RANDOM THOUGHTS ON CREATIVITY
VINOD MADABUSI (S/O MV KANNAN)
Webster’s defines the term creativity as follows. “Creativity is marked by the ability or power
to create, to bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative
skill, to make or bring into existence something new.”
I was forced to use a dictionary definition as I found myself unable to define the term
precisely. This inability to define it, probably best illustrates the nature of creativity. It seems
so elementary and so ubiquitous. Yet, only some seem to be able to practise it.
However, was that always the case? Are only some naturally creative? Have you ever come
across a regular child that was not inherently creative? Studies suggest that the average adult
thinks of 3 – 6 alternatives for any given situation. The average child thinks of 60. The reason
for this is simple. A child’s thinking does not know boundaries. He does not come with baggage
that defines the limits of possibility to him. There is no “box”; there is no “frame of
reference”; there are no contexts. To him, it is simple. There is a clear issue and he can devise
60 ways of solving it.
In a sense, the price we pay for acquisition of knowledge is the loss of creativity. Consider our
educational systems. Schooling ensures that we learn the one best way to do everything. A
math question has one solution and one approach to solve it. Any deviation is penalized. While
we learn to appreciate exactness, we lose touch with ambiguity, which is but a reality of life.
You learn what is possible and more importantly, what is not possible. While this is great
knowledge gained, it is also baggage that curbs creativity. The same baggage that the child
didn’t carry and the same baggage that accounts for the 54 other alternatives that the child
thought of. I remember an interesting incident from B-School. A professor was talking about an
African beetle, which had puzzled scientists for a long time. Its shape is supposed to be so
unsuitable for flight that theoretically, it would be impossible for the beetle to fly. And yet, it
does fly quite merrily. When asked probable reasons for the same, a student said “The beetle
flies because it is not aware of its aerodynamic limitations. It simply does not realize that it is
not supposed to be able to fly.” To my mind, that anecdote epitomizes the baggage we gain
with experience. I do agree that this baggage stands us in good stead in most scenarios.
However, it does dampen the ability to think differently because we are more preoccupied
with all the impossibilities. We are so keenly aware of all the boundaries that we do not even
consider working outside of them.
Most B-school freshmen are unnerved by the first marketing case. This is when they realize that
they need to move away from exactness and look at ambiguity. There is no unique solution on
offer any more. Possibly then, there is some truth in the T-shirt slogan that has been quite
popular of late – “I was born intelligent. Education ruined me!!!”
Our own society is probably another contributor. At some point in time in history,
circumstances might have forced the adoption of certain practices. Many of these are followed
today even many years after the original relevance has been lost. Most of our religious beliefs
fall under this category. To make matters worse, these are foisted on young people from very
early in their lives. Questioning these practices is not permitted. Therefore, we tend to very
consciously push children away from their inherent nature of creativity and inquisitiveness
instead of allowing their brains to stretch in different directions and push the limits. We all
learn to live within frameworks set by someone else and learn not to question these. We don’t
attempt to change them because that is how things have always been.
Both education and society contribute to the killing of creativity in another way – by
denouncing mistakes. We are always brought up to believe that it is wrong to err. This takes
away risk taking and initiative from people. It is alleged that Thomas Alva Edison, who is
credited with the most number of inventions, had more than a thousand failed attempts before
he finally invented the incandescent bulb. When asked about it he is supposed to have said, “At
least I know thousand ways of how NOT to make a light bulb.”
A study was once conducted at the Exeter University to determine if only some select
individuals are specially gifted or if we all are born almost equal in creativity terms. The study
concluded that excellence is determined by opportunities, encouragement, training,
motivation & most of all, practice. Few have shown early signs of promise prior to parental
encouragement and no one has ever reached high levels of achievement in their field without
devoting thousands of hours of serious training. Mozart is supposed to have trained for 16 years
before he produced an acknowledged masterpiece. It reminds me of Ayn Rand, who, in her
book Fountainhead, had an interesting quote, which said, “A genius is an exaggeration. So is
elephantiasis.” Many research pieces have demonstrated the same thing. Everyone has equal
innate creative abilities. The more training one has and the more diverse the training, the
greater the potential for creative output.
The point raised about diversity is exceedingly interesting. A common trait in all these so-
called creative people is their breadth of knowledge. They are not overly selective when it
comes to acquiring knowledge. From Vedic mathematics to astrophysics to philosophy to
literature, everything interests them. Diverse knowledge is very critical to creativity simply
because creativity, very often, is nothing more than the interplay between two seemingly
unrelated and innocent nuggets of knowledge.
For instance, take the case of the printing press invented by Gutenberg. The idea dawned on
him over a glass of wine. He knew about the wine press, which was used to crush grapes to
extract the juice and make wine. The press worked on a large surface area. He also knew
about a coin punch, which was used to emboss images on to silver coins. This coin punch
worked over a small surface area but had precision and could leave a mark on the surface. He
put these two unrelated concepts together and came up with the printing press, which left an
imprint on a large surface area of paper.
Let me clarify that I am not implying that drinking could make one creative but possibly, the
very fact that he was intoxicated, allowed him to think in such a fashion as the framework of
possibility around him was fuzzy. The rigid boundaries that define possibility had, to an extent,
been removed. Isn’t that the basis of fuzzy logic anyway? Doesn’t fuzzy logic assume that there
are shades of grey instead of just blacks and whites? Traditional logic believes in rigidity- one
way or the other, in or out. If someone scores 59 percent he falls under the second-class
category and if he scores 60, he falls under the first class category. Fuzzy logic assumes that a
59 has a great percentage of second class and some of a first class while a 60 has more
attributes of a first class. By nature, it is not rigid. Instead, it is based on relativity,
perspectives – shades of grey.
I would never forget this concept as the old, bald man who explained it to me confided in me
that he was rather worried about loss of hair till he read about fuzzy logic. Today, his favorite
refrain when someone confronts him with his lack of hair is based on fuzzy logic and goes like
this –“All of us are bald. I’m just more bald in relation to you!”
It is also interesting to understand how our brain functions when we speak of interplay between
ideas. There exists a screening device located at the base of our brain called a Reticular
Activating System (RAS). This net-like group of cells helps to decide what we are to be
conscious of as it filters out other information. It allows only vital and important sensory input
into our conscious awareness. For example, you are not aware of the temperature of the room,
or all the sounds in your environment at all times. Thankfully, this filter exists or else we'd go
crazy having to acknowledge every color, every sensation, every blink of the eye, and so forth.
What makes understanding the RAS so interesting is that we can shift our focus such that we
can become conscious of things normally blocked from our awareness. For instance, normally, a
mother can hear the slightest noise made by her baby in the next room even though she has
been asleep. The father very often doesn’t even realize it. However, assume the mother is out
of town and the father is in charge, surprisingly, he too gains the same perceptive skills. It is as
simple as bringing in a new aspect in to the focus zone.
Remember when you first bought your new car? You never imagined that so many others drove
the same model. But soon you began to see these everywhere. People didn't rush out and buy
the same car just because you did. They were always there. You just made it important to you
and thus, your Reticular Activating System allowed that information through. The brain, in
reality has a total recall capability. Every thought, every sensation is retained in the brain in
some deep recess. How else would we explain the ability of people, when hypnotized, to recall
the smallest of incidents from the past; incidents that they are not consciously aware of. It is
only a matter of what is in the focus zone and what isn’t. Bringing more items in to one’s zone
of interest enhances creative abilities as it enables one to associate seemingly disparate
attributes to create something novel just as Gutenberg did.
It is also not surprising that creativity is attributed only to some individuals. Dr. Robert Epstein
made an interesting statement in Psychology Today, July-Aug 1996. He said “Behavior is
generative; like the surface of a fast flowing river, it is inherently and continuously novel.
Behavior flows and it never stops changing. Novel behavior is generated continuously, but it is
labeled creative only when it has some special value to the community. Generativity is the
basic process that drives all the behavior we come to label creative.” Thus, only few are
recognized as creative based on the extent of their contribution to society.
In fact, it has been observed that most people believe that they are not creative. I guess
Epstein’s words explain why. Very often we seem to think of creativity only as a means to
achieve some tangible end. Further, we attribute the creativity only to those who successfully
achieve this end by doing something unusual. Does it mean that Edison was creative only at the
point when the light bulb was invented? Creativity must ideally be looked at as a state of mind,
as a way of life without bothering about the end result.
We have already explored the effect of society on creativity. It is fairly obvious that a
necessary prerequisite for creativity to flourish is a nurturing environment where there is no
fear of ridicule. The environment must encourage risk taking. Even our basic techniques of
brainstorming depend on this kind of an environment.
The environment must also encourage people to question. As I discussed earlier, traditionally,
our society has shunned the idea of questioning. That must change. In fact questioning is
probably the best way to dig deep and identify newer ways of doing things. Even in the past,
the manufacturing industry tried to encourage questioning practices. Even in Frederick Taylor’s
ideas of Method Study, one would look to critically examine the method after noting it and ask,
“What else can be done?”
The right questions can help deliver amazing solutions. Roger Van Oech, in his book “A Whack
on the Side of the Head” narrates an anecdote to illustrate the difference in results due to a
difference in the questions asked.
There was a remote village where medical science had not developed much. The village was
suddenly plagued with cases of catalepsy. Catalepsy is a medical condition where the subject’s
muscles become rigid and do not respond to stimuli. The condition can last for many days. With
their primitive knowledge of medicine, the villagers had no way of figuring out if such a subject
was alive or dead. Very often they would bury people presuming that they were dead.
The villagers got together and appointed two teams to come up with a plan to avoid this burial
of live humans. Two weeks later both teams had solutions. The first team suggested that a pipe
be provided through the coffin exiting outside the grave. If the person were to awaken, he
could breathe and cry out for help till someone dug him out. The second team suggested that a
stake be built in the lid of the coffin. So, when the coffin was closed, the stake would impale
the body and that way one could be sure that the person was dead.
Why was there such a drastic difference in approaches? Simply because each team had asked
themselves different questions. The first team asked themselves “What do we do in case the
man we buried is alive?” The second team asked themselves “What do we do to make sure that
the man we buried is indeed dead?”
Asking the right question is but one aspect. The ability to understand the latent need and
empathize with the person with the need based on his answers is another. David Aaker
illustrates this point with an example while speaking of a marketing man’s need to understand
underlying needs. He wrote that when a farmer was asked what improvements he wanted, he
would have said “I need a horse that stronger, more reliable, eats lesser and one that does not
get tired.” It would be up to the creative person to think up a tractor.
Creativity is not necessarily about an outlandish idea. It may be as simple as shifting one’s
point of view. The clichéd exampled of the American and Russian astronauts would illustrate
this. When the two countries decided to put men in space for research, they realized that their
ink pens would not write in a zero-g environment. The Americans invested heavily on R & D to
create a pen that would work in outer space. The Russians used a pencil.
I would like to focus on both the individual as well as the environment, which could be a team,
a division, an organization or a society, when I speak about what we could do to enhance
creativity. Changes at the individual level are comparatively easier to bring about. However,
without a change at this level, creating an environment that nurtures creativity at work is
impossible. Today there are many techniques available to help people get in touch with their
right brain. The following site illustrates a whole lot of creative techniques that can be used by
individuals and groups.
As we all know, the left brain is supposed to be the one which offers us logical abilities while
the right brain provides us with artistic inclinations. If one were to summarize their
characteristics, they might look as follows.
Left Brain Right Brain
Looks at parts Looks at wholes
At an individual level, gathering information is a good starting point to become more creative.
Reading is possibly the best method to open avenues. A recent survey showed that top business
trendsetters, on an average, read about 2 new books per week. Another need at an individual
level is to have alternate activities that interest you outside of normal work. This helps
recharge ones batteries and help clear the mind. Sherlock Holmes conducted chemical
experiments or played the violin when a problem confounded him. It must have worked; else
he wouldn’t have been the most famous of fictional detectives. As individuals, one must also
be prepared for change. Change is an integral part of creativity. There has to be a willingness
to break away from the beaten path, to question and to take risks. Very often, we take the
attitude of why fix it when it isn’t broken. However, it is essential to step back and critically
evaluate and introspect ever so often. It is essential to challenge and improve. It is important
not to be content with status quo even though that is the easiest state of existence. Scott
Adams, the creator of Dilbert, once famously said, “When everything is coming your way, you
are driving on the wrong side of the road.”
At an environmental level, as I have already mentioned, a good starting point is a group of
individuals who are ready to believe that they are creative. Creativity is definitely enhanced by
group participation as long as the environment is right. Two heads are surely better than one.
Also the chance of arriving at a better quality solution is dependent on the quantity of
The environment changes are basically a summary of what we’ve already discussed. Firstly,
there must be willingness to challenge and question existing processes. There must be no fear
of ridicule. There must be a sense of understanding and support. Risk taking must be
encouraged. Most successful organizations today are successful because of these traits.
I would like to wind up by summarizing all that we have discussed. Everyone is born creative.
Over a period of time, we learn to see only what we want to see and end up believing that we
are not creative. Creativity is not necessarily an uncommonly unique idea that has changed the
world. It is merely a state of mind where there is a willingness to question, to explore
alternatives and to improve. Creativity needs acceptance at the individual level and a nurturing
environment to help it flourish.
Author: Vinod Madabusi