My mother keeps reminding me about the importance of creativity and innovation for success in the future job market. My piano teacher encourages me to channel my inner creative spirit by composing my own tunes, while science teachers keep giving examples of creative models made by other students in competitions. Even my mentor during a recent internship at a non-government organization (NGO) encouraged me to think of creative solutions for dealing with challenges such as poverty alleviation in Pakistan. This made me rethink my understanding of the origin as well as trajectory of creativity in an individual’s lifespan. My research led me to a surprising finding that in most cases, during the course of our lives, we start to ‘unlearn’ the intrinsic creativity we were born with. Consequently, our creativity decreases as we become older.
Traditionally, people referred to creativity in terms of artistic talent: for example, painting or playing an instrument. I still remember my grade four art teacher in Riyadh telling me to pursue painting, as she thought I had a creative streak. It’s only recently that I started to realize and understand that creativity goes beyond just artistic talent, which is one of its subsets. The creative impulse should be viewed in terms of a skillset that enables individuals to use their imagination to produce original, effective, and functional output. As a society we are more likely to link tangible output (a device or piece of art) with creativity, however, intangible output (ideas, theories, and solutions) can be equally, or more creative. In a nutshell, creativity can encompass any skill set, applicable in all areas of life, at all levels and ages.
While exploring this topic, I learned that there are four main types of creativity. Deliberate and cognitive creativity involves harnessing the preconceived knowledge you already have of a subject and channeling it to form a course of action. This type of creativity is usually applicable to researchers and inventors. Deliberate and emotional creativity occurs at random moments when a useful idea or solution emerges, stimulated by the coordination of different parts of the brain: the amygdala, which controls human emotion, and the cortex, which is responsible for processing what you learn or discover. Spontaneous and cognitive creativity, involving the conscious mind, is that ‘Eureka’ moment when you suddenly stumble across a solution to a problem at the least likely moment. Spontaneous and emotional creativity is related to epiphanies, when you are finally able to approach a dilemma from an alternative perspective and hit the nail smack on the head.
Child prodigies such as Mozart, Pascal and Chopin give credence to the view that we are born with our quota of creativity. However, despite the creative impulse being partially intrinsic, a plethora of factors impact whether a person’s creative impulse is developed and nurtured. These factors include the family set-up, environmental exposure, and most importantly, educational facilities. It also depends on the personality of an individual and their willingness to seize opportunities. Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” brings to light the persistence of his efforts in working on various designs before his creativity was encapsulated in the form of a functional light bulb. Therefore, I tend to agree with the view that creativity is driven by a mix of genetics and environmental factors, and that the extent of its expression can change over time depending on how we nurture it.
From personal experience, as a child I used to churn out artwork and was considered a highly creative five year old by my teachers. To date, my mother cherishes an old photograph that shows me holding my air cleaner ‘invention’ that I made out of cardboard to tackle the dust storms in Riyadh that curtailed my outdoor playtime in the park with friends. This creative spree continued for several years; I would collect everyday items and also badger my parents to take me to a bookstore selling arts and crafts supplies so that I could build models of playgrounds, slippers, etc. I also loved hosting mini shows for my family where I would make a skit using my toys. Towards the end of middle school, however, my creative impulse was placed on the backburner by a set of new priorities ,where friends and academics featured more prominently. As I had less time to focus on nurturing my creative skills, my disinterest in pursuing creative initiatives became apparent to family members. I am lucky that I have people around me who value the importance of creativity and actively encourage me to pursue projects that utilize creative skills.
My experience is not unique, as I have come across other people, especially adults, who lament the decline in their creativity. In 1968, a study was conducted by George Land on 1,600 children’s performance, at different ages, in a creativity test that was originally designed for NASA to recruit innovative scientists. The test involved examining a problem and devising new and innovative ideas. The surprising test results showed that 98% of the four to five year olds had creativity scores at the genius level, 30% of ten year olds and only 12% of 15 year olds. In adults above 31 years, only 2% managed to achieve creativity at genius level, leading Land to conclude that “non-creative behavior is learned” as we grow older. He attributes this to our education systems which teach children to use both convergent thinking (conscious thought in which ideas are being judged, criticized, and improved) and divergent thinking (subconscious thought in which unrefined original ideas take shape) at the same time. Land believes this approach is counterproductive as it brings about a fight between opposing neurons and instead recommends allowing people to divide their thinking processes in a manner which gives sufficient time for each state to be effective. In practical terms, this would entail letting the mind run wild when coming up with ideas, and only evaluating and shortlisting the best ones at a later stage.
Researchers point out that creativity is not a random gift that only belongs to the lucky minority. We all are intrinsically gifted with creativity when we are born; perhaps some more than others, as in the case of prodigies. This is where the environmental factors come into play. Creativity must be nourished for it to flow naturally. I like to think of it as a plant which needs to be watered and provided with sunlight. Therefore, I strongly recommend project-based learning in schools at all levels to promote and cultivate creativity by making the learning process in schools enjoyable. This approach combines text book learning with hands-on application to real life problems: for example, identifying and developing ecosystems in school and community parks for local species while studying wildlife conservation.
My first exposure to running a business venture came in grade five when I had to set up a “company” with four team members to sell clay baked magnets. We designed and manufactured our “product,” developed a marketing plan and sales pitch, which was delivered in a mock market setting to parents and other students to convince them to buy our product. This was the first time I handled cash independently and remember celebrating the “profit” earned with team members. My learning was multifaceted, including the challenges and benefits of teamwork, art of persuasion, and value of money. I think we need to give young people time away from structured environments for unleashing imagination and pursuing topics that interest them, whether it is pretending to fly or making towers from playdough. As Einstein stated, “imagination is more important than knowledge” for nurturing creativity. Spending more time outdoors, reading, playing chess, or taking up a musical instrument can all help young people stay on the creative track. These activities encourage taking inspiration from everyday items without getting caught into the right and wrong way of for example building a model.
Since creativity is emerging as a prized attribute in this decade, employers, schools, colleges, and especially parents must all work towards nourishing and further strengthening the inborn creative skills of our youth. Techniques for fostering creativity include sharing ideas with others (feedback allows one to improvise and brainstorm), taking inspiration from other creative people, allowing oneself to daydream, practicing meditation, and exploring new interests. For instance, my school has replicated a TED Talk environment by introducing Lahore Grammar School Talks for every grade level, in which students speak on a current topic of interest and create an interactive environment with on-the-spot questions that require thinking on your feet. Incorporating meditation as a part of the daily routine also nourishes creativity as it helps the mind relax, which restores and improves perceptiveness and cognitive abilities. As we age, pursuing new interests outside of our comfort zone, such as learning an additional language, playing a new instrument, painting, or cooking can all help improve creativity by encouraging the brain to practice divergent thinking. Furthermore, consistently challenging yourself at all stages in life through consciously harnessing new opportunities can help stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which also boost creativity.
Simple ways to challenge yourself can include setting tighter time constraints to everyday tasks, exploring possible solutions for major world issues, and even trying an “escape room” adventure (a game in which participants solve riddles and puzzles to escape). Now that I have become more aware of the unlearning of creativity with increasing age, I plan to restart art and craft projects that had been relegated to the attic and attempt composing tunes on the piano, in addition to venturing into the world of coding with the hope that these endeavors enhance my creative streak. I also encourage other young people to take out time to let their imagination soar without fear of judgement, and then explore the avenues that come to light.
Bhasin, Hitesh. “4 Types of Creativity." MARKETING91. https://www.marketing91.com/4-types-of-creativity/.
Land, George. “The Failure of Success." Tedxtucson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfKMq-rYtnc&feature=emb_title.
“5 Techniques to Improve Your Creativity”. OPERATION MEDITATION. http://operationmeditation.com/discover/5-techniques-to-improve-your-creativity/.
Field, Hayden. “5 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Creativity." Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/311870. Accessed 25 April 2020.
Zayna Mian is a 15 year old from Lahore, Pakistan. She is currently a Year 11 student at Lahore Grammar School Defence. She is a prolific reader who plans to pursue her interest in writing short stories, blogs, and eventually novels. Zayna loves playing the piano and also enjoys squash. She is passionate about scientific research and hopes to become a biophysicist one day.
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