Thinking Your Way Out of a Paper Bag

I’m a bit surprised that no one has commented on Zenpundit’s recent post about creativity. This is one of the most important issues facing our society, because it calls into question our will to innovate, which has propelled the West along our current trajectory. As a society we don’t appreciate creative people or the wellsprings of creativity enough.

When I was a freshman in college, the education schools had been at work for a few years pushing their “critical thinking” and “creative thinking” approaches, and downplaying the necessity of memorizing facts, dismissing that activity as “rote”. A very wise Chem E. prof, from whom I was taking both Intro to Design and Engineering Thermogoddamnics, used to say over and over again that you can’t be creative if you don’t have any facts in your head and can’t see unique relationships between phenomena that others have already catalogued. The same goes in the humanities – if you don’t memorize dates in history class, you can’t put together of coherent picture of cause and effect, and if you don’t memorize vocabulary words and grammatical constructs, you can’t speak a foreign language very well.

There are two kinds of knowledge, the general and the specific. A creative person needs to master both. An example of general knowledge is retaining the fact that plants in the Solanaceae family are often edible (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants), while an example of the specific is that a couple of particular members of this family (henbane, nightshade) should really not be eaten. A really creative response to having both pieces of knowledge is to try to isolate the pharmacologically active ingredients in the different plants and play around with the chemistry until a more potent or safer agent is obtained.

This was illustrated pretty well by the quote that Zenpundit cut from here:

A creative thinker, however, is limited if he or she has little or no expertise. Expertise is, in a word, knowledge — technical, procedural, and intellectual. When creative, knowledgeable thinkers are presented with challenges, innovation is generally the outcome.

Creative thinkers in our society are produced more by accident and parental influence than by formal training. Some of the reason for this is, of course, genetic.

But another part of the problem in our society is that the products of Education schools are such lemmings themselves that they wouldn’t know a creative idea if it bit them on the bum. Coupled with this problem is the disdain for subject matter knowledge that is endemic to the Education establishment. A prime example is the commenter who wandered in to this post and left this message:

There appears to be a majority of people posting here who love math first, teaching second. That’s not to say you don’t enjoy teaching, but rather your primary motivation is the subject matter, not the students.
Speaking as a former TA, yes. Yes, it was. Excuse me if I happen to think that society is doomed without people who have a little technical knowledge, and I don’t give a rat’s whether you are a straight white male or a left-handed turquoise lesbian, if you can do the material and show a love for it, you are in my club. If you, like the student my wife taught at Big U, come up to me and tell me you just want the answer because you don’t want to think, then yes, my primary motivator is not students like you. You aren’t even suited for a fast-track career in the fast food industry, and I (rightly) view you as a parasitic drag on society in any role except that of manual laborer. And no matter how many time wasting “critical thinking’ exercises we conduct in class, you are never going to be a creative genius. In anything.
I saw this in business school with the emphasis on strategy over tactics – but I always thought that you have to have a product to offer and a plan for getting it to the people before you worry about positioning. Cart before the horse syndrome is endemic to Academia because Academics so rarely produce anything concrete. Business people followed that path because Strategy was seen as a path to advancement. Plus “Strategy” is all consultants ever have to offer, since they rarely stick around to implement their ideas. And since consultants hang around senior management like flies on meadow muffins, everyone tries to emulate their style to get ahead. But if “process”, rather than hands-on product and project experience, is the path to advancement in a firm, you can bet your paycheck that said firm is going to get a few hard lessons from the market sooner or later.

Zenpundit hit on another aspect of the lack of respect for the creative in our culture: the inability to separate true creative thinking from tinkering:

However I do not think it is the only, or even the most productive form of creative thinking available. “Tweaking/tinkering or stochastic innovation by collective incremental advances is a gradualist process best exemplified by say, Thomas Edison or George Washington Carver in the lab. There is also the route of Nikola Tesla, Leonardo DaVinci or Albert Einstein where breakthroughs arrive after a moment of insight sets a thinker working down an untrodden path.
One of the reasons that tinkering is valued too highly in our educational system is the “everyone is special movement” that claims to counter the soul-crushing effects of a traditional education. This movement points to the fact that babies tinker, and then wonders why adults don’t. Most adults are driven by a few simple desires, and once they find a means of fulfilling those desires, the urge to explore diminishes. Professor Dutch has a great refutation of the “born creative” line of thinking (plus a gratuitous jab at Carl Sagan):

According to the Standard Model, humans are intrinsically curious, with an inborn love of learning. Children are insatiably curious about their world, but by the time they are adults, a stifling educational system has beaten it out of them. All our institutions are directed toward making us conform and stifling inquisitiveness and creativity. This has to be true, goes the argument, because how else can we explain the fact that bright inquisitive children become shallow and jaded adults?
But the view that we all start out curious and creative, and have those qualities systematically stifled, fails to address some core questions. Why should it be possible to stifle these qualities at all? If there are people who see benefit from stifling curiosity and creativity, why should those benefits outweigh the benefits of encouraging curiosity and creativity? And assuming that there are people with a vested interest in stifling curiosity and creativity, why should they be able to prevail over those members of society who value curiosity and creativity? If curiosity and creativity are general traits of human beings, anti-intellectualism should be a rare and aberrant phenomenon. It should be regarded as a variety of mental retardation, or a condition as undesirable as impotence. The only possible conclusion is that there is something fundamentally wrong with this model of human nature.

Absolutely. All babies tinker. Some adults do. Many fewer adults are truly creative:

It is useful, however, to distinguish between tinkering and creativity. Tinkering consists of exploring relatively minor variations on known themes, or subjecting new stimuli to an array of already known techniques. Thomas Kinkade rarely creates and mostly tinkers. Babies tinker constantly. They put every new object in their mouth. Eventually they figure out that most things are not good to eat. When they develop motor control, they throw things. Serious curiosity consists of actively seeking new kinds of stimuli. Creativity consists of juxtaposing objects and ideas in new ways, and having a sound intuition for separating the significant result from the trivial.
I agree that tinkering is useful, but is one step lower on the ladder of mental facility than true creativity. I have already expounded on this at some length regarding the Wright Bothers’ mechanic, Charlie Taylor. I conclude, as does professor Dutch, that the Standard Model is wrong. Creativity is not endemic to the human race, and needs to be nurtured and rewarded wherever it is found.

Of the thousands of cultures that have ever existed, only a relative handful have embarked on long-distance explorations. The evidence hardly supports the idea that a passion to know marks the human species. It is probably true, as Sagan claims, that the passion to explore has found expression in every culture. Whether it has found acceptance, let alone support, is quite another matter.
As the late, great RAH said:

Most people can’t think, most of the remainder won’t think, the small fraction who do think mostly can’t do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion – in the long run, these are the only people who count.

6 thoughts on “Thinking Your Way Out of a Paper Bag”

  1. I think we to often mistake mere novelty for creativity and that we celebrate functionless novelty as if it were functional creativity.

    If I may return to a recurring theme of mine, I think that much of the “cult of creativity” springs from the cultural dominance of articulate intellectuals. The articulate create persuasive communications for a living. However, unlike a say, a farmer, the articulate must create something new on a continuous basis in order to make a living. Also, the cost of failed experimentation is very low. As a result, the subculture of the articulate values novelty above all other attributes. Their cultural dominance means the rest of us begin to see novelty, regardless of its utility, as a good in and of itself.

    Many other groups also have a motive for pushing faux creativity. Creativity cannot be measured. This makes it ideal for educators, politicians or even business types who want to claim they have accomplished something without having to provide any proof that they have done so.

    Even more seductively, placing an emphasis on creativity, creates the illusion that people can succeed without hard work and time. If, as the widely reproduced quote from Einstein says, “creativity is more important than knowledge,” then anyone can fantasize that they will create the big breakthrough without going through all the tedium of acquiring knowledge.

    In the end, we find ourselves asking, “Is it new?” instead of, “does it work?”

  2. Hi John Jay,

    Thanks for writing this post. Your old prof had it exactly right. Genuine creativity requires a base – knowledge, skill-sets, field experience – as a platform from which to see that which is new and to be able to assess it’s value correctly. Tinkering is useful, insight is a leap. There’s a question of scale that you have identified.

    Shannon wrote:

    “If I may return to a recurring theme of mine, I think that much of the “cult of creativity” springs from the cultural dominance of articulate intellectuals”

    Well, if somone is arguing for the abandonment of critical thinking, of analysis, in favor of contentless “creativity”, I’m with you. That is faddish, empty thinking.

    OTOH substantive creativity is quantifiable by its end products. Brilliant people tend to not only do things brilliantly in the sense of doing them exceptionally well but also in terms of innovation and discovery. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between trivial novelty seeking from the larger accomplishments of genius. So does Charles Murray. So does Howard Gardner and so on.

  3. Innovation is a matter of execution as well as of creativity, and execution is a matter of (a)personal courage and (b) an organization structure and organizational climate that permit this personal courage to be effectively exercised.

    Xerox PARC contained tremendous levels of creativity, but never made any significant money for Xerox. This scenario is played out over and over again.

  4. I think that Prof. Dutch’s comment:

    It is probably true, as Sagan claims, that the passion to explore has found expression in every culture. Whether it has found acceptance, let alone support, is quite another matter.

    probably applies to business cultures as well.

    IIRC, Xerox PARC was one of those organizations set up in the wake of the success of the Apple Skunkworks. Scott Adams pointed out in The Dilbert Principle that most of those ventures failed miserably, and the one thing that they didn’t have, that the Skunkworks had, was the direct support and participation of the CEO. A classic example of cargo cult science. The trend was largely driven by consultants and is yet another reason I reagard the major firms as at best useless and at worst handmaidens of the devil.

    I remember attending a career fair as a third or fourth year graduate student. This was a technical fair, BTW, not a business one. The speaker from Xerox spoke enthusiastically about their new employee rotation program – the first 18 months were spent in 3 six-month rotations, one in the unit that hired the candidate, one in sales, and one in corporate. The candidate was evaluated based on the norms of each unit, so if he or she failed as a salesman, your pay suffered. I was there with a guy who was working in our lab on loan from Westinghouse. He commented that he knew of no better way to squish creativity and create a corporate drone than to put a person where he or she had no skills (and most techies I know would be disasters in the sales force) and then beat them up about performance. Not to mention the frustration of not being able to use one’s real skills right away.

    Now that I’m on the business side of things, I see the advantage of a few weeks of shadowing the sales force for my scientific colleages, but I still agree with that Westinghouse physicist – Xerox was anti-creative.

  5. I’d suggest one use of tinkering is as a learning process, and I have found it to be a wonderful tactic. Real facts can be learned from tinkering, and the quality of the knowledge derived is often very good. In many ways, I think tinkering cements the knowledge learned from books in a way that could never be done in the privay of one’s chambers.

    Given the fruits of tinkering, the creative soul has larger feed stock to stoke his creative engine. (And that was an awful example of tinkering with a sentence.)

  6. Elliot – absolutely. One of Prof. Dutch’s points in his essay was that creative people tinker all the time. But that does not make them creative, it merely gives them a wider knowledge base from which to be creative and a greater intution for what will work and what won’t when it comes time to produce something innovative.

    I have had one, well I hesitate to call it “great”, but let’s say “significant”, instance of quantifiable creativity in my life. If I hadn’t been tinkereing for the previous 3 years, I probably would not have had it, but it was also due to being widely read, and being able to synthesize ideas from three unrelated (until then) disciplines.

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