Battling The Creativity Crisis, Part 1
Creativity comes from balancing your artist, scientist, and judge
Posted June 3, 2019
For those of you who don’t know, the “creativity crisis” refers to the way that individuals’ creativity scores have been in decline since the 1990s, an issue brought to national attention by Dr. KH Kim, a professor at The College of William and Mary. I appreciate how Dr. Kim calls out the problems with the modern climate for thinking–in particular, the focus on “right answers” and certainty coupled with a denigration of “pointless” exploration (a concern I discussed here). Yet what makes the creativity crisis so hard to reverse is that we can’t simply abandon the need for right answers in favor of open exploration. Creativity may emerge from exploration, but that is not where it ends. In this multi-part blog, I will explain why the solution to the creativity crisis includes openness of thought, but this must be in balance with other kinds of thought.
Balance relates to thinking styles, of which I conceive three: The scientist, the judge, and the artist. We think creativity is a function of the artist. In actuality, it is a function of all three.
The scientist is chiefly concerned with understanding how things work. The scientist wants to be able to identify what causes events to happen, and how they affect each other. With this understanding, scientists learn how to explain, predict, and control aspects of the world.
Scientific thinking can apply to any subject, not just the typical ones like physics or chemistry. Any topic that has underlying regularities and patterns is one you can learn to explain, predict, or control. Therefore, you can apply scientific thinking to tax preparation, creative writing, or even your boss’ reaction to your missing work. All of these topics have regularities in their causes and effects.
For example, the more you understand how your boss works, the better you can explain how they will react to you taking a sick day, predict what the better and worse reasons to call out sick are, and control how they might react when you tell them you will miss work. As long as there is some degree of regularity in what happens in a situation, the scientist can try to learn where those regularities come from.
The scientist is essentially concerned with facts, theories and truth, but is not concerned with right and wrong (in the moral or normative sense). Issues of right and wrong are the purview of the judge. The judge seeks to identify what is appropriate in some situation - what a person should do given what he or she can do. Thus using judgement is about applying standards to evaluate what kind of activities are admirable, appropriate, or unseemly. Deciding whether calling in sick from work in order to go to your child’s baseball game is not a scientific question, it is a judgmental one.
The example of calling in sick to go see your child’s game is a minor ethical question. We use it to illustrate that judgment is not merely reserved for big moral dilemmas. We make judgments all the time about much smaller things, often more as a matter of good taste. Exactly how elaborate to make the font on your business card, how much to publically challenge a teammate, or whether you can wear jeans to the monthly meeting are all minor questions, but all of these require judgment with respect to what one should do.
What neither the scientist nor the judge does is create what does not yet exist—that is the job of the artist. The artist is chiefly concerned with imagination. While scientists and judges both produce ideas, the artist imagines what is often inconceivable to the scientist and the judge. The artist creates ideas that seem incorrect to the scientist and/or inappropriate to the judge. Most inventions, like airplanes, seemed impossible (until they were made). Much social change, such as government by the people, seemed inappropriate (until they were accepted).
It is the imagined break from what is possible that makes most people see creativity as the purview of the artist. It is also why artistic thinking is associated with divergence, non-conformity, openness, and so forth. For example, if I need to figure out some innovative way to pay for the renovations on my house, ideas like “get a loan” or “sell things in your house that you want to get rid of” may be ones I have not yet conceived. But they are hardly creative. They are, to quote music producer James Thane Robeson, “created not creative.” To be creative, they would need to be outside what I think might be plausible.
Yet note with this example that artist thinking is not just for stereotypically “artistic” activities (in the same way that scientific thinking is not just for scientific domains). Any problem or situation can have solutions that we cannot easily conceive. Any domain of knowledge has useful concepts that do not yet exist but can and will. When they do, the scientist will use them and the judge may see them as good.
Integrating the modalities
The scientist, judge, and artist are not types of people; they are modalities of thought. People may be more inclined toward one versus the other, but everyone uses all three. All three modalities use the same cognitive mechanisms (i.e., they all use working memory and long term memory), but they use them differently. Most people see creativity as coming from the artist and thus imagine that promoting artistic thinking promotes creativity. That is a misconception.
The artist imagines what could be, that neither the scientist nor the judge would conceive. Yet the artist does not possess the capability to understand how to make such an imagined thing work, or how to bring it into existence. That is the job of the scientist. Nor would the artist alone be capable of deciding whether what is imagined is good or worthwhile. That is the job of the judge. This specialization of thinking modalities is why the scientist, judge, and artist need to have their activities coordinated and balanced. None works alone.
Creativity is underutilized in our world for two main reasons: We don’t realize when to use it, and when we want to use it we have the wrong ideas about how to make it. If we understand how to get the scientist, the judge, and the artist to work together, we can fix both problems. This will be the subject of this blog mini-series.
Stay tuned for next time, when I talk about how the modalities integrate.