Creativity Paradox

Guest Post: The Creativity Paradox

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Chicago-based author, screenwriter, endurance athlete, and forensic scientist(!), Greg Hickey. Greg has some interesting observations on how creativity can sometimes lead to its own undoing.  Greg is the author of Our Dried Voices, a dystopian fiction novel about what happens when humans no longer need to think and create in order to sustain their lives, and a Finalist for Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. You can read samples of Our Dried Voices and the rest of his written work on his website  Thanks Greg!


Humanity is moving toward a paradoxical state where our efforts for creative production and problem-solving eventually lead to an environment in which those efforts can be easily neglected. “Creativity is bound up in our ability to find new ways around old problems,” said psychologist Martin Seligman, and throughout human history, creativity has aimed to advance the goals of universal progress and the edification of human civilization, most often by responding to difficulties and challenges faced by humankind. As a species, we have built, cultivated, doctored, analogized and depicted in order to counteract natural elements, hunger, pain, disease and conflict. Even art is typically a response to a specific social condition, an urge to experiment with new materials or a struggle with a particular idea.

Yet we rarely stop to consider our ultimate end for all this instrumental creation. Imagine we one day discover a cure for HIV/AIDS that is completely effective, works rapidly, and can be manufactured at such low cost that we can quickly distribute it to every corner of the globe. That day may not be as far-off as it appears. AIDS, which has contributed to 39 million deaths since the start of the pandemic in the 1980s[i], has been far less devastating than the smallpox virus, which killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone[ii]. Yet smallpox was eradicated in 1979, giving us hope for an AIDS cure in the near future. And if we do ever eradicate AIDS, the world’s top virologists may wake from the champagne-soaked stupor of the previous night’s wholly deserved bacchanalia of triumph and relief to find themselves out of a job.

On the surface, the end goal of a painless, challenge-free life might seem ideal. But what would that life really look like?

Consider how you’d spend your time if you got snowed in from work or school.

You’d have the perfect opportunity to build a snowman, write some poetry, practice yoga on your living room floor or learn to cook a new meal. Or, as I suspect many of us might do, you could spend a few extra hours in bed, then recline in your remote-controlled La-Z-Boy and have lunch delivered to your door while you stream reality TV.

It’s no secret our lives have become increasingly intertwined with a host of technologies that eliminate inconveniences and automate mundane tasks. As a result, we are now healthier and safer and live longer than ever before. And thanks to technology, many of us never need worry about parallel parking, orienting oneself in a new city or preparing a meal from scratch. However, an overdependence on such technological systems allows humans the luxury of not developing the skills we would need to employ should those systems ever fail. In terms of this so-called automation paradox, creativity is a double-edged sword. The humans who developed these technologies did so with imagination and skill, and

at its best, technology frees us up to make better use of our creative capacities. Yet it also allows us to neglect those capacities and turn intellectual and skill-based activities over to automation, making us more comfortable and complacent and less creatively motivated.

More importantly, those little wrinkles of our lives we would like to gloss over often inspire creativity. In a recent TED Talk, economist Tim Harford explains how challenges actually stimulate new creative heights. Musician Keith Jarrett played the best-selling piano album and best-selling solo jazz album in history on a subpar piano. Students learn better when they receive lecture notes typed in an unusual font. People who are more easily distracted are more likely to have a big creative milestone at some point in their lives. Students asked to solve a murder mystery problem in groups of four did better when the group consisted of three friends and one stranger versus four friends, even though groups with a stranger reported having a more difficult experience and expressed greater doubt about their answers. And then there’s musician, composer and producer Brian Eno, who has created a special deck of cards for clients like Phil Collins, David Bowie, U2 and Coldplay from which he can draw at random and assign tasks like “change instrument roles” and “make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action” in order to encourage further creativity.[iii]

We are not far from the day when our lives will conform to automated systems and patterns, when each of us will wake to an alarm clock tailored to our sleep cycle, eat a pre-packaged, nutrient-balanced meal, ride a self-driving car to work, program inputs into a computer and monitor it while it spits out data, return home in another self-driver, eat another pre-packaged meal (within a single day, this life quickly becomes repetitive!) and assimilate the latest stream of the most popular media program before bedtime. It will soon be possible to exist without any demand on our physical and mental capabilities beyond the fortitude required to muddle through the mind-numbing tedium of our routines, a boredom which will also likely fade as we become accustomed to this repetition. Yet this existence hardly constitutes a human life.

Without creativity, productivity, thought and action, humanity is stripped of its essence.

Yet none of these elements can exist without some “why,” without some challenge that demands a response. And as much as the human race has suffered from its worst hardships, these challenges have inspired our greatest achievements.

There is nothing wrong with the desire to eliminate the adversities we currently face. Progress is not a bad thing. Technology is not a bad thing. Instead, complacency in the face of technological progress is the menace we increasingly face in the twenty-first century. More and more, the challenge of innovation becomes not to solve basic hardships, but to recognize, identify and conceive the new hardships that need solving. The creative spirit does not seek an end point to its creativity. Creativity is an end in itself because, though we humans are finite, we have the capacity to imagine the challenges and desires of humanity’s future, and because we owe it to ourselves to live, and not just exist.

[i] “Statistics: Worldwide.” amfAR. July 2015. Online. 26 Jan. 2016.

[ii] Saint Louis University. “How Poxviruses Such As Smallpox Evade The Immune System.” ScienceDaily. 1 Feb. 2008. Online. 26 Jan. 2016.

[iii] Harford, Tim. “How frustration can make us more creative.” Video. Sep. 2015. Online. 27 Jan. 2016.

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