The Puzzle of Creativity, Part I

Creativity is a funny, fluid concept. It seems that everyone wants it in today’s innovation-obsessed economy, yet it so often slips through our grasps, washed away in the tide of productivity.

I conduct interviews with High School students who are candidates for admission to Brown University. Of all of the topics covered during these interviews and all of the questions I ask, by far my favorite also tends to be the most polarizing in terms of the depth of response: “Which do you value more, creativity or efficiency?” Responses tend to not only give me a good idea of the student’s tendencies toward creative thought, but also to either bore me to death, or blow me away with inspiration.

Before analyzing some of the trends in responses I have found, I find it valuable to first come to some sort of a consensus on the definition of creativity and efficiency. In this post, we’ll narrow in on solely creativity.

According to the source of all sources, Google, creativity can be defined as:

The use of the imagination or original ideas,
especially in the production of an artistic work.

From my vantage point, it’s important to distinguish that ‘original ideas’ can be a function of perspective – if an idea is original to the person in the act of creativity, then it’s still an original idea – regardless of whether someone has come up with it previously in the history of human thought.

Secondly, the act of creativity inherently deals with creating. I believe someone in the process of building a guitar, using a set of instructions garnered from a friend or the internet, is being creative. They are bringing something into the world which previously existed only as a set of raw materials and an abstract idea of possibility. Often in our society, I believe, this style of creativity is undervalued because it is not inherently artistic.

Thus, I’d like to provide my perspective that the term ‘artistic’ should be separated from the definition of creativity because of the ethos implied by the word; instead, the definition could incorporate the idea of making something, bringing something to life or into the world, or viewing what many others have viewed and seeing something different.

In an age where the predominant economic forces are seeking creativity and innovation, exposing students to this concept of creativity will at least be the first step in creating a more innovative workforce. After all, the current definition tends to polarize students into either ‘creative types,’ who tend to be unengaged in ‘core’ classes and sometimes considered ‘eccentric,’ or more linear thinkers, who tend to do extremely well in school due to high levels of both comprehension of what other people want from them, and compliance with those wishes. As a gross generalization, the linear thinkers tend to be the ones getting into corporate jobs, where they find that they are being asked to do something they have never done before – figure out how to best complete a complex task without step-by-step instructions or a rubric. In essence: to create from scratch. Not a painting of a bee in space (the artistic creativity), but a spreadsheet that efficiently and effectively produces clear visual representations of various business analytics decisions (rational creativity).

My experience both in teaching and researching creativity has lead me to really focus my efforts to understand and design a classroom for optimal creativity on three axes: the time-sensitivity axis, the incentivization axis, and the famous skills-challenge axis. Not to leave you with a cliffhanger, but during our next three posts we’ll be diving into what the dynamics of each of these axes mean for classroom design. Stay tuned until then!

Creativity plot
Where Creativity and Getting Things Done lie. Can you guess where ‘Apathy,’ ‘Boredom,’ ‘Entitlement,’ ‘Learning,’ and ‘Flow’ are located and what ‘shapes’ they exhibit?

P.S. The best answers to my interview question tend to be ones that say, in essence, that efficiency and effectiveness, combined with self-discipline, beget creativity. What do you think?

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