How to Educate Yourself for Creativity

At Hamilton College, first-year student Bret Turner asked a music professor, “Why is music important?” He got such a passionate response, he developed a long-term plan: He would talk to EVERY teacher on the campus, and ask them that same question. He just graduated May 2013, and he’d had the “why is your field important” conversation with 200 of the 223 professors at the college.

Why did he do it? He says “I have shallow interests”–he wanted to know a little about a lot. And after all, isn’t that the goal of a liberal arts education?

The reason why this is so great for creativity is that research shows that the most creative people are the ones that know a little bit about a lot of things. Sometimes I think of them as “professional dilettantes”. The trendy term for such people is “T-shaped thinkers”–the vertical bar of the “T” shape symbolizes that you need depth and expertise in one narrow thing, and the horizontal top bar indicates that you need shallow knowledge of lots of different things. If you have only specialized expertise, but you can’t talk to anyone outside of your area, you won’t realize your full creative potential.

So with Bret Turner, what about the vertical bar, the deep expertise? He ended up majoring in chemistry—but only after having his conversation with a really energetic chemistry professor. The most creative people do develop a strong expertise in a chosen field.

(Come to think of it, this creativity research provides a rationale for the course requirements of most U.S. universities–where you have to specialize in something by declaring a major and taking lots of courses and developing expertise; but you also have to take “general education” or “distribution” requirements, that provide the horizontal bar of the T.)

*I read Bret Turner’s story in the New York Times Education Life of Sunday, August 4, 2013.

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