Thoughts on creativity
Last time I asked google, I was told that creativity is commonly defined as the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. These were the kinds of definitions of creativity that many people of my generation and background grew up hearing and reading about. These sorts of statements in addition to the aloof facial expression implicit in Picasso’s signature smirk made us think of creativity as some mystical sacred process that only a preordained few could perform… It also perhaps made us think that only artistic people were creative. In sum, the overwhelming notion of creativity that I was exposed to as a child made it pretty clear that creativity was simply out of reach for mere mortals like us and as young children who knew no better, many of us quietly accepted our fate and got on with our lives.
For us, getting on with life meant studying hard to try and get into good schools and earn good degrees that would hopefully lead to great jobs. “Studying hard” in my native Nigeria mainly took the form of rote memorization and the subsequent regurgitation of facts learned in response to a set of test questions that had been designed by a teacher or lecturer. To briefly digress, it is truly frightening to consider how much of our collective self worth we ascribed to the grades we received on these tests which were merely a measure of how well you had memorized random facts and how quickly you could put them down on a piece of paper under pressure. Obviously, this form of learning required no creativity at all which actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way since we were inadvertently taught that we just weren’t creative. Our education system was good because it instilled in us the virtues of discipline and hardwork. At the same time, our education system was bad because it failed to force us to tap into our innate creativity.
Yes, you read the last sentence of the previous paragraph correctly. My experiences continually show that pretty much all of us are creative, and pretty much all of us tend to underestimate our own creativity. If I were to venture a guess as to why many of us underestimate our own creativity, I’d say it is because many of us fundamentally misunderstand what creativity really means. Creativity isn’t this magical lightning bolt that comes out of the blue in a magical trance to only the preordained few without any previous experience or hard work in a given field. Creativity isn’t only limited to music and the fine arts. Creativity (the type that lasts anyway) doesn’t come to you without hard work and a solid knowledge base that has been built up over thousands of hours of practice and dedication.
OK since I spent the last half of the previous paragraph telling you what creativity wasn’t, allow me to take some time here to tell you what I think creativity is. Simply, creativity can be thought of as the art of connecting things or concepts. I know, I know… it takes all the sexiness out of creativity when you define it that way, but hear me out for a bit and let’s see if I can convince you with two examples.
John Mayer – Guitar Player
John Mayer is an american born singer songwriter and virtuoso guitar player. At the time of writing this, John has released ~7 studio albums and accrued 7 grammy awards. Along the way, he has had several original hits that have become the soundtracks of many points in the lives of many. In every sense of the term, John Mayer would be considered a creative individual but how did he get there? Did he just wake up one morning and start writing songs with no prior guitar or general music training?
The truth is that before he ever got into the spotlight for his creativity, John actually went to the Berklee College of music in Boston for about a year to study music formally. He also spent a ton of time (~6 hours a day) since the age of 13 mimicking his guitar heroes until he found his own “voice” and could cultivate it. As time went on, he started incorporating the little nuances he picked up from copying his heroes into his own music, blending all those different influences to form his own unique style. This is very evident in his playing once you know to look for it but for the person who may be hearing John Mayer play guitar for the first time… it may sound like he just magically thought up all this stuff on his own. There is little doubt in my mind that John Mayer is a borderline musical genius… that being said there’d be no John if there wasn’t an Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix before him or Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker before them. He “stole” from them, and the guitar greats of the next generation will “steal” from him as the cycle of creativity continues.
The Apple iPhone – Revolutionary Device
We tend to take it for granted now but the introduction of the iPhone into the consumer market in 2007 by Apple Inc may one day be looked back on as one of the absolutely pivotal culturally transformative moments of the 21st century. Think about it for a second… back in the 60s, a computer approaching the power of the iPhone would probably have filled out an entire warehouse sized room. Nowadays, you can easily carry all that power in your pocket!
For such a remarkable invention, the iPhone didn’t really have that many completely new features. The concept of a smartphone already existed in the form of the less capable and less good looking blackberry. The “gorilla glass” that was used to make its touch screen already existed. The concept of a graphical user interface already existed on personal computers, and almost all of the ATMs I used around that time had some sort of touch screen. The real genius of the iPhone was in bringing all those things together and connecting them in such a seamless way which ultimately added incredible value to the life of the end user.
In conclusion, if you look back at some of the most creative people in history, you will find that their creativity often stemmed from an ability to make unique connections between things that already existed. Even Albert Einstein famously said something to the effect of “the creative individual knows how to hide their sources”, intimating that every creative individual had to start from some base of knowledge that they could eventually build upon for their most important creations and/or discoveries. And just in case you don’t think you are creative, think back to all those instances when you used something for a different purpose than what it was intended for… those are all instances of your creative mind in action. Like everything else though, you need to constantly exercise it if you want that part of your brain to become well developed. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, please take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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