On Being Creative

On Being A Creative Person – Uncertainty, Risk, and the Newest Paper Airplane

by Michael A. Ricciardi

“A certain power to alter things adheres in the human soul.” (Albertus Magnus)

As a reasonably accomplished writer, multi-media artist, designer, and semi-retired educator, my life has known no lack of creativity. To be a creative person – to live a life in which my creative abilities are fully realized through various modes of creative expression – has been my life’s greatest mission and goal. To be sure, in my earliest years, this mission may have been partly or largely unconscious, or inchoate, but it was always there, itching to spring forth in everything I chose or had to do.

Of course, much of what a person has to do in life (even a child) does not call for much, if any, creativity. I figured this out, to my great disappointment (and eventual boredom), in grammar school where so much of what one “had to learn” was simply a matter of copying what the teacher wrote on the blackboard (or overhead projector; this well before the modern classroom equipped with computers and LCD projectors) and then “regurgitating” this back in the appropriate form; memorization, replication….and repetition…lots of repetition. Did I mention that I was bored a lot?

Now, to be fair and accurate, I have been very fortunate to have had some excellent teachers who were gifted in communicating information in an easy-to-understand manner – sometimes even making this necessary learning enjoyable, and sometimes (though rarely) even fun. And, there were a few insightful and daring teachers who actually encouraged my creativity in various ways; giving me side projects or activities to work on after finishing my assignment early (and so as not to disturb the rest of the class by talking, which I did a lot of back then), or putting me in charge of the school store, or having me draw cartoons for this or that poster or student newsletter.

But most teachers did not know how to deal with me and others like me.

But most teachers did not know how to deal with me and others like me. In second through 4th grade, we would often get “unsatisfactory” marks (designated with a ‘U’) in “self-control” on our quarterly report cards. Sometimes my parents would be called in for a “parent-teacher conference” where they would be told that I was an excellent student but talked a lot in class and was often caught gazing out the window, day-dreaming (not “paying attention”). I was not a trouble-maker, mind you, I like learning new things very much. I just needed a certain level of focused stimulation that was all-to-often lacking.

Unfortunately, what I found – especially as I grew older and progressed in grade levels – was that most teachers either ignored (perhaps lacking understanding) or discouraged (even subtly punished) my creative abilities. I was sometimes shocked when a teacher had negative feedback (about my attitude or distracted mind) to give me and/or my parents; I would feel betrayed somehow, for, I only wanted to make learning in school as interesting as it was to me outside of school (where so much real learning happens), and when it wasn’t, I would reflexively begin to day dream that I was doing more exciting things.

I would much later come to interpret this reflexive, cognitive stimulation behavior as a product/outcome of a novelty-seeking brain — a cognitive trait typically associated with artists, scientists, and those with certain types of mental illnesses, like schizophrenia (note: in a follow-up essay I will explore this curious and natural connection between creativity and mental illness more fully).

This less-than-accepting, early educational experience did not quash my creative spirit fully; I graduated from high school knowing that I wanted to do something (actually, many things) creative and “artful” with my life. However, what I came to realize was that most of the world does not fully trust truly creative people, or too much creativity in people…even though it may actually need creativity at certain critical moments it its survival history). It wasn’t always obvious or direct, but I felt this antipathy in various ways through interactions with different people, whether at college (where my original and speculative approach to research paper topics was frequently down-graded), at work (where offering creative suggestions might be interpreted as being too ambitious for your position), or just randomly going about my day.

Some of this negative feedback I could almost understand: in my communications major curriculum, class-room exercises were often designed to encourage a group consensus around an idea, or solution to a challenge, and thereby reaching a group decision; it was creativity by committee (which too often watered down the creative aspects of an idea until the result was less innovative but more acceptable to every group member).

In one such case, our class was divided up into five groups and challenged to make a paper airplane that could hit a small target (a small window in the door) when thrown from across the room (and we had three chances to hit the target).

Without consciously realizing it, I started to drift off while recalling one summer (when I was 10 years old, I think) and finding a craft book (from an encyclopedia of crafting that my mother had purchased) on different types of paper airplanes, and learning to make each novel design (each was better at a different type of flight, such as acrobatic flight {doing loop-the-loops), or smooth, fast, level flight) …I was amazed that there were so many different types of designs! This was a pivotal revelation to me: lots of people, it seemed, had been creatively exploring better paper airplane designs for quite a while. And, it was a simple matter to alter these designs, slightly, to make them fly differently, or better. My younger brother and I spend a good part of that summer making and flying different paper airplanes (many were our own versions or innovations). It was all great fun.

Back to my group-decision-making class:

I almost immediately knew what the best solution was. But I stopped myself (conscious of the exercise’s purpose) and asked the group if anyone knew how to make a paper airplane. As anticipated, one group member said “yeah” and, as I encouraged him, he proceeded to make the “classic” pointy-nosed paper airplane that everyone learns how to make in second or third grade (this design is actually called the “Dartmouth Dart” after a Dartmouth College physics professor, needing to quickly illustrate flight to his students, had improvised the airplane from a piece of notebook paper and few sharp-angled folds).

I then asked him if I could test the paper plane out, explaining the history of the plane as I did so. True to form, the classic dart plane, when thrown with force, flew fast then quickly descended and hit the ground (damaging its nose and crippling its level flight afterwards), or, if tossed more gently (and being heavier at the back end), would swoop upwards in a reverse parabola, stall, and “crash” ignominiously on the ground (damaging the nose once more). No, the dart just wouldn’t do. We needed smooth, sustained, level flight to propel the plane across the room (about 15 feet or so) so that it would hit the window in the door, or at least hit the door.

I then proceeded to show the group a design called the “Flying Tiger”. The name I recalled from that craft book, and, I fuzzily recalled the general, broad-winged shape (but not the exact folding procedure or dimensions of the final plane). So, I improvised a bit and I managed to come up with a reasonable and working version of the original. A few, quick test flights and a few adjustments to the wing flaps (and the adding of a paper clip to the plane nose for stability) and it was all finished in about ten minutes. Then, it was test time. I suddenly got a bit nervous (for soon I would have to prove my boasted expertise).

Our group went last of the five. No group had succeeded in hitting the target (or even hitting the door) and all had, not surprisingly, decided upon the classic ‘dart’ design, the easiest solution available). Now it was our group’s turn: I stood across the room, holding the plane at head height, forefinger at the very tail of the plane to give it just the right amount of forward push…one practice motion, and then, I let it sail straight across the room, in level flight like a cruising eagle…and smack!…the plane hits in the very center of the window (on the very first throw!). Applause erupted from the class. My group breathed a collective sigh of relief (and myself included), and the Professor gave me a forced smile of congratulations…she had to give us an A for the exercise (mission accomplished).

This event has more than anecdotal relevance for this essay and I will return to it later on.

The anti-creative bias

A couple decades later, I would get some confirmation of this “anti-creative” bias, this attitude, from an article in the journal Science which referenced research by Bowles and Gintis (‘Schooling in Capitalist America’, first published, 1970). This research duo found that teachers and employers often “punished” students and/or employees who they perceived as being “creative” and “independent” (as the latter trait, or its perception by others, often goes hand-in-hand with the creative personality). So, there it was: an actual sociology research finding that validated what I had sensed, inchoately, so many years prior.

This finding raised other questions: why would there be such a tendency (if only a subconscious one) to “punish” or treat, in a biased fashion, those who exhibited creativity in their studies or work assignments? Was there some other implicit meaning to the creative act? Equally, was there some emotional response to creative expression or action that was driving this tendency?

As it is my habit as a writer/researcher, I instinctively started reviewing my copious notes and saved articles from a few years earlier and, serendipitously, found a print-out of a World Science article from November, 2011…The article detailed the research findings of Mueller et al at the University of Pennsylvania on peoples’ attitudes toward creativity and creative ideas (the research paper was originally published in Psychological Science, 2011).

Mueller and her colleagues had perceived a definite contrast or conflict between what people say about creativity (i.e., that they appreciate and/or value creativity) and how they actually react when confronted with real-world creativity (where it elicited negative or ambivalent feelings, though typically, these feelings were not consciously recognized).

Through a series of word-association tasks (similar to those that test for unconscious racial bias), the study subjects had to decide whether to associate words that were similar in meaning to “creativity” with either positive, or negative, things (i.e., thoughts, feelings, situations). When the researchers first planted “thoughts of uncertainty” (what’s known as priming) in the subjects’ minds, they would display an (unconscious) negative attitude towards creativity (i.e. associating negative things with creative synonyms). In a second experiment, subjects were presented with a description of an innovative sneaker design utilizing nanotechnology to prevent blisters. The researchers found that these negative feelings and associations about creativity actually interfered with the subjects’ ability to recognize the creativity of the sneaker design itself (even though the researchers had pointed out to the subjects that a panel of college students had judged the design to be highly creative).

Although one could argue that the study participants were “pre-biased” by those “thoughts of uncertainty” (which were enhanced by telling subjects they might win a monetary award via lottery at the end of the study), and, that the second experiment had likewise negatively conditioned the subjects (to some degree) towards a sort of creativity blindness…The fact that subjects did not know that the study was about revealing attitudes towards creativity (nor were they informed in advance that they would be judging a sneaker design for its creativity), seems to indicate that something else was going on. The general interpretation of these results is that creativity readily associates (unconsciously) with a state of uncertainty (given prior priming), and consequently, readily elicits negative feelings – feelings that make us blind to creativity’s potential.

Creativity has a twin: uncertainty…and uncertainty, it seems, is a primal, societal fear.

On an interpersonal level, embracing creativity means trusting in the creative abilities of the individual. Trust in such a disruptive force as creativity is a risk-heavy act (for risk-aversive people and entities, this trust is more akin to a “leap of faith”). For those who take the risk, doubts and questions follow quickly: Will this new idea be successful? Will accepting or adopting the new idea make me “different” and/or alienate me from the group?

In academia, this trust can evoke a more selfish concern: Will I get a good grade if I go along with this novel idea? This was the very same type of trust that my fellow group members had to give to me in that paper airplane challenge in college. Having confidence in my own abilities certainly helped convince them, but ultimately, the group had to overcome its risk aversion and fear of uncertainty and go along with the new solution (the new design). So, though my professor may have objected to my method of operation, there was indeed a group decision being made: that is, to let me lead the project, and, to trust in another’s creativity and its unknown consequences.

The study by Mueller et al also would seem to have larger implications for society, and, more practically, for institutions of higher learning and commercial industry. In the larger societal sense, there would seem to be a sort of cultural schizophrenia surrounding creative expression and invention: we develop institutions that ostensibly foster creativity, but then, in ways both subtle and overt, often end up crushing those very same new ideas (and the spirit of creativity that generated them).

Then too, there seems to be a contradictory impulse in our academic institutions and R&D companies. Quoting from the Psychological Science paper by Mueller et al:

When jour­nals ex­tol cre­ative re­search, uni­vers­ities train sci­en­tists to pro­mote cre­ative so­lu­tions, R&D com­pa­nies com­mend the de­vel­op­ment of new prod­ucts, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies praise cre­ative med­i­cal break­throughs, they may do so in ways that pro­mote un­cer­tain­ty by re­quir­ing gate-keepers to iden­ti­fy the sin­gle ‘best’ and most ‘ac­cu­rate’ idea * there­by cre­at­ing an un­ac­knowl­edged aver­sion to cre­ativ­ity.” [Italics, mine]

And the authors give a name to those tasked by their superiors with distilling this institutional creativity: gate-keepers. Are these the very same folks responsible for disseminating innovation “antibodies” that innovation consultants are currently buzzing about? The answer may have to wait for another essay, but you’ve probably already judged there to be some connection.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, Mueller et al conclude with:

Fu­ture re­search should iden­ti­fy fac­tors which mit­i­gate or re­verse the bi­as against cre­ativ­ity.”

Indeed they should. But then again, just as there is an important role for creativity in society, so too there may be an important role for this “gate-keeping”. The key as always, is finding that magic balance between too little and too much.

Perhaps this is a now obvious extrapolation: it appears that continuous creativity is too disruptive to the status quo, to the conventional and traditional way of doing things, with benefits that are not always obvious or immediate. It is interesting that today’s most virulent business buzz-phrases are “disruptive technology” and “disruptive innovation”…The new model of doing business and staying ahead in business is based upon the very thing we fear…disruption…which could also bring chaos (remember when Chaos was the newest and hippest buzz word?)…How quickly we move from exuberance in new inventions to fear of disorder and uncertain consequences!

But, experientially, my group sensitivity and understanding tells me there’s a bit more to it than that…We are social creatures after all, and we must exist (most of us anyways) in a social world of mutual dependence and obligation (and there is such a thing as collective intelligence, which emerges in small dedicated, problem-solving groups). Knowing when and how much to engage the creative mind-form may be just as important as accepting the fruits of that mind-form. In a sense, it is “risk management” only for internal creativity. But perhaps it would help if some of the gate-keepers were also creatives, or, at least, aficionados.

The creative act both generates risk and asks others to accept that risk…to come along for the ride, so to speak, or, that new paper airplane test flight.


Michael A. Ricciardi

* The ‘There can be only one‘ ethos (e.g., the annual Art Prize competition here in the U.S., where 250,000.00 is awarded to one artist only, out of hundreds competing) – is an expression of this same annihilating mindset and group-think decision-making model; surely there’s more than one deserving artist, more than one good or useful idea out there {perhaps a combination of two or more), or inside that R&D think tank. We shouldn’t discard unused ideas, we should invest in them, and cultivate them for a future where alternatives may be necessary for our collective survival.