"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
July 20, 2009

Some Good Words On Creativity

We often think that being creative is about having total freedom and an absence of rules. But, what if being creative actually requires discipline, even submission?

I’m currently reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford. It’s a compelling book that first came to my attention via this New York Times piece. The following passage, on how creativity is often misunderstood  and how it really works is just one of a number of sections of the book that have caught my eye so far.

“It is a view familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant – how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe?”

The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practising scales, or Einstein leaning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonises quite well with the culture of new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling any task long enough to develop a real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. we’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent though and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople of the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.”

Toni 15 years ago

It may be semantics, but I’d see creativity as the ability to imagine something that is not but could be. It’s little to do with individuality per se, and much more to do with ability. Some people could not be creative if they went to art school for 10 years, while others just overflow with it even while un-trained.

I’d certainly agree that discipline and training have a huge effect on how productive creative people can be, and how far they can take their creativity (or how it can become limited by the training).

Fernando Gros 15 years ago

I take the definition a little further; creativity is imagination and creation. A creative cook can imagine a dish and make it. A creative musician can imagine a melody and play it. A creative mechanic can imagine what is going on inside a faulty engine and fix it. Thus creativity demands technique in order to be realised.

But, I don’t see that being the common definition today. Instead, creativity seems, to a lot of people to be more about unrestrained personal expression – free from prior thought and not subject to definitions of technical mastery, or reproduction. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do it again, that sort of thing.

The training thing is an interesting challenge. We gain mastery through repetition, the ability to do the same thing over and over again (cutting vegetables, playing scales, tightening bolts). But, at some point, to be creativity we have to apply that consistency to the “new thing,” which is something not everyone seems able to do (or grows to fear doing).

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