How Valuable are Artists’ Thoughts?
by Lynn S. Schwebach
Eli Broad, founder of two Fortune 500 companies, billionaire, philanthropist, education reformer, and world-class art collector, said something essential about creativity this week.
In an interview, Broad told Charlie Rose that he’s learned a lot from artists. When Rose pressed him about what he’s learned, he replied: “I’ve learned to be a lot more ‘broad’ minded. Artists see the world differently than bankers, lawyers – than we business people.”
Excuse the pun, but Broad stated in the simplest terms how thinking broadly, or expansively, or with a wider lens has made a difference in his life, work, and now philanthropy. He began collecting art in the early 1970s, and soon became friends with the artists whose work he collected.
For the next forty years, Broad associated with artists, gallery owners, and museum curators – a much different group of individuals than he had known up until this point in his life. He saw how they approached and solved problems, and saw the value of applying this way of thinking across his businesses and philanthropic work.
This type of thinking that Broad found so revolutionary is what psychologists call divergent thinking – thinking that demands flexibility, or expanding thoughts to come up with multiple ways to solve problems and develop solutions. In other words, divergence doesn’t assume there is only “one right answer” to a given problem – the standard bubble sheet type of evaluation. Instead, divergent thinking connects many ideas and thoughts from disparate areas, even those that seem the most outrageous, and brings them together into a unique, often brilliant solution.
Divergent thinking leads to novel, original ideas and breakthroughs. Divergent thinkers are found among all domains: business, the physical and social sciences, politics, and the arts. Divergent thinkers find alternative ways to power cars and heat homes, to solve international crises, to discover medical cures, to respond to national disasters, and to help the disabled, those struggling financially, or with a mental illness.
Entrepreneurs and professionals use divergent thinking to grow successful businesses, and invent powerful new technologies. Jef Raskin, credited with starting a project at Apple called the Macintosh, said in interviews before he died that if he hadn’t had a music background, the Macintosh would have never been invented.
The opposite of divergent thinking, and what school systems tend to reward, is convergent thinking. Standardized tests and IQ tests evaluate convergent thinking – thoughts based on an analytical framework that yields one right answer for each question.
No one argues that convergent thinking is not an essential skill. When selecting from numerous divergent ideas, an individual must use analytical and logical thought to identify the best, most appropriate solution. Raskin would probably be the first to say that his master’s degree in computer science was necessary to give him the technical understanding to build the Macintosh.
But in today’s educational environment, convergent thinking is seen as the first and only educational priority. Many education reformers and policy makers emphasize analysis and logic above all else. They stress standardized tests as the gold standard in learning. When budgets need to be cut, it’s the visual and performing arts programs that get the axe.
What accountability advocates overlook is the need for divergent thinking in a highly complex world. Many still categorize creativity as something individuals are born with, something magical, or inexplicable only relegated to those in the arts. They fail to see the interdisciplinary nature of innovation; they see creativity as an extravagance not a necessity.
Ashok N. Hegde, Ph.D., is an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. His research focuses on learning and memory.
As a scientist, Hegde said, “creative thinking helps me ask new scientific questions that people haven’t thought of before. Also, in my day-to-day work, creative thinking helps me in designing the right kind of experiments and to come up with innovative new techniques to do our research.”
Creative thinking, Hegde maintains, allows individuals to go beyond the obvious and to make leaps of imagination. “While incremental non-creative types of thinking might lead to solutions to some problems eventually, effective creative thinking would allow you to arrive at a solution to a problem in one fell swoop.”
Michael Lloyd-Billington, a personal trainer, yoga instructor, and counselor in Fort Collins, Colo., said that creativity is “invaluable in every avenue of his business.”
Whether teaching yoga or physical fitness, or in personal counseling, he must constantly find analogies and experiential examples that students relate to, or examples that honor their particular style of learning.
Within yoga and fitness training, for example, he constantly tries to come up with fresh images or wording to fit particular individuals, helping them connect their bodies with movements.
“I’m blessed to work with a wide range of ages and backgrounds,” Lloyd-Billington said. “Obviously a 20-year-old college student is going to relate to different words and cues than a 70-year-old retiree. Creativity helps me share in a way that fits the unique temperament and goals of each client.”
In counseling and teaching yoga philosophy, Lloyd-Billington finds analogies and creative examples to help clients understand abstract concepts and integrate them into their lives.
Leaders in higher education are also beginning to value creative thinking. In August 2011, the Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., told an audience of concerned parents at freshman orientation of the value of an architecture degree today.
Mark Gelernter admitted that the present job market for architecture students was challenging. However, he went on to describe some of the jobs that graduates from that program now held – with such companies as Google, Walt Disney Corp., and start-up companies in areas of green technology.
These students aren’t practicing traditional architecture, yet these companies value the type of thinking and creative problem solving that architecture programs teach.
In fact, Gelernter explained, the Dean of the College of Business was currently having discussions with him on integrating business and architecture classes.
Artists of all genres might have a way of looking at and solving problems that accountants or bankers or construction managers hadn’t ever considered. It might make sense, for instance, for a construction manager to ask a choreographer out for coffee. Asking that artist how he translates an abstract dance movement to his dancers might help the manager discover a way to explain technical concepts to workers on a tough construction project. Sound far-fetched? Well then try thinking of it another way.