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Creativity


 

CREATIVITY

by Kenneth Lyen

In today’s highly competitive world, a country like Singapore can only survive if it can produce a continuous stream of innovative products or services. New ideas dominate the international marketplace. The lifespan of a new product becomes progressively shorter. For example, nearly every month there are new models of computers and handphones with increasingly powerful and sophisticated features. Last month’s models are fast becoming obsolete and the prices of yesterday’s products can plummet precipitously.

Creative individuals who have the ability to develop new products and services are assuming an increasingly important role in society. Indeed they may be crucial for their country’s future economic well-being. We must learn to cultivate creativity, recognise creative individuals, and encourage them to contribute to their country. Our educationalists must bear a large part of responsibility in achieving this.

How then can we best stimulate creative thinking?

Creativity means having the ability to produce original, imaginative and useful ideas. Other terms that have been used include lateral thinking, divergent thinking, and intuition. It involves a highly developed sense of imagination. Without that imagination, there will be fewer original ideas. Einstein understood its importance and said “Imagination is greater than knowledge because knowledge is limited whereas imagination is infinite.”

Creativity is one of the highest achievements of mankind. For the young, creativity comes quite naturally, but as one progresses through the educational system, it is slowly but surely lost. Our educationalists must learn how to preserve a student’s sense of curiosity, how to encourage exploration and self-expression, and how to preserve one’s inner sense of drive, self-confidence and achievement.

In 1960, Roger Sperry, a Californian neurophysiologist, observed that the left side of the brain seemed to deal predominantly with words, numbers, logic, analysis, intellectual, commercial, and business matters. He therefore attributed academic or logical thinking to the left side of the brain.

In contrast, the right brain seemed to handle imagination, day-dreaming, music, rhythm, art, colour, space, and the ability to move through dimensions. He credited creative thinking , imaginative and artistic skills, to the right side of the brain.

This categorisation of the brain’s function is currently under attack. Most scientists believe this is too simplistic a picture. The new research using dynamic studies of brain function shows that imagination and creative thinking use both sides of the brain.

How do you measure creativity? This is the $64,000 question. Is a cook who dreams up new recipes creative? Is a pianist who gives a new interpretation to Mozart creative? And how do we compare one creative person with another?

CHARACTERISTICS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE

What are the characteristics of creative people? In general, they are people who display greater degrees of curiosity, independent thinking, autonomy, self-confidence and nonconformity. They tend to be more tolerant of complexity, contradictions and ambiguity. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the expert on creativity, these people harbour opposite characteristics. Here are some examples of their antithetical traits:

Energetic and Quietly Disciplined

The creative person can be full of energy and passionate about his interests, often staying awake all night on a project. Yet at the same time, he can sit back and reflect quietly and be extremely disciplined and objective about it, and completing the task.

Clever and Naive

Einstein is a good example of such a person, who could solve complex mathematical problems, and yet posses an innocent, childlike mind.

Imaginative and Realistic

Steven Spielberg, the film director, could take on a wide variety of imaginative subjects to film, and was realistic enough to make them commercial successes.

Yin and Yang (Female and Male)

Many creative individuals are extroverts, aggressively masculine, and can push their ideas to others. Simultaneously, they can be very shy and intuitive, and more “feminine” in their thinking.

Proud and Humble

On the one hand, creative persons like recognition for their achievements, and they bask in the limelight. On the other hand, they are aware of how small their achievement really is, and how much they owe their achievements to their predecessors. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Rebellious and Conservative

In order to introduce a revolutionary idea, the creative person breaks with tradition and becomes a rebel. But he or she would have mastered the earlier ideas or techniques in a traditional manner.

On the whole they are more willing to take risks and to work at overcoming obstacles. Above all they are intelligent persons. Let us look at some of these characteristics more closely.

ESSENTIAL FACTORS FOR CREATIVITY

Here are some basic factors that are essential for creativity to occur. They include:

Mastery of the Subject

You have to master your field of endeavour before you can become creative. This consists of finding and acquiring as much knowledge and skills as possible. For example a painter must know the paints and techniques of painting. A composer needs to have heard enough music to formulate music. Interestingly enough he need not play an instrument or read music, although it can be of great advantage. Famous songwriters who could not read music include Irving Berlin and John Lennon. A scientist must know about his subject before he can make any breakthroughs. Einstein had a good grasp of mathematics which allowed him to advance his revolutionary ideas.

Curiosity

You need to possess a high degree of child-like curiosity. You should always be asking questions, even when it may seem absurd or naive. Look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes, as if you are seeing it for the very first time. The Nobel Prizewinning scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said that “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”

Divergent Thinking

Your thinking should diverge from the conventional. Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral thinking”, which means using unorthodox or illogical thinking to solve problems. Because creativity involves having an idea that is different or original, it means that you cannot follow the herd. To quote Alan Ashley-Pitt: “The man who follows the crowd, will get no further than the crowd.” Your path must diverge and you must deliberately set out to be different from the rest.

Take Risks

The proverb “nothing ventured, nothing gained” applies to creative thinking. You have to think or try out even the most illogical idea. As Einstein said, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.” The creative idea is often quite outlandish when first conceived. Only later when it is absorbed into the establishment does it become orthodox. Original ideas can be dangerous. Throughout history, original thinkers were persecuted or ridiculed for their revolutionary ideas.

Motivation and Persistence

You must be motivated to pursue creative production for intrinsic or internal rewards such as satisfaction, rather than extrinsic or external rewards such as prize money. It is this inner passion that will drive you on, and prevent you from giving up. The search for solutions can take a whole life-time. Creativity is the only force that can keep you going for so long. For many, it is even more powerful than hunger or sex.

Serendipity

With every creative endeavour, there is a certain element of luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when he made a mistake and left his culture plates exposed to fungi. Goodyear accidentally poured rubber onto a hot stove and hardened it. Roy Plunkett screwed up his attempt to make a new type of Freon and invented Teflon instead. Being at the right place at the right time is crucial. But the mind must also be attuned to taking advantage of the serendipitous discovery. It was Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist, who said that “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” If Alexander Fleming had not been growing bacteria, he would not have culture plates to contaminate. If Goodyear had not been experimenting with rubber, he would not have spilt it. If Roy Plunkett had not been playing around with polymers, he would not have stumbled upon Teflon.

STEPS IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What are the steps in the creative process? Most of us who have had the experience of developing a creative idea would probably agree that there are at least five steps. They are:

Preparation

This is the stage when one needs to gather as much information about the subject as possible, or to learn a particular skill. This phase of the creative process may take the longest time. If you do not have enough facts, you may not be able to arrive at a solution. It is like searching the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. Unless you have enough pieces to form at least a partial picture, there is no way that you can make an educated guess at what the final picture might turn out to be. If you are an artist, you would need to learn the techniques of your art form. If you are an author, you need to learn how to manipulate words. It is only after you have become saturated with all the relevant information, or have become proficient with the techniques related to that art form, can you advance to the next stage, and that is when you “sleep on it”.

Incubation

By allowing the problem to simmer in your mind, your brain will attempt to fill in the missing information. Subconsciously, the idea is being formed.

Insight

The solution to a problem can strike you like a sudden bolt of lightning, or it can be painstakingly pieced together one bit at a time, like a complex jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes the answer can be staring you in the face, but you are blind to it, until a chance remark by someone else jolts you into realisation. You may remember Archimedes who jumped out of his bath shouting “Eureka!”, or Kekule who awoke from a dream that the benzene ring was like a snake chasing its own tail. That is when the idea is hatched.

Evaluation

This is the time when you have to decide whether the idea is any good. Many a time, what you thought was a brilliant idea in the middle of the night may turn out to be a loser in the cruel light of day. However, it is important that you do not toss out the idea too soon. It may be the right solution at least in part. Some further modification may transform it into an outstanding idea.

Elaboration

At this stage, the solution is fine-tuned, refined and polished. This is the hardest phase of the entire creative process. It is probably what Edison was referring to when he said: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

If you can apply these principles, I am sure your mind will be set free to create many original ideas. Let me exhort you to venture forth, to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”