Newsweek magazine just came out with a cover article on creativity. Apparently, a poll of 1500 CEOs said that creativity was the most important skill of the future. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write, “The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed.” The article goes on to lament that creativity scores are declining and we don’t teach creativity in school. So I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about the somewhat problematic relationship between creativity and modern organizational life.
(1) Creativity is about expansiveness, unlimited possibilities, and being comfortable with the unknown. The way educational and business leaders typically define creativity is that it’s something that produces a given end. Both schools and businesses want results and something that can be measured. Hence, what is defined as creativity is more similar to “problem solving,” than something that is unknown, expansive, and necessarily bigger than us. When we limit our agenda to producing something that is measurable in this way, we create a “box” and of course, then we are limited to thinking “within the box.” A couple months ago, I got into a conversation with a high-level scientist from Amsterdam about creativity, business, and science. He gave me the question of exploring “Why is the sky blue?” as an example of creativity in science. I in turn asked him, “Why does the sky have to be blue?” Believing that the sky is blue is what limits our creative options and possibilities. Think of Monet’s impressionist paintings. Monet allowed his creative process to travel outside of the box—snow wasn’t necessarily white and the sky did not have to be blue. When we travel outside the lines, we find creativity.
(2) Creativity is challenging and confronting. When people are truly being their authentic selves, they challenge people. They’re not following the traditional path. They’re following their own path, which is most likely going against the norm. Society hails creativity as some idealized thing, but yet doesn’t favor or support people who are challenging traditional norms. Real pioneers shock people. (Think of the Beatles.) It is possible that the true creatives are the ones who are getting booted out of the organizations who purport to be in favor of creativity…
(3) Creativity is confusing.The film director David Lynch was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR. She asked some question about making films and he replied, “You know Terry, when I’m making a movie, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
(4) Creativity is not something outside of ourselves that we need to try “gain.” Rather, creativity is the central, underlying process of human life and living. It’s who we are as humans. In my PhD research, I studied how adults learn in everyday life. Learning is a creative process. Every day, we are constantly receiving information, input, and perceptions. We refine and brew over these perceptions, distilling them down until we’ve come up with our own unique “take” on the matter. This is not always a conscious process. Our minds and psyches just naturally want to “work” on trying to understand this world around us. Further, as humans, we have both the ability and desire to express ourselves—whether that be through a traditional creative activity like cooking or writing, or by managing people, engaging in relationships and conversations, digging a ditch, designing a transit system, or whatever. We’re each a unique being engaged in a constant, ongoing process of creativity (expressing ourselves) all the time. Life is a creative process.
(5) High creativity is associated with immersing ourselves in the imaginal. In the last few years, my work has focused on the “imaginal world” and “third space.” I believe that true creativity comes when we enter into an expansive place that I often refer to as the imaginal. As mentioned in the Newsweek article, a research study at the University of Michigan was conducted on people who have received MacArthur genius awards. Apparently, MacArthur recipients are highly likely to have spent time in their middle childhoods creating “paracosms”—fantasies of entire alternative worlds. The kids visited the paracosms repeatedly, and often created languages to be spoken there. Somehow as adults, we shift out of this type of play, calling it “make-believe.” But perhaps it is true, as the ancient Sufi’s believed, that the imaginal world is a real world. What then?
Both Carl Jung and Albert Einstein said in different ways that problems can’t be solved at their own level. What we need to do is move to a different place inside of ourselves in order to come up with truly innovative solutions. Moving into that new, unknown, different, imaginal place is where the creative possibilities lie. The problem is, since it’s unknown, it’s scary.
It’s also difficult to measure.