Why coolness kills creativity

Michael Botur
Welby Ings explains why coolness kills creativity to Michael Botur.


Professor Welby Ings, a lecturer in design at AUT University, recently used a TEDx talk to defend 'divergent thinking' or risk taking. In this interview he explains to guest writer Michael Botur why coolness kills creativity.

"Often, from a very early age, the need to belong stands in the road of the ability to question. One of the most toxic things working against creativity is the pursuit of ‘cool’."

Ings is a consultant on creativity to a number of international organisations following an award winning career including the Prime Minister’s Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence in 2002, an Academy Award shortlist for his short film Boy in 2006, and the recent AUT University’s inaugural University Medal. 
Michael: Do you think creativity is too often compartmentalised?

Welby: I believe creativity is misunderstood because we exoticise it, when it is actually a normal function of an intelligent human being. But lots of the time our thinking isn’t creative – to survive we often have to think inside systems, inside limitations. It is very problematic in education to say ‘This is the little creative component.’ We get creativity mixed up with the artistic component. They’re not the same thing. Creativity is not a product, it’s the approach that’s taken to it.

When creative people are forced to think within the box, does it do any harm?

I don’t think so. A healthy social being is capable of both creative thought and logical thought, and I don’t think one comes at the expense of the other, I just think that because our system understands logic, it tends to nurture or care for that more. When someone goes ‘I can’t think straight’ we go ‘that’s a problem’, but when someone goes ‘I can’t think creatively,’ we go ‘Oh fine.’ But that’s silly because the person is really saying ‘I can’t think’ – it doesn’t matter what you put on the end of that. I think we take more care of logical thought than creative thought.

So is logic the opposite to creativity?

They’re not opposites. Sometimes problem-solving will draw on both. I don’t see it as a binary. Some taxonomies of learning still elevate [creativity], but it’s natural, it permeates things, creativity is not a rarefied state. We often lose the ability to recognise creativity in ordinary thought.

Sometimes we call creativity ‘deviance.’ How else do we misidentify creativity?

When we use the term 'divergent thinking', we sometimes think that’s creative but not everything that’s divergent creates. To create, you make, you draw something into being. So being a drama queen is not necessarily being creative. Socially, you can see people posture the mask of creativity when it’s just an ego caught up in a display, but it’s not actually creative thought.

How can we recognise a creative person?

They’re often very good questioners and they question the given, but not simply to showcase. They can be very strategic with their questioning. I think we all have a social editor inside us who tells us ‘That’s a stupid question,’ and they shut us down, they’re a pernicious force. Our social editors shut down the things that might get in the road of us being socially functioning beings. Sometimes being able to put that editor on a leash means that we are able to express and pursue the thinking that we’re capable of. We need to be able to ask tough questions both of ourselves and of the situations in which we find ourselves. Often we see creativity surface through behaviour. It can commonly be seen when people find the ‘best’ answer instead of the ‘correct’ answer. 

Do you think there’s a certain percentage of the population that’s creative?

100 per cent of people are creative - but some are more damaged than others. We know that to survive we have to be able to fit in, socially. Communities are much easier to handle if they conform, so we teach hierarchical compliance and competition. Often, from a very early age, the need to belong stands in the road of the ability to question. One of the most toxic things working against creativity is the pursuit of ‘cool’. Cool shuts things down. Cool is understanding the agenda and conforming to what is socially privileged. Often creative people are seen as uncool, or they have to posture to make uncool appear acceptable. That’s a heart-break when you’re working with adolescents; the fear they have of saying something stupid because their social self-editor tells them to Shut up, or they will look like an idiot.

Is political activism associated with creativity?

I’ve been pretty engaged as an activist, politically, and not all people I’ve worked with who posture social reform are creative – some can be dogmatic, ideologically. When this occurs we are just replacing utopias, but underneath it’s still using power to exercise one ideology so it can shut down another.

I have generally found that highly constructive people are also creative. Often these individuals have zero levels of conflict in their lives because they can work with others in creative ways; something strange comes up and they don’t instinctively resort to formula or get their back up. My Auntie Minnie, no one would have said she was creative, but she never had a fight in her life… people loved her because she could create a solution to whatever came along.

Do some political parties attract creative people, while other parties attract logical people?

Ideologies that practice flexibility will be more likely to attract flexible thinkers, but it has little to do with being positioned on the right of the left politically. If you have a look at some socialist or liberal ideologies, they’ve also attracted dogmatic people. Inflexibility is not necessarily in the ideology – but in the practice of it. I have trouble with people saying ‘We’re a creative party’ because there is not always evidence beyond the rhetoric. Certainly, in some conservative organisations I have encountered amazingly creative behaviours. They profile in people who can read parameters, negotiate to the edge and bring others with them. A great leader, to be effective, has to be very creative.

What are some examples of unrecognised creativity?

In education, when the organisation works well, none of the work looks the same, so it’s not driven by anxiety around an ideology. Teaching formula is not creative; risk taking is.

[Corrupt US energy corporation] Enron hired people with uncooperative personalities, but who were very creative in raising money for the company. So can creativity have a dark side?

I am always a bit suspicious of simplifying people’s personality types. Personality testing marginalises the influence of ‘context’ and the mutable nature of personality. The tragedy is that people come to believe in the results and then behave according to the descriptor they have been fed. This works against the richness and unstable nature of a creative human being.

So can creativity be destructive?

I believe that any thought has the potential to be constructive or be destructive. Just as logic can tear down truth, so too can creativity be used to undermine something of value.

Creativity is also known as Divergent Thought, or even ‘Deviant’ or ‘Subversive’ Thought. Is crime an expression of subversive thought?

Subversive behaviour and crime aren’t always the same thing. If subversion is the result of perceptive questioning of the current state, then yes that could be creative. But if it’s only about exercising power… then that’s rarely creative. Crime is only crime because it breaks a legislated code. Only if you’re in a society that bans free thought certain crimes conceivably be productively creative.

Is rule-breaking linked with creativity?

It’s not a given. Creativity is productive, so it’s not the same as rebelling. Some rebelling is simply the exercise of power. When I was 16 and fighting everything, I knew two kinds of questioning: Firstly, questioning to be socially accepted and as a social nicety to make people feel good. Then there was the opposite: questioning like a spattering of angry bullets. But that wasn’t productive. By strategic questioning I’ve learned over time to ask fewer questions and be more productive. The other thing I’ve learned is to take time to question my questions. So to check the danger of egotism limiting opportunities for growth I ask… Am I asking this to sound good or to make somebody  look like a fool? Questioning questions can help us realise why we ask them.

Is creativity linked with depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues?

Among the greatest risk-takers and the most creative minds I’ve worked with have been people who need to manage depression or other conditions, although these terms are clumsy. I’ve dealt with people who from an early age have had to ask questions like ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Why do I feel alone in a crowd?’ or ‘Why don’t I get the same meaning from this as others?’ I don’t have evidence, just 30-odd years of experience. I take it as commonplace that some highly creative people may manage conditions so they can maintain social effectiveness. It’s not something I see as abnormal because sometimes the tensions that make things tough for them, result in the profound questioning that is the source of their creativity. It need not be a negative link.

How can we treat creative Kiwis better?

This is a big question but there is one place we can focus initially. In schools I have seen across decades the damage wrought on original thinkers by excessive, comparative testing, formula, and teaching driven by the need to assure preconceived performances. The under-critiqued obsession with comparative assessment has brought education in New Zealand to a state of crisis. We are left with a dream of innovation that we have stopped nurturing because our education system has become increasingly obsessed with ensuring that students perform instead of question. It’s worth questioning how we learn to be original thinkers.

Written by

Michael Botur

21 Nov 2013