Creativity is a Decision

Robert Sternberg Ph.D. was the latest speaker for Texas A&M’s University Distinguished Lecture Series. Below is a summary of Sternberg’s lecture.

The title of his talk was “Creativity is a Decision: Keys to Developing Creativity in Children and Adults,” and as he mentioned immediately, the main message of the presentation was that being more creative is a decision a person can make at any time in their life. However, just deciding to make a macro decision to be creative would be very difficult, so Dr. Sternberg included a set of micro decisions to help (see all 14 after the break).

Before he did that though he defined creativity using the standard definition, which is that it involves novel solution(s) to problems that are also useful/practical (note: novelty and usefulness are orthogonal).

He also impressed on us that there were definite costs to lack of creativity. For example, in a free-market companies survive through creativity (innovation).

Dr. Sternberg is currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. In his position he is involved in the admissions process. He described one particular project, the Kaleidoscope Project, that they have included in the application process. In addition to standardized test scores, applicants complete essays that “synthesize measures of wisdom, intelligence (academic/analytical and practical), and creativity into the admissions committee’s decision-making process” (link). The program has been a success, it better predicts students’ first year GPAs, leadership, and community involvement. What a nice way to address the old issue of GPA and standardized tests scores not be correlated with college success.

Sternberg’s micro-decisions to be creative were:*

  1. Redefine the problem
  2. Analyze creative solutions
  3. Sell your solution
  4. Be aware that intelligence/knowledge may hurt creativity
  5. Take sensible risks
  6. Overcome obstacles
  7. Find what you love
  8. Continue to grow
  9. Believe in yourself
  10. Tolerate ambiguity
  11. Take yourself and your ideas lightly
  12. Seek an environment that encourages creativity
  13. Creativity is a way of life
  14. Creativity is domain-specific

I could probably do without decisions 6-14 but the first few really resonated with me. The idea that selling your creative solutions is required makes sense, because as he mentioned, making the decision to be creative is ultimately a decision to “defy the crowd.” Not everyone will be on board with your new idea; creative and successful people must persuade others to see it their way.

During the Q&A session someone asked how a person would “redefine” a problem. His answer was three-fold: 1) be open to seeing the problem from a different perspective; 2) incubate the problem (see Archimedes’ eureka moment); and 3) talk to others about the problem, ideally a diverse set of others.

*At the outset of the talk he said there were 13 micro-decisions, I counted 14, I could be wrong on one or two of these as decisions, maybe the last two.

-Posted by Tyler

  1. Received this comment from Luke Armstrong:

    12. Seek an environment that encourages creativity

    This one I find to be the most over simplified. Is it the search that is the important part or the finding? If it is as I suspect the finding (or perhaps even creating the environment), I wonder if he has any pointers on maximizing the efficiency of the searching? This seems to be a very difficult challenge, and very important to me.

    That being said, it does keep me commenting on former schoolmates Facebook pages. 🙂

    Good point, it would be difficult to find an environment that encourages creativity when as he put it, being creative is defying the crowd which in turn creates external pressure to conform.

    I suppose it might be hard to find an encouraging environment from WITHIN any organization you are wishing to solve problems for, unless you are brought in to shake things up. In contrast, outsiders, like people in think tanks, would get encouragment to be creative because there would be little entrenchment.

      • Luke Armstrong
      • February 10th, 2010

      As a more direct follow-up to my thought before. I wonder what Robert Sternberg would say about compulsive creativity? The inability to handle repetitive tasks, and therefore to fit into a workforce that doesn’t have a place for that kind of worker. What would happen if we really followed those 14 rules? Personally I feel like I am pretty far down that road already. Creativity opens up possibility, choice and I am feeling Barry Schwartz’s: The paradox of choice, it is a shadow on my mind.

  2. Luke,

    Thanks for posting this, it’s thought provoking especially as an answer to Sternberg’s position (by the way I didn’t know you could post videos in the comments). If he’s advocating income redistribution though, he has an uphill battle.

    To your first comment, a similar question was asked last night. A play therapist who works with children with behavioral issues asked was it better to rehabilitate these children at the expense of their creativity or not? His answer was as you might expect. Practicality comes first.

    As an adult though, maybe the answer is different. Quit the job and learn how to sell ideas 🙂

    • Luke Armstrong
    • February 11th, 2010

    Well I think you may be right on track with that thought. I need to start making some tracks, thanks for the start.

    • How about getting a consulting gig? A la “Creative Mind for Hire”

        • Luke Armstrong
        • February 11th, 2010

        I am in, I’ll start my assent to the top by documenting my creativity. How much of a portfolio do you need to be a creative mind for hire?

        Or maybe I can just walk in the door, fart in Steve Job’s face and say, “I bet you didn’t think of that.” That wouldn’t be very #5 of me though, but it would show off my belief in #11 & #13 🙂

    • Tim
    • February 11th, 2010

    I find #4 very useful, “Be aware that intelligence/knowledge may hurt creativity.”

    In other words, it’s an important reminder to find a rational conclusion and/or home for creative work. Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square” project is a nice visual example of a painter putting that philosophy to practice.

    Another perspective I would add alongside #4 is, “creative solutions may appear to be the opposite of progress.”

    Visionary minds develop ideas that are often unavailable for others to understand immediately. Historically, humanity isn’t very kind to individuals with minds that operate that way unless they are championed by the right blend of confidence and showmanship. Even in creative groups, a status quo will always develop. Even in creative groups, transformational ideas will be blindly rejected. Which I think is what Luke alluded to.

    So maybe the trick is to scratch the list completely and go with one fatalistic rule to put above every doorway to inspire creative vision:

    “Nobody knows anything.”

  3. Tim,

    “Nobody knows anything” might be a decent perspective for a person formulating an idea, or a creative solution, in order to come up with divergent ideas. However, those people that do know something, the experts, should be relied on to know what has already been done, what has worked/not worked, how things can be implemented and so on. After all, there isn’t any sense in recreating the wheel.

    Ideally the two would be complementary, newbie brainstormers and experts. The problem with this arrangement is easy to anticipate though, the newbies would likely get external pressure from the experts or worse.

    What is it about Albers’ series that you think exemplifies the 4th rule?

    • Tim
    • February 11th, 2010

    Your right – “Nobody knows anything” is poor advice. I’d intend it be used only as a bold mantra to inspire continued search and questions.

    Albers’ “Homage to the Square” series, for myself, is a visual example of how a quest for a solution often reveals to us that the quest itself is the solution.

    By ruminating on the bedrock of basic design, the square, he dissolves and exalts formal design principles at the same time. In some ways it’s an autistic repetition – the image swallows itself and reveals itself over and over. The paintings suggest that instead of looking for meaning in them, we should just look at them plainly, and recognize the object, the quality, and the work involved to make it, as the only useful meaning to glean. The quest yields no answers – because the quest itself is the answer.

    The directness of his squares (even down to their titles) is a steady and rational refusal of being “creative” in the traditional sense. And that refusal (and restraint) is a profound creative and philosophical gesture.

    • Tim
    • February 11th, 2010

    So, I think #4 -“Be aware that intelligence/knowledge may hurt creativity” is only true on the surface. Is creativity that hurts intelligence and knowledge of much use anyway? I think it could be written instead to say something like, “Find a rational conclusion and/or home for creative investigation.”

    Overall, I’d say Albers’ square paintings offer rich support to the lecture title, “Creativity is a decision”.

    • Luke Armstrong
    • February 11th, 2010

    Regarding Rule #4: Do you think it is worth interjecting that I might believe that there is a difference where creativity is concerned between knowledge gained first hand, and knowledge gained second hand? Experience expanding possibility vs Observation constricting possibility (maybe a relationship between me and my mirror neurons)

    • Luke Armstrong
    • February 11th, 2010

    Also in the context of this article it seems as though, Be aware that intelligence/knowledge may hurt creativity, may actually be a pillow built to catch people as they fall. Said another way: Remember if you are feeling frustrated with all this creativity stuff, its hardest for those of you who are the smartest. Don’t give up! Pat, pat, pat… Actually the whole thing reads like a sixth grader’s guide to creative nirvana (maybe we should write that book). Apparently I am stuck between 12-14 🙂

    • Tim
    • February 11th, 2010

    I agree that it’s a pretty basic list, but I imagine it’s useful to anyone who avoided an art class in school, or more likely, was never required to take one.

    I’m not sure I follow your first post. #4. “Be aware that intelligence/knowledge may hurt creativity” seems poorly worded to me as it assumes that intelligence/knowledge and creativity have an aversion to one another. That, to me, is a creative myth. Knowledge and intelligence are ultimately necessary for creative solutions to exist, to be communicated, and to be championed.

    No doubt someone at some point told Frank Gehry, “we can’t build that.” But that didn’t “hurt” his creativity. It just forced him to modify a design toward a rational conclusion that could be achieved. That kind of challenge strengthens creativity, it doesn’t “hurt” it.

    • Luke Armstrong
    • February 11th, 2010

    I didn’t mean to make it out to be a universal truth or anything. But my thought was at times I feel that observational learning/knowledge can create boundaries where they weren’t before, where as experience based learning/knowledge may open up new possibility.

    • Tim
    • February 11th, 2010

    Very neat video!

    There may be times where “observational learning” creates boundaries and limits potential for some people, but it can also remove boundaries and expand creative potential just as easily for others. The same can be said about experience-based learning. I don’t know of any reason to advocate one over the other- both have their place.

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