Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What is creativity?

When we think of defining creativity we naturally think of having novel ideas. Some creativity gurus would add that the ideas should be actually useful. I think that that addition points toward something vital to creativity: creating. No doubt a great many novel and useful ideas eventually die of neglect, and the world is the poorer for it. Without the ability to bring an idea to life by crafting its form and following it through to completion, ideas that might otherwise be recognized as creative instead come to be seen as mere daydreams, or, if there are abortive efforts toward achievement, failures.

Imagination is only the beginning.

Some sort of craft must always be applied to the idea to bring it to life, whether it be hewn from marble, composed in verse, painted on canvas with oils, or told to a receptive hearer. But craft alone is not proof of creativity. A factory robot can precisely craft a screw, a chair leg, or a particular shade of purple paint. But nobody would argue that the robot is being creative. Neither is the skilled craftsman who is executing someone else's design necessarily being creative himself. Yet without craft, the idea never takes shape.

It is still possible, even with adequate skill being applied to the idea, that it never comes to fruition due to lack of follow-through. Even with a brilliant idea and exquisite craftsmanship, sometimes life gets in the way. Things happen; unforeseen changes are needed. Without the ability to change course, a ship will almost certainly strike a hazard and founder. The same happens to creative endeavors without proper execution. The ability to achieve the goal often requires careful management of the boring details.

Imagine. Craft. Achieve.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, the ability to do all three well is rarely found within one individual. Many try to go it alone, and end up with only daydreams or failures. We need the humility to recognize our limitations, to set aside our egos, and to work collaboratively with others who are in some respect superior to ourselves. We need to cooperate.

The great thing about Odyssey of the Mind is that it gives kids the chance to put all four vital ingredients of creativity together:
Imagine. Craft. Achieve. Cooperate.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso

The mind is very good at using symbols to help us understand our world. Actually, the mind prefers symbols. Strongly. Let me give a few examples.

As children, we learned that the number two meant, well, two. We could then use that internal symbol as the mind's shorthand for two of anything. Two fingers, two cookies. Later we added the numeral 2 as an external representation of the mind's symbol. We learned words as symbols for a certain idea. We learned our letters and the speech sounds that were associated with each letter or letter group. Through use, written words became external symbols for a group of speech sounds, and for the internal symbol representing a concept. Later we could put words together in a sentence as a symbolic expression of a complete thought from the mind.

The mind constructs symbols from everything we experience. Think for a moment of the concept of a friend. Your mind has constructed a complex symbol within itself of what a friend is - what you expect from a friendship, what you expect of yourself in friendship - and has applied that symbol to some of the people in your life. The same goes for dog, school, father, mother, teacher, self.

Once they're formed, the mind clings jealously to its symbols. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Once the mind has formed its symbol of something, it's hard to change that symbol. When confronted with something that conflicts with an existing symbol, the mind would rather put a square peg in a round hole than change its idea of what a hole can be. This has its advantages. We handle language wonderfully. We recognize objects in our world and interact with them appropriately in most cases. We see the face of a friend and smile.

But, the mind's preference for its existing symbols is also a weakness. When presented with a new challenge, we tend to handle it based the same way we've handled other challenges. We notice what we expect to notice in a situation, based on the symbols created from our previous experiences, and our new experiences tend to reinforce our existing symbols. We get into a rut.

Sometimes we get into trouble when we act according to our preconceived ideas. We misjudge the distance of our left big toe to the nearest object and stub it against a bedpost. We misjudge people and treat them inappropriately. We misjudge our abilities and limit ourselves.

Because of this weakness, there is a need to develop the ability to break our symbols. To do so, we need to purposfully look at things from fresh viewpoints to generate novel ideas - ideas that don't fit the mold.

What symbols do you have that might need to be broken? (For example: Am I a creative person? What is the job of a parent? Who is my child? What is my occupation? How do I get to the store?)

Think about the quote from Picasso in the title of this post. What first impressions, and lasting symbols, are you making in your child? Which internal symbols do you want your child to carry through to adulthood?


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Do schools kill creativity?

Much time is spent in schools memorizing or learning how to find the right answer. Testing further emphasizes the idea of avoiding mistakes. Yet many ideas that in retrospect seem revolutionary were actually the product of serendipity. For example, both penicillin and Post-it notes were the result of mistakes. Does the standard education today teach kids to avoid risk, to avoid mistakes, and to stifle creativity? Sir Ken Robinson says 'We are educating people out of their creativity.'