On Creativity and Productivity

Picasso - Nude on a Beach

I am writing this now in a website called Dr. Wicked’s Writing Lab, which encourages users to type fast or be subjected to a flashing screen and insistent noises. The point is to force you to stop thinking and start writing, and so far, it seems to work. I end up typing so fast that the reminders are hardly necessary. It’s an experience that makes me wonder about the nature of creativity.

When I mention that I work in architecture, people respond, “Oh, you must be very creative,” to which I usually admit, “I’m really not.” In fact, most adults, if asked, would say that they are not very creative. Why is that? I have heard various explanations as to why people lose their creativity as they grow older. Ken Robinson thinks it’s our education system, while others would argue that it’s the influence of television or any number of other reasons.

I would add another reason. I think just about anybody can be creative. Although I do not consider myself a creative person, I find that when I force myself to be, I can be very creative. This rarely happens by wishing it; more often, it takes an external stimulus, such as when I am asked to brainstorm. Asked to provide creative solutions to a clearly defined problem, I generate them quickly. Yet, when working on my own, I am rarely so productive.

When I think about productivity and creativity in others, one of the first people I think of is author Charles Dickens. Dickens did not hole up in a remote villa to spend decades creating finely tuned masterpieces. He wrote serially, submitting chapters at a time to magazines in order to make a living. This forced him to produce constantly — an external and immediate motivator, just like Dr. Wicked’s website.

I suspect that creativity does not often work the way most people think about it — as inspiration delivered by the muses out of the ether. The implication is that a creative person can sit still and be bombarded with ideas. With perhaps a few exceptions, the people who can do that have learned how to force themselves to PRODUCE ideas. The ideas are not coming from outside. If the rest of us want to be creative, we need to force ourselves into it.

I think this explains a lot of my own problems with productivity. In school, I worked very well with deadlines and assignments. In fact, I thrived in that environment because it forced me to be productive and creative, even if I did not particularly enjoy writing research papers or building models. Out of school, there are many things that I would enjoy doing: writing creatively, doing art, designing great buildings, wood working, building and repairing machines. And yet, I do not have a concrete MOTIVATION to do all of these things. And so, like most adults, I mostly do not do them. I think to myself, “I really should write something” or “I wish I had some musical talent.”

That’s why Dr. Wicked’s website makes me think that I should explore a different approach. Rather than just wanting to generate creative things, I need to force myself to do it. Creative productivity means focusing on quantity as a way to develop quality.

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