The pursuit of creativity can seem baffling. When you ask someone how she manages to “be creative,” you may hear descriptions of everything from an ephemeral burst of inspiration while hiking to a brainstorming meeting in a regulated office context. This isn’t just the fault of our fuzzy language around creativity—even in psychology, creativity is far from a unified concept. When it’s so hard to put a finger on what creativity is, how do people go about pursuing creative approaches in their lives and work?
In a post on his Psychology Today blog, Brown Professor Joachim Krueger confronts exactly this question. He outlines the many psychological models that have sought to address elements of creativity, providing commentary on these approaches and pointing to the various dialectics involved in the pursuit of creativity—dialectics between freedom and constraint, between expertise and destruction, and so on. “Conventions and constraints are necessary foundations that provide the context for the creative adventure,” he writes. “Creativity may destroy in order to rebuild and transform.”
Building on this dialectical concept and the work of various psychologists, he lists a few options for stimulating what might be seen as “adventures in creativity.” These options include exploring and breaching the boundaries of social convention with “controlled eccentricity”; injecting randomness into behavior and observing the consequences; developing an attitude of perceptual innocence in order to see familiar things in new ways; and systematically seeking alternatives. Collectively, these options point to what he described at a recent Creative Scholars meeting as “the mother of all dialectics”—the dialectic between effort and surrender.
When seen through this lens, the apparent lack of consistency in discussions of creativity seems to relate to the dialectical nature of the pursuit of creativity. How does this play out in practice? To look at this question, I turned to Krueger’s own students, who conducted a series of interviews on working creatively and overcoming creative blocks in his “Psychology of Creativity” course last semester.
One student, Gregory Stewart, interviewed two professors and a Brown alum. In their responses to questions about creativity in their work, it’s easy to see signs of the dialectics and options for stimuli that Krueger lists. One professor described the way in which she injected a bit of randomness by switching up the way she grouped students, actively pushing against the more logical side of her thinking. The Brown alum, now working with K-12 curricula, talked about the importance of seeing new things in the objects and ideas that surround her, and commented on a classroom reading exercise that “enables freedom of thinking within certain constraints”—echoing the role of the freedom/constraint question that Krueger and others have written about.
This comment, made in the context of K-12 education, seems to resonate in a more strait-laced corporate environment as well. Stewart’s fellow student Emily Rudder interviewed a researcher at Microsoft, who commented on the constraints of a profit-driven environment but noted that it’s often harder to be creative if one isn’t given any constraints. At the same time, however, too many constraints (including a competitive or failure-averse environment) can inhibit creativity, and creative ideas don’t always succeed when implemented. Finding the balance between freedom and constraint can be difficult, particularly since both costs and rewards are possible results of creative thinking.
Other interviewees pointed to further elements of the push and pull that seem to permeate conceptions of creativity. Julia Elia interviewed a diverse range of Brown affiliates, including a neuroscience professor, a jazz musician, and a retired psychology professor who has studied and enjoyed jazz for decades. The neuroscience professor mentioned his use of what Krueger would probably identify as the “systematically seeking alternatives” option for creative adventure, noting that creativity in his lab stemmed from “examining, then re-examining, one problem in a hundred ways.” While both the jazz musician and psychology professor noted the importance of drawing from material and re-combining this material, they also highlighted the importance of allowing headspace and “taking a deep breath.” Elia’s final respondent, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, spoke to this seeming paradox, asserting that creativity involves “a healthy balance of contradictions—labor and distraction.”
Labor and distraction, effort and surrender: these contradictory elements seem to be at the crux of the search for the elusive “creativity.” Across the interviews conducted by Stewart, Rudder, and Elia, the dialectics that underlie this search become clear in the sheer diversity of responses, all of which involve some sort of push-pull dynamic but which take a huge range of forms. At a time when creativity is increasingly being sought out and even commodified in the (often cynical) search for an “innovation age” edge, these responses present not a simple key to idea generation, but a mosaic of skills, attitudes, processes, and environments that can propel one down various paths to creative output. This mosaic view—distinct both from a view of creativity as rare and irrelevant and from the reductive view of creativity often pushed in corporate environments—places distinct processes in conversation with each other, integrating this conversation into the “choose your own adventure” endeavor that creativity can be.