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Killing Creativity

Kim Marshall who edits the Marshall Memo, summarized this great article from Psychology Today that explains how we currently sabotage creativity and what we might do differently to let it blossom.

‘Habit, teachers, and even our best intentions often act as stealth saboteurs of ingenuity,” says the headline for this collection of articles in Psychology Today. “Yet awareness of the forces that blunt creativity can nurture the innovator within.” Here are the big ideas:

  •  Fear of failure narrows vision. Being supervised and evaluated improves performance on physically demanding tasks (lifting weights) or tedious tasks (counting beans), says Peter Gray (Boston College). “But in tasks that require creativity, new insights, or learning, we do better when we are not being evaluated, so are not afraid of failure,” he says. In one experiment, people were asked to produce a poem, collage, or short story. Some were told their products would be evaluated by a panel of experts, some were told their creations would be entered into a contest with prizes, and some were told nothing. Those in the third group consistently produced the most creative products. Why? “They were just playing, not concerned about judgments or rewards,” says Gray. “It’s no wonder children are less creative when classrooms are centered on evaluation… Feedback generally promotes effort – because we want to impress the evaluator – but effort is insufficient for creativity. We can’t be more creative just by trying harder. We must relax in a way that permits the full engagement of unconscious mental processes – the ones that generate unusual associations and new ideas. These work best when we are playing, not when we are striving for praise or a reward.”
  • Concentration can kill creativity. Paradoxically, focusing too intently on a problem is not the best way to get creative juices flowing, says Sian Beilock (University of Chicago). A classic example is the story of Archimedes’s eureka moment as he got into a bath and water spilled out – he made the connection to displaced water and how he could tell if the king’s crown was made of solid gold. “When you’re stuck on a problem that needs a creative solution,” says Beilock, “doing something that doesn’t require too much mental effort helps you connect your thoughts in new and unusual ways… Research suggests that moving freely – walking outdoors, pacing around the room, or even gesturing with one hand and then the other – triggers the free flow of ideas needed for creative breakthroughs.”
  • Boredom is the imagination’s playground. When we’re doing something boring and repetitious (like swimming laps), our mind “revisits experiences, scans for opportunities, plays with problems,” says author Peter Bregman, “and that’s when creativity comes alive.” The problem is that all our gadgets keep our minds occupied 24/7 and we don’t experience boredom nearly enough. “When was the last time you rode an elevator and didn’t pull out your phone?” he asks. “Every free moment has become an opportunity to get something done, or at least to be entertained. But doing nothing, being bored, is a precious thing… It’s amazing what a little boredom can create.”
  • Other people’s ideas often spark our own best inventions. “In practice, creativity is a cumulative process, one that often involves tweaking, adapting, and melding existing creations,” say Christopher Sprigman (University of Virginia School of Law) and Kal Raustiala (UCLA). “Older works are often the building blocks of new ones.” People tend to be optimistic about the success of their inventions and creations, and this spurs innovation. Perhaps it would be better, say Sprigman and Raustiala, if copyright and patent laws had shorter time horizons.
  • Renaming known problems boosts creativity. “When you ask most people to do something creative, they quickly get stuck in a rut,” says Art Markman (University of Texas). Asked to draw animals from an alien planet, for example, most people draw animals with many similarities to those on Earth. “If you want to change the way you approach a creative problem, then you need to change what you are thinking about,” he argues. “You need to describe the situation in a new way. That will change what you pull from your memory and the knowledge you use to solve the problem.” The best way to do that is to think about the essence of the problem, looking for another way to frame that issue. What kind of life forms would live on a planet with a completely different environment? “So don’t think differently,” says Markman. “Think about different things.”

“The Enemies of Invention” by Art Markman, Peter Gray, Sian Beilock, Christopher Sprigman and Kal Raustiala, and Peter Bregman in Psychology Today, May/June 2013 (Vol. 46, #3, p. 78-86),

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