An argument for creativity

I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities.
        ——Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

In the opening pages of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller praises human ingenuity, but decries our laziness.

If you’re in a shipwreck, he writes, and a piano top happens to be floating by, it’ll make a great substitute for a life raft. That’s good ingenuity. But, he continues, “I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.”

He’s writing in the 1960s, by the way, so as we quote him throughout this post, understand that even though some of his observations seem current, they were made over 50 years ago.

His point here is that when a problem we hadn’t foreseen shows up, we create a duct-tape-and-band-aid solution for it, and if it works well enough, that just becomes the solution. We don’t actually sit down and consider what the best solution is.

And far be it from us to look forward and come up with a good solution for a problem we know is coming down the road but when it shows up will be someone else’s problem.

Think global food shortages.

Fuller was already worried about overpopulation 50 years ago, when the world’s population was less than half what it is now.

Anyway, we have problems. Some of them are global. Some of them are in our houses. Some of them (and I’m talking around the house here) have old, proven solutions — a little bit of spackle and a touch of paint seems to be a good solution to a nail hole in the drywall — and some could benefit from innovation. Think roof shingles, which, at least in the U.S., often need to be replaced every 25-30 years. Couldn’t we do better, especially if our houses frequently last for centuries otherwise?

And then there’s everyday life. Lots of municipalities, even in the U.S., have unsafe drinking water. You solve a problem like that in a developing country, like Fight for the Forgotten does, and you start solving world problems. Solve it in the U.S., and you free up the court system, stop dumping plastics in the ocean, and cut down on cancer cases.

It’s expensive to replace sewer systems, stop combined sewer overflows and replace lead-lined pipes in aging buildings. But perhaps there’s an innovative solution we’re missing, beyond suing schools for bottled water like residents had to do in Flint, Michigan.

“Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations,” Fuller writes, “many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved.”

But they haven’t.

Creativity, writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity. is central to our lives for two reasons:

(1) The things that are most important and interesting in our lives are the results of creativity.
(2) When we are involved in creativity we feel that we are living more fully.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s assessment, we’re generally going to be happier if we’re doing creative things, and, on top of that, if you’re going to be involved in something important or interesting (and I think most of us are striving for that in our lives), you’re probably going to do so by being involved in something creative.

Further, Csikszentmihalyi writes, problems are solved only when we throw attention and creativity at them.

If living a life doing important, fulfilling things that make us happy and solve the world’s problems isn’t enough of an argument for practicing some creativity, consider that creativity could save your life: Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern write about a psychologist named Paul Torrance who worked with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Torrance discovered that it didn’t matter how extensive someone’s training was, when faced with a life-or-death situation, there were always unexpected factors that couldn’t be trained. The deciding factor for surviving? Creativity.

We’ll talk a lot more about the problems with specialization in the fourth part of this series, which will deal with prescriptions for being more creative. While there’s certainly something to be said for being the best at one thing, being able to bounce between endeavors and have more generalized knowledge can really propel you in getting ahead.

Fuller and Csikszentmihalyi both write about this a fair bit — almost two generations apart — but Fuller perhaps drives the point home harder by noting it was the “Great Pirates” who ran the world: they held the puppet strings on kings and other regional leaders, because they were the ones who could deliver food and goods in abundance.

The men who were able to establish themselves on the oceans had also to be extraordinarily effective with the sword upon both land and sea. They had also to have great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, and original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill in navigation and exploration techniques for coping in fog, night, and storm with the invisible hazards of rocks, shoals, and currents. The great sea venturers had to be able to command all the people in their dry land realm in order to commandeer the adequate metal washing, woodworking, weaving and other skills necessary to produce their large, complex ships.

Those Great Pirates had to know a lot about a lot in order to maintain their positions.

I was born in 1976; I graduated high school in 1994. My junior and senior years, we had a school intranet. If we were in certain classrooms, we were able to carry out a text chat with friends within the building.

When I got to college, I first saw the internet. There were message boards and some text-only websites, and you could link to a file (like a picture) that would take minutes to download.

Five years later, the internet was widespread in home, thanks in large part to free AOL CDs. Some people had second phone lines dedicated to internet access; a few people had DSL. Businesses were starting to go bust because they had banked on everyone having high-speed internet access by now.

Amazon, then an online bookstore, timed it right. Yahoo had just enough cash tucked away to hang on.

And here we are, 20 years after that. We’re carrying around high-speed internet in our pockets. Many people have dumped TV altogether in favor of streaming services.

Then there’s the automation. It used to take hundreds of people to build train tracks. Now there are a couple of people operating a machine. One person can cut, strip, section and stack lumber in seconds. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang looks ahead and sees a near future in which eight million people who drove trucks or worked at truck stops are out of jobs.

Things are moving very fast, and that’s new. It was millennia between fire and the wheel. More millennia from the wheel to the printing press. Mere centuries from the printing press to the industrial revolution. Mere decades from the telegraph to radio to television.

Henry Ford asserted that if you asked people what they wanted, they would have told you a faster horse. Additionally, cities had a horse waste problem toward the end of the 19th century. There were so many horses involved in transportation they couldn’t get the streets clean fast enough. Some people went on the hunt for a better pooper-scooper.

Cars did a much better job at curbing horse dung, and at being a faster mode of transit at the same time.

Things used to move and change slowly, waiting for a creative thinker who wasn’t otherwise occupied with trying to keep everybody alive day to day. Now there are a lot of people involved in creative thinking. Remember our friend Elkhonon Goldberg from last week? He writes:

In an informationally stagnant society where change previously occurred at a glacial rate, relatively few individuals were engaged in creative processes. … But in a society where knowledge and skills become obsolete even before they become routine, virtually every member of society becomes part of the creative process.

It doesn’t matter if you want to be part of the creative machine, you’re in it. Getting through your day often involves creative decisions that not only didn’t our parents have to make when they were our age, but also that no one would have even conceived of a decade and a half ago.

“In an environment characterized by such a rate of change,” he continues, “a major redeployment of neural resources may be necessary in any individual brain, a major change in the way the human brain processes information.”

We’re not going to consciously change the human brain in our lifetimes (probably), but Goldberg sees some evolution occurring.

Let’s go back a half-century again, to Buckminster Fuller. He wrote in the wake of President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex — a warning which at the time may have seemed wingnut-crazy but now is an obvious daily reality; most of us use devices or carry items or wear clothing every day that at one time were designed for the military, and we don’t even think about it.

Here is Fuller decrying the use of combined knowledge and creative output primarily for military purposes:

The potentially integratable techno-economic advantage accruing to society from the myriad specializations are not comprehended integratively and therefore are not realized, or they are realized in only negative ways in new weaponry or the industrial support only of warfaring.

Indeed, the basis for the internet was a Department of Defense program. We build things for the military, then alter them for use in civilian life.

But the real work comes in altering it creatively — at some point we went from email and discussion boards to online stores, gambling, social media and streaming audio and video. And it seems like it happened overnight.

Yes, it took over 1,600 words to get here, but the punchline is this: The important work and the important life are creative. Go out and practice creativity.


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