Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Thoughts on Creativity

Originally posted on November 28, 2013

Creativity is an emerging dynamic about which we continue to learn new facets and depths. It’s not as if we fully understand creativity. It’s more like electricity, a phenomenon about which we continue to discover new features even after a couple hundred years. Creativity may be reformulated in many ways. One element that may be overlooked is that creativity doesn’t always yield results, at least not at first, sometimes ever.

An effectively creative attitude involves a willingness to be mistaken and a stick-to-it-ive-ness that expresses hope. It doesn’t accept the idea that someone else has already figured it out and our job is simply to obey. It is not an acceptance that the status quo is as good as it’s going to ever be. (This is a stark contrast to what was considered virtuous over the last many centuries!) There’s a tinge of rebelliousness there, an unwillingness to bow to the authority of one’s elders who say it can’t be done—or shouldn’t even be attempted, less one affront the gods.

Creativity is not a distinct dynamic. It overlaps with many others. Humility is needed, because what one has created may not be the final version. Perhaps it may be improved. There’s an overlap also with a kind of faith that good fortune may yet occur. The “prepared mind” that Louis Pasteur referred to is alert to the way seeming mistakes might be reinterpreted as clues. “Wait, yeah, I know that didn’t work—but why not?—that’s the question to be asked! There’s an alertness to everything being feedback, and everyone possibly being a source of some clue or help in moving towards the answer. That includes people of lesser education or status. Not infrequently such people have a major clue, maybe even the answer, even though it’s not tied in to a fancy theoretical system.

Creativity is sort of a positive attitude, and fits with the shift towards positive psychology. There’s a lot more work being done in this general direction of creativity in thinking associated with cultivating positivity. One might say that cultivating positivity integrates a degree of faith that things can be figured out.

There’s a world-view-shift implied in the word. For centuries, millennia, everyone knew that knowledge was given by the gods, or that they really knew in the good old days, the classical times. Everyone knew that if we could only re-discover ancient wisdom, things would be better. Certainly the chaos and folly that reigned at the time seemed to contrast with the ideal of the past. Alas, history has shown that the good old days were really pretty bad for most folks, other than the elite who used slaves to do their work.

The whole good-old-days theme is a collective expression of the nostalgia for childhood, a dream of a problem-free world, an illusion. The operative word for illusion is “seem,” and it can be remarkably compelling. There is a seeming logic to the sentence, “It really seemed that way, so it must be so,” but close examination and the whole breakthrough of scientific thinking that has been going on for several hundred years is really a play on the idea that things are often not only or all what or how they seem.

Creativity is a shift away from the childish attitude of trust and towards a degree of self-sufficiency, but it’s also open to chance hits, serendipity, inexplicable breakthroughs, the help of colleagues working in another field, or even direct competition. Sometimes the other folks working on the same problem have an angle or a partial answer. Can you plagiarize and then build on what they figured out? I mean, if their x and your y are put together—and you are the one who saw this—should you not get the credit? Or if you’re generous you’ll share the Nobel Prize with them. Or they’ll see that both of you were significant contributors. Science thus edges over into ethics and politics when it comes to credit, and I’ll back off. The point is that the creative process accumulates elements from the past and the creative products of others.

But the impetus for this essay is that a great deal of creative work is folly, it doesn’t work, it may backfire. A great deal of creative effort yields nothing, but these negative results may be turned into clues for prepared minds. Allan Wheelis, a major physicist, said that science proceeds by making all possible mistakes—and recognizing that they are mistakes.

This is the opposite from the lower consciousness tendency to get defensive about what one has done, claiming that it’s good enough, dismissing or discounting the work of others who say it’s wrong or lacking certain elements. This anti-creativity phenomenon—defensive dismissal—has been remarkably prevalent in even the history of science. (Traditionalism in religion and politics might be viewed as an especially anti-creativity activity—much worse than science! I mean they kill you—sometimes horribly—for daring to question what has been established! Let that be a lesson to others who would dare rebel!).

So, daring to restate it in a different way, creativity borders on the subversive, and it borders on a disobedient attitude that may be taken as defiance. It borders on excessive pride: You think you’ll figure this out even when we in my generation have failed? What impudence! Creativity borders on problems in philosophy: Sometimes what it probes undermines fairly basic assumptions. And sometimes those assumptions have gotten all caught up with politics, religion, status, and other irrelevant considerations. Creativity thus overlaps with what has become known as a “disruptive technology.”

So the point here is don’t you dare attempt to think creatively, if you know what’s good for you. No, wait, that’s not the point, but it’s sort of like that: Become aware that as you dare to open to creativity in your life you are also opening sharp edges. You dare to humiliate your betters, your parents, your teachers, especially if they have had any investment in being right, in having had the ultimate answers.

A corollary here is for the teachers and parents. If you want to keep up with the paradigm shifts that are characteristic of our present era, relinquish your need to situate your authority or status in your present knowledge, because that is all being challenged, and on the whole, it should be challenged! Your status needs to shift from insisting that the young treat you as if you really knew the answer to recognizing that the young draw psychic energy from your smiles and your encouragement!

That’s a tough shift for many people who have grown up believing that authority is needed, and that respect involves your kids or subordinates believing that you know how to do it—whatever it is—better than they do. This is a very deep psychological shift, a shift in basic world-view! Kids don’t need us to know! They need us to bless them! To encourage them as they stumble and fall.

Creativity as an ethos is, as I said, a type of stick-to-it-ive-ness, a positive attitude, a willingness to engage the present problems afresh. Dare I say that it might even be considered a Divine Force trying ever-so-gradually to break through the sheer inertia of our ignorance? Creativity resonates at all these levels, and some philosophers such as Bergson or Moreno (in his role as philosopher) have contemplated this shift, this paradox: Most of creativity involves actions that are mistakes, but one can learn to recognize that they are mistakes and try something else. It’s a principle of evolutionary consciousness!

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