THE LATER YEARS
Curiosity and drive are in many ways the yin and the yang that need to be combined for becoming creative. Curiosity requires openness to outside stimuli. It is playful and deals with objects and ideas for their own sake. Drive needs inner focus, seriousness, competitive spirit and achievement orientation. The curiosity and commitment of creative people often directs them to confront the social and political problems that most people are too content to leave alone.
As the fame of creative individuals spreads, they inevitably take on responsibilities beyond the ones that made them famous. There are two main reasons for this, one internal, the other external. With age, creative persons may run out of steam or challenges, ideas or feel boxed in by the limitations of their specialty or by the shortcomings of their lab and their tools.
Famous creative people also have to cope with the demands the environment places on them. There are many administrative positions in which a respected name is a great asset. Government agencies and private foundations like to have them on board. More than money, or power, it is the feeling that there is something important that needs to be done and that they are the people who can do it, that prompts creative people to take up such assignments.
But creative people keep themselves meaningfully occupied all the time. They never seem to have surplus time. They do not easily get bored. Nor do they spend even a few minutes doing something they don’t believe is worthwhile.
There are two kinds of intelligence. The first is fluid intelligence, or the ability to respond rapidly, to have quick reaction times, to compute fast and accurately. This type of intelligence is innate and is little affected by learning. Its various components peak early – teens, twenty’s or thirty’s. Each later decade shows some decrease in these skills, and after age seventy, the decline is usually quite severe even among otherwise healthy individuals.
The second type of mental ability is known as crystallized intelligence. It is more dependent on learning than on innate skills. It involves making sensible judgments, recognizing similarities across different categories, using induction and logical reasoning. These abilities depend more on reflection than quick reaction, and they usually increase with time, at least until the age of sixty. Creative people seem to depend more on crystallised intelligence.
As they grow older, creative people may find themselves under much pressure with too little time, often due to over commitment. Physical fitness is another concern. On the other hand, with age there is less anxiety over performance, and more display of courage, confidence, and risk taking. With age it is also possible to occupy a central position in the field, or to develop new forms of association, especially with students.
The promise of more and different knowledge never lets down creative individuals. They can lose physical energy and cognitive skills, but symbolic domains remain always accessible and their rewards remain fresh till the end of life. Many creative people take full advantage of changes in the domain. Creative individuals see age in a positive light, because they are still deeply involved in exciting and rewarding tasks.
Erik Erikson refers to the last psychological stage of life as achieving integrity. If we live long enough and resolve all the earlier tasks of adulthood – then there is a last remaining task that is essential for our full development as a human being. This consists in bringing together into a meaningful story our past and present, and in reconciling ourselves with the approaching end of life. Many creative people seem to fall in this category.
Creative people often blend pride in family with pride in work. Many of them are also driven by a feeling of responsibility for the common good. But they shoulder this as a privilege rather than a duty. Although they work hard to help improve our lives, they claim that they mostly enjoy what they do.
The human species could not survive, either now or in the years to come, if creativity were to run dry. At the same time, the main threats to our survival as a species, the very problems we hope creativity will solve, were brought about by yesterday’s creative solutions.
Human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop better ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas. Leaving this to individuals or market forces may not be the right thing to do always. Each field expects society to recognize its autonomy, yet each feels accountable only to itself, according to the rules of its own domain. It is also doubtful that decisions left to the free market would be wise as far as our future well-being is concerned. Market decisions tend to be oriented to the present, with little concern for consequences.
We need to find ways that encourage creativity on the basis of the future well-being of the whole, not just of the separate fields. The greatest art, East or West, was not produced when the artists set the agenda, but when patrons insisted on certain standards.
A creative person must have a great deal of curiosity and openness on the one hand, and an almost obsessive perseverance on the other. How can we increase the number of people with both these characteristics?
Biological inheritance is only part of the story. Early background has a significant effect. Interest and curiosity tend to be stimulated by positive experiences with family, by a supportive emotional environment, by a rich cultural heritage, by exposure to many opportunities, and by high expectations. In contrast, perseverance seems to develop as a response to a precarious emotional environment, a dysfunctional family, a feeling of rejection and marginality. Creative individuals seem more likely to have been exposed to both circumstances.
A milieu that encourages both solitude and gregariousness may boost creativity. Children who have not learned to tolerate solitude often fail to develop enough in-depth involvement in a domain and tap opportunities to reflect and incubate ideas. On the other hand, children who are too shy and reclusive find it difficult to sell their ideas to others.
A certain flexibility about gender roles is likely to help. If a child is too strongly socialized to act in terms of a strict gender stereotype, its creativity is likely to be inhibited. A child who is encouraged to question, is likely to develop a problem-finding attitude. A child who is introduced to inductive reasoning may have an advantage in making sense of the world. Above all else, it helps to become involved in a domain early.
Even when not directly integrated in one’s work, other domains contribute to the overall mental life of creative individuals. Breadth of knowledge is one of the most important qualities that are being ignored today. Excessively, narrow specialization reduces the likelihood of making creative contributions that will enrich the culture.
Most of us deep down believe that a person who is creative, will prevail regardless of the environment. But this is not really true. Circumstances do matter. Favourable convergences in time and place open up a brief window of opportunity for the person who, happens to be in the right place at the right time.
The author lists major elements in the social milieu that can encourage creativity: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope, opportunity, and reward.
· A society that can match effectively opportunities for training with the potential of children can greatly improve creativity.
· Expecting high performance is a necessary stimulus for outstanding achievement and hence for creativity. High expectations should start within the family, continue in the peer group, in the school, and in the community at large. But excessive or unrealistic expectations must be avoided.
· Resources are crucial for creativity to develop. Yet excess resources also can diminish creativity. When everything is comfortable, the desire for novelty turns to thrills and entertainment, rather than a sharp focus on problem solving. If we wish to encourage creativity, we have to make sure that material and intellectual resources are widely available to all talented and interested members of society. Yet we should realize that a certain amount of hardship, might have a positive effect on their motivation.
· Potentially creative young people have to be recognized by an older member of the field. Otherwise, motivation will decrease with time. Training, expectations, resources, and recognition will be of no use, if young people have no hope of using their skills in a productive career.
· Rewards – both intrinsic and extrinsic – help creativity to blossom. Though few creative persons are motivated by money, the importance of money cannot be denied. Money gives relief from worries, and makes more time available for one’s real work. One can buy necessary materials, hire help if needed, and travel to meet people from whom one can learn.
The organization of knowledge is especially important when it comes to passing it down to the next generation. To be creative, a person must first understand the domain. If the knowledge in the domain is not comprehensible, few young people will bother learning it, and thus creativity will be less. How should knowledge be transmitted? Rigid ways of teaching can discourage innovation. But in some cases, rigidity does seem to matter. Which method is more likely to boost creativity? The answer probably lies in the unglamorous middle ground. To cope well with numbers it is essential to automate as many mental operations as possible. And this requires some memorizing and practicing. On the other hand, to use numbers effectively in real life, one must also have a good intuitive grasp of how to approximate, how to round, when and how to use different operations. In short, there is no single right way to teach a domain. The way knowledge is transmitted should be appropriate to the skills of the learner.
Whereas experts in a discipline usually love what they do, beginners see only the drudgery of the discipline. So one obvious way to enhance creativity is to bring as much as possible of the flow experience into the various domains. The joy of discovery needs to be communicated effectively to young people.