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Polymath: creativity teaching is the symptom, not the cure.

Teaching creativity is a relatively new thing. Brainstorming grew out of ad companies in the 1950s and lateral thinking was developed in the 1960s. What happened before then? Did Edison or Tesla see any need to teach creativity- or even impart their own ideas on the subject? Did Proust or Picasso? Was it that creativity was seen as the province of the genius or the artist or the inventor, a talent they had that no ordinary person could hope to understand?

I think the reverse. That a creative response was so normal that no one thought it needed isolating and encouraging…until corporations discovered that dominating the world with a few brands made more money than having lots of things appearing on a local scale, different and various the world over.

Reducing the work of a company to making lots of one thing- such as a Model T Ford, reduces the creativity required along the production process. No one working a till in Macdonalds is thinking how to improve a big mac.

But when you force conformity onto people they notice something is wrong. They feel constrained and underutilised. Being creative is a normal part of being human- whether it’s problem solving, improving, or coming up with new products. But strip that away and people hanker after a chance to be ‘creative’. They attend courses on being creative as a reaction to its disappearance rather than as a real method to become ‘more creative’. The ‘creativity’ movement is therefore a symptom rather than a cure.

Teaching creativity gets some results- at first. People learn to use what they know, combine it in new ways. Then they quickly run up against a problem. They don’t have wide range of knowledge to drawn upon.

It is not the depth of your knowledge that affects creativity, it is the width of the range. However that knowledge must be your ‘own’ in some sense. A mere passing acquaintance is not enough.

If you look at the background of 19th century inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs it was polymathic. Many started by doing humble skilled labour and only gradually moved into more technologically advanced areas. They could almost all make things with their hands. Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison were makers as much as thinkers.

Being able to make something is a special kind of knowledge- tacit knowledge in as much as it not just ‘content’, something written down. For ‘head people’, those who naturally take to content acquisition through reading, the act of learning how to make things, and getting better at it, provides much more powerful learning heuristics for any kind of future knowledge acquisition. It means you aren’t scared by the prospect of having to master a new field.

James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory (who has just, aged 90+ published a fascinating autobiography ‘Homage to Gaia’), was also an independent scientist and inventor with many patents to his name. In a way he was a throwback to the 19th century model of the innovator. Instead of starting with a degree, he ended up at university after working for some years in a photographic lab. In the lab he became  skilled at manipulating chemicals and performing difficult chemical processes with great precision. When he finally studied chemistry at university he was accused of ‘cheating’, because the lecturer was so used to the sloppy efforts of unskilled undergraduates that he couldn’t believe in the perfect results, which Lovelock achieved. Lovelock was also able to make his own glassware and used a watchmaker’s lathe to turn small metal components he needed. This kind of skill allows one to visualise without hindrance all kinds of improvements. Though there are dress designers who cannot draw, there are none who cannot sew. Likewise it helps if you want to innovate in the physical world that you know how things are made- and making them is the only real way to learn. Yet making things is not on the curriculum unless you are ‘less able’.

But it is everyone who needs grounding in these skills. It is the mulch, the fertiliser, the fertile soil of real innovation in problem solving and product design and even creative writing. Making things provides new insights into how to learn. It breaks you out of the world of ‘content’. And when you make something, you own that knowledge.

You need a bedrock of material that is your own. In the movie Limitless the main character takes a drug that enables him to use everything he has ever learnt or ever seen. He’s seen kung-fu movies so when he’s in a fight he’s suddenly a kung-fu master. He’s able to piece together all that he’s heard about various companies and use that to make money on the stock market. It has a rather weak ending (and the dulling prospect of a TV series to follow) but the idea is good; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use everything we know?

But the nub of it hinges on what we mean by ‘know’. If, as in the movie, it just means ‘having heard of it casually’ then obviously we don’t really ‘know’ it in any useful sense. If, however, we’ve made it ‘our own’ in some way or another then we can say we know it. Mathematician Geoffrey Chaitin makes the valid point that having read lots of proofs and learnt them is not the same as doing your own proof. His view is that by doing your own proof you own that bit of maths. I sat down the other day and worked out my own version of a proof for pythagorus’s theorem, one of the most basic tasks in maths, just to test this idea. It felt different, I had shifted from mere reading and consuming to really using some creative part of my brain. I firmly believe that maths should be taught using biographical and historical details about how each discovery came about and encouraging kids to emulate this- calculus as it evolved over time is a lot easier to make sense of (if you are not that mathematically inclined) than in the hyper arid and abstract version it appears in modern maths textbooks.

Back to Limitless- the movie was a pleasant fantasy in that it conflated what we are acquainted with, with what we know. Polymathics seeks to expand the zone of what we know to such a level that one becomes, in a sense, limitless. In the movie the character could focus and learn rapidly- these are both skills that polymathists have developed. In order to be polymathic you need to have some learning heuristics that make learning easy and predictable and rapid. Specialists are sometimes specialists out of a kind of pessimism- they are fearful that they can’t learn anything else fast enough or well enough. If you are confident that you can learn pretty much anything rapidly and easily then you are more likely to be adventurous and open to learning new things.

The wider the range of things you really know, the more ammunition you have when you need a creative solution. If you don’t have this background knowledge, all the brainstorming in the world will just turn up mediocre results.

It is my contention that valuable, but ultimately limited, results can be achieved by teaching people creative techniques. What we really need to teach is the desire to be polymathic. With a well stocked brain the real creativity will follow.


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