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…