Creativity Training

I’m often embarrassed when someone gushes over how “creative” I am.  I’ve noticed that some folks seem to feel this is something one is born with.  But is it?  If one researchs the subject, the first thing that one notices is that there is often a confusion as to what constitutes “creativity”.  After reading up on the subject, it has become clear that there are several different phenomena that are given that label.  One is artistic expression.  Another is novel ideation.  But the one that I seem to evince the most is novel solutions to problems, that is to say, being an inventor.

To say that one is a creative inventor, the solutions need to be novel AND useful.  To be truly successful as an inventor, one has to produce novel, useful, and economically competitive with other potential solutions (especially an incumbent one) inventions.  To be able to do this, one must master both divergent thinking (novelity) and convergent (useful).  To be economically competitive, one must already have an extensive knowledge of the state of the art.

Engineers are highly trained in convergent thinking but graduate from college often woefully behind the state of the art.  Their employers typically train them up to the state of the art of that firm’s technology.  If the new engineer is lucky, that firm has a wide range of technologies and has remained at the cutting edge themselves to be able to pass that onto their staff.  If the company has a narrow focus or they flounder in a technological backwater, the poor hapless engineer will never gain the required extensive knowledge unless they take the initiate to educate themselve by extensive and constant study.  Many good engineers and technologist do exactly this.

However, engineers are only rarely trained in divergent thinking.  But fortunately, many already had practiced that ability from their earliest childhood.  We call it “imaginary play” and “day dreaming”.  I was the day dreamer.

This brings us back to the issue of whether creativity is something one is born with, or develops.  This is an empirical question that can be answered with science.  Interestingly, recent studies have shown that artistic creative output (accomplishment) is highly heritable according to studies comparing identical vs. fraternal twins, but scientific and inventive creativity is not.  This strongly suggests that inventive creativity can be learned and improved.  One is NOT born inventive.  One trains to be inventive.

So if one can become more inventive, how does one go about doing so?

We need to break this up into three groups.  One is the individual engineer who wants to improve themselves.  Another is the company executive that wants to increase the creativity of their staff.  The final group is parents that want to encourage their children to be creative and inventive.

Let’s start with parents and their children.  I’ll cover the other two cases in separate posts.

During a Q&A session after a panel discussion on innovation (which is not quite the same as invention) for a group of highly talented engineers at Xerox PARC, a woman in the audience asked me how we might encourage and enable children to be more creative and inventive.  My response truly surprised the audience when I said bluntly, “Boredom, let your children become bored.”

Boredom is the neccessary driver for imagination.  Children use their imaginations only when they are bored first.  Consider the modern upper-middle-class child’s typical day in which each moment is scheduled and blocked-in: school, homework, sports, music or dance lessons, etc.  And if there is a moment of free time, there is the computer, tablet, or smartphone to keep them entertained and never bored.  This is a perfect way to ensure that these children remain passive and uncreative.

So what is a parent to do?  First, in their earliest childhood, read stories aloud in which imagination is key.  Start with L. Frank Baum’s Oz books or others that are filled with fanciful ideas that expand the imagination.  Avoid stories with cliched storylines that are disabling to children, especially stories that tell girls that women are only to be admired for their beauty, never their cleverness.  Provide books and encourage reading.  One of the best genre for stretching one’s imagination is science fiction.

Next, pull the plug on the TV.  Seriously, even for yourself.  Model the behavior you wish to see in your children.  Read.  Do something creative.  Join the Maker movement.  Provide a bunch of junk for the kids to tinker with including magnets, assorted optics (lenses, mirrors, polarized films, etc., a low cost telescope, microscope, etc.), an electronics breadboarding kit, a chemistry set, and of course, lots of books on science and technology that are age appropriate and a few that are beyond their present age.

But what ever you do… DON’T provide toys and kits that only have one function or outcome!  There’s no scope for imagination in such as these.  Today, even Lego toys come with assembly instructions!  Throw the instructions away and let the kids play in a way that they are encouraged to invent their own uses and functions.

Don’t over schedule your kids.  Don’t make “play dates”, let them choose their own friends.  Don’t insist that you drive them everywhere.  They can walk or ride a bike to school.  Don’t insist that their games and sports be supervised and coached.  Let your kids invent their own games.  Become a “Free Range Parent”.

Don’t let other parents or teachers insist that you are being a bad parent for letting your children have their own time to play, explore, do daring and “dangerous” things… and especially don’t let your child’s teacher chastise your child for day dreaming.  Day dreaming is the key to becoming more creative.

Above all, don’t rush to jump in every time your child says, “I’m bored”.  Instead, say, “Good.  Now think up something that will interest you.”

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