Creativity Deconstructed

One of the more interesting areas of learning is about building creativity.

The interest is, at least in part,  a matter of timing. The 20th century put a premium on building efficiency. But the push towards greater efficiency tended toward “one size fits all” solutions. And it limited the flexibility of productive institutions to adapt to new ideas and challenges. These limitations have become frustrating for people who now take the efficiency gains for granted. These folks want something more. And they are searching for ways to realize what that more could offer. They put a premium on creativity over efficiency.

The conventional wisdom has been that one is either creative or not. A wrinkle was thrown into this line of thought some time ago, when some argued that education can enhance or retard our natural creativity. In other words, we are all born with a gift of creativity that must be nurtured in order to be a useful cognitive resource..

So how does one nurture creativity? This is where things get a bit complicated. On the one hand, we do it via an internal process. We master skills ourselves. On the other hand, it seems that we cannot just do it alone. We also need the right types of connections with people that unleash creative energy. Creativity, therefore, appears to be both an individual and a social phenomenon.

On the individual level, we become more creative when we “connect” with a passion that gives meaning to us. That might be writing songs or mastering accounting. There is no one size fits all solution here. But we know that this type of connection produces a cycle of creative challenges. And that cycle looks like this

  • discovery – we see something that is valuable that is outside of ourselves and start thinking how to take it over
  • emulation – we copy techniques for doing what we are passionate about hoping to upgrade our skills to a level of expertise that allows us to add value with what we do
  • divergence – we transcend the mechanical copying and add our original ideas to the process – now we are demonstrating results of creative application
  • crisis – we perceive that we are no longer taking risks, but just treading water in what we do and and we start looking to move on

The idea of “competence” plays an odd role here. The more we assess our competence as a fixed thing (I am or am not competent), the less open we are to getting through the discovery phase (where we are beginners and NOT YET competent). And the less open we are to taking risks that take us beyond emulation. In other words, “competence” is not a goal here – it is simply a measure of prefab standards. The more we need competence now, the less likely we will grow.

Notice how complex and fragile this is. One does not just wake up with a creative capacity. Instead, one nurtures the process of doing in order to become more creative. This fragility is a problem when we start thinking about optimal social connections to facilitate higher levels of creativity. Why? Because that social dimension needs a certain amount of conflict in order to stimulate movement. But the conflict should not be destructive.


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