Sunday, May 29, 2005

Creative People

I’m into an interesting book by Howard Gardner, called Creating Minds. He does an analysis of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Eliot, Stravinski, Graham, and Gandhi, and looks for any connecting trends/characteristics/personality traits that lead to a definition of what it takes to be creative in one’s field. Much of the book is historical and biographical, but the second part is an analysis of what Gardner believes he has found. The seven figures do share one trait, which is that they revolutionized their fields. They also were contemporaries.

Main conclusions reached by Gardner:
- each came from middle-class homes and were close to one parent
- each was encouraged to learn and work hard
- each made a first breakthrough about 10 years into a career, followed by a second breakthrough after another 10 years; after a third ten-year period, no more works that can be called ‘breakthroughs’ but rather they were elder statesmen or got into more philosophical work related to their fields
- each had periods of isolation where work was the priority
- each had friend or small support network that were used as sounding boards for the work; these friends/colleagues were also easily put by the wayside by the creator, and simply used to check the work
- each had child-like characteristics and connections
- each had no problem with dismissing authority figures in their respective fields

The seven individuals profiled by Gardner each had the “Eureka!” moment that is fantasized by so many individuals in all fields of study. A very interesting analysis of such moments of insight was done by Zenpundit back in April, and there are indeed many connections between Gardner’s analysis and Zen’s I would like to point out.

I found it most interesting that the seven featured giants had the ten year periods of insight and creativity. Insight, as outlined in Zen’s analysis, is built around the interplay of horizontal (visionary thinking) and vertical (expertise or mastery of a given domain) thinking. I agree that modern Western society is built around vertical thinking, if for any other reason there is so much knowledge in any field of study that individuals need to specialize and master one specific field. The seven creators are no exceptions to this rule. One needs to know what is happening in a field before one can revolutionize and change the field (unless one is actually creating a new field and there is no previous experience to build from). The more difficult aspect of a revolution is horizontal thinking, which is identified by both Gardner and Zen as being connected to children. To be a visionary, one needs to think outside the box and be open-minded and risk-taking, as children naturally are (children, though, do not possess the expertise to know whether or not any thoughts are even relevant to a given field). I think the key here, at least with the seven creators, is that they all did two things. They isolated themselves (which is what is needed for adults to think outside the box), and they did not hesitate to step on and dismiss existing foundations of their fields.

I am most familiar with Einstein, and an example of this revolutionary attitude is shown by the ease in which he threw out the notion of ‘the ether,’ a mysterious entity that supposedly permeated all space and was the medium responsible for light wave propagation. Experiments designed to test and prove the existence of ether failed (Michelson-Morley experiments), and theorists such as Lorentz (the leading expert of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory in the late 19th century) developed theories to explain the failure of the experiments while keeping the ether hypothesis intact. Lorentz suggested that objects shrink in the direction of motion they are following, and he developed a series of equations that showed the magnitude of such a phenomenon. Lorentz actually came up with the correct equations (now known as the Lorentz transformations) but for all the wrong reasons. Einstein, who was isolated from mainstream physicists because he was in a patent office job rather than in a formal academic position, simply went against all the experts and dismissed the entire concept of the ether. He reasoned from two postulates that space and time are interconnected and derived, from first principles, all the equations proposed by Lorentz, and much more. This was the special theory of relativity. Because of his isolation and the ease of which he was willing to dismiss the physics foundations of the day, Einstein had made one of the great discoveries in the history of science.

It becomes, generally speaking, more difficult to make significant, creative contributions to a field as one ages, and there are several reasons for this. Perhaps most significant is the amount of bias one develops over time. It becomes more difficult to see outside the box and remain as open-minded as in younger days, since experience creates biases. Normally as you age, more responsibilities are placed on you, whether it is family and children or requests for lectures or performances of previous works, and there are more distractions, which can take away time for isolation. And many creative figures in certain fields may develop interests in other fields, or simply experience ‘burnout.’ Whatever the reasons for a particular individual, these are some reasons why significant contributions seem to die out after about twenty years, as suggested by Gardner.

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