Triple C: the generative spiral

In line with previous ponderings about the purpose of Creativity, there’s a more zoomed-out question: how distinctive are the — what I call 3 C’s — Critical Thinking, Curiosity and Creativity? Are they basically the same as some claim, or fully separate phenomena, like others say? Or…

These past few months I have been talking and doing a lot with regards to turning all my thoughts and ideas with regards to creativity into chunks that can be conveyed, e.g. through developing university courses on the topic. This results in conversations with people with a variety of backgrounds. Obviously that is a breeding ground for further evolution in my thinking, so here goes..

The 3 C’s introduced

One of the interesting discussions that came up was the extent to which something like “Critical thinking” is the same, similar or totally different from “Creativity”. Just to make it all a little more complex, it’s easy to see how the the concept of “Curiosity” can also be drawn into this discussion. Is it more, like I imagine, the driver of the other two, or is it more belonging to one of both? I will get back to that.

Opinions vary more wildly than you may realise, depending on where you are standing yourself. For example, one could say that asking questions is by definition part of the Critical thinking-corner, while I really see it as part of being Curious, and to an extent also Creative. For me, if I would have to give some form of concise definitions, these would be:

Critical thinking = assessing/ judging what we know

Curiosity = wondering about alternatives, known and unknown

Creativity = actually coming up with these alternatives, beyond obvious known ones

But if you look for example at the many different definitions of even, say, Critical thinking, let alone Creativity, and the more you actually discuss this stuff, the more the thought creeps in, do these distinctions really matter? Yes and No. If you are increasingly engaged in conversations where you are asked to explain the exact difference, there is an incentive to at least give it some thought. Case in point: a few months back a student stated to me “Why should I care about Curiosity, we already get the Critical Thinking-course”.

My take: a Trin-Yang

After many of these discussions, dialogue, own reflection, and playing with the ingredients, for now this is my take on this topic: I see the 3 C’s as somewhat distinguishable ingredients, more on an intuitive than absolute definition level. Much more importantly, I think that in the vast majority of cases, they feed into each other, strengthen each other. Consider it to be not even a Yin-Yang but a Trin-Yang. And it’s not a static relationship, or even equilibrium, it’s a continuing process. In fact, one good visual representation would be a what I would call a Generative (upward) Spiral.

One without the other

All three of them might have some value, if considered separately. But that value would be very limited, in the context of creating change, doing things differently, progress in other words.

Consider this, and please feeeel the points being made, don’t micro-drill them:

  • Critical Thinking without Curiosity = just being negative. It’s easy, not to say lazy to just say “No, I don’t believe that”, or “I don’t support your reasoning”. And then stop thinking.
  • Curiosity without Creativity = daydreaming without stopping. We do need an extent of daydreaming (e.g. read Wired to Create), but without end…?
  • Creativity without Critical thinking = mindless generation of ideas (solutions) without a context (problem). This is what some claim Art is, but aren’t artists also supposed to be the critics of society? And, seen creatively … is not one of the drivers of an artist to create something, the actual observation that apparently something is missing?
  • Curiosity without Critical thinking = no guts to reject any idea, anything goes, no judgement. The golden rule of many creativity-tools. Or, alternatively, just being nosy, in a bad way.
  • Creativity without Curiosity = generating obvious ideas, or just ideas period. Ideas can be ‘novel’ but still obvious. It’s not a coincidence that patent-law includes the criterion of non-obviousness.
  • Critical thinking without Creativity = cynical, closed-minded, similar to omitting the curiosity. It’s just about not allowing other people’s ideas to be embraced, destruction without creation.

As you can see, if unchecked almost all of these initially wonderful concepts can go out of control, move to an extreme. And they will. In real life this mostly does not happen, exactly because the other two are there to make sure of that.

If you would plough through the dozens, perhaps hundreds of definitions and perceptions that float around, the general pattern seems to be that Creativity is fuelled by rejecting popular conventional ideas (= critical thinking) and support new (= curious) fresh ideas (= generative). For me it would be basically impossible to see how someone can be creative without being at all curious, even more so than vice versa. It does seem possible, to be curious (= wonder) without being creative (= wander with aim). Again, that’s more an intuitive stance, but for me reason to choose Curiosity as starting point for creativity instead of the other way around.

So, what is the conclusion?

Does there have to be? Just like for me the picture that I paint above makes sense, for you or others, it may not. This is how I can work with these concepts in a productive way, without endlessly having to discuss what the differences are exactly. The clue is to embrace their complexity: they exist, work and belong together. The real magic lies in their interdependencies, not their isolated perfection.

“The magic lies in interdependencies, not isolated perfection”

This is a slightly updated version of the blog published on The New ABC