A Framework for Creativity

Last week I kicked off the topic of creativity. I said that the most valuable aspect of creativity is the creative act, proper—that moment where you get an idea, insight, or vision out of nowhere, like a flash of lightning. I also said that this creative act is based on synthesis, meaning the ability to connect the seemingly unrelated in ways that lead to something new.

If you missed it or need a refresher, here’s the piece:

Today’s focus

Today I want to start to flesh out the framework I introduced at the end of that email, what Iain McGilchrist calls the three interactive cognitive requirements for creativity. The framework consists of:

  • the generative,
  • the permissive,
  • and the translational.

Learning how to engage the framework will translate into more creativity, more success, and more fulfillment.

I’ll start with a general overview of the framework and then use subsequent issues to drill deeper into each one and talk about how you can incorporate them into your life.

But first, a couple considerations

I should point out before we go further that this framework is not designed to give you mastery over creativity. You cannot control creativity, meaning you simply can’t make an ah-ha! moment happen. In fact, the harder you try to grasp and control the creative act, the more elusive it becomes.

A good example of this is when you’re trying to remember someone’s name. You may even feel it on the tip of your tongue, but it eludes you. You’ve probably noticed that the harder you try to remember the farther it recedes from your mind. Focusing, strangely, doesn’t help. However, hours later when you’ve completely moved on, the name will just pop into your head.

Tom! That’s it—his name is Tom.

This happens because you’ve stopped trying to force it. You’ve moved on and are concentrating on other things, and that allows your mind to solve the problem unhindered—and offer it up to you at the most unexpected time.

The creative act is exactly like this. It cannot be controlled or be made to work on command.

Even so, we absolutely can do things that help it happen more frequently and with higher quality. This is what the three-part framework is all about.

In essence, by engaging McGilchrist’s framework, you’re creating the terms on which the creative act will arrive.

If this sound a little squishy, don’t worry. You’re not alone. We live in a 4-Hour-Workweek world and because of this we’re inured to the idea that everything can be reduced to simple, controllable parts. Thus, our instinct is to look for creativity “hacks” that give us a shortcut to the finish line. That approach may be fine for most of the things you and I encounter daily, but it falls miserably short when it comes to creativity because the creative act isn’t some biological or cognitive process that can be reduced and controlled. There is something truly mysterious and hidden about creativity. So much so, that psychologists, neurobiologists, and cognitive scientists still don’t understand how it works.

With some of the qualifiers out of the way, let’s talk about the actual framework.

The generative

The generative requirements consist of the cognitive things you can (and should) do to make room for the creative act to generate, or happen.

It requires the ability to think of many diverse ideas quickly and to see likenesses within apparent dissimilarities. In other words, it requires divergent thinking. This ability to make connections is because the core of the creative act is synthesis, as I stated in last week’s issue. To that end, a lot of the generative is focused on giving your mind great material to work with while at the same time using it in ways that encourage divergent thinking.

The permissive

The permissive requirements consist of the cognitive things you should not do in order to make it permissible to happen, meaning not doing or avoiding certain things that get in the way of the creative act in order to create a permissive environment for the creative act to happen in.

This means not trying to control the creative act, as I said above, but also includes choosing to live certain ways that make room for the creative act to happen. For example, you’d be surprised how many tough problems are solved while people are walking. This is not because walking makes us more creative but because we’re often in a more relaxed state of mind that permits creativity to happen.

The translational

The translational requirements consist of the cognitive state necessary to bring the creative act into existence. It’s all about having what’s necessary to translate your idea or insight into something “real”, be that a piece of music, a strategy, or a new product.

The translational requires equal measures of courage and reason.

Courage, because we have to be willing to try to bring our vision or insight into being. It’s one thing to have an amazing idea, but it’s something completely different to set about to make that idea a reality. We need courage because often our ideas are larger than us and we stand a good chance of failing in our endeavor to bring it about. In fact, failure looms so large that most of us never attempt to bring our ideas into being for fear of it.

Reason, because although the creative act—that ah-ha! moment—has nothing to do with reason, once we experience it, we need reason to help make it a reality. We use reason to understand our vision, to decompose it into manageable parts, to add structure, and then to bring it all back together into a greater whole.

Process vs lattice

The three don’t comprise a process of successive steps in which first you do the generative, then the permissive, and lastly the translational. Yes, they are somewhat ordered, but they are more interactive in nature and you might find that you bounce back and forth between them, and even combine them at times, as you work to bring something to life.

To recap:

  1. The creative act cannot be controlled and the more we try to control it the more it will elude us
  2. There are three interactive cognitive requirements that form a loose framework for creativity: generative, permissive, and translational
  3. The generative requirements are the things you should do to make room for the creative act to happen
  4. The permissive requirements are the things you should not do in order to stay out of the way of the creative act
  5. The translational requirements are the things needed to bring your idea, vision, or insight into being
  6. In all this, the framework is not a successive three-step process, but rather is an interactive set of cognitive requirements that create the terms on which the creative act will arrive

Hopefully I’ve been able to give you a basic understanding of the framework. I know this issue may have been a little academic in nature, but having roughed out the latticework I can get to the work of the more transformational, and interesting, details in subsequent issues.