Creativity and anger

As both an engineer and an academic, one of the phrases that I hear very often is “thinking outside of the box”.  Creativity is seen as one of the most valuable tools for engineers and academics, but it is also one of the most difficult tools to teach or cultivate.  There have been many books and papers written on this subject, but there is still much that could be improved.  In an attempt to further the cause of cultivating creativity, I would like to enter a “case study” into the discussion.

This past weekend, I was with some friends, and I proposed a new idea that I had just come up with.  The idea had popped into my head that morning, and in my mind, had the potential to make a small impact on the world; I was proposing a separation platform that could be used to cure cancer and disease.  In my mind, this was an exciting topic, and even though I did not have any details worked out, I felt that my friends would share my excitement because these were the same friends that would tell me that my artwork was “good”.  These were some of my closest friends, who have supported me for years, but their reactions surprised me.  They got angry!

The hubris and ego that they perceived really set them off.  Who was I to come up with a solution that millions of people have been looking for over thousands of years?

After the anger settled, the next stage was criticism.  “Haven’t scientists used that technique before?”  “Do you know how difficult that would actually be to put into practice?” “Are you prepared to dedicate the time and energy necessary to deal with clinical trials?”  The questions went on for a little while, and the anger subsided (perhaps because my friends were beginning to feel like they were “winning” the conversation…).

Later that day, after I had had some time to think over the events that had unfolded very differently than I had expected, I began to see that this response was not that unusual.  So I began to question why this was the typical response, and I came up with a few ideas:

Societies throughout history have valued experience, and ours is no different.  So what is experience, but a long list of things that don’t work, with a few success stories sprinkled through?  And before we have had the time to develop our own experiences, we try build on the shoulders of our predecessors–some might call this an education.  Thus, much of our time spent in a classroom is learning how to put boundaries on our thoughts, a skill that is valuable in many areas of life (imagine if your boss decided she was going to make up the math used to calculate your paycheck).  But perhaps we need to develop a way to put these boundaries on hold every now and then, to produce ideas that will not be graded or evaluated.

I wonder how many people will get angry after reading this, and then settle into criticism…


6 thoughts on “Creativity and anger

  1. I find your experience interesting. Usually, I have the one who has gotten mad. Not because someone else has the audacity to think outside the box, but because they expect me to think inside the box. I think the scenario you describe is one that is likely repeated by many the thinker and like so many in the past, has met with resistance amongst the “establishment”. However, were it not for the thinkers of the past ignoring the anger and using the criticism constructively, we might still be “typing” with hammer and chisel into tablets made of stone. So, keep trying, keep thinking out loud, keep floating your ideas, no matter how “out there”. If nothing else, it will help your own thought process and teach you to tackle any issue from all different points of view, crafting your ideas into strong powerful tools that can propel you, and maybe others, into new innovations, boundaries be damned.

  2. As a fellow creative engineer and academic I have experienced similar situations. I think of myself as an “idea” kind of guy, and I am the first (usually) to admit that thoughts of what is realistic usually come a bit after thoughts of what “could be”. It is really frustrating to be met with such resistance when sharing out-of-the-box ideas with friends. One of the reasons I *want* to share these ideas is to see if there is a way to mesh them with reality, but rather than constructive criticism and “Let’s see how we can make this work” the attitude I am met with is usually “that will never work, why are you wasting time thinking about it?”

  3. As a fellow engineer and academic, I feel your pain. In the consulting world, thinking outside of the box often got me in trouble, sometimes with my supervisor or boss, and sometimes with the client. In that case however, I was innovating by introducing them to publications from the last ten years which recommend modifying the way we had been doing things. I too had the expectation that my contributions would be welcomed (if not celebrated), and was shocked at the actual response of anger, criticism, and disregard. I don’t want to say that we should teach our students to always think inside of the box, but it may not be providing them an advantage in the “real world” to get them used to innovation. Perhaps the solution is to help them learn to express new ideas in ways that don’t result in conflict? How much psychology can we work into the day-to-day classwork of engineering students?

  4. I think this can apply to more than just engineering. When people get set in a pattern of doing something, they do not like to change.

    “A body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force.”

    Objects don’t complain when an external force comes along, but people will. We tend to get comfy and cozy in our little box and opening it up causes discomfort. But mental discomfort is how people learn.

  5. Additionally, it is far easier to criticize something than to actually do something. Your experience makes be think about T. Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”.

  6. this kind of response has always infuriated me. if everyone had your friends’ attitude, nothing would ever get researched. someone has to come up with the big world-changing ideas for progress to even happen. why *can’t* it be you?

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