An Ancient Idea about Modern Creativity

How does someone think creatively?

Days are good for Creativity. From the debate about Common Core to improving higher education, from “disruption” to “innovation”, Creativity and how to “be creative” gets a lot of time in the media. Americans are just not thinking hard enough!

The great innovators of the world all seem to have a knack for seeing what others cannot. These technologists and designers and entrepreneurs all seem to peer into their mystic cauldrons, throw in their secret ingredients, and then appear to have the answer through a process of magic and luck. The rest of us stand back amazed.

In reality, the great thinkers use a process that originated with one of the greatest of all, Socrates. To think clearly, he made one radical assumption: I know I know nothing.

With this assumption, Socrates is set free to explore as far as his curiosity will take him. Pride didn’t get in his way. In his brilliant biography of the ancient teacher, Paul Johnson explains that Socrates was opposed not only to “the right answer” but to “the very idea of there being a right answer.”

This process, known as the Socratic Method, is really at the center of creativity. Socrates taught his students to admire the pursuit of the good, and to do so, one had constantly to question and refute anything purported to be true. His students became so adept at challenging conventional wisdom, the leaders of Athens killed the teacher.

Thinking creatively is seeing something others cannot — an opportunity, a pattern, a solution no one has conceived. It also means eliminating the pride of certainty. To think in a new way, I have to ask “Why?” over and over again. I cannot believe what is convenient to me. I cannot accept what others tell me is true.

Thinking creatively really is dissent. It means reading books or seeing paintings that challenge and cause discomfort. It means rejecting the status quo and accepting the ensuing anger of those who support it. At his trial Socrates explained he is conscious of his ignorance, and therefore, he is wiser only than the man who professes to know. Because of this humility, he can continue to pursue knowledge, and find it in all the forms not easily understood. He may never discover the truth, but he cannot stop chasing it.

And during this pursuit, full of adversity, creativity lives.

I welcome your thoughts about creativity and the process you use to make new discoveries. Please share them in the comments below.

(photo: author’s own)

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