Sunday, January 17, 2010

Creativity Defined

On Friday morning I attended a presentation by my friend Adam Shames who does a great job getting people to be creative.
As I understood Adam, he defines 'Creativity' as the combination of divergence (creating something new or unexpected) with convergence (something useful). The ideas created by the divergence become acceptable and adopted when they are useful.
For me this was interesting food for thought.

I thought of the creative act of writing music. A new piece of music always involves some degree of new combinations of tones, timing, pitches, instruments, etc.,. This is where the new music diverges from what already exists. Most new music is immediately accepted because composers follow certain rules. This allows the sounds to converge to become music.

Simply throwing together a bunch of notes does not create music. A child randomly banging on a piano is usually just noise. Without that convergence, it isn't creativity. It is just banging. New combinations of notes do not become music until the sounds are accepted. Our brains accept that as music when the sounds meet certain cultural expectations we have about how sounds fit together.

Something is an innovation when it is accepted, not when it is just an idea. Innovation differs from invention in that it must be implemented. It cannot be successfully implemented if it is not accepted.

This event of creativity, when divergence and convergence come together can happen right away. In the case of most music, the notes are written to be within the boundaries of what is currently accepted. A lot of innovations work the same way. The innovation solves a problem in a way that our brains can allow the idea to be accepted quickly.

But not all music is written within existing boundaries. When Stravinsky first had his Rite of Spring performed in Paris, it was not within the boundaries of music. The audience rioted in protest. But over time, we stretched our boundaries of what is music, and, today, the Rite is played as music to modern audiences (such as occurred here in Chicago late last year).

New ideas can also be slow to reach acceptance in just the same way. When Einstein first published his four revolutionary physics papers in 1905 he wasn't heralded as the great genius we all know. His crazy ideas languished and he continued to work in the patent office for four more years before anyone in the physics community could stretch their boundaries to accept his ideas. His ideas did not need to converge as much as the physics world needed to converge around the ideas.

Perhaps that is what distinguishes truly revolutionary ideas. The ideas languish for a long time before they're accepted.