Creativity and the Cult of Obedience
Be Disobedient. Junk your lawn for habitat!
*This post was created as a message for the Unitarian Universalist church to which I belong. It was given on June 23, 2013.
Creativity and the Cult of Obedience
From the moment we are born, we are shaped, honed and sculpted by our families, our communities, and our environment. By and large, this sculpting is accomplished with the best of intentions, to make our way in the world less worrisome. We are taught habits and skills that others believe will help us be more successful by making us fit in to the current standard. Some of the things we are taught are not intentional, but things that we learn by observing those around us or by feeling the impact of a “wrong move” on our part. For some, this process goes relatively smoothly--they already belong to the “current standard,” and therefore don’t bump into as many hard challenges on the path to independence. We learn to dress in a way that conforms. We learn to speak in a way that conforms. We attend a church that conforms. We join social organizations that conform. We adopt hobbies that conform. We root for teams that conform. We pursue education that conforms. We eat what others around us eat, and listen to music that others around us listen to. In short, our politics, religion, dress code, skill sets, diet, career pursuits and recreation are almost all “pre-ordained” by virtue of the culture in which we grow up. We are, from the beginning, taught to be obedient.
There are those, however, who don’t quite fit in. Maybe they were born with a disability--perhaps unable to speak--and therefore must find other paths to communicate in a very verbal world. Maybe they were born left-handed--and, not only are common tools like pencil sharpeners designed in a way that makes them difficult for left-handers to use, many are taught that they must use the right hand because their left hand is controlled by Satan. Maybe they were born gay, and all those popular songs of guy gets girl just aren’t working for them. Or maybe they were born with dark skin in a light-skinned culturally-dominant country, and are, therefore, initially considered to be mentally less able, and as adults aren’t allowed to buy houses in the “right” neighborhoods. These individuals have been born “disobedient” and must find alternative paths to success and acceptance.
Needing an alternative, it seems, can lead to creativity. So let’s diverge for a moment and explore some
widely-held thoughts on creativity. Raise your left hand for true statements.
Gay men are the best interior designers. Creative people are weird. People are more creative under pressure. Competition spurs more creativity than collaboration. Creativity is fluff. Structure inhibits creative thinking. Creative people are messy. Only certain kinds of jobs use creativity. Money makes people more creative. Creative people are rebellious. Creativity comes from the brain’s right hemisphere. Creativity requires education. People are more creative when they are depressed or fearful. Creativity requires judgment.
Most of these statements are debatable, and only the last statement can definitely be considered “true.”
Some Science on Current Brain Research
When I was in school, the dominant theories of hemispheric science referred to left brain/right brain specialization. This theory made a kind of “logical” sense, as there is a clear, physical separation between much of the left and right sides of the brain. Studies were done on patients who, in order to alleviate intractable epilepsy, had undergone surgery to separate the corpus callosum--the thick band of nerve fibers that divides the cerebrum into left and right hemispheres. This band of nerve fibers is the apparatus that allows communication between the hemispheres. Therefore, severing the corpus callosum effectively shut down those lines of communication. This gave scientists a way of testing one and only one hemisphere at a time to determine what it was good for. The experiments they conducted demonstrated significant differences in the mental capabilities of the two hemispheres. For the left hemisphere, terms such as “logical, analytical, quantitative, rational and verbal” were bandied about. The right hemisphere got allocated terms like “conceptual, holistic, intuitive, imaginative and non-verbal.” And there the science stopped for about 20 years.
In the lexicon of our language, then, we adopted these concepts in referring to others and ourselves--both in strengths and weaknesses. We would refer to someone with exceptional math skills, perhaps, as “left-brained.” Someone with a tremendous imagination would be referred to as “right-brained.” However, in the last 20 years, researchers have spent more time trying to better understand brain function--which, shockingly, doesn’t always seem to be obedient to the previous research. They have also been looking for the roots to creativity, because creativity, it turns out, can make big money for corporations and venture capitalists.
Picture your brain split into quarters. If interested, you can go to my blog for an actual diagram. Right now, you’ll just have to do it in your head. In the front left quarter, you’ll find some standard “left-brained” terms: Logical, Analytical, Fact-Based, Quantitative. In the rear left quarter, we’ll introduce “Organized, Sequential, Planned and Detailed.” In the front right quarter, you see the terms “Holistic, Intuitive, Integrating and Synthesizing,” while in the rear right quarter you find the terms “Interpersonal, Feeling-Based, Kinesthetic and Emotional.” Those of you in fields of education or psychology may recognize some overlap with Concrete/Random/Abstract/Sequential evaluations of learning styles, here.
Now, obviously, your brain ISN’T split into quarters. Neither is it separated down the middle of the corpus callosum. Which is something that all these researchers did eventually realize...if the brain can talk to itself continually through that bundle of nerves in the middle, shouldn’t it be able to do a little of everything?
Why yes! Yes, it can... and does!
How It Works
Creativity is hard work AND play. It requires research, collaboration and discipline. It also requires some rambunctiousness. It requires practice. To think creatively, you must use your whole brain, not just to come up with ideas but to discard ideas that, after mentally trying them out, you decide won’t work. In an article by Ned Herrmann published in Scientific American, he lays out six phases of the creative process: Interest, Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification and Application. These tasks are balanced between the left and right hemispheres, with two of them--Interest and Application--requiring work by both hemispheres to be accomplished. Some creative thinkers do this on their own with plenty of research of seemingly un-related concepts. Other creative thinkers surround themselves with people who have similar concerns but come from other beginnings. As Seth Godin writes in his book, The Icarus Deception, “the culture we grow up in and the rewards we receive for the actions we take combine to give every person a set of biases and shortcuts in how information is processed and decisions are made.” Therefore, surrounding ourselves with others outside our immediate culture, when new ideas or processes are sought, is what is known as a Good Idea in achieving creative solutions.
What I mean by this is that we all come from different backgrounds and different geography. What we know, in totally unrelated disciplines, contributes to what we can conceive within the framework of creative problem-solving. If I say “fly” to a pilot, she will immediately think of airborne mobility. If I say “fly” to a cook, she will think of a pest that distracts guests from her lovely picnic. If I say “fly” to a fisherman, he will think of his best lure for trout. If I say “fly” to a gardener, he will think of a group of beneficial insects that both pollinate plants and destroy harmful insects. The language of the disciplines we adopt as we grow, experiment and age enlarges the pool of possible answers to our creative problem. Which means that the whole-brain creative thinker is able to connect differing facts with sensory experience and synthesize the data into new solutions.
Accessing Our Creativity
So what does Obedience have to do with creative thinking? Why do left-handers and homosexuals have a reputation for creativity? How do we buck that ingrained obedience so we can reach our creative potential? And why should we bother?
Obedience, at its core, is embodied in that old saying “children should be seen and not heard.” The Culture doesn’t want you asking questions. The Culture doesn’t like to think about the answers. The Culture just wants to get on with it’s life, whatever that means. And lately, the Culture has been really emphatic in its demands for obedience. One example of this is increasingly stringent high-stakes testing. Here I quote Doug Johnson at his Blue Skunk Blog: “Creativity is the antithesis of good test scores. While most tests look for "one right answer," creativity can and should be an important part of school. Is test taking or formulating new ideas the better whole life skill?” Obedience, in education, means that you will spend 12 years learning the right answer. How often are teachers allowed to teach how to ask questions? Just in science class? I would slam on public education, but much of the private or home-schooled population can be in even worse shape, since at home, or immersed in a rigid private culture, our kids have even more rules to follow--some of them restricting them from ever asking questions, much less using imagination.
Imagine being born left-handed into a home that believes it is rude to eat with the left hand, or that using the left hand is bad luck. Imagine having that hand struck until it is so swollen you cannot use it. The belief that left-handedness is evil or unlucky is still extremely prominent in many cultures, with, for example, close to 80% of Japanese males being forced to convert to right-handedness. In Japanese females, the conversion rate is closer to 95%. This is not just an Eastern cultural issue--as many left-handed Catholics can attest.
Now imagine what it be like to be born gay into such a rigid household. Here I’ll quote Wikipedia’s entry on Suicide Among LGBT Youth: “Numerous studies have shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth have a higher rate of suicide attempts than do heterosexual youth. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center synthesized these studies and estimated that between 30 and 40% of LGBT youth, depending on age and sex groups, have attempted suicide.”
Survival, then, is the main reason, I believe, that left-handers and homosexuals develop a reputation for creativity. They have to solve the problem of their own existence or escape that culture by physically, mentally or emotionally displacing themselves. If the culture can only see their “sinful nature,” these children must either become good, obedient actors or they fail to reach adulthood. I think this is also true for minorities and women, to a lesser degree. If you as an individual do not fit the approved mold, you must find a way to deal with yourself in relation to the culture around you or you will not make it. Literally. Creativity becomes a survival skill.
Seth Godin, who I referred to earlier, uses the myth of Icarus to illustrate the perceived penalties of disobedience. Icarus and his father Daedalus had been banished to prison for sabotaging the work of the King. Daedalus devises a plot to escape the prison by building a set of wings for himself and his son. These wings are fashioned with feathers and wax. About to start their escape, Daedalus warns his son not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus disobeys, the wax melts, he loses his feathers, falls into the sea and drowns. That’s what you get for disobeying your dad. That’s what you get for being proud. That’s what you get when you step up, stand out or make a ruckus.
But, as Godin reminds us, Daedalus also warned his son not too fly to low. And flying low is what most of us are doing these days. We are ducking our heads, trying to stay in a “safe” place. We have lowered our expectations and are settling for guarantees and small dreams. We are, as Godin says, “shortchanging not only ourselves but also those who depend on us or might benefit from our work.”
And what is our work? Is our work to be cogs on a wheel? Are we born to wear khakis, eat fast food, set our alarm clocks, use Herbal Essence shampoo, play golf, root for the Atlanta Braves, acquire 300-plus Friends on Facebook, adopt a retriever, have 2.5 kids, a Chevy and a tattoo? Are we born to retire to the recliner and daytime television?
Majoring in Disobedience
Another Greek hero, Prometheus, stole fire from the gods to give to humans who needed it to create civilization. For this he was condemned to be lashed to a rock and feasted on by a vulture everyday, with his liver regrowing every night so he could have the same fun the next day. Adam and Eve, that dastardly duo, get punished for eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil--an “act of learning and creative consciousness that comes close to Divinity’s ways.” (M. Fox, Creativity.) Existential psychologist Rollo May said of the parallel lessons of Prometheus and Adam and Eve that “Both the Greek and the Judaeo-Christian myths present creativity and consciousness as being born in rebellion against an omnipotent force.” Rebellion does sound a tad disobedient.
Matthew Fox, in his book Creativity, drops the bomb of an idea that original sin is “our fear of our own originality, our powers of generativity, ... even our generosity....” Exercising our creativity requires the acceptance of responsibility, because we, and we alone, own what we have created. Therefore, as Fox says, “We would prefer to put our imaginations back in the box, to turn our creativity over to others. But then we would feel guilty, also. The dilemma for humans is that we are guilty if we create and if we choose not to create.” He further goes on to say, “We come into the world wounded by our biggest asset--our brains. And whether we rain destruction or love onto others by use of this brain constitutes the story of our life journeys. It is a story addressed by all our spiritual traditions: how to turn woundedness into wisdom.”
Today’s journeys are happening globally. Where we once traded only with our neighbors, we are now trading with people on other continents on a personal level--all enabled by the Internet and social media. Business strategies that used to be a sure thing no longer are, because the trust we once placed in corporate interests--thinking they were our interests--has been compromised or enlightened, depending on how you look at it. Consumers are looking at consumption with a jaundiced eye. In this climate, the creative, connected solution is what we all crave--a way to reduce the isolation and chaos of our lives.
Are you ready to face your creative self?
I’d like to end with a favorite poem by the beloved Persian poet, Hafiz.
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low
Keeps dropping keys all night long
If you liked this post, you may also like "Listening To Other Species."
Is it true that creativity resides in the right hemisphere?, The 6 Myths of Creativity, Myths of Right-Brained Creativity, Myths of Creativity, Wikipedia--Bias against left-handed people, Characteristics of Highly Creative People, The Essential Psychopathology of Creativity, What Makes A Person Creative (Infographic--Fun!), Gregorc Learning Styles, Wikipedia--Suicide Among LGBT Youth, Fox, Matthew (2002), Creativity, Tarcher/Penguin, New York. Godin, Seth (2012), The Icarus Deception, Portfolio/Penguin, New York.