Sunday, April 10, 2011

Creativity, innovation, and the p in small p politics

When we're kids we're full of curiosity and wonder about the world that comes from our human need to learn and grow and develop. This doesn't stop in adulthood, but it seems to be about the first thing that earns political mistrust. (I'm talking small p politics.)

At work, there is nothing more exciting than sharing new ideas and solutions with enthusiastic colleagues who can help refine and improve them, provide advice, and put you in contact with others working on the same trajectories. I'm sure many people have had these positive kinds of experience.

On the other hand, there is almost nothing so hurtful as the assumption that creative enthusiasm is an attempt at one-upmanship or some kind of political manoeuvre. This assumption is a three pronged jab. It kills joy, it institutes mistrust, and it reinforces a cynicism about human nature that assumes that unless there's some form of power at stake, people will remain inert and idle when it comes to exercising their creative capacities.  It can come from peers in the form of ressentiment, or from "leaders" who need to rule the idea space.

I think of the word "geek" and how it is used to describe people who have a natural non-power-seeking interest in a subject. As teens we learned it's embarrassing to be a geek. We conspire against ourselves as teenagers to conform our self-expression to the norm.

I attended a talk last fall given by Julie Diamond who said that using your personal power (creativity, personal strengths) is generally frowned upon - people learn to be self-inhibiting, because that is supposed to make us non-intrusive. The point was that to be human, and fully democratic, we need to find ways of allowing self-expression without feeling threatened or intruded upon, threatening or intrusive.

Next time you inhibit your own creativity or feel suspicious of that of others, ask yourself why. In this story about monkeys conditioned not to go for a bunch of bananas, the inhibition was the legacy of some experimenter. But in our world, there was never any experimenter, so I wonder what legacy we are sustaining with our inhibitions.

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