The Origin of “Creativity”

In a fascinating new book chapter*, Dr. Camilla Nelson documents the history of the concept of creativity. Prior to the mid-19th century and the Darwinian revolution, the words “creative” and “creativity” were not used at all (see her Google Ngram on page 173), and “creation” was associated with the divine. Darwin showed that nature could be creative, without appealing to a divine creator. But still, for decades after Darwin, “creative power” in humans continued to be associated with a spiritual force (e.g., various forms of vitalism, such as Bergson’s elan vital).  In the same Ngram, you can see that the word “creativity” was not used at all until long after 1900, with a rapid growth in the 1950s forward.

So, what happened in the 1950s? Here’s Nelson’s answer:

Arthur Bestor published Educational Wastelands in 1953, and MGM released Blackboard Jungle in 1955 to a major public outcry. Newspapers carried interviews with critics under headlines such as ‘Mass Produced Mediocrity” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1956). Then, the Russians launched Sputnik, and the education crisis spilled onto the front page. Education promoted conformity and “group think”, argued critics such as Hyman Rickover (1959). In contrast, he envisioned “a future dependent on creative brains” that required a qualitatively different kind of education that was capable of producing “creative people, sworn enemies of routine and the status quo”, in opposition to totalitarian Russia. The United States needed to support the kind of “freedom essential to the creative worker.” [Rickover is better known as the man who directed the development of the nuclear submarine.]

Bibliographic surveys indicate that there were as many studies of creativity published between 1950 and 1965 as there had been in the previous 200 years. Much of this work was funded by military and defense concerns.

Basically, she argues that today’s concept of “creativity” was created by the Cold War, and the need in the United States to contrast democracy with totalitarianism. She argues that this is why creativity researchers define “creativity” in heavily Western and individualistic ways.

The language in this quotation should sound familiar, because it’s the same argument we’re hearing right now: Today’s schools aren’t preparing students for the 21st century creative economy. Have we really made no progress in education, in the 60 years between 1955 and 2015?

*Camilla Nelson, 2015, “Discourses of creativity”. In The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity. Warning: it’s written in an extremely academic style!


Why Educational Technology Isn’t Working

The OECD has just released a report that concludes

There is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Researchers tracked students in 31 OECD countries (including the U.S.) and measured their educational outcomes, as well as their use of technology at home and at school (including computers, Internet connections, and educational software).

I’ve been arguing for years that most Ed Tech is useless, and it’s because the companies that develop the apps don’t know anything about the learning sciences. The problem isn’t computers, or the Internet; the problem is with the pedagogical techniques and theories that are embedded in the new software. The OECD report supports my argument:

We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

The report doesn’t say much about how to align new educational software with the new science of learning, and with the reformed pedagogical approaches that work best to provide students with the deeper learning and thinking skills that graduates need. That’s why I’ve created a new master’s degree to teach how to combine learning sciences research, innovation, and software development (applications are open right now!) This study shows that we have to change the way we develop educational software, and ground technology in the science of learning.

Why are there states of matter?

We all learned in school that there are three states (or phases) of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Later, you may have learned of a fourth state, plasma; and, physicists say there various other states that emerge in extreme conditions (e.g. Bose-Einstein condensate). But let’s keep it simple, and go with three for now.

While helping my 12-year-old son with his homework, this question came up, and I haven’t been able to find the answer:

Why are there states of matter at all?

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a physical world where there are no phase transitions. In this alternate world, all matter would change continuously with temperature change. The molecules of the substance would continuously increase in space from one another, with no sudden changes in properties or structure. At the coldest temperatures, everything would be extremely solid. As the temperature warmed up, the solid would become progressively and continuously less solid, and more “mushy,” let’s say. More “liquid like” but continuously, not in a sudden phase transition. And as this liquid-ish form of matter warmed up into what we know as the “gas” state of matter, it would gradually and continuously become more fog-like–but again, with no sudden phase transition.

I have searched all over the Internet, and I haven’t found this question asked or answered. (I ended up reading some advanced stuff about energy states, and curves crossing, but that doesn’t answer the question.) Does anyone know the answer, and if you do, can it be explained in a way that regular people can understand it?

Why Aren’t Entrepreneurs More Creative?

I just read a provocative research article that makes a surprising claim: most new startups aren’t very creative. The authors, Professors Howard Aldrich and Martha Martinez-Firestone, state their claim on the first page:

Generally, entrepreneurial efforts leading to stable, self-sustainable organizations yield simple replications of existing organizational forms. The products and services offered are typically slight variations on what already exists, rather than dramatically different ones. Indeed, radical innovation in entrepreneurship is an uncommon phenomenon.

But all of the conversation I hear is about how entrepreneurs drive innovation. We keep hearing that small startups identify opportunities that big companies miss. Visionary outsiders come up with radical ideas, that transform entire industries, and make billions of dollars in the process. That’s the story we’re used to hearing…and this new article says just the opposite! If you care about innovation and entrepreneurship, you need to read their argument very closely, because it turns out, it’s pretty convincing. Even better, they conclude by offering great advice for entrepreneurs, about how they can break this pattern and truly innovate.

They ground their argument in New Institutional Theory (NIT) (after all, in an academic paper you need a theory!). NIT argues that “institutional forces severely limit variations in behavior” and “NIT downplays the likelihood of human creativity and innovation” (p. 3). Most institutions that occupy the same markets and industries tend to converge on pretty much the same organizational form; “they develop similar structures and strategies over time” in what is called institutional isomorphism. Even when everyone realizes that the world has changed, and these routines and structures are no longer optimal, they persist due to inertia and the difficulties of changing. Basically, entrepreneurs have only two choices. Either they can work in ways that are “compatible with existing institutions” or they can “engage in collective action to change the institutional order.” The second option is pretty darned hard, and usually isn’t possible. (p. 6)

The article argues that entrepreneurs are even more  constrained by these institutional forces than established firms, because they’re just trying to get on their feet and stay alive; and they have to steal away customers from the established players, and those customers are comfortable with the old ways of doing business. “New ventures often adopt the structures of incumbent firms in their industry. Although not very creative, it is a rational choice for entrepreneurs wishing to grow their ventures successfully” (p. 4).

The good news is that this research helps us understand what situations are more likely to result in genuine innovation. The first is institutional complexity. The second is when there are multiple audiences with divergent expectations. Institutional complexity has been increasing for years, with decentralization and globalization. As a result, the “institutional isomorphism” is beginning to break down in certain organizations and industries. This is also why “chaos and uncertainty” are more likely to foster entrepreneurial innovation: because the routines and practices inherited from history break down and stop working.

A final characteristic that fosters innovation is network structures: connections among people that are diverse, with lots of small and indirect relationships.

Entrepreneurs with diverse networks and many weak ties are more likely to be innovators, as are entrepreneurs who have contacts that go beyond their local environments (p. 7)

Sad to say, most startups don’t have any diversity. Founders they “assemble teams of cofounders very much like themselves” (p. 8). This makes it much less likely they’ll be creative.

They conclude by saying it’s time to get rid of “the heroic image of innovative entrepreneurs that have plagued entrepreneurship research for decades” (p. 9). It’s the same point I’ve been arguing about creativity: creative breakthroughs never come from a single solitary individual. Creativity and innovation always emerge from collaborations, teams, and networks. It’s a myth that super-creative people generate brilliant ideas while they’re alone, and then reveal them to the world (and are showered with venture capital). It doesn’t happen that way–not with entrepreneurship, and not with any other type of creativity, either.



To Be a Better Writer: Write More Books

In today’s New York Times, author Stephen King challenges a common belief:

The more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.

He agrees that there are a few super-prolific writers who aren’t great writers; mystery novelist John Creasey, who’s written 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms; and Barbara Cartland, with over 700 novels.

But King argues that these are exceptions: the general pattern is that, the more you write, the better a writer you are. Examples include Joyce Carol Oates (over 60 novels) and Agatha Christie (91 novels) and Isaac Asimov (more than 500 books).

King himself has published almost 60 novels. So maybe we should be suspicious of his argument?

The New York Times calls Stephen King’s article an “Opinion” but his claim is scientifically proven, according to the latest creativity research. Researchers like Professor Dean Keith Simonton have studied huge databases of creators, looking at both their creative quality and also their productivity. No matter how you judge creativity, the most creative writers are also the most prolific.

Not only that: if you examine a random one-year period, higher productivity in that year is typically correlated with the likelihood that you’ll do your greatest work in that same year.

The same pattern holds in every creative field, whether music, science, dance, inventions, patents. More productivity is correlated with bigger impact and greater likelihood of generating a major, influential single work.*

This is surprising to most of us. We think that you’ll generate your magnum opus only after years of intense focus. You work on one masterpiece, ignoring all distractions–including those other second-rate book ideas. Why wouldn’t a writer just pick the one awesome idea, and focus all energies on that?

Because that’s not the way creativity works. Creativity doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, emerging one morning after a strange dream. The belief in the big flash of insight is largely a myth. Creative products emerge, over time, from hard work. During the hard work, lots of small, tiny ideas come every day. They get woven into the unfolding work–and this takes skill, experience, and focus.

Another reason creativity doesn’t come from an all-consuming focus on one project: It’s because creators themselves don’t know, ahead of time, which ideas will pan out. Often, an idea that they love turns out to be a dead end. If you can’t know ahead of time which idea will change the world, then you could waste years going down the wrong path.

The take-home message: Work on lots of projects, in parallel. Don’t ever be convinced that a particular idea is the one that will make you famous. And if you’re not generating a lot of work, you’re not as creative as you could be.

*I review this research in my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Innovation (second edition) Oxford University Press.

The Economist Shouts: “Set Innovation Free!”

The cover story of this influential British magazine is “Set Innovation Free!”* The subtitle says what they really mean:

Time to fix the patent system.

In this blog, I’ve argued that the current patent regime retards overall innovation. It’s not aligned with empirical studies of creativity research. Patents are awarded to a single entity, as if that entity is completely responsible for the advance in knowledge. But research shows that all innovations are collaborative and distributed.

Defenders of patents will say: First, the potential reward of a patent provides an incentive to innovate. Why invest all the money in researching a new cancer drug if you don’t get the exclusive rights to market it? Second, in exchange for being granted a patent, you’re required to make your innovation public. This is supposed to help everyone else move forward faster with their own innovations.

The Economist  lead editorial argues that this is completely wrong. It cites evidence that, across industries and countries, stronger patent systems don’t lead to greater innovation. It points out that in most cases, patents never really become public, because patent lawyers have become very effective at writing complicated text that makes it impossible to tell what the real innovation is. Patents are expensive; it takes about $100,000 to go through the process of getting one. And yet, by some measures less than ten percent of these patents are ever used; the rest never make any money. So why spend the money to get patents? It’s subtle, but basically, it’s related to a finding from innovation research: that almost all new products involve tens, hundreds, of new ideas. New products are never  based on a single patent. So for lots of companies, filing a bunch of patents is a defensive strategy–it creates a “patent thicket” that prevents competitors from putting together all of the ideas they need to develop their own successful product. The current state of the technology sector is that all of the big players have their own patent thickets. So before anything new can be sold to the consumer, their lawyers have to get together and negotiate about their mutual patent thickets. (Yes, that’s the word that patent lawyers use–patent thicket. The fact that there’s such a word at all shows how big the problem is!)

The patent system rewards huge companies with deep pockets and lots of expensive lawyers. It blocks startups and entrepreneurs. Maybe there are exceptions? For example, pharmaceutical patents that emerge from university research labs, with a startup that’s funded by the university’s research office? But aren’t universities also big institutions with lots of lawyers? Patents do nothing for the little guy.

Patents are granted for too long. No technology company needs 20 years of protection for their idea. How many of you still own computers from 20 years ago?

Patents are granted for “new” “ideas” that are much too obvious: does Apple really have a patent on “rectangular tablets with rounded corners”? (Apparently, they do.) And yet, U.S. patent law says that to get a patent, your idea has to be non-obvious. I’ve written about problems with the non-obviousness doctrine here, and it’s a big topic of discussion among IP lawyers and scholars.

The Economist  cover story could be straight out of my book Group Genius:

Sharing brings huge benefits to society. Sharing leads to extra innovation. Ideas overlap. Inventions depend on earlier creative advances. There would be no jazz without the blues. Innovation today is less about entirely novel breakthroughs, and more about the clever combination and extension of existing ideas.

The chorus of creativity researchers shouts “Amen!”

*August 8-14, 2015 issue

Leonardo da Vinci Artist Statement

This is hilarious, even if it’s a bit over the top. It’s from “The Artist Statements of the Old Masters” by John Seed:

If the great European artists of the past were alive today, what kinds of statements would they need to write to explain and justify their work?


I originally proposed “La Giaconda” as a non-specific vehicle to map coded and opposed systems of selfhood and gender that could be substantiated via an intertextual nexus. Through a personal discursive process, it then evolved towards a self-referential “otherness” that overlays Neo-Platonic androgyny re-defined as an ontology of the unsaid.
–Leonardo da Vinci