Curiosity feeds the cat

In a world where convergent thinking is the goal, divergent thinkers struggle.

Photo by Raphael Roth

A usual criticism brought to the modern educational system is that it’s conceived for the industrial Era. The modern student is still largely trained to be a factory worker despite the fact that the global number of factories is declining. The current system is accused of being inflexible and outmoded- pushing students forward in buckets whether or not they’ve assimilated the content and relying on a series of periodic, quality control checks to test the product.

Here’s a quick intro to the current system, also known as the ‘Prussian’ model by Sal Khan of Khan Academy:

In a world where convergent thinking is the goal, divergent thinkers struggle.

To be creative is to be curious

Due to advances in psychology in the last 40 years or so, we’ve been gaining a better understanding of how creativity works. Based on the Big Five model, we know that ‘openness to experience’ is a personality trait which is closely linked to creativity. It manifests itself as an active interest in new ideas and aesthetics. You could almost say that openness and creativity are synonymous or that to be creative is to be open to new ideas.

Openness to ideas is what drives not only creatives, but also entrepreneurs. They chose to ignore conventional ideas in favour of high-risk, high-reward bets. These hedges end up changing the world as we know it.

Creativity has always been at the vanguard of knowledge and contributes a great deal to driving the world’s economies forward.

The creative industry is a winner takes all game

Successful ideas are preceded by a much larger number of failed ones. Being creative and successful implies making a series of seemingly irrational, impractical choices throughout one’s life, usually to the despair of parents and educators everywhere. Not only that, but you’re competing on the biggest platform of all: the internet.

These factors seriously reduce the likelihood of creatives being able to monetize their output and leads to a low number of successful candidates. As a result, many creative people do non-creative work just to get by.

Going back to the Prussian model, the system is tough on creativity because it is conceived by and for conscientious individuals, another of the Big Five personality traits. This type of person has characteristics which are opposite to creativity. They score well in carrying out tasks to their completion and being highly organised and dutiful.

This information is not to suggest that all humans should be creative, but that successful ideas are realised through the cooperation of creative and conscientious individuals. If the creatives are the ones coming up with new ideas, it’s the more conscientious types who usually implement it.

This is where design distinguishes itself from art. To design is to operate at the intersection of creativity and conscientiousness. The pairing of openness to new ideas and discipline is what leads to tried and tested design solutions.

The pitfalls of over-specialization

As creatives keep up with the expectation of becoming specialized in their field, their experimentation and openness is curtailed. Curiosity becomes unproductive and a liability. From now on, it’s all about implementing tried and tested design solutions. After all, this proves you are well experienced for the task at hand.

Favouring experience as the most important qualifier raises a paradox. If you rely purely on old design solutions it’s only a matter of time until your methods are replaced by new ideas — by the amateurs.

‘In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few’ — Shunryu Suzuki.

This is where the amateur appears to have an edge over the expert and why so many organisations rely on a steady flow of young recruits to keep their ideas fresh. Amateurs take chances, experiment and follow intuition which leads to new discoveries.

Young age is not a requirement for generating new ideas however. Many seasoned geniuses have already proven this point. It’s the system’s tendency to over-specialize — an inheritance of the industrial revolution — which pushes individuals to lose touch while being labelled experts in their field.

‘The first lesson which experience should teach you is to keep hope alive but never satisfied.’ — Baltasar Gracián

Maintaining a constant state of amateurism or learning — where there is no knowable end — is what fuels the creative flame and furthers your field. As the law of infinite game states, if you want to stay in the game indefinitely, you must not only play by the current rules but change them as you go to allow infinite play. The creative industry likes to call this process ‘innovation’ — a commonly misconstrued buzzword by today’s standards.

Like it or not, innovation is a child of irrationality and openness because these traits perform in tandem and in cooperation. They lead to areas which are often far away from the practice of design and often in very different directions. This is what Steve Jobs was referring to when he famously urged students to stay hungry and foolish for their entire lives.

Becoming specialized in a particular field of design and advancing it by a tiny increment isn’t the only way to be successful in the creative industry. To tackle the big questions in life, it’s necessary to invoke multiple disciplines. The visionaries we are inspired by today provoked the world to see further than they would normally allow itself by spreading their wings freely. Yes curiosity comes with risks, but as the lesser known rejoinder to this famous proverb suggests, it’s well worth it:

Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back.