I wrote an article several months back titled, "We perform best when no one tells us what to do", in which I discussed a TED talk given by Dan Pink, on the Economics of Motivation. In his talk, and reiterated in my article, the notion of "unrestricted thinking" is credited with an increase in creative productivity, while strict guidelines, inflexible ideologies, and focus solely on monetary incentives contribute to a decline of creative output. I feel that creativity is such an important topic, that it deserves a more elaborate discussion about the way it is rewarded and punished by society.
Recently, Michael wrote a fantastic article about the funding practices in scientific research, which touched upon this same idea. Too often, we are given mixed messages from society about what behaviors are expected and valued. Creativity is supposed to be a good thing, something we aspire to achieve. However, those who are the most creative are often faced with the worst treatment and the most rejection for their ideas. To put it simply, people in positions of authority and management generally like and value those who follow rules. It is much easier to maintain order when everyone is following the rules. Breaking rules = bad. Right? But in order to be truly creative, you must break rules. That is what creativity entails. So do we want order, or do we want creativity? Can we have both?
Society's mixed signals about the value of creativity, begins early on in school. There have been countless studies, too many to cite here, on teacher opinions of creative behavior in classrooms. In one example, a study by Westby and Dawson looked at characteristics of creative and non-creative students, then asked teachers to rate their favorite and least favorite students based on those traits.
First, teachers were asked if they valued creativity and enjoyed working with creative students, and they overwhelmingly answered "yes". Next, they were asked to look at their own students and rate them on a variety of traits, ranging from highly creative traits, such as being determined, independent, individualistic, impulsive, and likely to take risks, to traits that are associated with low levels of creativity, such as peaceable, reliable, tolerant, steady, and practical. After they rated their students on these traits, they were asked to rate them from their least favorite to most favorite students.
Interestingly, there was a significant negative correlation between the degree of creativity of the student and his favorable rating by the teachers. This means that the most creative students were the least favorite of the teachers, across the entire sample surveyed. Additionally, the students that were rated as favorites of the teachers possessed traits that would seem counter-productive to creative behavior, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority. On the other hand, these are behaviors that fit well in a classroom setting. Even back in 1975, Feldhusen and Treffinger reported that 96% of teachers felt that creativity should be promoted in the classroom. However, when asked which students they actually liked to teach, they chose the students that were more compliant. Why the inconsistency?
Teachers say they want creativity, but that is not the behavior that is rewarded. In this study (as well as in many others), they found that there is a discrepancy between what teachers, and schools in general, say they value and desire, and what behaviors they actually reward and encourage. Teachers don't want the student who is always raising their hand and questioning the assignment; they want the student who unquestioningly follows the outline given to them and turns the assignment in on time. After all, what a hassle it would be to allow a student to creatively revise an assignment, even if the new method still met the project objectives. Any type of questioning of the pre-set format is viewed as challenging and defiant behavior. Bad.
Unfortunately, once you leave school, society does not get much more supportive of really creative behavior. The most highly valued employees are the ones who blindly accept the ideology of the company, don't challenge authority, and do the work that is required of them, no questions asked. But how is this unconditional conformity supposed to leave any room for creativity and innovation? Don't we as a society want creativity? How are we supposed to engage in creative behaviors when we are constantly being reprimanded, down-graded, fired, or just plain disliked, for thinking outside of the corporate box?
If people never questioned the norm or challenged convention, there would never be any advancement in this world. Sadly, the most passionately creative types that end up providing the world with the most innovative ideas are the ones (at least initially) who are met with the most resistance from the status quo. It is a human trait to resist change. We like things to be steady and predictable. It gives us comfort. But sometimes we need to put up with being a little uncomfortable in order to get to the place where real innovation and creativity happens.
This may sound like I am advocating rule-breaking. And in a way, I am. But it is selective and purposeful rule-breaking that serves to advance ideas or thinking about a situation, in order to come up with a new solution to a persisting problem. There is a difference between rule-breaking for selfish purpose (illegal motive) and rule-breaking for creative purpose (idea advancement). The social outcome of the rule-breaking process has a major role in determining the appropriateness of the behavior. In a new paper on the psychological similarities and differences in the rule-breaking processes of creativity and illegality, it has been proposed that:
"If social benefits result from breaking the rule, then creativity happens. If there are not social benefits, or if social welfare is being diminished as a result of the rule-breaking process, then illegality may be happening." (Salcedo-Albaran, Kuszewski, De Leon-Beltran and Garay, 2009, "Rule-Breaking From Creativity to Illegality")
I know it sounds like a slippery slope, and at times it is, which is why creative rule-breakers often suffer the same consequences as criminal rule-breakers. Additionally, at times criminal rule-breakers get away with illegal activity because their actions are within the set parameters of the rules which may not be practical or ethical. So how can we tell the difference? Is it subjective?
All creative behaviors are not the same, even within domains. As well as different types of creativity across domains, such as linguistic, figural, mathematical, and so forth, there is also a difference in the degree to which creative behaviors or ideas change the existing paradigm, irregardless of the domain it stems from.
In the Propulsion Theory of Creativity, Robert Sternberg, PhD, a prominent researcher in the field of creativity, defines types of creativity, and the degree of acceptance or rejection of those ideas, given the degree in which the creative idea shifts thinking from the status quo to a new direction. He describes creativity as propulsion in this excerpt from his book, "Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized":
"A creative contribution represents an attempt to propel a field from wherever it is to wherever the creator feels it should go. Thus, creativity is by nature propulsion. It moves a field from some point to another. It also always represents a decision to exercise leadership. The creator tries to bring others to a particular point in the multidimensional creative space. The attempt may or may not succeed. There are different kinds of creative leadership that the creator may attempt to exercise, depending on how he or she decides to be creative."
According to Sternberg, there are eight types of creative contributions. These eight types are divided into three major categories, ones that accept current paradigms, ones that reject current paradigms, and one that attempts to integrate multiple current paradigms into a new one. Here is the basic breakdown:
Types of creativity that accept current paradigms and attempt to extend them:
3. Forward Incrementation
4. Advance Forward Incrementation
Types of creativity that reject current paradigms and attempt to replace them:
A type of creativity that merges disparate current paradigms:
Within these subtypes of creative contributions, some are more likely than others to be accepted. Unsurprisingly, types of creative ideas that attempt to shift the current paradigm to a new direction (mainly types 6, 7, and 8) are less likely to be accepted than one that makes incremental forward progress within the same paradigm. This "attempted shifting of the current paradigm" is usually what is considered to be "breaking the rules", and the type that is most punished and discouraged.
So really, what we are being told is, "be creative, but not TOO creative". Any creative ideas that attempt to shift the current paradigm or reject a paradigm completely are usually driven by extreme passion, and almost always met with some type of resistance from society. We are left with the choice of (1) give up on our ideas, or (2) put up a hell of a fight to defend them. Those who decide to stand their ground and fight for their creative ideas are the ones who are generally seen as "rule-breakers", "rebels", "trouble-makers", or simply, "obnoxious". And the ideas generated by those individuals are generally the most creative, innovative, and necessary ideas to support.
To appease the masses, we could water-down the extremity of our ideas to fit into the creative categories of ideas that just support incremental forward progress, to maintain more of the status quo. Society would probably be more accepting of less radical, mediocre ideas versus ones that shake up the current ideology. So in a sense, to be a "good, peaceable member of society", one that teachers love and employers want, the best we should strive for is to reach the highest level of mediocrity possible.
Personally, I would rather don the riot gear, face the firestorm of resistance from society, and stay true to my creative and purposeful selective rule-breaking behaviors. While we need more people who are willing to face the firestorm and stand up for their creative ideas, the real change needs to come from society itself. Society needs to have flexibility and tolerance in situations where breaking rules is necessary and provides a clear social benefit, instead of treating the passionate innovators of the world as common criminals.
As in the words of Magyari-Beck (1991),
"Individuals can successfully practice their creativity if and only if there are no substantial obstacles in the society preventing them from their creative work."