The subject of creativity has been on my mind lately. As part of my dissertation research, I had to look at theories of policy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are said to be many things — risk-takers, charismatic, disruptive.
But they are also said to be creative. They have insights on resources and constraints that lead them to act differently than their peers.
Diligence Contra Creativity?
We could say the same about scholars. Some scholars are like entrepreneurs, trying to revolutionize their discipline with bold new approaches. Some of these insights work, while others flare out.
Other scholars are less adventurous. They prefer to work within well-defined research traditions and grind out modest contributions. Even within this group of scholars, however, I often find that — at least in their own minds — they see themselves as creative.
But all researchers, no matter what field, soon find that diligence is the key to success. Without it, you get nowhere. Coding data, writing and rewriting, formatting bibliographies — without the ability to handle the minutiae of research and scholarship, you are nowhere. You have nothing.
And perhaps all this diligence does something to your creativity. Perhaps it makes you more guarded, less bold. You learn to write and think defensively. And perhaps these habits of mind inhibit your ability to make new breakthroughs.
I’ve been trying to rediscover my creative self. I’ve also been trying to write something meaningful on creativity. It’s hard. And perhaps it’s something I haven’t been attacking creatively enough (or shouldn’t be attacking at all).
Many things have been written on creativity (some of them not all that creative). But my favorite quotes on creativity come from an Isaac Asimov essay I was recently introduced to. The origin of the article itself is fairly interesting. It was the result of an official, government-sponsored project to think creatively about a very difficult problem. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out.
What’s interesting about the 1959 essay is its cynicism toward government-sponsored creativity sessions. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were all sorts of reports and media condemnations of the intelligence community’s failure to connect the dots — in a broad sense its failure to be creative. It’s bizarre to charge a government bureaucracy with a failure to be creative — as if creativity can be produced through a bureaucratic process. And in the aftermath of the attacks, the government sponsored a slew of workshops with “creative types” (novelist, actors, directors, and other eccentrics) in order to “red team” more possible scenarios.
Thinking about these sessions in light of the Asimov article is interesting because Asimov is skeptical that creativity can ever be the product of a governmental process. But he does have a few key sections where he suggests some ways that creative outputs may occur through government funding. Again, I encourage you to go right to the source material.
Eccentricity and its Limits
Here is one quote from the article that got me thinking:
“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.”
My first thoughts on this quote have to do not with creativity but with the limits of rational judgment. Let’s say we are able to get a bunch of eccentric/genius types together. And let’s say one out of twelve has a very useful idea. Would we be able to pick out the one good idea successfully?
My answer: I don’t think so.
This is based on observation. We frequently see someone who is right about the next big event or who was warning us about some danger that was about to occur. They are usually columnists, commentators, think tank scholars, or something of the like. But typically we only find out who is right after the event has occurred.
So, not only can we not know which eccentric is the right eccentric, but we (or they) only benefit from their eccentricity if they are willing to put their ideas into practice or risk something they have to make their eccentric ideas work or to get noticed — as entrepreneurs do.
Since entrepreneurs often fail, they need to have either extraordinary insight or they need to be people of “considerable self-assurance” who take risks in spite of the consequences of being wrong.
Isolation and Unconscious Thought
Here is another quote that got me thinking:
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekulé working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)”
Isolation? I’m not sure isolation is necessary. Especially in my research on political entrepreneurship, the eccentric types need lots of exposure to their natural environment. Insights come from “continually working at it,” but usually in a social context. For some types of breakthroughs, isolation might be necessary, but for myself I prefer to work with others, especially when I’m stuck on a problem. Isolation might make people weird, but not necessarily in a way that provides useful insights about things in the world.
The part that rang most true for me was the idea of the mind shuffling information, even when “not conscious of it.” I’ve become a true believer in defocused concentration. N.N. Taleb, the famous thinker on antifragility, has talked about the benefits of walks. I find that menial tasks often have the same effect. When I am doing something that requires little thought, but involves lots of motion, I can often have a mental breakthrough. (There is actually an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon put this theory to work by trying to come up with a breakthrough by working as a busboy at Penny’s restaurant.)
For some reason, I get insights right before I go to sleep. Actually, I get them at the very moment where my mind begins to relax and slip into unconsciousness. This has become so annoying that I’ve just left a notebook by my bed so I don’t have to get up again and walk to my laptop.
Brainstorming Sessions — Real and Fake
A while ago, (I can’t say particularly where or when) I read about a certain government department holding brainstorming sessions. I tried to picture what this must have been like. My mental image was not of a real brainstorming session, but of a bunch of government bureaucrats sitting around, floating mildly interesting ideas with little risk, moments of uncomfortable silence, some obligatory back-slapping, and then calling it a day.
Again, I don’t think a real brainstorming session can occur in a place like a government bureaucracy, or even a large corporation for that matter. Eccentricity in those kinds of contexts can be dangerous. (Maybe if it was a corporate advertising agency. Maybe.)
So here is my last quote:
“But how to persuade creative people to do so [get together for a creativity session]? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.”
This is where academia often fails. Conferences, peer review, and other such academic conventions work against creativity. Usually, the only way around these inhibitors is to avoid them for a while. You have to find a context where genuine creativity is rewarded, and that can be difficult. An academic conference of like-minded individuals looking for a breakthrough might work better than some of the conferences I’ve been to (where scholars spend more time avoiding being wrong).
Like-minded scholarly communities help. Parties help. Talking with sympathetic friends helps. I’m also encouraged by the number of forums that have opened up for scholars to do “official bull-shitting” like blogs and web journals that have more flexible editorial requirements and allow speculative essays.
Another idea, keep a journal with ideas only you’ll ever read. (I guess isolation can be productive!) Then when something is ready to come out of the journal, let it out.
Creativity Finds You
Here is my simple definition of creativity: the mental state of childlike wonder.
If that is the case, then you need to find ways to put yourself in mental states where it’s okay to be odd, unique, experimental — and just plain wrong. It’s difficult to find those spaces as an adult, but not impossible. The problem is that many places within the university are not such spaces. Many places in public life are not such places. They are places of adulthood and consequences. They are places of diligence.
Creativity is what happens when you stop trying so hard.