop a similar balance in their own lives.

I hardly ever find boredom to be a problem for me anymore. I remember how easily I got bored as a child, especially on long car trips, though the concerts my father made us attend weren’t much less boring. I remember, as a college student, realizing with surprise that I no longer found the twelve-hour trip to and from college all that boring, and wondering when I stopped getting bored on car trips.

Is it because I find so many creative thoughts to occupy my mind? Or that I am able to sort of “veg out,” while maintaining enough attention on the task at hand to drive the car or otherwise react appropriately to important stimuli?

I do try to take advantage of times when I don’t have to be thinking about other things to use my imagination. Sometimes I work on storylines (lately I’ve been working on one about a child who inherits a chess set, the pieces of which turn out to have magical properties), other times I imagine conversations with people about some topic or other, working out how best to express my ideas.

When I’m preparing a speech for Toastmasters, I spend most of my “down time” (walking the dog, driving, waiting for web pages to load, etc.) trying to think of ideas for my speech or practicing how to say them. Other times, my attention is less focused. When I’m listening to music, for instance, I like to let my mind just wander, letting my brain find mental images that seem to fit well with the music.

That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes try to entertain myself with electronics. I once downloaded a game onto my cell phone when I was stuck in a severe weather shelter for an hour. Since then, I have pulled out my phone and played the game on many occasions when I had far less than an hour of time to while away. Last week I spent twenty minutes playing while waiting for member of our Toastmasters club executive committee to show up for a meeting. (One VP finally showed up and told me no one else was coming.)

Creativity requires a certain amount of mental energy, which some times I just don’t seem to have. It also requires something to focus on – some problem to solve or some idea to develop. I have found few things more frustrating than being told to be creative without any direction at all as far as subject matter or techniques to use. Give me a topic and I can write or talk about it, but just tell me to “write something” or “give a speech,” and I tie myself in knots with frustration over lack of ideas.

So where does creativity come from? Human beings seem to be innately creative, but some certainly are more creative than others. Is it an inborn trait? A learned skill? A product of circumstances?

One interesting quotation about creativity comes from Dee Hock, the founder and former CEO of VISA.

The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.

Certainly children, whose minds are far less filled with “archaic furniture,” are often very creative. And that creativity often does decrease with age. It’s not easy to clean out a corner of the mind; in fact, I don’t think I’d even know how to do so. 

Perhaps it’s just that Hock’s metaphor doesn’t work for me. “Cleaning out a corner” implies either discarding the existing contents, or archiving them in a rarely accessed filing cabinet. It’s true that sometimes I have abandoned previous held ideas, and it does free me to think other thoughts, but I think of that more as exchanging faulty ideas for better ones than making room for creativity.

I’d rather think of my mind as a more or less infinitely expandable canvas. If I have a germ of an idea to focus my attention on, it creates its own space as it grows. But I need that germ to start with, just as moisture in the clouds needs a tiny particle (of dust, smoke, or salt) to attach itself to in order to grow a raindrop. 

Another interesting quote points to the importance of being curios. Akio Morita, Japanese businessman and co-founder of Sony, said that “Curiosity is the key to creativity.” My first thought as that this applies more to the kind of creativity that leads to innovative ideas and products rather than to creative expression in literature or other arts. But I suppose any kind of art requires a certain kind of curiosity.

“What would a character like this do?” “What would it look like if I tried this color?” “Can I take this musical motif and change it to create a different mood?”

And I suppose, in some ways, boredom and curiosity are linked. Boredom says, “I don’t like this. There’s nothing interesting.” Curiosity says, “What if I tried doing this?” If there’s no one to stifle the curious explorer (either by telling him “we don’t do it that way” or by distracting him with some other activity), creativity will blossom.

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