April 4, 2013
There’s no shortage of pithy quotations from revered wise women and men, from centuries past to this morning’s media, about how creativity, imagination, discovery and invention are essential for nations and their people to thrive. There’s also no shortage of op-eds, books, blogs and radio and TV talk about how America’s major institutions are stifling creativity, imagination, discovery and invention. Why the disconnect?
To get a glimpse of the muddle we’re in, let’s look at two of those pithy quotes from the wise. Commenting on his trade, the great artist Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” And the brilliant theoretical physicist Albert Einstein advised, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Both Picasso and Einstein are pointing to the same trap we’re in—once we know how to do something, we become less willing and able to do new things. We get stuck doing what we know how to do. Imagination reigns supreme when we’re little—when we don’t yet know that we’re supposed to know. We take risks. We learn how to paint, draw, sing, dance, talk, even think, because we “paint” “draw” “sing” “dance” “talk” and even “think” without knowing how! Before we know, we do. We play, we perform, we pretend our way to growth, learning and knowledge. This is the fundamental developmental activity of the human species.
To remain an artist as an adult, then, we can’t let all the knowledge we’ve accumulated about art, color, perspective, how things are supposed to look, etc. take over, or suppress our imagination and stop us from doing things with paint and pencil that we’ve never done before. And it’s the same with thinking. By the time we’re adults, most of us know how to think, and for a big portion of our lives, that way works pretty well. But not always. And when it doesn’t, we need to let go of “I know what to do” and generate new ways of thinking about the situation. “I know” only keeps us dumb.