SXSWedu Part IV: Does creativity have an age?
The link between the passing of time and maintaining a certain creative ability has been the subject of many studies, in the case of individuals as well as organizations. The characterization of this link is difficult and emotionally charged, an awkward expression, particularly when it comes to the individuals that we are. It is precisely this individual perspective that will hold our attention in this post.
To the title question, three answers stand out, three schools of thought. (1) To the first of these schools, it is in our infancy that our creative capacity is at its peak. As life proceeds, this ability gradually reduces. The explanatory factor is the decreasing strength of our imagination and the gradual integration of sterile social and cultural constraints. (2) If the second school also recognizes the strength of our creative ability in infancy, however it does not consider its decline linearly as a function of age. Proponents of this perspective ascertain that our creative ability diminishes during adolescence and the early years of adulthood, to thereafter regain strength and then gradually shrink again at a later more advanced age. The explanatory factor is mainly that of power. Power of imagination in the very young child and the effective power of adults in midlife, when access to various resources is at its peak. (3) The third school draws, for its part, the profile of our creative capacity as "U" shaped. It dominates childhood and again with old age. The explanation? Freedom; maximum in early childhood and again regained with age as we are able to free ourselves from constraints that we previously had to submit to.
If the vision of the first school mentioned seems to rule for many of our contemporaries, it is probably because we tend to consider our creative ability as a "quantity" or internal "reserve” which gradually, although irregularly and with joyful rebounds, tends to decrease with age. What is sometimes called a creative breath loses strength and depletes. This view reminds me of Carpocratians, one of the most curious sects of history. Carpocrates were disciples active in the second century AD, who saw evil as a defined internal amount. To break free from this amount given or fixed before death, it was necessary to exhaust these reserves by engaging in the worst crimes and debauchery. Robbery, rape, incest, depravity and murder, every opportunity should be seized to squander the evil that was inside oneself. After such a life spending evil, you could join heaven perfectly pure… Dreadful theory; we know of course that evil begets evil. It is not a capacity whose quantity is finite. This ability develops, creates, first by the effect of its own practice.
If creativity is an ability, and an ability is built primarily endogenously through its own practice, and if we seem to strongly hold this capacity since our childhood, why does it not increases progressively with age, a characteristic unobserved by studies? Answering this question requires us to introduce a new dimension: our creative ability is not only formed within our inner space, it is not entirely individual. Our external environment affects it. Quickly, the development of this capacity therefore involves our relationship with others and, more broadly, a social and cultural whole. If it often tends to decrease with age, it is primarily because we integrate a number of rules that enlighten our decisions, often for the better, but also restrict us. If we are not careful, we then run the risk an alert thought or creative thinking becoming an inert or reproductive thought. Note that what is true for an individual is also true for an organization.
The conclusion I draw from teaching what has become "university course material", creativity? The following: promoting the development of creative ability in an individual can not be done only by working on the individual level but also requires consideration of the person’s relationship to the world. It is indeed in this relationship between me and the world that resides the ability to create.
Borrowing the words from Jacques Brel, which I like a lot:
"There always comes a time when, as a child, looking at the adults around us and we think: is it them who are completely stupid, or me. I believe that in our lives, many things depend on the answer we give to this question."
I concluded my previous column with the following question: "To increase freedom," shouldn’t that be the primary purpose of the transmission of knowledge? Increasing freedom is also teaching our students, whomever they are, to say "shit".
More from Pierre Balloffet's series on Education:
Photo: Old Man and his Music, Patrick Reardon (Water Color, many layers)