Creativity and innovation alongside emotional intelligence are among the things that we do better than our machines.
CAN creativity be taught?
“Mama, do you like cockroaches?” my four year old boy asked my wife the other day. “No!” was the emphatic reply. Relentless as a four year old is, my son pursued his line of enquiry. “Why?” “Because” his mother said: “they are ugly and brown and have spiky legs.” Undeterred, my son continued “Do you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream?” My wife replied “Chocolate ice cream.” To this my son responded “Hmmm, what if the cockroaches were in rainbow colour, would you like them?”
It is amazing how creative and surprising children can be, even at four years old.
Creativity is the ability to bring novel and imaginative ideas into reality. It is often associated with the capacity to see unexpected connections and discover hidden patterns. The way children think can provide a window on how creativity works and how can we nurture and develop it.
It is widely accepted that as children, we are at our most creative, and that this diminishes as we grow older. One of the most creative people who ever lived, Pablo Picasso, said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
So why do we become less creative as we grow older? Many blame the education system, culture and society. This argument has some basis, but there is a deeper biological reason that we need to be aware of too.
The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. In many aspects, the brain is still superior to the most advanced computers we have ever built. The superiority of the brain stems from its ability to quickly learn and develop mental shortcuts. These shortcuts enable us to perform tasks such as split second intuitive decision making. In other words, the brain is a stereotyping machine. Because of this, the brain superiority comes at a price, the various thinking biases.
The brain has more than 800 million neurons. Its power emerges from the almost endless number of ways these neurons can network and connect. For children, much fewer connections and mental pathways have been cemented and that is why, they feel free to establish surprising and unusual associations. As we grow older, we learn more things and establish mental pathways that make us both very good at delivering the usual and less capable of establishing the unusual.
This is also true for experts. Often new innovations and creative solutions come from outsiders to the field of expertise rather than from within.
The question is whether we can maintain our creative potential while we develop mental habits that are necessary to deliver our day to day jobs. To put it another way, using Picasso’s words, can we still paint like children while learning how to paint like Raphael? The answer is YES.
The above question, and its answer, are among the most important arguments we face today. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues its march towards automating human jobs, being able to cling to what makes humans different is paramount. Creativity and innovation alongside emotional intelligence are among the things that we do better than our machines. Parents, education systems, employers and policy makers ought to pay special attention to that.
How to maintain that creativity? In order to maintain a creative mind and nurture the capability to discover hidden and unexpected patterns and associations, I suggest the following exercises:
1. Always train the creative muscle. This can be done through exercises such as thinking of an object, say a brick, and coming up with 100 different uses for it. Repeat this exercise once a week for a different common object;
2. Stay positive. Negativity is the enemy of creativity. An exercise that I encourage to boost positivity is to keep a journal and write, daily, the five things that you are grateful for. I call this Brain Rewiring;
3. Use creative language. Language is not only a medium for communication, it is also a system of thought. When facing a challenge, replacing the p-word (‘problem’) with the word ‘opportunity’, when framing the challenge, can unlock huge value;
4. Do things out of your routine. Take a different route to work every now and then, travel, brush your teeth using your non-dominant hand or read books in a genre that you are not accustomed to; and
5. Challenge yourself. Move out of your comfort zone through trying to learn new things, language or sport.
Creativity is so important to the success and future of individuals, communities, nations and humanity at large. We cannot afford not to be able to teach it and inculcate in our youth – and maintain it in ourselves.
PROF MUSHTAK AL-ATABI
Provost and CEO
Heriot-Watt University Malaysia