Creativity as a Convenient Simplification

An Idea from Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Creativity”

On various occasions I have tried to read Henry Adams’ opus, “The Education of Henry Adams“.  Inevitably, I get fed up with the author’s attitude and put the book aside. What is wrong?`Adams loved to complain. He was, above a whiner. And this gets annoying. One of his many complaints is that he was born with a set of 18th century values, but forced to live in the 19th century and then the early 20th century. He felt out of place and did not care to attempt fitting in.

It is an example, I think, of the “genius misanthrope”. The artist whom no one understands. These days, we see lots of people in this mold, full of ego but without mastery of any given domain that is useful. Indeed, the ego blocks efforts to learn and by learning to adapt. BTW, Adams himself did have expertise, but he complains that it was of a sort that modern society does not value. Tant pis.

This has a distant cousin in the ironic pose one finds in modern media. The sophisticate who doesn’t really do anything except comment on others. Woody Allen mastered this pose and then apparently got sick of it. But one finds plenty of other examples of  folks overflowing with cleverness who seem not to offer anything of lasting value.

Martin thinks this may relate to a problem we have in modern culture with the concept of “success”. He argues that we value success just behind survival and procreation in our hierarchy of human urges. If we cannot find success competing at a high level, we find it in other ways. By succeeding at counter-culture, for example, where the standards are conveniently lower.

Which brings me to Csikszentmihalyi. He argues that we overestimate the role of the individual in the creative process. In fact, the creative individual is only one of three active “nodes” in the game of invention. The other two are the domain and the field. Hence we see a comment like this in his book “Creativity”

To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Einstein discovered relativity is a convenient oversimplification. It satisfies our ancient predilection for stories that are easy to comprehend and involve superhuman heroes. But Edison’s or Einstein’s discoveries would be inconceivable without (critical other social elements). … (I)t is like saying that it is the spark is responsible for the fire. The spark is necessary, but without air and timber, there would be no flame.

This is provocative stuff. Not only does it call into question our hero worshiping tendencies. Which, btw, I think are a bit embarrassing. It also challenges us to re-think the various roles we all can and should play in making creativity possible. What roles?

More as I read on!

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