I recently started reading the book, “Flow and the Psychology of Creativity” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. One of the lines I found really interesting was this: It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. This comes in the context of constantly coming across the idea that we need to teach students creative-thinking skills as one of the crucial 21st century skills. So what are these factors that can foster creativity and how might we use these insights to become more creative people?
This is not really an environmental factor. However it is important to start with this. This is because having deep knowledge of the subject is key to being creative with it. Learning to think creatively may not really be possible. If it is possible, it is still difficult. What is important in any case is to learn a subject thoroughly and deeply. To change the rules, you need to first know them. Not knowing the rules adequately could lead to what some people call the Dunning-Kruger effect (and what a YouTuber once referred to as “the mountain of stupid”). When you think you are being original, you might just be repeating an already existing idea. Because you are not knowledgeable enough, you aren’t realizing it. In fact, the word novel itself originally meant “different” not new per se. Thorough knowledge helps one identify subtle differences between ideas, and thereby be able to genuinely contribute original ideas.
Csikszentmihalyi points out that creative insights into many subjects of learning happened in places such as 5th century BC Greece, 15th century Florence, and 19th century France. These are all places where the abundance of wealth allowed people to spend sufficient time in deep thinking and acquiring deep knowledge. What does this mean for us today? Instead of constantly attending the next workshop on creative thinking, it might be better to devote long uninterrupted amounts of time to studying a problem and learning deeply about it.
The coming together of different ideas
A lot of places where such innovations and creativity developed were cosmopolitan in a sense. They were places that were at the intersection of trade routes. This brought the people into contact with many other types of people and other ways of life. This enabled them to think of interesting combinations and possibilities. This is one reason we can see that huge advancements are happening in the world in increasingly shorter amounts of time. The Television and Radio took years to innovate, but ever since technology brought the world together, innovations have been progressing at a monstrous pace.
However, on a smaller scale we can extend this thought to the idea of learning a lot of different subjects. Sonke Ahrens, who I’ve mentioned on this blog before, talks about Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. According to Ahrens, Munger “stresses the importance of having a broad theoretical toolbox… He advocates looking out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking.” (page 118) Having thoughts from various different disciplines and contexts interact with each other is a great way to enhance our own creativity.