Battling The Creativity Crisis, Part 2: Balanced Thought
Creation requires more than the artist in you.
Posted July 2, 2019
In my last blog post, I talked about the Scientist, Judge, and Artist as ways of thinking. I said that most people think creativity is a function of the artist, but in fact, creativity produced by the artist alone is likely to suck. Creativity comes from balance among the three roles.
To understand why let’s start by considering what emerges from integrating the different pairs of roles. When we take our understanding of how the world works (scientist) and use it to take appropriate actions (judge) we develop skill – the ability to meet our objectives in a useful and appropriate way. Without skill, one will be unable to bring what they imagine into reality, and what they imagine might not be that great. An artist without skill creates amateur work – lots of self-expression but not a lot of utility.
Of course, not all creation has immediate utility. Creation can start as discovery that does not have an immediately obvious value. Faraday discovered that silver sulfide gets more electrically conductive when the temperature rises, while metallic conductors get less conductive. It took imagination (artist) to wonder how conductivity could change, and scientific testing to verify that it did. But why such a discovery would matter was not immediately apparent, nor was it fully realized for about a century (when it became a fundamental principle that helped create the transistor). For discovery to become useful, the judge will eventually need to weigh in to identify what uses a discovery has.
Sometimes we imagine something that would be useful if we could get it to work. I call this vision – a view of what could be (artist) that is positive and compelling (judge). We can all see the value of a vision of driverless cars. But that innovation will not emerge unless we can get a whole lot of systems to work and work together (scientist).
For successful creativity, we often start using a pair of roles, but ultimately the third role comes in. Vision can seem infeasible without some understanding of why it is possible (scientist). Discoveries matter more when there is an implied utility to it (judge). Skill tends to be most respected and effective when it transcends the mechanical application of rules (artist). Thus, the optimal kind of thinking incorporates all three roles, and thus contains some amount of skill, discovery, and vision. I call this balanced thought. I represented this last time as a triangle, but you should think about it more like a pyramid (Figure 1). The farther the apex is from the center, the less balance there is.
I can illustrate balance with cybersecurity policy. It may seem odd to use cybersecurity, as at core it can seem like a matter of skill. Good cybersecurity policy should, at the very least, keep people secure (judge) based on accurate notions of how people deal with passwords and what security actually is (scientist). Yet far more often, the thought about cybersecurity is unbalanced in favor of the judge. There is a kind of “security at all costs” mentality which leads organizations to require you to change your password every 6 months to something you never used before, and to make sure that the password has no repeating sequences, no dictionary words, has special characters, is 10 characters long, and so forth. Such a policy is clearly unimaginative. Worse, it is unscientific because, in truth, the only thing that matters for password strength is the length of the string. All those extra requirements just make it hard to remember what your password is, promoting counterproductive behavior (e.g., writing down passwords near your computer because who can remember all those nonsensical words).
Typical cybersecurity thinking that is all judge would lead to a pyramid that looks like the one in Figure 2. It is unbalanced because it would fall over if pushed from the top.
We could get some balance by improving the scientist. For example, password vault apps are technical solutions that make up for the limits of human memory. This, metaphorically, would put the vertex above the “skill” edge (scientist-judge). While this leads to a more stable pyramid (Figure 3), it is not as stable as if the vertex were in the center. Why? Because technical solutions often bring up different kinds of problems. Password vaults are great but you would be really screwed if someone cracked that, or if you got locked out of it. To bring the vertex to the center, the artist must be represented.
The artist re-evaluates the problem that is being solved, but using the scientist and judge. If all that matters is the length of passwords (scientist), then using the first letters of the words in memorable phrases makes for easy to remember but hard to crack passwords (e.g., O Say Can You See By The Dawns Early Light – OSCYSBTDEL). The artist can question the judge, and use the scientist to think beyond the typical assumptions of the problem. If simple passwords are so insecure, why have most people never changed the four-digit PIN number for their ATM cards? Maybe the artist can help people to realize that the problem is not about passwords at all, but about the people who get tricked by social engineering into giving up their information (which is scientifically correct). In all cases, taking such inventive approaches to cybersecurity requires using all three roles in balance (Figure 1).
Unfortunately, too often people over-rely on one role, use one to do the work of another or use one to discredit the others (typically the judge). That causes problems that I discuss in the next installment. Stay tuned.