Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Creativity

To me creativity seems to be such a general phenomenon. It seems to be something that permeates all life, all decision making, all language. It is not born in someone, as a friend tried to tell me. I am starting to suspect it is universal and pervasive, as Chomsky argued. I want my life to be creative all the time. I want all of my words and all of my actions to be creative. I want every decision to be creative.

So that is what this is about. I'm going to explore this idea of creativity and talk about how I relate to it in general. First I just want to talk about Chomsky for a second and how he thinks it is universal. Then I'll talk about conversation and the creativity that is involved with that. Then I'll go into my experiences with customer service and the sorts of creativity I see in those situations. Then I want to reflect briefly on my writing and how I associate it with creativity. Then I'll talk about empathy, and the importance of creativity and empathy. Then as a closing note I want to touch on my most serious concern: How society prevents us from being creative by saturating our minds with theory-theory.

Chomsky on Language and Creativity
So a little while I read a transcript of The Chomsky-Foucault Debate. A fascinating event in 1971 when Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky met in the Netherlands to debate the question of whether or not there was such a thing as human nature or not. Interesting debate. Foucault is skeptical of the idea of human nature, and regards it more as a form of knowledge that has been utilized at certain historical moments to regulate and create certain types of power relations. Chomsky, on the other hand, at the time at least, believed that there must be something to human nature. His work on linguistics was his primary point for this claim. He argued that because the human brain possesses a 'universal grammar' that all languages rely on, then there must be a sort of human nature that extends beyond language and into other realms of human life. I wish I were more familiar with this idea of universal grammar, and I imagine/hope I will be in the future, but basically the idea is that humans have a sort underlying set of rules that govern our use of language. Let me quote wikipedia cause they word it better: Universal Grammar asserts that the human brain "contains a limited set of rules for organizing language. In turn, there is an assumption that all languages have a common structural basis." But anyways, let me get back to Chomsky and creativity.

Chomsky believed that because all human brains have this underlying capacity for speech, it must be a part of our nature. It must be human nature to express ourselves with language. Chomsky says that it is amazing that children can hear all these words, never be explicitly taught, and can then learn to use and recombine all these words into entirely novel new phrases. He says that every single day we all use language to produce brand new sentences that we have never heard before. Basically, that the use of language is inherently creative. That human capacity for language implies that all human beings have a proclivity for creativity.

All language as creativity? I suppose hearing Chomsky say this was really interesting to me. It is the basis, roughly, for much of what I am about to say.

Creativity and Conversation
So if language inherently involves creativity, then how do we need to think of conversation? Well, let me just say, personally, that for a long time conversation baffled me. I was always struck with the fear of 'I don't know what to say', or 'I won't know what to say'. I seemed to have this idea that conversation had to be something that was planned, structured, made sense, or had to be thought about. But no, that is not the case it turns out. Conversation has to be spontaneous.

In other words, conversation cannot be planned or anticipated because it has to be creative. This was such a crucial lesson for me to learn. To understand that I don't need to know what I'm going to say when I enter a conversation. That I just need to be relaxed and go with the flow. All reminds me so much of Clausewitz, and becoming comfortable so that your intuition can guide your decision making. Conversation is nothing but lots of tiny intuitive decisions.

So it is always interesting to think about how I still think about impending conversations. I still run miniature simulations in my mind of what we might talk about, what we might do. I still build little scripts to try and help myself work. But the bottom line is that those scripts can never be relied on, they have to be used as fodder for creativity. You have to learn to use things like scripts or principles in creative ways at the actual moment of conversation. Sounds awfully zen, and awfully Clausewitz.

But these scripts that I build, that I bet other people build too, and that society builds for us, I know that they can sometimes get in the way. Thus my paralysis at conversation at earlier points in my life. I wanted to know how it would go. I had all these ideas of how it should go. All these ideas of what I should be talking about. We are just flooded with shoulds. and I think that these get in the way of creativity. Further, I identify this idea of shoulds with mental models and tacit theory. At the end of this I am going to have a section on this, on how we need to overcome mental models and tacit theory in order to be creative. Onward to customer service.

Creativity and Customer Service
I think my experience with customer service jobs has also prompted me to think about creativity. Customer service is just such a unique environment that it requires a certain amount of creativity. Especially when I interview and people ask me about what I do in customer service situations I realize how loose it has to be, how creative it has to be. People ask me, what do you do? And I have to tell them that I don't know exactly what I do. But that I deal with each person as an individual. I have a sort of basic set of strategies I can use, I can ask them if they have seen this product here before, when it was, how long ago it was, what it was like, etc.. But there is never any way to rigidly apply those strategies. You have to run with that person in the moment, you have to read their mood and handle it appropriately. Customer service takes sensitivity and creativity. I think I wrote about this in my blog on customer service. But there is no denying for me that it feels like a very dynamic and creative thing. I won't go on about this for too long. Basically customer service is a specific variety of conversation, and therefore still requires creativity.

Creativity and My Writing
My writing is also something that is very interesting to think about in terms of creativity. For one thing I am not writing fiction or poetry and so it is sometimes hard for me to say precisely how my writing is creative. But I think that my thoughts on my life, on other people's lives, on empathy, on lots of things is indeed creative. I think I have lots of ideas and I've never seen them presented in quite the way that I think of them. I definitely think my writing is creative.

And my friend commented that creativity can be a harsh mistress. And I thin he means how it comes in fits and bursts sometimes. Sometimes I want so badly to write something and it just won't come out. I want to tackle a problem and I just don't know how. Then all of a sudden BOOM I UNDERSTAND. And then I write it in a flash. It is a strange process. My aunt described it as going deeper into a tunnel in which you don't know what lies ahead. David Shields says that essaying is a verb, it is exploring through writing. I feel like I am essaying right now, almost all the time. Sometimes I have a vague sense of where I am going, but the tunnel has a lot of dark corners, if you catch my drift. Whenever I write I think I am exploring myself, exploring my thoughts on the world. I think that I am trying to write creative non-fiction, like Shields. But that is enough. On to empathy.

Creativity and Empathy
I am saving this one for second to last because I think it is so important. I think that empathy is the best way to really understand people. But I don't think it is easy. I don't think that it can happen as automatically as I would like. Mirror neurons exist, so I know that it does happen automatically with certain things, on those basic levels of facial expressions and emotions. But when it comes to more complex situations, when it comes to odd social situations, I think it requires a bit of creativity. I think that this applies both to empathizing with other people and empathizing with ourselves.

Here I want to talk about empathy with other people and the creativity it requires. I think it is very easy to run the standard scripts that let us blame people. I think it is easy to say that criminals are irrational fools, that people who are bad drivers are idiots who weren't paying attention, that people who disagree with us are ignorant, so on. I think that this is just far too lazy and inadequate. People don't just do things because they are idiots. People often have very difficult circumstances that compel them to do things. Life is hard, and we can't just act like people have every choose all the time. People struggle. Decisions are made with incomplete information and with very limited experience.

Perhaps those people driving poorly are having a heart attack, or a plain old really bad day. Maybe those criminals were born into a world that you haven't even taken the time to imagine. Maybe they have been told that crime and drugs was the way to go, maybe they have only seen people who have taken those paths. Maybe we need to take the time to creatively imagine what would compel someone to act that way. Maybe we shouldn't just write them off because we are lazy.

We need to start associating empathy with creativity.

This is something I've written a lot about. My essay of 6/13/10 and also my post of 7/11/10 I talked about creative empathy, and in particular my idea of 'forgiving everyone for everything'. At least conceptually, we should try and find a way that we can come to peace with other people's behavior. Yeah, sure it is upsetting. People do such terrible things. Do we just want to write them off as stupid? Or do we want to take the time to try, really try and imagine a situation that could be compelling that behavior. Choice is overrated. We need to grapple with determinism, at least on the level of empathy. Try to feel for these people that have done these things you don't like. Really try to imagine their situations. It is so hard to really do. But try to empathize with everyone. Don't just explain their behavior away with stupidity or ignorance. Try to feel for a life that is so radically different that it compels someone to do it.

How creative is your empathy? How far are you willing to take it? How far can your mind go outside of itself? How potent is your imagination? What kinds of things can you forgive? What kinds of things can you understand? What kind of pain are you incapable of empathizing with?

I have really been on this message for a few years now. That empathy requires creativity, and that we need to try and forgive everyone for everything. One major reason is that I want to forgive myself.

I have done things that I regret. Said mean things or done hurtful things. And yeah, I can write it off on stupidity, or something like that. But I think that is inadequate. I want to understand myself and why I did what I did. Let me give a mundane example. I was out with a friend, we were talking about how we slept in. He said that it would be easy for him at 6pm to say "Oh man why did I sleep in I should have gotten up and done other stuff." But the bottom line is that during that moment in bed he was tired, he didn't have anything to do, and he needed the sleep. Basically, it is easy to project views from the present moment onto your past self. It is so easy to think, OH WHY DIDN'T I JUST DO THAT! Well the bottom line is that you were in a totally different frame of mind. And I think time is better spent trying to understand that frame of mind that you had at the time. It is better to empathize with past actions than to judge them. Because if you take the time, if you exert the creative energy, turns out your past actions may be more intelligible than you think. Even if they were mistakes, even if they were painful, try to understand.

Interestingly, I think all of this is about historical thinking. It is about not letting present views interfere with your ability to understand past thought and action. I think that empathy is historical thinking. Collingwood said all knowledge of mind is historical. We need to learn to think historically so we can be more empathic people. We need to learn to think creatively about empathy. We need to learn to inhibit our perspective so we can more readily take on the perspectives of others. We need to forgive ourselves. We need to forgive others. We need to learn to be creative with our sense of empathy so that we can do this.

Lastly, I want to briefly explore some ways that I think we are discouraged from empathizing.

Tacit Theory and Mental Models as Impediments to Creativity
I think the main thing getting in the way of empathy is the plethora of 'shoulds' that we encounter in society. On television, in advertising, in books, in movies, in our daily lives, we are so often told how things should be. We see so many representations of social life that it is so easy to internalize those messages. I used to find myself paralyzed by the idea that my interactions wouldn't fit in with the norm, the shoulds, the scripts. These scripts are such bs though. Life never goes like movies, never goes like tv shows or books. Life is so much more dynamic than that. But to me it seems like these cultural representations that they come to substitute for our actual experience.

Oscar Wilde said that art doesn't imitate life, but that life imitates art. I think he meant that representation tends to structure our lives. Once we see something represented in a certain way it becomes difficult to shake it, it becomes a part of the way we think about life. I think in our culture we are saturated with representations of how life 'should' or can be. I think it can be hard to escape these representations and that people just sort of run these scripts, they run these theories, they run these models. Their minds revolve around these already worn paths, these already worn neural circuits. We need new scripts. We need new models.

Basically, I identify all this with some technical terms from philosophy of mind and the neurosciences. Philosophy of mind has a school called theory-theory, where philosophers believe that we understand people by using unconscious mental theories, we infer from these tacit theories. I believe that this does happen, but I believe our society has created rigid theories about bodies and races and interactions. I think people rely on these tacit theories too much and that we lose our creativity. We no longer have creative conversations because we just run the scripts. Well, there are tons of creative conversations going on out there, don't get me wrong. I just think we run the risk of being overrun by these tacit theories that we get from society. Another term is mental models. Neuroscientists believe that the brain models the world and uses these models to predict things and people. Same thing, we have models that are too rigid and we have to overcome them to be creative. We need to shake this idea that the world is the way we are told. The media has given us a distorted model, and distorted theories.

Anyways, I just think that creativity can be hard because we are saturated with representations of 'shoulds'. We don't explore new ways of thinking because we are so overrun with other ways of thinking. These scripts cant work in the real world.

The world of human affairs has to be handled by creative decision making. We need to be creative with language, creative with our conversations, with our jobs, with our writing, and most importantly with empathy. We need to look out for oversimplified representations of social interactions that encourage us to think reductively and uncreatively about life and people.

Perhaps this post is ranty. But I think creativity is all pervasive, and I think we need to recognize how our creativity is being stifled by social representations, and we need to take control and be more creative, all the time.

I also think that identity and creativity should have a close relationship. But I didn't think of that until later and don't want to add to this.

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