I wonder if the best way to kill creativity is to encourage it. This notion will take some explaining.

Creative people literally can't stop themselves from creating. It's a form of OCD. If you plug one hole, the creativity finds a way out of another. There's no way to stop creativity unless you kill the people who have it. Creators will change jobs, defy the government, move to other countries, and do whatever they need to let the creativity out. That's my first point: Creativity is like a hurricane. You can't stop it from forming and you probably can't change its path.

My second point is that there's no such thing as "stimulating creativity." The people who have the creative gene (figuratively speaking) can't stop themselves from creating, and those who don't have it can't get it.

What about R&D labs? They don't generate creativity per se, but they do allow ideas to be researched, tested, and developed. They allow happy accidents to happen, and they provide a way to fund all of that activity. But there's a reason they aren't called Creativity Labs: Scientists don't know how to make more creativity - at least not the good kind that makes the world a better place.

I've noticed that creativity so often springs from hardship or pain that I wonder if it's a precondition. That would make sense from an evolution perspective. Humans don't need to come up with new ideas when everything is running smoothly. We need creativity when we're threatened and all of the usual defenses are deemed inadequate. In other words, the best way to generate creativity is to induce hardship on humans, which would be unethical. Conversely, the best way to reduce creativity is to - wait for it - make things nice and comfortable for creative people. In other words, any ethical attempt to encourage creativity will have the unintended effect of killing it. Happy creators are not productive.

The media has often noted the correlation between genius and insanity. My hypothesis is that insanity, or insecurity of any sort, puts an individual in a continuous state of feeling threatened. For those folks, the creativity gene - if they are lucky enough to have it - is locked in the ON position as they reflexively search for an escape from discomfort.

I was thinking about this because of the latest MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" that have no strings attached. The foundation gives so-called geniuses in various fields $500,000 to do whatever they want, with the notion that some of them will go on to do great things they couldn't otherwise do. And perhaps it works. I haven't seen any statistics about the success rate of the grants, if such a thing can even be measured. But I wonder if the money has the unexpected effect of reducing creativity in this same bunch of geniuses because it makes their lives easier. That's not a criticism of the grants because they aren't designed to generate creativity.

Devil's Advocates will point out that I've previously said my best ideas come during a relaxing shower. Surely that disproves my idea that hardship is necessary to produce creativity. But I'll bet the relaxing shower only helps creative people who feel threatened or uncomfortable in their lives outside the shower stall. And I'm just neurotic enough to feel threatened most of the time. I started worrying about retirement when I was about six years old. I can't leave the house without worrying if there will be an adequate restroom wherever I'm heading. And I'm fairly certain the world will plunge into darkness any minute now. On the plus side, all of that makes it easier to create comics.  

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Dec 12, 2011
I think you hit the nail on the head with this one, Scott. This is one of your best posts ever. Now realize that there are more ways than just creativity to deal with discomfort. Hard work is another way that people can seek their comfort zone. I have often said that people struggle until they are comfortable and in an environment they feel is secure and then just coast after that. People are different so one person's comfort level may, using money for an example, be much lower on the economic scale than someone else's. So we have welfare queens on one end of the spectrum and Donald Trumps on the other. Maybe both are satisfied with where they are and maybe not, but you can tell by the amount of effort they are putting out which is the case.
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Sep 29, 2011
"..But I'll bet the relaxing shower only helps creative people who feel threatened or uncomfortable in their lives outside the shower stall. And I'm just neurotic enough to feel threatened most of the time.."

equally true of entrepreneurship. "The best way to kill it is by encouraging it."

When the Top tax rates were in the stratosphere, Reaganomics come in like that cool (or warm) shower, but it has overdone it's job, it's been a spent force for a while. Doing more of it will kill its own baby.
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Sep 28, 2011
I could not agree more.
Specially in our area (which,supposedly, is shared by a lot of the readers of this blog, being on the "dilbert" site), Electrical Engineering and Software Engineering, teh border betweeen what is supposed to come from the "inner" creativity of one person, and what can be teached (good programming style, good working habits ....) is fuzzy;

specially in our area, to people outside of it, it seems that "creativity" has not toooo much to do with programming or electronic design (after all, if it has to do with computers, it must be mechanical, right?):
I don't know your experiences, but MINE ARE EXACTLY the opposite:
I would say, a 20% is "teached" (apart from the basics, of course: C,C or Java syntax you must learn!), but 80% is soemothing that either you have, or you don't: people who are chaotic programmers, get a smaaaaaaall chance of getting slightly better by following courses, reading books and so on (now, someone could make a point here, that they get at least a little better chance, if they read CODE written by other more expreienced and supposedly better programmers, and I would agree), but the best programmers I met were quite all of the kind of people, that ...."simply had it inside"!

And BtW, yes I agree on the point that it is not by giving people more money that the creativity is stimulated and yes I agree that usually people coming from less rich conditions usually are more motivated.

I think, in quite every branch (art, programming, science), people need of course enough money to live decently, but apart from this, when the smartest have enough to live, they will produce something brilliant for the impellent need they feel, for the fun, for the satisfaction of getting recognized, not for the mere "...money..."

(sorry for my bad english, btw)
Sep 26, 2011
"Humans don't need to come up with new ideas when everything is running smoothly."

Sep 26, 2011
Feynman had a similar comment about why he did not want to go to institute of advanced studies in princeton, namely that he got his ideas from trying to explain points raised by students.
Sep 26, 2011
These grant recipients are both creative and effective at getting things done, so I doubt any of them are suffering from the kind of discomfort that only money can alleviate. Of the gazillion ideas, solutions, or avenues they want to explore, some are blocked by lack of funding, while others might be blocked by lack of time, knowledge, publicity, or other opportunities. They're not worried about where their next meal is coming from.
Sep 25, 2011
In addition to hardship and pain, perhaps "struggle"... I've heard it said that many [dissident] Soviet poets and artists, for whom creativity was historically pretty damn dangerous, grew disillusioned with their work after perestroika and the collapse of the USSR.

(In fact, I thought I'd read this in the same book I first read about the MacArthur Foundation -- Tim Harford's "Adapt", but I just looked now and I can't find the quote I'm thinking of)
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Sep 23, 2011
There's actually a science fiction book on just this subject. It's "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson. The background of the book is that a super-rich man, who started out poor and worked super hard to get there, is disappointed by his lazy children. He therefore tries to create a great Book to give to his granddaughter, that will adapt over the course of her life to constantly challenge and educate her, in the hope that this will make her more like himself.
Sep 23, 2011
To be creative requires a mental comfort about your own non-conformity. I believe this is why so many left-handed people are creative, especially "professionally-creative" (i.e. they are consistent about their creativity and get paid for it).

When you are left handed you learn very early that you aren't the same. Not better, not worse. Things that work for others, just don't work for you - like handwriting and using a scissors. The way you do things is different but not wrong. You get used to marching to your own drummer. So when some boss comes along and says "this is the way we do it", you allow yourself to think out the box a little. At a fundamental level you reject the "one right way" philosophy.
Sep 22, 2011
My expereience is that creativity can be developed. And the wrong environment can weaken the creative impulse. And the direction depends on my current state of knowledge, resources etc.

See the recent book, Bounce, for the ways that targeted practice and development improves ability in many areas, including creativity. That book also references some more primary literature.

If you define creativity something completely independent of experience and environment, you may be talking about a myth.
Sep 22, 2011

It gets worse. The colleges and departments of education in the US are trying to turn all teaching into a checklist of content taught and evaluations given, as if it is a static process, where one learns X on day 1, so that one is automatically an expert in X on day 200.
Sep 22, 2011
Hmmm...probably explains the last three Star Wars films.
Sep 22, 2011

1. I know a great many professors and K-12 teachers. Not a single one of those I know does not make the greatest effort to teach their students. Some care so much that they pass students who shouldn't. The biggest problem in the US K-12 system, in my opinion, is that too much focus is put on education courses and not enough on content, especially in mathematics and the sciences. Thus, we have teachers who have not mastered what they are supposed to teach. According to colleges of education, this can be overcome by good pedagogy.

2. I was considering internal combustion, and the physical limits say that it's impossible to get 100 mpg, with anything resembling a car. As a simple matter, the Japanese would have already done it. If you include hybrids (and I would love to buy a plug-in), then a fleet average of 100 mpg would require 50% plug-ins and 50% hybrids/diesels. It's not likely. An easier answer would be better telecommunication for more telecommuting and more mass transit.
Sep 21, 2011
TheShadowNose quoth: "People are aggressive drivers who will pay top dollar for the privilege to bully. That's why you don't have 100 MPG cars. The problem of education is same thing applied to a class based society. Don't complain to me about a system that you want but don't thrive in!"

Point #1: I did very well with the education system, thank you.

Point #2: An awful lot of what is wrong with the US education system is the belief that teachers can overcome apathy, laziness and lack of talent by magic.

Point #3: Thank you for reinforcing my argument. You apparently believe that 100 mpg is a matter of driving habits, such as the national love of SUV's.

Here's what those boring facts say: Cars average about 25mpg, and are about 20% efficient. That means that 20% of the theoretical chemical energy of the oil is spent moving the car. The rest is internal friction, heat out the tailpipe, noise, and running the power steering, A/C, and the rest of the comforts. How much energy to move it depends on weight and shape. Cut that by 50% (a very tall order), and cut the waste heat etc by 14% (also tough), so the car now gets about 33 mpg. To get 100 mpg, we must now triple the efficiency of combustion, putting the engine on a par with electric motors (ignoring generation). It simply cannot be done.
Sep 21, 2011
Why do you think the best love songs come from writers with broken hearts?
Sep 21, 2011
The comments about 'schooling kills creativity' get under my skin. In the hard sciences and mathematics, you first have to learn what is possible, before you get into planning. That's how it works. The alternative is things like stupid proposals by politicians that we can have the average car getting 100 mpg.
Sep 21, 2011
I hate doing this but i'm going to quote Einstein:

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly."

I personally find this statement as true. School is nothing but a mindless, sadistic rhetoric, mind killing machine. We are told to think outside the box, and then punished if we actually do. Its no wonder creative people go crazy. Its not the crazy that makes a person creative. The crazy is the byproduct of creativeness.

Hardships can create creativeness. But also true creativity creates hardship.As a statistical whole our world is programed to punish non conformity in any form, Good or bad. Most people "mediocre minds"don't have the mental strength and or capacity to differentiate good or bad non conformity, and so the good and bad are clumped togather. In other words:The good is bad no matter what.

Humans are mind lazy.People don't want to spend the time to actually think. Stupid is sociably unacceptable. So stupid people eather don't know their stupid. Or they know their stupid But don't want to look stupid, and So in order for stupid people not to look stupid,they set up defenses that punish people that make them look stupid. Its a nasty cycle of stupid...
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Sep 21, 2011
By this reasoning shouldn't Africa, the middle-east, and all the other war-torn countries be the most innovative? And yet in the past two centuries the most creativity seems to have come from developed nations.
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Sep 21, 2011
If someone thought I was a genius and gave me $500,000 to come up with some geniusness (and using the word geniusness is a clear indication that this will never happen), I'd be so afraid to be called a fraud and having someone demand the money back that it would have one of two effects:
1. Completely paralyse me.
2. Make me so paranoid and uncomfortable that I'd become a creative genius.

I think it would very much depend on personality type, and how that crazy gene expresses itself when given a lot of money.
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Sep 21, 2011
I agree that for those with a flourishing creative spirit it's hard to keep the creativity down. But, I also believe and have experienced through my work at imaginibbles that there are many more with a strong right-brain that just need a little dusting off. A little bit, even if its only a hint, of creativity goes a long way to help you do more with less, adapt better to change, see and create more ideas and opportunities. You don't have to be an innovation artist to benefit from unleashing your creative thinking side.
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