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Sandeep Gautam
Sandeep Gautam

The Little c and Big C of Creativity

Little c paves the way towards the big C

Big C, Y'all!

Big C, Y'all! (Photo credit: Collin Harvey)

Sam McNerney, in this recent post, laments the fact that Big C creativity, or the study of eminence/genius, is given short shrift these days and much of the discourse on creativity is focused on explaining every day, small c, creativity. This, in his opinion, detracts from the labors required of the creative process and trivializes the study of creativity.

As I read the article, I found myself both agreeing with Sam, on the lack of focus on big C creativity, and disagreeing with him on the apparent lack of respect shown by him for small c creativity, to researchers studying small c creativity or to reporters reporting on those results.

With Jonah Lehrer-bashing being the sport of the season, he laments the exaggeration of studies that highlight the importance of blue rooms, relaxed settings or positive affects on creative process (without of course naming Imagine or Jonah). While I am not a fan of Jonah (haven’t read Imagine or any of his books) and really doubt some of the studies he cited, I do believe that studying small effects on everyday small c creativity will eventually lead us to inch closer to the mystery of genius.

Consider, for example, the effect of positive affect on creativity and insight problems — putting one in a positive frame of mind increases dramatically the chances of someone getting the right answer to small c, everyday, insight problems like using a box of matches tacked to a wall, as a platform, to support a candle. Alice Isen found in one study that intervening, by as trivial a thing as giving candies to doctors to put them into positive frame of mind, improves their diagnostic skills. This same mechanism, elaborated as the 'broaden and build' theory of positive affect, by Barbara Fredrickson, posits that habitual positivity should lead to more expansive and creative frames of minds and more cognitive and other resources at ones disposal, thus aiding creativity.

Based on these findings, one can reasonably conclude that a genius will necessarily, have a positive attitude, even towards failure (like the famed attitude of Edison, who used failure as a learning opportunity — 1,000 ways of how not to make a bulb) and this would be an important factor responsible for his/her persisting through the nine months of labor and emerging successful.

My argument, in essence, is that because real-life behaviors are difficult to capture in the laboratory, we, of necessity, must study their diluted or laboratory equivalents.

Consider decision-making research. While we would like to, ideally, study how people make really important decisions- like choosing a life-mate, what we end up studying, are choices between different jam tastes or cola brands (who am I to say this is not an important decision!). But people do not distinguish between small d and big D decision-making research. I think it would help, to an extent, to make that distinction- big D may be driven more by intuitive, system 1 while small d may be more tightly controlled by system 2; but again the major decision-making processes would be the same and research on small d would not trivialize or invalidate the field as a whole.

Another field, we can take cue from, is that of free will. Benjamin Libet’s trivial, laboratory experiment of small f free will, related to lifting a finger, is taken as proof of invalidating the big F free will we may have of shaping our life courses. Again, a distinction between small f and big F would be good; but research in small f would be the pre-requisite, and necessary to obtain, before we can move on, to tackle difficult questions related to the big F. In any case, beginning with a focus on small f should not be construed as being antithetical to the spirit of the field.

Also, at times, it is difficult to classify what small c is and what big C is. Keith Sawyer, in this study, considers the focus on Big C 'high art' lamentable and would instead like the focus to shift more on creativity exhibited by say jazz musicians in their everyday spontaneous interactions. Who are we to say that everyday creativity exhibited by a copywriter/editor of a newspaper, who comes up with catchy phrases and headlines, directed towards the herd, is inferior in terms of creativity exhibited, to that by a lone author, struggling against the herd, and working on his masterpiece, that grants him a place in the Pantheon. Or maybe, to account for the creativity of daily cartoonists, ad-men etc., we now have to make a distinction of 'middle c.'

While I have read Howard Gardner and his Creating Minds to get insight into big C; I also have on my bookshelf Margaret Boden's The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, which explores the possibility of programming a computer to be creative, in small c terms. Again some of the things Boden talks about, like the process of recombination, transformations etc. provide us insights into the creative process that may be hard to find if we studied eminent persons alone.

While I agree with Sam, whole-heartedly, that big C creativity merits a concerted focus, I also believe that small c is the way we will inch closer to the enigma of genius. It’s true that myths about creativity — that it is easy, natural for some, mostly cognitive in nature — should be dispelled in favor of a more rounded account of genius that takes grit, positivity, endurance, effort and curiosity into account. It is equally true that we can only reveal the essence of the creative process — that it involves recombination to produce surprise element, or transformations to produce novelty element, that great works of art/creativity are selected for by arbitrary aesthetic preferences as well as utilitarian concerns — by focusing closely on the small, everyday c creativity and the processes underlying them.

Lest I be misunderstood, my objection to Sam is on two counts: one, that the perpetuating myth of anguished art and tormented genius is as counterproductive as any other myth. Most creators/ innovators are likely to have positive frames of mind that treat failures as learning opportunities; I'm not saying they don't struggle or work hard, but they don't, necessarily, see the struggle as painful, but rather see it as challenging and enriching.

Second, a focus on small c creativity is as necessary as a focus on Big C creativity — as that approach is more likely to yield early fruits and help in identification of mechanisms.

In the end to each his own — we need researchers focusing on big C, to keep us aware of what it is that we are finally and ultimately investigating, and we need researchers focusing on small c to ensure that incremental steps towards that elusive goal are manageable and continue to be taken.

About the Author
Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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