“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
We were all born spontaneous and creative. Every one of us. As children we accepted all things equally. We embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities for all kinds of things. When we were children, we knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on, and even a space helmet. Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. We did not strive to eliminate possibilities; we strove to expand them. We were all amazingly creative and always filled with the joy of exploring different ways of thinking.
And then something happened to us: we went to school. We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction toward a solution. Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we were taught to look for ways to exclude them. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark and graduated as a period.
Creative thinking is difficult for many of us, because we are taught to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternative ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We’re taught to exclude ideas and thoughts that are different from those we have learned.
Try this exercise created by Martin Gardner.
Can you change “100” to “CAT” by moving just two lines?
Before you go to school, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction. Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly.
When information enters the hall, it’s recognized, labeled, boxed, and then sent to one of the private rooms and trapped inside. One room is labeled “biology,” one room is labeled “electronics,” one room is labeled “business,” one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. We’re taught that, when we need ideas or solutions, we should go to the appropriate room and find the appropriate box and search inside.
We’re taught not to mix the contents of the rooms. For example, if you’re working on a business problem, go to the business room, and stay out of all the other rooms. If you’re working on a medical problem, stay out of the religion room; and if you’re an electronics expert, stay out of the agriculture room; and so on.
Maybe education’s stifling effect on imagination is why Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in all of history. Leonardo was born out of wedlock and therefore not allowed to attend school or university. Because of his lack of a formal education, his mind was like a cathedral with a long hall and no separate rooms. Through self-education and his innate curiosity, he enjoyed fluidity of thought, as his concepts, observations, and ideas intermixed and danced with each other. His mind integrated information instead of segregating it. He was, therefore, able to create astounding breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention, and medicine.
Adapted from Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko.