Lesson 19 — Enhancing Creativity
Being deeply involved in creative activity is one of the most enjoyable experiences we human beings can have. What’s more, it allows us to put something back into the pot of life, to give something of value to others. For many people, though, creativity seems mysterious and out of reach — a gift given to some people and not to others. The truth is that it is not a rare gift, but a quite understandable process — one that any of us can use to enhance our enjoyment of life.
Different writers have different views about what creativity is, and about how the creative process works. Some make distinctions between different kinds of creativity. Here I address two kinds:
- One is production-related creativity: the production of something novel or unique that has value.
- The other is discovery-related creativity: the discovery, through human insight, of some new fact, law, or feature of the world.
By production-related creativity I don’t mean just novel inventions and product designs, though that is part of it. I mean the creation of something of value that never existed before, in any creative medium: canvas and paint, clay, bronze, electronics, architectural materials, machined metal, welded metal, words, biochemistry, and a hundred others. The product or creation need not be novel in all respects, but something about it must be unique, and it must have value — aesthetic value, utilitarian value, inspirational value, or value of some other kind.
Discovery-related creativity is a little harder to pin down. Central to it is human insight, the seeing of something in a uniquely different (or at least highly unusual) way. One of its manifestations is the scientific breakthrough where insight leads to yet another layer being peeled off the onion of truth. Another manifestation of discovery-related creativity is spiritual seeing, where the individual flips to a new and more helpful perspective on things — to a superior way of interpreting the data of reality. The task of expressing these insights-of-discovery to others involves a return once again to production-related creativity. How does one share what one has seen?
Author Robert Weisberg16 feels that creativity arises from quite ordinary thought processes at times when those processes are being pursued deeply and intensely. For him, creativity is simply what you get when you mix expertise in some domain (area of activity or investigation) with a lot of motivation and commitment.
I agree that expertise, motivation, and commitment are essential and that they sometimes do lead directly to creative products and discoveries. But in my experience, the process of bringing forth valuable novelty often differs from business-as-usual thinking and problem solving. The four-stage creative process outlined some years ago by Graham Wallas17 fits my experience quite closely. Wallas’s four stages are:
I will share my thoughts about each of these, and will share a few observations from others.
Preparation means preparation in two senses. The first sense involves the need to develop, over time, the basic skills and expertise that one must have to function creatively in the particular domain. If electronics is your medium, and you want to design new kinds of electronic equipment, you must first learn a great deal about the medium itself and the principles behind the functioning of electronic components and circuits. If you want to do unique things with paint and canvas, the preparation can be just as arduous. The medium itself is simpler, but you will probably need to explore and master a great many ways of using it before you will be able to creatively step beyond what has gone before.
Howard Gardner18 speaks to this general kind of preparation with his observation that if highly creative things are going to happen in a person’s life, they often happen about ten years into a career. To be innovative in any field you have to have done your homework and paid your dues; there doesn’t seem to be any way around that. Creativity builds on, and takes off from, what has gone before. It takes time to assimilate what has been done by others, how they did it, and why. It also takes time to become skilled in the techniques and technology of a creative medium, be it music, art, electronics, sewing, or scientific research.
In the information processing view of mind, creativity is a data processing activity that produces its results through the manipulation of available data. In this view, the more data there is to process, the greater will be the likelihood of an output emerging that is both novel and useful. Thus, we would expect an investigative attitude and rich life experience to enhance creativity. I have also noticed that my creativity tends to be cyclical. Periods of creating/outputting/giving usually alternate with periods of learning/inputting/growing.
The second kind of preparation, the situation-specific kind, involves a period of intense mental activity. If there is a problem to be solved, you
- define the problem (ideally in the broadest possible way, or perhaps in several different ways),
- gather information (information that bears on this problem and on how similar problems have been solved in the past), and
- actively try to think, feel, or see your way to a solution . (The specifics depend on the nature of the creative problem. You might visualize physical situations; draw diagrams; solve equations; do trial and error things with a musical or computer keyboard; or try lateral thinking, brainstorming, or some other perspective-shifting technique.)
If gathering information and wrestling with the problem in this way does not yield a solution, it may mean that you need still more information. Or it may mean that it is time to move on to the next stage of the process.
Incubation is the next stage, and it involves taking time out from the problem. The theory is that while your conscious mind takes a rest from active work on the problem, your subconscious still works behind the scenes to find a solution. And again and again, that does seem to happen. Pieces of the puzzle that you might not have consciously thought about during active preparation sometimes come together during this period. It is as though the intense work in the preparation phase has activated all your mental capabilities, including subconscious ones, and the search for a creative breakthrough continues in some unconscious brain process.
Illumination, when it follows incubation, usually arrives as a flash of insight — the famous Aha! or Eureka! experience. What comes might not be the complete answer. Rather, it might be part of the answer, or perhaps just a clue about where to find the answer.
Verification, the final stage of the process, involves either intellectually fleshing out the illumination in detail, or testing its practicality. In some situations you might create a model, a sketch, a “breadboard” circuit, or in the case of a work of art, the work itself. Some of the time this verification process is trivially simple; at other times it involves a great deal of work.
There are a few things about creativity that I’d like to stress. For one thing, my years in electronics taught me that to be creative you must become familiar with the current state of the art. You need to know, in other words, what has been done before. There is no point reinventing the wheel, as the saying goes. And while one’s ego wants to believe that it is capable of bringing forth something exciting and novel out of an informationless vacuum, reality doesn’t work that way. Creativity, I have come to see, is almost always a next step or step beyond process. It was that even for Einstein — though his steps were giant steps.
I also want to share with you my observation that quieting our minds can lead to more creativity in all aspects of life. There is both great creativity and everyday creativity, and those lives which have creativity woven into their very structure are rewarding lives indeed. Problem-oriented creativity is often facilitated by an intense desire for a solution and much hard work. If we work intensely on some creative problem — writing a book, creating a piece of sculpture, designing a piece of electronic equipment, or finding out something about how the universe works — the very intensity of the creative effort helps creative insights to break through the barrier between conscious and subconscious mental processes. In other words, a high-intensity, pressure-cooker milieu facilitates the process.
Paradoxically, a quiet mind also facilitates the creative process. And interestingly, whereas high intensity preparation only applies to the solving of well-defined creative problems, a quiet mind facilitates every kind of creativity. Returning to the barrier metaphor, high intensity seems to force insights through the barrier while a quiet mind works by thinning the barrier out, by making it more permeable.
It is difficult in the workaday world to cultivate mental quiet, but it is not impossible. Some people sit quietly and meditate once or twice a day. A related approach is to return our attention to immediate circumstances during those pauses in life when we usually space out, fantasize, plan, or reminisce. Standing in line, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, and waiting for a red light to change are all opportunities to drop discursive thought and just pay attention. Other approaches are Yoga; Tai Chi; various sports; prolonged meditation in a retreat environment;19 and as mentioned previously, spending time alone without books, magazines, radio, TV, or music. Again, one of the nice things about quieting your mind is that it facilitates the everyday kind of creativity as well as great creativity. A quiet mind often leads to useful insights even when you have no specific “creative problem” to work on.
Many writers, artists, and other creative people intentionally choose living and working arrangements that provide long periods of solitude and relative freedom from distractions. They know that they are more creative when their minds are relatively quiet. They understand that it is important for the intellect and the non-verbal, subconscious processes to work together, and they know that this happens most effectively in quiet circumstances.
For a long time it has been common for artists and writers to attribute any genius they might have to The Muse. They have held that this non-intellectual, other-than-them, something is the source of all their good, really creative stuff. Today we know The Muse to be these unconscious mental processes that work on behalf of the intellect to solve our creative problems for us and make our creative breakthroughs. Working intently in the preparation stage of the process is one way to help establish a creative partnership between the intellect and The Muse. Quieting our noisy, left-brain, thinking mind is another. I highly recommend both.
16. Robert Weisberg, CREATIVITY: Beyond the Myth of Genius, New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1993.
17. Graham Wallas, THE ART OF THOUGHT, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926.
18. Howard Gardner, CREATING MINDS: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, New York: Basic Books, 1993.
19. More on that subject in: Copthorne Macdonald, TOWARD WISDOM: Finding Our Way to Inner Peace, Love and Happiness, Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1993.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
How creative are you? How are you creative?
Analyze some creative accomplishment of yours in terms of Graham Wallas’ four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
What experience do you have with “cultivating mental quiet” of the kind that nourishes creative thinking? This would be “mindfulness” or “opportunities to drop discursive thought and just pay attention.” How do you do this? What works for you?
How does Cop’s modern definition of “The Muse” help you interpret Albert Brook’s recent movie The Muse, starring Sharon Stone?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.