An original version of this article was printed in ArabAd Vol. 11, number 1 (January 2001)
Browsing on the internet's search engines with the key word "creativity", little was I prepared for what I was about to find. Unfortunately, instead of bright, unusual, and interesting ideas and works I stumbled upon what can be compiled into a book most likely to be named "Chicken soup for the boring soul - 101 stories of pure dullness".
Websites abound on the internet with "creativity" - supposedly - as their main theme. Some offer advices on how to become creative, or more creative, with "top 10 tips" and "15 best tricks" to enhance one's creativity. They all attempt to define creativity, place specific rules and regulations for it, and even offer to download related programs for it.
Cruising through the definitions of "creative", the heritage illustrated defines the word as "characterized by originality and expressiveness". The Macquarie dictionary, defines it as "generative, ground-breaking, originate, handmade". “Handmade”? No wonder the dictionary in question is Australian because it seems to have understood things in a very down-under upside-down way.
Of course, no definition would be complete without some quotes to match. A lot of quotes to match judging by the amount of internet links devoted to the quotes. Some are good such as "Being creative is seeing the same thing are everybody else but thinking of something different". Others are far less inspiring and unsurprisingly they come of the authors of the websites themselves.
But definition in itself is not complete, one must categorize, sub-categorize, class, and breakdown every component of the creative process into stages, sub-stages, and organic flow charts with arrows going back and forth between rectangles each representing a particular step of the iterative way.
One website, classifies the creative thought into divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is "the ability to think of many original diverse, and elaborate ideas"; convergent thinking is "the intellectual ability to logically evaluate, critique and chose the best idea from a selection of ideas". Fair definition, but "elementary my dear Watson" to quote Sherlock Holmes who apparently never said those words.
Another website, argues that "briefly stated, creativity is often thought to exist on at least five levels:
A higher level versus a lower level
Grand versus modest
Big "C" versus small c
Paradigm-shifting versus garden-variety
Eminent versus everyday"
The statement is indeed "brief", but nowhere concluding.
Now imagine yourself as having had an idea, which you have found to be quite fitting with the project you are working on and which would give it tonus, focus, and orientation.
Then you consult with the above mentioned website author, and he would tell you that "this is a lower level, modest, small c, garden-variety, everyday creative thought and I would urge you to dismiss it for the sake of your career and in respect to the souls of all the creative ancestors who walked on this earth, and in the grand scheme of things your idea doesn't matter for toffee".
Degrading, don't you think? Just when you thought your idea fitted with the project. Fear not however, as all of the consulted internet resources give you tips on how to be creative.
Now, to begin with, do not lose faith in your creativity since according to some website author who apparently knows "All people can be creative but those who are recognized as being creative have an awareness that others don't". So, if I am told that I am creative - then this gives me the moral obligation of becoming so even if the original statement was said for pure encouragement.
Photo taken by myself in Jordan in 1999 - is this creative?
Also, the same author suggests that "Non-creative people don't know that their brains are working for them off-shift". Before brilliantly finishing with "They don't know what they don't know" - making a quote worth being said by Pooh bear. The statement also made me realize that I was the 12,806th person visiting the site since October 1996, which means that this number of people who have read this sentence are now aware of what they don't know, and that now they "know what they know" to paraphrase the author and that we have therefore joined the hordes of creative people because of that - according to the logic of the author that is.
The author goes on to list why some people are more creative than others. Broadly, he suggests three reasons, the first has to do with the "ability" to be creative, the second "the motivation" behind the act, and "lastly, the opportunities in the environment". Oddly enough, the author in question goes on to add a fourth reason - which would seriously go against his "lastly" word in his third reason but which he might have considered as a creative stunt - and it has to do mainly with the frequency and quantity of thoughts generated.
He even advises "If you feel a need to quantify your creative ability, go to a local psychologist and ask about taking a test to measure your creative ability". Now, I wonder how creative was the person who invented the test in the first place. Creativity has, after all, many facets, and if you are unable to resolve the problem which has to do with making a perfect square with three matches - as it is often the kind of questions asked in such tests - this does not mean that the "subject of the experiment" is not creative.
Many creative ideas go misunderstood in the time they were proposed. A western union internal memo dated 1876 says "This "telephone" has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us". Alexander Graham Bell would have been an outright failure at the creativity test of "a local psychologist".
But even the most severe cases of un-creativity can have their medicine. Websites expose several methods to cure such as a 10 tips program is suggested by a particular website.
It starts with "Listen to music by Johann Sebastian Bach". Whereas I am in no position to argue about Bach's musical genius, I find myself in a position to contest rule #1. What if Johann Sebastian Bach does not inspire me with his melodies? What if I do not see running streams, crushing waves, baroque castles, green pastures, and lovely courtisane women when I listen to his music? And worse, what if I do see all of these, but am rather inspired by urban settings, concrete buildings, parking lots and punk girls?
Brainstorm, says rule #2. "Click here to download our BrainStormer program". I clicked and I got a message saying "Error 404 - the page you are searching for is currently unavailable".
Carry a small notebook. The author suggests any means in order to "catch ideas" including the establishment of "an idea bank". However, he nowhere mentions the interest rate of depositing ideas in the bank as some thoughts, with time, become obsolete instead of gaining in value and therefore impose a negative interest rate.
The fourth rule is an unusual one: "Open a dictionary, randomly select a word and then try to formulate ideas incorporating this word". I tried the exercise, the dictionary came up with the word "Asbestos", a carcinogenic substance which is used in building but which has now been banned. "Asbestos kills, and so does smoking" - is that creative? I must consult with "a local psychologist".
Define your problem says rule #5 before moving on to "Change atmosphere". Zen monks have known that the best thinking comes in a discontinuous process. Jerry Martin, a global creative consultant and owner of one of the very few worthy websites on the topic, told Arabad "While you can certainly be creative in group settings, you'll have better luck if you give yourself lots of time alone. And though you can be creative when you're under pressure, your creative mind will work best when you are relaxed, peaceful...even playful."
Rule #7 is certainly peculiar: "Do not watch television". Arguable, very much so for people who make their livelihoods in the media industry and who look for competitors' works, recent trends in business, and timely information.
"Don't do drugs" - this creativity tip turns more into the civic education ground more than anything else and assumes that Elvis, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Nirvana never happened. With rumors that even grand Egyptian diva Oum Koulsoum used to imbibe her handkerchief with stimulating substances to be able to withstand the pressure of concerts, this rule - without any encouragement of doing drugs from my part - can be seriously put to doubt about what a drug is and what is not. In 18th Century England, chocolate eaters used to be sentenced to death because of their "crime".
Rule #9 has to do with reading a lot - perhaps the contents of the author’s own website were on his mind.
What's rule #10? I have no idea. My computer gave me a printing error on it. When I checked the monitor of the printer, instead of finding a message such as "paper jam" I found "Are you kidding me?".
Yet, putting the definitional jargons aside, creativity has more to offer than dull seminars and definitions. It can be found anywhere.
Fabrica, the creative studio behind the "United Colors of Benetton" projects, states in it’s advertisements that "Creativity is unusual stuff: it frightens. It deranges. It’s subversive. It mistrusts what it sees. What it hears. It dares to doubt. It acts even if it errs. It infiltrates preconceived notions. It rattles established certitudes. It incessantly invents new ways, new vocabularies. It provokes and changes in points of view. Fabrica wants to be it’s workshop".
Creativity can be labeled as to spur in particular places - the kind of places which a Johann Sebastian Bach piece can inspire. Yet, when the house of Guerlain created one of it's most enduring perfumes, it did so in a small Parisian apartment overlooking a smelly rubbish dump. Similarly, the auctioning company eBay started out in a little village in Arkansas.
When I paid a visit to late Lebanese writer Maroun Abboud's house in a beautiful little peaceful village in the mountains someone insinuated that it must have been the immediate environment - particularly the nude female statue in the garden - which spurred Abboud's talent. If that so, then why weren't all of the villagers as famous as Abboud - particularly his next door neighbor who shared the same view on the nude statue.
More practical tips in terms of creativity come form late designer Tibor Kalman, who was the founding editor of the unorthodox Colors magazine and who owned his own agency when he sent his clients an unusual gift of $26 on Christmas 1990.
"With $26 you could buy a meal." Said his message "or you could give it away." And there followed a stamped envelope, one addressed to the Coalition for the Homeless. Kalman adds, "the next year we sent out a lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, a can of juice and a piece of poundcake with a note saying, 'that's the menu which is distributed to homeless people at Grand Central Station.' Underneath it all was a $20 bill and an envelope addressed to the Coalition for the Homeless," details Kalman.
Just for the record, Tibor Kalman never went to a designing school and I have serious doubts about him passing the creativity test.
Nothing stimulates creativity like an obstacle. Everyday my mother asks me as I take my breakfast "What do you think I should do for lunch today?". As part of the daily routine, I used to answer "I have no idea, do whatever you feel like". And everyday we used to have row on the pretext that I never gave her an answer. Until I discovered a smart trick: Give whatever answer and she will work on it accordingly.
So now, every single morning when she asks me what she should do for lunch, I systematically answer "spaghetti and beefsteak". Perhaps once a month I get that dish, but that's beside the point for I never request it because I want it: I request it to stimulate my mother's thinking.
I recently went into an art forum website, and a Jordanian artist by the name of Nawwaf was suffering a block as to how to continue his painting. Without even going to the picture of his unfinished painting, I wrote him an email strongly suggesting he would use more green.
A few days later, I got an email from Nawwaf with an attached document which turned out to be a photo of the finished painting. He had used blue instead of green as he said in his email, but he thought that it was my contribution which lead him to that decision.
Creativity then, cannot be found in methodological steps, in plain one dimensional definitions and boring by-the-book tricks. There are no strict do’s and dont’s or magic recipes. When I asked communication consultant Bill Foley after a conference he threw in Beirut, “What made Bill Foley become Bill Foley?” he tentatively answered: “Is it because I worked as a golf caddie carrier at the age of six?”.
The best way to define creativity, would be not to define it, so as to quote pop star Madonna - who knows quite a thing or two about the matter - in her latest interview for Rolling Stone, "To try and explain creativity - it’s like talking about love, you know? As soon as you start, you’ve formed a new opinion about it". Madonna long figured out not to limit herself to academics, and that creativity is a genie which should not be confined into a bottle.