A Perspective on Creativity

Think about a swimming pool with a lot of people jumping in and out forming a great choppiness of all these waves all over the surface. Now to think that it’s possible, maybe, that in those waves there’s a clue as to what’s happening in the pool: that an insect of sufficient cleverness could sit in the corner of the pool, and just by being disturbed by the waves and the nature of the irregularities, the insect could figure out who jumped in where, why, how and when, and what’s happening all over the pool.

Imagine Einstein shuffling by in his swimming suit and laughing at the belly whopper Mozart just made diving into the pool. Nikola Tesla sitting by the side of the pool petting a pigeon while smiling at Bill Gates who is dog paddling across the pool. Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, Isaac Newton and David Bohm playing water polo. Pablo Picasso sitting by a table sipping a Coors light beer while sketching the scene. Aristotle and Thomas Edison wading in the shallow end engrossed in some argument. Ghandi reclining under an umbrella eyeballing Martha Graham as she strolls by. Michelangelo gracefully breast stroking past Sigmund Freud who is floating on an air cushion smoking a cigar. Socrates slapping Soren Kierkegaard with a wet towel than running away laughing. Plato, Bertrand Russell, Edith Wharton and Louis Pasteur playing shuffleboard. James Watson, Diogenes, Stravinsky and Jonas Salk sitting at the Tiki bar drinking draft beer and watching girl’s beach volleyball on television.

It seems incredible, but I feel like that insect as I look at creative thinking and the lives of creative geniuses throughout history. The waves, both large and small are going in all directions, each disturbance in the water is unique yet, at the same time, all are the same. The movement of the water in the pool is a fluid process that reminds me of the fluid movement of creative thinking as a kind of artistic process that yields ever-changing form and content. Yet many of us speak of “creativity” as a noun, as if it is some kind of physical property that you either own or not.

We hear scholars define creativity with reverent words like “bisociation,” “janusian,” “dialectical,” “synectics,” “morphological analysis,” “Triz,” “Ariz,” “Genoplore model,” “CPS” model, “cognitive integration theory,” “associative theory,” and so on and on,” whose academic tones suggest that they refer to clear and definite ideas. It’s as if they think that if they change the names of things, the things themselves will have changed from a complex process to a thing.

In fact, what the various theories best illustrate is our almost universal tendency to fragment subjects into separate parts and ignore the dynamic interconnectedness of its parts. Think of these different theories as “waves” in the pool of creativity. Scholars who believe their theory is the key try to understand what creates waves by studying one just wave and ignoring the rest. They ignore the dynamic interconnectedness of all the theories, just as the insect ignores the interconnectedness of the waves. The ongoing fragmentation of creativity and resulting chaos are not reflections of the real world of creative thinking but the artifacts of scholarship. Scholars have co-opted the subject of “creativity” as their own, to be expressed in their own language and in their own framework of formal thought. The result is confusion and paradox which places a limit on understanding what creative thinking is in terms of ordinary thought and language.

Suppose I go into the woods and see a bird. I know the bird is a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in China it’s called a chung ling and even if I know all the different names in different languages for it, I still know nothing about the bird. I only know something about people and what they call the bird. Now that the thrush sings, teaches its young how to fly, and flies many miles away during the summer and somehow always finds its way back and nobody knows how it does so and so forth. There is a difference between knowing the name of something and understanding something.

It is the same with creative thinking. We go to school and learn about Albert Einstein and his theories about the universe and we say he was creative. We are not taught how he thought. We’re taught he was simply more intelligent than other scientists. We’re taught nothing about his mental process of “combinatory play” of visual images or the irrationality of his way of speculative thinking about “damn fool ideas,” or the many dead ends and failures he experienced. We’re presented with his idea as a product of superior intellect and knowledge. Analogically, as if we are taught how to measure daily rainfall by the rise of water in a pail without ever realizing that the rain arrives in individual drops.

When I say something like “The cat is chasing the mouse,” we think of two distinct entities, a cat and a mouse linked together by a verb. The cat and mouse are the primary objects of our thinking. Theoretical physicists and artists, on the other hand, see “the chasing” as primary and the cat and mouse being secondary to the experience of the process of chasing.

John is falling from the roof to the pavement. Here we tend to concentrate on John and the “splat” he will make when he hits. When Albert Einstein had a thought of a man falling, he concentrated on the process of “falling.” Almost immediately, Einstein realized that as the man fell he would not feel his own weight. This essence of this insight meant free falls are equivalent in both gravitational fields and gravity free regions. This observation became the foundation of the general theory of relativity.

The Einsteins, Shakespeares, and Picassos of the world understand that all things in the universe are processes, transformations, and symmetries, that nothing is static and nothing lasts forever. Even this page is slowly dissolving into dust as you look at it. Still, scholars write of creativity as if it were a stand-alone static object. When I say something like “biosociation” generates many alternatives,” we, again think of two distinct entities, biosociation and alternatives as primary with “generates” as secondary. Yet “biosociation” is simply empty definition and tautology; whereas the verb “generates” is the dynamic process that creates ideas. Creativity is not a thing, it is a process.

Few of us understand that creativity is not a noun. It is a verb. Verbs are thinking, creating, sculpting, painting, making, dancing, singing, acting, searching, seizing, preparing, growing, reaping, seeing, knowing. Now when you take a verb that is alive and vibrant and turn it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules: something living dies.

To continue further, think of the sentence “The mouse is confined in a box.” A box is made by nailing six boards together. But it’s obvious that no box can hold a mouse unless it has “containment.” If you study each board, you will discover that no single board contains any containment, since the mouse can just walk away from it. And if there is no containment in one board, there can’t be any in six boards. So the box can have no containment at all. Theoretically then, the mouse should be able to escape.

What, then, keeps the mouse confined? Of course, it is the way a box prevents motion in all directions, because each board bars escape in a certain direction. The left side keeps the mouse from going left; the right from going right, the top keeps it from leaping out, and so on. The secret of a box is simply in how the boards are arranged to prevent motion in all directions! That’s what “containing: means. So it’s silly to expect any separate board by itself to contain any containment, even though each contributes to the containing. It is like the cards of a straight flush in poker: only the full hand has any value at all.

The reason box seems non-mysterious is that we understand perfectly that no single board can contain by itself. Everyone understands how the boards of a well made box interact to prevent motion in any direction. The same applies to the word “creativity.” It is foolish to use this word for describing the smallest components of a process because this word was invented to describe how larger assemblies interact. Like “containment,” the word “creativity” is used for describing phenomena that result from certain combinations of relationships. This is the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding something.

But how much more difficult it is to think of creativity as a phenomena that results from a certain combination of relationships. This combination includes the principles of intention, belief, attitude, behavior, language, , knowing how to change the way you look at things, knowing how to think in different ways and learning how to think inclusively without the prejudices of logic. We’ve been schooled to think of them all as separate and distinct entities so they can be described and explained. Despite the apparent separateness of these at this level, they are all a seamless extension of each other and ultimately blend into each other.

When you look at nature, contents aren’t contained anywhere but are revealed only by the dynamics. What matters to nature are the ways relationships interact, the way they cooperate and combine to form coherent patterns. In nature form and content are inextricably connected and can’t be separated. The healthy pattern of trees bending in concert creates harmony and beauty, whereas, an unhealthy pattern is destructive and ugly. With the trees, it is the combination of relationships between the wind, rain, roots and soil that forms the healthy or unhealthy relationships. With people, it is a common body of human behaviors and generalized principles from which patterns blend together to create the person.

Like nature, the contents of creative genius aren’t contained anywhere but also are revealed by the dynamics. When you look at the behaviors of creative geniuses such as Leonardo daVinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and so on throughout the history of the world, you will find that, like the patterns of nature, the form and contents of their behaviors are inextricably connected and can’t be separated. Creators have the intention to create, and act and speak in a positive and joyful manner. Creators look at what is and what can be instead of what is not. Instead of excluding possibilities, creators consider all possibilities, both real and imagined. Creators interpret the world for themselves and disregard the interpretations of past thinkers. Creators learn how to look at things in different ways and use different ways of thinking. And most importantly, creators are creative because they believe they are creative and have the intention to create.

Can you imagine a Vincent Van Gogh bemoaning his failure to sell his paintings as evidence of his lack of talent, a Thomas Edison giving up on his idea for a light bulb when he had difficulty finding the right material for the filament, a Leonardo daVinci who is too embarrassed to attempt much of anything because of his lack of a university degree, a Charles Darwin believing the experts who called him a fool and his theory “a fool’s experiment,” an Albert Einstein who is fearful of looking stupid for presenting theories to theoretical physicists about the universe as a lowly patent clerk with no academic credentials, a Michelangelo refusing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel because he had never painted fresco and feared failure and ridicule, a weeping and wailing Mozart blaming an unfair world for his poverty, a Walt Disney giving up his ambitions after being fired from his first job by a newspaper editor because he lacked imagination, a Henry Ford giving up his dreams after the experts explained that he didn’t have the capital to compete in the automobile industry, a Bill Gates taking an some ordinary job after dropping out of Harvard, a Michael Faraday defeated in his work with electricity because of a lack of knowledge of higher mathematics and going back to his regular job of being an errand boy, or a depressed Picasso shuffling down the street with his head down looking at the ground, humiliated at the way art experts labeled his first attempts with cubism as laughable cartoons, hoping no one notices him?

Use what talents you have.
The woods would be silent
if no bird sang
except those that sang best.

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  7. Hi Michael!

    I loved this article!

    Creativity manifests as CREATING which is a doingness. Scholars and theoretical anythings are primarily involved in thinking not doing, interacting, communicating WITH their subject. Scholars do tend to become too involved in the idea of something and words and not the thing itself!

    Regarding your paragraph on the act of falling I think it’s the scientists job figure out and “move” from effect to cause. Effect = “SPLAT” -> Cause = “falling”, Effect = “fallling” -> Cause = “gravity”, Effect = “gravity” -> Cause = “Higgs Boson”(not sure I believe this), Effect = HB -> Cause = ?

    At the “?” the verbs and creativity start for real!

    Nice read!

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