By Kavin S Kanagasabai 

Creative individuals, truly, are ‘unreasonable’ because they defy the norm, and are undaunted by the grotesque and the abnormal. They delight in dallying amorously with the unusual, the unorthodox and the unconventional. Every progress and every advance that humanity has so far attained is due to the creative powers of exceptional minds.

One may master all the rules of rational thinking and the principles of logic: it will not help. The pursuit of knowledge, the discovery of truth, and the wisdom of life, in truth, fall incalculably outside the ordered realm of rationalism and logic; for life is too fluent and too changeful interspersed with shocks and surprises. The puzzles of life cannot always be cracked with stereotyped responses; they call for creative examination.

Creativeness calls for the courage to conceive ideas and visualise events outside the orbit of logic and the realm of rationality. In popular language, it is known as ‘thinking outside the box’! That is what creativity is all about: taking the un-trodden path that no one has taken before! Creativeness is the unfettering of intellectual imprisonment from the shackles of conventional and conservative dogmatism.

Impossible it will be for any individual to be creative who locks himself in the chambers of dogmatic intellectualism and contents himself in the narrow boundaries of axiomatic theories. Creative thinkers share certain characteristics in common: they do not fear stepping into unfamiliar domains; they unflappably flirt with unrelated fields of knowledge; and they enthusiastically undertake voyages into unknown disciplines. If truth be uttered, creativity is not for those who are impoverished in the quest for imaginative thinking.

Most of us are held back in our assumption that creativity is always about discovering or inventing something fundamentally new or novel, and therefore, it is a prerogative of a gifted few. What an unalloyed misconception!

For a fact, creativity is an aptitude to relate seemingly unrelated concepts into something exceptionally different. Creativity flowers through the convergence of disparate ideas, concepts or thoughts.

Linear thinking versus intersectional thinking

Since formal education is designed to master the fundamentals of specialist disciplines, it, dutifully, shapes the mind in the mould of linearity. In other words, linearity is one-dimensional thinking! It subjects the mind to inquire in terms of reasoning and logical analysis whilst depriving, at the same time, the ability to think outside the beaten track. It, thus, becomes an exercise in mastering the mundane and the monotonous making predictable changes along the way.

Linear thinking is incapable of stirring radical changes because it limits the expanse of its circle within which it conducts its adventure in learning. It dares not step out of the circle as it satiates itself with making little improvements here and minor changes there with minimal disruption to the status quo. Most of the innovations stimulated by linear thinking are of this kind: policy changes, process changes, structural changes fall into the linear category. These are not earth-shattering or life-changing transformations but incremental improvements.

Intersectional thinking, in contrast, moves in unpredictable directions, which, as a consequence, can change the context radically. Intersectional thinking uninhibitedly cuts through various fields, disciplines, areas and domains to create connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts; it creates breakthrough ideas and concepts.

Examples in intersectional thinking abound: whether it is Steve Jobs integrating the aesthetics that he learned through the course in calligraphy and integrating that knowledge into iMacs, iPods, iPhones or iPads; whether it is Alexander Graham Bell who had combined his interests in mechanics, ventriloquism, speech therapy and music to invent the telephone; or whether it is Leonardo da Vinci who drew his abundance of knowledge and inspiration from the various disciplines such as engineering, sculpting, painting, architecture, geology and anatomy-they all point to the ability of these men to relate the unrelated into a unique outcome.

As a rule, intersectional thinking demands an open mind to connect concepts and theories from one discipline with concepts and theories in another. Whether it is about food recipe, telecom networks or academic research, linking unrelated concepts is a thing of beauty in itself and it lies at the core of creativity. Intersectional thinking is easy since its secret lies in the interlinking and interlocking of disparate ideas and bringing about a synthesis.

Barriers to creative thinking

Creativity cannot be bought or faked; nor can it be learned from books but it can be developed with a little adjustment in how we think. The barriers to creativity reside in the mind as conceptual blocks freezing our ability to conceive alternative solutions and ideas to problems and constraints. At every moment, each one of us is bombarded with far more countless sensations than we can possibly handle. As you read this, you probably are not aware of the existence of your eyes, the sounds in the background or the feel of your clothes on your skin. Even though all of this information is available, you probably were not aware of any of it until and unless you consciously paid attention to those sensations.

We obviously cannot pay attention to the infinite stream of stimuli competing with one another to grab our conscious attention. Doing so would subject us to information overload and drive us to madness. Hence, we filter out those stimuli that are not relevant and selectively attend to those that we deem useful for our purpose. This selective attention, aside its usefulness, censors vital and useful clues which probably could have life-changing potential.

Formal education has moulded us to think in terms of logic and reason. The obsession with ‘right’ answers has always taken precedence over ‘imagination’ whilst at work. The fetishism with the proper way to do things has been given importance over ‘innovativeness’. This has led to the petering out of improvisation and experimentation killing creativity in the process.

Creativity often suffers at the hands of four shortcomings: constancy, commitment, compression and complacency.

Constancy: A universal principle has been decreed upon us that constancy in thought, word and deed is a virtue. Any individual lacking in constancy is liable to be labelled as untrustworthy, unreliable and undesirable. In organisations, the primary function of control systems is to minimise deviation from the established standard. Constancy, doubtless, is taken to a divine status in the everyday scheme of things. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, the same constancy, that aims to bring expected results, stamps underfoot the speck of creativity struggling to unleash its creative expression.

Most people, when confronting a problem, deal with it based on their past experiences or look for a precedence in resolving it. They think vertically! Not laterally! A vertical focus assumes a narrow gaze defining the problem in only one way rather than interpreting it in multiple ways. Any individual possessed by a conviction that it is not worth considering many alternatives will remain incapacitated in creative thinking.

The bane of constancy also arises in limiting oneself to subjecting a problem to single interpretation. A problem, for instance, can be defined and assessed in multiple interpretations: through non-verbal or symbolic interpretation, numerically or algebraically; using sensory impressions such as smell, taste, sound, touch, seeing; through feelings and emotions such as excitement, happiness, anger, hatred; or using visual imagery such as mental maps. The more variegated the interpretation of a problem, the better are the chances of coming up with creative outcomes.

Constancy is inimical to creativity. Constancy is nothing but a procession of sameness, or similarity

Commitment: Another virtue that stands as an obstacle to creativity is commitment. It causes the creative juices to freeze especially when we define problems in the light of past experiences. The general human tendency is to see current problems as variations of past occurrences, hence we develop solutions similar to the ones that have worked in the past, totally oblivious that problems can be seen in new ways and interpreted differently. The commitment to the past enables us to deal with problems only stereotypically, not innovatively.

Commitment to a particular viewpoint may also inhibit in seeing commonalities among different problems and coming up a single idea that addresses many issues at the same time. Viewing disparate elements holistically is an attribute of creative thinkers. Ray Kroc, the man behind the creation of McDonald’s did not invent fast food. He was a salesman before he connected different ideas into something unique. Connecting a standardised menu, uniform cooking methods, consistent service quality, hygiene in facilities, low cost food production and disposable eating materials, whilst combining them with his sales experience, negotiating talent, relationship building, entrepreneurial ambition, he demonstrated a unique approach to creativity. Not one individual attribute mentioned above is unique but he integrated them to produce an idea that, to this day, remains a powerful and profitable business model.

Compression: Too much information and too much data are adequate to drive anyone crazy. In addition, time pressure and resource scarcity constrain our ability to look at a problem widely. In the process, we screen out a lot of details. We impose artificial constraints upon ourselves when we deal with problems. We draw boundaries, sit inside them and conjure up answers to our riddles. There is an aversion either due to personal choice or impersonal influences to brainstorm adequately in dealing with problems. Often, people make assumptions without recognising them and exploring available alternatives to tap into hidden clues.

Compression also saps the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff-an ability to cull out inaccurate, misleading or irrelevant information. Indiscriminate minds weave a mishmash of data into a chaotic bundle only to become burdened by its weight. It increases complexity of the problem whilst defying the simplicity of problem definition.

Complacency: Simply interpreted, it is mental laziness! It arises out of lack of curiosity and aversion to mental work. Unwillingness to ask questions, procrastination to learn and fear of embarrassment of exposing one’s ignorance are some of the reasons why people become less curious. Two aspects are vital here: 1) an enthusiasm to ask questions and 2) an eagerness to find answers.

Overcome mental inertia! Creativity happens when you use the right side of your brain which is concerned with intuition, synthesising and playfulness. Our highly structured education and regimented work tend to lay emphasis on using more of the left part of the brain which is responsible for logical, analytical and sequential tasks, and rarely its counterpart sitting at the opposite end.

Use both sides of the brain to be creative. Whilst the right hemisphere helps in germinating creative ideas, its left counterpart complements by processing and interpreting them through logical analysis.

Competition today comes from every nook, direction and corner of the universe. The greatest competitive advantage lies not in income gap, entitlement gap, education gap or skills gap; it lies in creativity gap. Creativity increasingly will become the deciding factor between the haves and the have-nots of the contemporary world.