Killing Creativity…Or Not

If you’ve been with us for more than a few posts, you’ll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstorming, asking questions, breaking routines, finding the right environment. But what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn’t it look like?

In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn’t look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it’s one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who “come out on top” in the current system, after all; who “win all the brownie points and do everything they’re supposed to.” As children grow, Robinson argues, we “progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It’s a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here’s the one that got the loudest applause: “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Sir Robinson’s argument goes beyond standard complaints about teaching to the test or facilitating equal access to education. Instead, he suggests that the entire structure of public education is geared towards producing workers for an industrial workforce and is predicated on a hierarchy of learning with math and science on top and the arts at the bottom. Strong stigmas are associated with any learning not critical for getting a job after school, and the entire k-12 education system ends up functioning as a protracted university enrollment test (click that link, it’s terrifying). Because success within the educational system is defined so narrowly, “a lot of highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they’re good at wasn’t valued in school.”

Robinson’s call to action is a grand one, but persuasive nonetheless. Math is important, of course, and none of us would be here but for the countless innovations and technologies that our relentless pursuit of the scientific frontier has allowed. At the same time, I’m receptive to the idea that the system is imbalanced. After all, no one would argue that all of our students should be dancers, but it might not hurt if our biochemists knew how to dance. In the end, creativity is about divergent thinking and the intersection of ideas. The more diversity we have, and the more we celebrate that diversity, the better off we’ll be.

Watch the talk at TED.com, or check out Robinson’s book “The Element” at Amazon.

TEDLuck: A Recipe for Geekin’ Out

Last week my housemates and I hosted our second “TEDLuck” event, which is designed around the idea of bringing together a diverse group of people to share in good food and wine while geeking out over a handful of TED talks. Our theme for the night was “Stories”, so we watched Billy Collins’ illustrated poems in “Everyday Moments Caught in Time” and Sarah Kay’s spoken word “If I Should Have a Daughter” while enjoying a hearty potluck dinner of pasta, salads, butternut squash, and wine.

From the perspective of creativity theory, the event works well because it brings together a diverse set of viewpoints, adds just a small dose of structure, and then allows the discussion to flow as it will. The group is thus on a collaborative mission (see last post) to learn and explore interesting ideas. From the perspective of the people involved, the event works well just because the food is delicious and it’s a fun way to hang out with people after a long day. Here’s the recipe, if you want to organize one yourself:

  1. Select a theme. So far we’ve done “technology” and “stories”.
  2. Get your group. We had 7 for the first and 10 for the second, but I think smaller groups would work well too.
  3. Select three TED talks or other similar videos roughly related to your theme. You can browse all of the talks at TED.com, and there’s no shortage of bloggers who have sorted and tagged their favorites as well.
  4. Have everybody bring over a dish, give everyone a glass of wine, and sit down to enjoy some talks! We’ve tried discussing each talk individually as well as waiting until the end; the best approach seems to be to let the discussion flow organically.

Both TEDLucks that we’ve held held have been fantastic, fun, and enlightening evenings. If you host your own and have suggestions or improvements, let me know! We’ll probably run another within the next couple of weeks on the topic of community or citizenship; themes that resonate with personal experience and don’t presuppose a correct answer (e.g., “sustainability”) seem to be the most exciting.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Daemons Within

Those of us who study innovation tend to believe that individual creativity is a skill; certain people may have greater initial aptitudes, but anyone might be able to learn and hone their creative process. Not only does this viewpoint give scholars like me a fair amount of job security, but it also offers a fundamentally optimistic take on the ownership and agency that individuals have in their creative lives.

In a 2009 TED Talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert explores an unanticipated dark side effect of this perspective. If artists are fundamentally in control of their creative lives, how are they to deal with the “utter maddening capriciousness” of the creative process? And is it a coincidence that have creativity and anguish become so indelibly linked in our minds?

She’s speaking after the knockout success of her own “Eat, Pray, Love”, and speaks candidly about her personal fears that her best work is now behind her. She also discusses the strategies she uses to overcome these fears, drawing in particular on the ancient Greek and Roman ideas that creative brilliance was due to divine spirits (Daemons, in the Greek) that attended to and inspired artists’ work. Without giving away everything I’ll share the key lines:

“So the dancer [who had inspired such beauty the night before] wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11am and he’s no longer a glimpse of god; he’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend that high again…what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

“But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you, but [instead] you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished to somebody else.”

The message to artists is thus “don’t be afraid – just show up and do your job.” Work hard, be ready to capture brilliance should it come, and when it does – or doesn’t – it isn’t all on you. Watch the talk here.