Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Creative causality

In an essay in this past week’s New York Times Weekend Review, Adam Grant returns us to that persistent 21st Century question of whether creativity can be taught.

Grant begins by observing that “child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world,” noting that, among the finalists of “the most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students,” the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, “just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.” This is not, apparently, because these child prodigies “lack the social and emotional skills to function in society”:

Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.
What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet…
In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner…
Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.
Except for Grant’s assumption that magnificent performances don’t require creativity or that creativity entails political wave-making, so far, so good. I’ve met plenty of smart, straight-A, high-scoring students, and plenty of smart, successful, well-respected professionals, who aren’t even interesting to talk to, let alone being repositories of creative, original ideas.

But when Grant addresses how to actually raise a creative child, he quickly confuses correlation with causation:
So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.
Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”
Perhaps flexible thinkers beget flexible thinkers, but can we confidently credit nurture over nature—even when it comes to thwarting?

Then there’s the gradual unfolding of intrinsic motivation and passion:
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.
When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.
Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.
Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers. When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.
Does this mean that making things enjoyable—or encouraging children to find “joy in work”--will automatically generate the requisite passion? Or might passion itself make certain things enjoyable—as well as deterring parents from pushing too hard? As with flexibility, so, too, with passion: how can we confidently credit nurture over nature?
Introducing another correlation-causality confound, Grant cites experiential breadth:
Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
Do travel, broad interests, dancing, writing poetry make you creative in your field, or does creativity (and ambition) in your field simply correlate with broader creativity and ambition?

Meanwhile, Grant suggests, too much narrow practicing is counterproductive:
Can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.
Right. And I’m guessing that it’s also true that if you reverse the notes on the piano, the most practiced pianists of the world will have a much harder adapting than the piano novice. In fact, as the most creative musical performers of the world readily show us (because, once again, contrary to what Grant suggests, there is plenty of creativity in musical performance) the blind, thoughtless automaticity that extensive practice leads to liberates our minds for higher-order thinking, including creativity. Or, to cite another creative individual:
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.


Anonymous said...

Right on. I am with you on almost all points. However, I did like his idea of having no rules for the kids. It is not like that I am trying to nurture creativity. I am just not good at setting rules. Hopefully my son will be very creative.

zb said...

“just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.” -

?? is this really worse than some other group of kids chosen at 17? For example, what percent of kids rated as high in creativity at 17 go on to win Nobels (we'll broaden that to include any of them) or become NAS members (or the equivalent arts version)?

"Do travel, broad interests, dancing, writing poetry make you creative in your field, or does creativity (and ambition) in your field simply correlate with broader creativity and ambition? "

You could also add, does being a Nobel Laureate give you the opportunity to explore other interests in a way that being a workman scientist doesn't? I'm guessing it's easier to get cast in a play if you have the nobel prize cred already.

Anonymous said...

This is from the comment section of "Kitchen Table Math" blog: The Westinghouse winners are about 2,500 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize (Mark Roulo.) I just finished reading "Wired to Create" by Scott Barry Kaufman. Looks to me like the creativity has a lot more to do with nature rather than nurture....

Auntie Ann said...

There's a famous story from my college of a creative type. He nearly got expelled and possibly arrested for stealing a pig from a farm (which would have been a felony) and holding a luau in his dorm. One of his professors knew the student well, and knew he was brilliant. He intervened and did everything he could to help the kid avoid serious punishment, and convince the school not to expel him.

Robert Noyce later went on to be one of the inventors of the integrated circuit and a founder of Intel.