In Praise of Wandering

Bill Watterson is one of the best cartoonists of all time. I’d say he’s the best. I can’t imagine a better art, better characters, or a better strip than Calvin and Hobbes. It was brilliant when I was a kid and it’s brilliant now. It’s easy to wonder how such a prolific author came up with so much great art in one lifetime.

In the Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book, Watterson speaks about his own creative process, specifically how he came up with ideas for his strip. He wrote:

People always ask how cartoonists come up with ideas, and the answer is so boring that we’re usually tempted to make something sarcastic. The truth is, we hold a blank sheet of paper, stare into space, and let our minds wander. (To the layman, this looks remarkably like goofing off.)

Like most of the work Watterson has produced, there’s a gem in it: goofing off is how creativity works. The really great ideas, the really incredible ones, usually come from the metaphorical gambol.

As scientists study creativity and the creative process, we are coming to understand that great ideas come from the physical gambol as well. Recently, a Stanford study found that walking increases creative abilities. The study used established tests to determine creativity levels, and found that walking results in drastic improvements in our ability to be creative.

Now what’s weird here is I think this is true. The old Greek philosophers thought the same thing, and personally I’ve come to some of my best ideas walking around with friends with no particular destination. But when you actually read how they’re studying creativity, it seems a bit off.

The study’s first test measured what the researchers term ‘divergent thinking,’ the thought process by which a person creates new ideas by exploring many possible solutions at once. In practice, the test involved sets of three objects that the subjects were given; they had four minutes to come up with as many responses as possible for different uses for the object sets.

The test measured the responses in two ways: novelty and appropriateness. A response was considered novel if no other participant in the study used it. Appropriateness was also measured, with the idea that some responses were just too silly to measure. For example, a ‘tire could not be used as a pinkie ring.’ The results had to be thought of as both novel and appropriate to be counted.

This begs a couple questions, though: who is deciding whether or not an answer is ‘appropriate?’ Ideas we take for granted now were not ‘appropriate’ when they were thought up. If you went back a little over a hundred years and told someone that you could split an atom and it would cause a huge explosion, they would laugh in your face. Now we take that as a matter of course because it’s happened more than a few times. Things that sound utterly silly in the beginning usually are the biggest ideas of any age.

Further, testing only for novel responses leaves parallel thinking, where people come up with new ideas simultaneously, on the table. When Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both tried to patent the telephone, was Gray’s invention not ‘creative’ because Bell got the patent? Or for that matter, was Alfred Wallace not creative because Charles Darwin theories were popularized first? Of course, they all were creative, and executed creative acts. You cannot say otherwise.

In another leg of the experiment, subjects were measured in their ability to generate complex analogies. The authors of the study explained:

The most creative responses were those that captured the deep structure of the prompt. For example, for the prompt “a robbed safe,” a response of “a soldier suffering from PTSD” captures the sense of loss, violation and dysfunction. “An empty wallet” does not.

I think an empty wallet does capture the idea of a soldier suffering from PTSD pretty well. If your wallet is empty, and you can’t pay rent, buy food, or get a Coke without stealing or begging for it, that’s a pretty good analogy for the desperation of PTSD; your situation has left you tapped out. But you can only truly judge how good an idea is based on context, and this experiment separates these ideas from any context.

For instance, if you say in a short story that ‘Joe felt like a robbed safe when he returned home from his fourth tour in Afghanistan,’ that might work well. But if you have Joe staring at his empty wallet, wondering where his next meal is going to come from, it could be a much more powerful metaphor of what is happening to him, depending on how it is written. After all, we don’t shame people for having empty safes. In fact, we bail those people out. It’s the empty wallet people, those are the ones we shame. Those people are the ones we sweep under the rug, and hope we never join their ranks.

But even the whole idea that you would test creativity by finding a correct or an incorrect answer is a little odd, isn’t it? After all, the light bulb wasn’t created as a ‘correct’ answer as to how one lights a room. It was, in itself, a whole new thing.

I admit wholeheartedly that these examples are nit-picky, but they serve a point: when look at these experiments closely enough, we keep running into the fact that creativity can’t be measured. It’s nebulous. You can’t give it a grade.

Isaac Asimov recognized this. And he knew a thing or two about the creative process; this is a guy who wrote almost five hundred books in all sorts of subjects, ranging from astronomy to religion to literary biography, in addition to his more famous science fiction and detective writing.

In 1959, he wrote an essay for Advanced Research Projects Agency, the precursor of DARPA, about creativity. Asimov explains that, while creativity requires isolation, it also requires us to work in groups. He proscribes that such groups be freed of responsibility, and that they be allowed to play. In a sense, he calls on ARPA to allow their researchers to goof off.

The funniest thing about his essay is that he recommends that the people involved be given some sort of busywork, just so they can feel like they earned their pay. It’s just silly; ARPA researchers were some of the smartest people in the country, brought in to solve some of the military’s most pressing problems. The idea that they thought they weren’t earning their pay thinking up new ideas, and that their lack of something tangible to turn in would make them nervous and ashamed, is laughable.

But even for us, who know creativity is so important, this is an anathema. We’ve been trained so thoroughly to conduct ourselves through grades and rubrics and immediate value that when we’re doing something that isn’t immediately useful, we don’t know what to do.

That’s why what Bill Watterson wrote makes so much sense. A person can’t measure creativity by a rubric, anymore than a teacher can give you an A+ for playing. Thus it requires us to do things that run completely counter to the way we are taught to behave. Even a great deal of creativity research, which should understand this, doesn’t seem to.

The fact is, we are taught to always be busy, to get the grade, but in order to be creative, we have to goof off.

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