2016-Painted paper collage on board
I love mulling over ideas! Lately, I have been thinking a lot about creativity: how is it defined, what does it look like, and what are the ways in which we use it? In the past, I believed that only artists were creative. If you weren't making something such as a painting or a piece of pottery then you weren't creative. It's only recently that I have come to view the word "creative" differently. Being creative can mean more than making something with your hands. It can also refer to the ways in which we think. That statement may seem obvious but I think that we often overlook just how creative we can get when we put our minds to it, literally! Creativity, flexing your creative muscles, can happen in a number of different ways and in many contexts. Just as there are endless varieties of people and activities, there are also many different ways to be creative.
Creativity shows up in our everyday lives more often than we think. The way we approach problem solving, the ways in which we view and interpret the world and the ways in which we cope with the ups and downs of life can all involve imagination. Creativity, in other words. The word can be much broader if we let it be. Creativity, I believe, not only pertains to something that you might physically make or do, but it also can be used to describe a way of thinking. Things are not always black and white. Sometimes we need time to process ideas, to think about things. Very often, we haven't yet learned everything we need to know in order to make good decisions or to form solid opinions. Creative thinking helps us to work with many different and seemingly unrelated ideas. It's almost as if there is a kind of "storage basket" in our brains somewhere, holding these different ideas, waiting for us to sort through them and make sense of how they are related. It's when we bring these different ideas together, when we have different interpretations about people and events, that we really begin to think in creative ways.
The trick, I think, in accessing this storage basket of ideas in our brain, of bringing unrelated elements together, is to actively search out what we think are dissimilar ideas and to try and relate them to one another. It's kind of like working a puzzle that has no picture on the box top. You dump all of the pieces out of the box and try to organize them. Where do you start? What colors are alike and can go in one pile? This is what I think we do everyday to be creative. We are constantly looking at a jumble of puzzle pieces and seeing how they might work together. At some point, a kind of picture begins to emerge. It's a picture that we didn't see coming. Put in terms of something more concrete, we have gathered all of these disparate elements together, connected them, and we now have a new idea or thought about the world and the way it works. Maybe it's a new vision of a person we thought we knew. Or maybe we feel differently about a subject that we thought was settled long ago. I see it as a puzzle solving process that gets us making connections that previously did not exist. When we begin to make these associations we can have a real ah-ha moment. It's gratifying to know that you have flexed your creative muscles to create a new thought or feeling; a new way of looking at the world and the people in it.
As an example of the above idea, of how we often make creative connections every day, let's look at a series of seemingly unrelated events. Maybe one day you are watching a news story about robotics (mechanization in an industrial application). Several days later you read an article about greenhouse gas emissions. Months later perhaps, you have a conversation with someone about food shortages. That conversation might trigger memories of the news story that you watched on TV and the article that you read. At first, none of those things seem related to one another (but remember they are all living in that basket in your brain waiting to be connected). But now they do seem related. You are digging around in that basket and pulling stuff out. Somehow, you begin to formulate an idea or opinion about world hunger and how mechanization of agricultural elements has shaped our global food supply. It's not a particularly revolutionary idea (others have already talked and written about this concept) but to you, it's a different way of thinking about feeding the world. The idea is totally new for you and it's exciting. To see the problem of world hunger through another lens is an eye opener. And it's a vision that you may not have gotten unless you took those seemingly random events or stories or conversations and put them together in a new and novel way.
I realize that the above process is not new and that for some of you reading, it may not work or it may not feel natural. Like anything, it takes practice. I believe that if you are actively paying attention, you will see that this way of organizing thoughts and ideas happens more often than you might expect. We may not recognize it at first but in reality, this way of bringing things together happens quite a lot. I see these bits and pieces of information waiting in my mental basket as puzzle pieces. It's up to me to root around in that basket from time to time and fit everything together.
This process of joining unrelated things together to get a whole new idea happened to me just recently. I feel that this kind of process relies heavily on "mental flexibility." It's an important trait to me as I get older and one that I really want to cultivate in myself. It isn't easy because my thinking can be rigid at times, though in the last couple of years it has gotten more malleable. It just so happens that over the weekend I read a quote in an AARP article on successful aging by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. His quote is this: "I try to learn something new about myself daily. Self discovery is one of the surest ways to develop a greater appreciation for your life." I really love this since it mirrors my own efforts to discover what and how I think.
On the heels of what I read in AARP magazine, my friend, Carol, posted something on Facebook that really resonated with me. It's a quote from author, Anne McCaffrey: "Make no judgements where you have no compassion." I thought this was a wonderful reminder to practice compassion. How many of us rush to judgement without putting ourselves in the other person's shoes? I see and hear people do this all of the time and I myself do it as well.
When I considered the above two things that happened back to back, a memory for me was triggered that I now believe is related. I remembered that while on vacation recently, I listened to a podcast given by the noted psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman. He wrote a book called, Thinking Fast and Slow. During the podcast he talked about concepts from his book. One of the things he discussed briefly and sort of at the end in an offhand way, was the fact that (and I am paraphrasing this) the more he knows about something, the less sure he becomes. He wanted to remain constantly open to new ideas, never wanting to be absolutely sure about anything. I took away from his words that being sure about something was a falsity; we just think we are certain something is the truth. The question here is whether or not a person should ever really be done with an idea. By remaining flexible in our thinking, we become open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things. Making up your mind is important. Sometimes we need to think and act decisively. More often though, it's best to remain open minded and maybe just a little bit skeptical. Not cynical but just quietly questioning.
This flexibility in thinking, the willingness to learn new things about ourselves and others (even when we disagree with those new things), and our ability to take in good and informed information is crucial as we get older. I was reminded very forcefully of that over the weekend. I had a rather upsetting conversation with a casual friend. Somehow we started talking about homelessness and the COVID-19 virus. (Probably, in addition to politics and religion, we should add the Covid virus to the list of things not to be talked about!) My friend informed me that homeless people want to be homeless. She went on to repeat what I feel are some other misconceptions about people living on the streets. Her statements upset me and challenged my current opinions which I felt were pretty firm. I left the conversation feeling a little angry but also a little ashamed. Angry because her views, I feel, aren't informed and ashamed because I can hear my younger self saying the exact same things that she had just expounded upon; generalizations that are unfounded and based on fear and ignorance.
What to do when the apple cart of your thinking is upset? The conversation was disheartening. After I got home and settled down, I thought about things. I don't want to make myself feel better by bringing my friend down so that I can raise myself up. But I don't want to let my friend off the hook either. Her statements seem misinformed to me. As I considered the conversation, I absently rooted around in my mental basket for ways to approach the problem. I realized that I had three ideas to connect. How could I take those items out of my basket (self awareness, compassion, and mental flexibility as mentioned above) and create a new way of seeing things? This is where I think creativity steps in. The answer to the puzzle lies in the preceding question that I just asked. I want to let myself be guided by those three bits of wisdom. They belong together as pieces of a larger picture and by putting those elements together, I can do some things to help myself. I can continue to examine how I feel about homelessness and I can educate myself on the topic as best as I can. I can be compassionate towards my friend who may not feel the same as me (even though I very much disagree with her) and I can realize that my viewpoints are not stagnate and that they are not the only way of looking at things. And maybe what my friend said to me is worth thinking about. That alone might be useful. By rooting around in my mental basket and pulling out three seemingly disconnected ideas, I came up with a solution when I needed it the most. There is now something new to think about; a different way of looking at a problem that I thought I had already solved.
Anyone can do this. Anyone can problem solve in this way. By being creative, by bringing several unrelated ideas together, a person can make a kind of new paradigm for themselves. Creativity isn't just for the artistic or the talented. It isn't something that is beyond any of us. Being creative just requires conscious attention and memory and practice. Those skill are present in all of us I believe. It's up to us to access our mental baskets, pull out each puzzle piece, and see how they fit together. And before long, if you work at this problem solving consistently, a whole new picture will emerge, one which you never even imagined.