Listen to this story
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut
Creativity has been on a downward spiral in many segments of society as a result of profound information overload. We can call up information on almost any topic with a few clicks of the keyboard. As a result, we’ve gained massive amounts of awareness into the way our world works and into things and people and places of which we would previously have never been exposed. And yet we’ve lost something, too: We’ve lost a sense of the powerful dangers of knowledge. We’ve lost the ability to create meaning and substance out of the power of not-knowing.
A Brief History of Knowing and Creating
Not long ago, there existed a phenomenon called “not knowing.” Pre-internet, there were times when “I don’t know” was not just an acceptable answer to a question—it was the only answer. Pre-internet, people would say, “I don’t know,” and move on with their lives, rather than immediately Googling the answer to whatever question was being asked. Sometimes you simply didn’t know and moved on with your life. Other times, you didn’t know, and so you created an answer by fashioning a story that explained things in a way that made sense to you. Mythology, world religion, and the earliest days of science, exploration, and discovery were all rooted in the attempt to craft a story that fit the reality mankind perceived to exist. As Vikram Soni and Romila Thapar stated:
Imagination has been a powerful creative force and continues to be. And we have myths today that encapsulate our current imagination. If we read Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke, we are swept into the era of the space odyssey, even if the spaces are distinctly different. Or if we take George Orwell’s 1984, we are taken into the era of an authoritarian system of robot-and-computer-like people taking over and ruling us. Such imagination, on occasion, has turned out to be prophetic.
In the not-so-distant past, knowledge, like money, was an exchangeable commodity, and the wisest and most knowledgeable among us were correspondingly the most powerful. Gradually, however, the benefits of knowledge came to be seen as the right of power rather than the reason for it. As knowledge became more specialized and expensive, only the already rich could afford it.
Oddly enough, this distinction between knowledge and lack of knowledge now seems to have been flipped on its head, and willful ignorance on the part of the ruling class has become prized as a sign of power. People in power can afford to be ignorant, in part because they know the others, less powerful, will have the information that they themselves lack the time or energy to find. Thus, we arrive at the modern day: With more access to more information than at any point in human history, society has become incurious and willfully ignorant about things that we should never have allowed to slip aside. Most damaging of all, an incurious culture is the fastest, most effective way to destroy creativity and genius.
Knowledge and Creativity
In a time when people didn’t immediately know everything, society fostered curiosity, exploration, and discovery. The thrill of the new was sparked by a dissatisfaction with a lack of knowledge or understanding. The creative process began, and still begins, from a place of curiosity and not-knowing. Sometimes, creativity leads to merely an iterative development of an existing idea. Other times, it leads to truly new, innovative thinking and the creation of a new thing entirely. As James Clear writes:
The creative process is the act of making new connections between old ideas. Thus, we can say creative thinking is the task of recognizing relationships between concepts.
In the same way that a lack of knowledge can spark creativity, so can an abundance of knowledge, if it is framed by the proper mindset. It is the curious mindset that sparks creativity in humanity. And it is the incurious, knowledge-saturated mindset that we experience in today’s society that many see as signaling the end of creativity as a human aspiration.
Creating to Live
Not that long ago, creativity was basically a requirement for survival, particularly in the agricultural societies of the past millennia. Weather, pestilence, and sheer bad luck required many creative solutions to ensure a family’s survival on this planet. In reality, for the majority of human existence, we could say that individual family units were the hotbed of entrepreneurship and invention. Creativity and the process of making something better for yourself and your people was a nearly universal calling.
But once the Industrial Revolution swept away the practicalities of individual production, and the factory, rather than the farm, became the primary business model, the requirement for creativity shifted from the many to the few. Inventors, scientists, and other creative thinkers were still prized but were seen as the exceptions within society; creativity actually hindered the assembly line model. From this viewpoint, the practice of creativity began to be seen first as a hobby, to be relegated to off-hours, and then as a nuisance, in that it interfered with efficiency and economies of scale.
The Creative Renaissance
Within the past 50 years, creative thought has been making a comeback. In the digital age, creativity and invention are in. What was formerly the domain of painters, songwriters, and other societal outliers has become the domain of startup founders, CEOs, and billionaires; the social media era demands constant creativity. But for all that demand, there is still a fundamental lack of creative thought in much of society today. The developed world has become an overeducated, information-saturated society, content to remain that way as a whole. The spark of curiosity, the creative storytelling, the crafting of a new mythology is absent — and it is sorely needed.
Creative Thinking 2.0
To answer the question that forms the title of this post: No, I don’t believe creativity is dead—at least not yet. What is dead however, is the old understanding of what being creative means.
Creativity is, I believe, a fundamental ingredient that makes us human, and as such is incapable of being bred or beaten out of us. However, it can be buried and rendered devoid of meaning. That’s what I think has happened in the world today. Creative thinking, the ability to create mentally and physically new things in the world, has undergone a shift that only a few people today recognize. Culturally, the world still thinks and relates to creative thought in the same way, but it fails to recognize that a new paradigm has arisen. We simply can’t view creative thought in the same way we have in centuries past.
Creative thinking has gone from a method of survival to the domain of social outliers, and now it has to change hands again. A new (old) segment of the population must assume primary responsibility for creative thought and action in today’s world: Creative thinking must be the domain of the common person again. We need to stop assuming that only the top 1 percent have what it takes to be creative, just as we need to stop assuming that “creativity” equals a multimillion-dollar business idea. We need to stop viewing creativity as a limited pool, accessible to only a select few, while the rest of us are forced to simply consume.
A society that consumes more than it creates is in danger, and the developed world is at the tipping point of that dangerous place. We are on the verge of outpacing the creative process through consumption, whether in terms of physical resources or information overload. Paradoxically, the only way to avert the actual death of creative thought is to get creative with how we manage humanity’s consumption of products, information, things, and resources.