An incorrect view of creativity…

In his op-ed article on creativity in the NY Times, Prof. Adam Grant, management and psych professor at the Wharton School of UPenn, says step one to creativity is to procrastinate.  “Creativity takes time.  So I’m trying not to make progress toward my goal.”  I think that’s BS, and I’m hoping I’m not alone.  The first part depends on your definition of creativity, of course.  Presumably, this prof, who’s trying to sell his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, is using a business definition.  I don’t see much creativity in the business world.  I see it in the author/composer of Hamilton; I’ve seen it in the works of Alejandro Obregon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and I’ve seen it in scientists and engineers, from researchers to smart phone and car designers.  Grant confuses creativity with business acumen.  Trump has the latter, but he isn’t creative (come to think of it, Trump and his progeny went to Wharton).

So, let’s get past that first statement in the quote and move on to the second.  Procrastination is the opposite of creativity!  If one procrastinates, s/he’s doing absolutely nothing.  Now Alan Watts might say doing nothing is accomplishing something—that’s part of Buddhist teaching (make your mind blank to achieve enlightenment)—but it sure as hell isn’t being creative.  I’d generally call it wasting time!  At a conference once some Austrian physicists told me that they were in the process of thinking about getting some dinner.  Maybe that’s typically Austrian—I seem to remember Vienna as pretty laid back (but probably not during WWII)—but dinner just isn’t that complicated, and time spent in the process of thinking about it would be better spent doing physics in this case, where a physicist can and should be creative.  Leave the dinner creativity to chefs—culinary art is creative, but only when you do it, not in the process of thinking about it.

That’s a good segue into another Grant quote: “Our first ideas are usually our most conventional.  Our minds need time to wander.”  Maybe Grant’s ideas and his mind, but not mine.  I’ve failed often enough by overthinking a problem and/or letting my mind wander when the initial idea was the best.  Hell, I might not even remember that Eureka thought if I don’t act on it immediately.  If anyone was creative, Beethoven was.  In an old LP, Leonard Bernstein (another creative guy) pointed out that the famous end to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was written four times!  Mr. B should have stuck with the first one because the next two were ponderous.  He was lucky in that the last try, even shorter than the first, was a little better than the first, but in oil painting the maestro would have just ended up with a painting filled with muddy colors.

I’ve experienced that muddiness in scientific research and now in my writing.  My first ideas are often the most unconventional and the best.  Talking to other creative people, that’s more common than the opposite.  The Hemingway quote running across my website’s banner is a propos: “For a long time now I have tried to write the best I can.  Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”  There’s no procrastination there, and there is an implicit recognition that one should stop with that great creative and Eureka moment before muddying the creative waters.

What’s true in literature and music is also true in science.  Many think Einstein’s best creative achievement was his theory of general relativity.  There certainly wasn’t any procrastination involved in its creation—it represented a lot of hard work to get it right.  But when one considers those five 1905 papers, everyone a gem, that’s real creativity.  Einstein’s mind wasn’t wandering.  He had a creative spark—many of them, in fact.  Sure, he spent time following those initial ideas to their consequences in order to write the damn papers, but everyone was unconventional and represented the Eureka moment of a mind not prone to wander.

Feynman once said that a theoretical physicist can only come up with these bold ideas when s/he’s young.  Maybe Feynman didn’t think of John Bardeen as a theoretical physicist because he did a lot of work in industry, but he certainly was.  Maybe more so than Feynman, because he’s also the only physicist to receive two Nobel prizes, one for the discovery of the transistor (what would we do without our computers and cell phones now?) and another for the theory of superconductivity (Japan now has the first maglev train, and CERN could never have discovered the Higgs boson without superconducting magnets).  Most of that work was done in his late thirties and after, a far cry from Feynman’s upper limit of twenty-five.  Feynman, Bardeen, and many other scientists, including this ex-scientist, would think that Grant’s claim is malarkey, and they would be right.

I’ve had a close relationship with two creative people—my father and myself!  My father, a landscape and still-life painter, always said the first brush strokes are the most important and shouldn’t be redone—otherwise the colors are muddied.  His best paintings, done with the artist’s spatula, are vibrant and exciting for that reason.  Even with other paintings—often done with a brush in each hand because he was truly ambidextrous—were better results when he didn’t retouch.  Those first ideas are the most important!

In my previous life as a scientist, I often dealt with massive datasets.  The first step in the analysis was to observe something unusual—a “gee, that’s odd!” moment.  The second step was to come up with reasons for the oddities.  There was no procrastination, and often that second step’s first idea, or a close variant, panned out.  In other work, the aha-moment would come by making a bold approximation that I later had to work hard to justify.  Still no procrastination, and lots of Eureka moments.

In my second career as a writer (although I’ve been writing most of my life and love it), content editing, done as I write, is a struggle because I know I can “muddy the picture” with my content editing.  Many times I’ll write a word and then put other possibilities in parentheses, only to realize that the first word was the best choice.  Same thing for paragraphs and chapters.  I make no pretensions in thinking I’m a literary giant; in fact, if you measure that by the number of books sold, I’m an abject failure (my father didn’t sell many paintings; I don’t sell many books).  But I’ve written enough stories to know that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.  Beethoven was lucky.  I’m no Beethoven as a writer, so I realize that my fourth try still might be worse than the first.  I also know enough about the creative process to be absolutely certain that Prof. Grant’s theory is baloney.

You might consider this a book review.  OK.  Take it to be a review of Grant’s book by only reading his op-ed article.  Maybe the book is completely orthogonal to his article.  I don’t know, but I don’t think so.  And I disagree with his article so much that I will never read his damn book.  I’d rather spend my time being creative instead of reading someone’s ill-conceived theory on how to do it.

In libris (at least some of them) libertas….



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