août 29, 2014

Like oil and water


Lately I’ve been reviewing a big stack of papers I wrote in the winter, which will eventually become a book. Working title: Tell me a better story.

An essay focused on a few key ideas, but also a personal and revealing narrative. I hope to finish it before the year is out.

Today I’m offering you an initial excerpt of this work-in-progress – with more to come…


If I hear one more person say that being « creative » is the ability to better « solve problems », I’m going to scream.


Problem solving is a mode of operation radically different from a creative orientation.

Business executives can pay for as many seminars as they want to train their managers to more efficiently solve problems « creatively » — but if they remain prisoners of this fixation on the problems they will never discover the joy of creating.

No novel, no film, no choreography, no play was ever created to solve a problem.

A creative orientation allows the expression of what we carry inside and the exploration of possible worlds, which has nothing at all to do with the desire to resolve problems.

In fact, I think it’s better to think of these two approaches as mutually exclusive. Each has its value, its place, its application. But they don’t mix.

We confuse them because we don’t want to give up on the « problem » and we’re searching high and low for the best tool to crack it with. « Creativity » seems like the perfect fit — after all, isn’t creativity what the greatest geniuses use to solve the biggest problems?

To put an end to this confusion, let’s consider the differences between these modes.

When I’m in “problem-solving mode”:

  • I’ve identified a « problem », i.e., some situation that’s bothering me, hurting me, and that I’d like to get rid of. That there’s a bad smell in the kitchen, for instance.
  • That’s my starting point: something missing, or something that I think shouldn’t be there.
  • I put my energy and intelligence (including my « creativity », in the sense of my capacity to see things from different angles, to use my imagination) into finding a solution. I have one and only one goal: to get rid of the problem.
  • My intent is first and foremost functional. I want to correct some fault so that a defective or unhealthy system becomes functional again.
  • My attention is focused on the problem and its components.
  • The more intense and unpleasant the problem, the higher my motivation to solve it… But when my efforts start working (and hence my problem becomes less of a problem), my motivation to solve it weakens.

When I’m in “creative mode”:

  • I start from the perception of something that I want. I have a « vision », however imprecise or fragmentary, that attracts and guides me. Like a good smell would draw me towards the kitchen.
  • Once I start moving, I seek to reveal myself through this movement — i.e., I care about what I am expressing as I move, the way that a dancer cares about the quality, grace, and intention that animates his gestures as he moves through space.
  • My intent above all is to create beauty, which may include functionality, but not to the exclusion of aesthetic qualities.
  • My focus is on this not-yet-created-thing that takes shape little by little and takes on its own life. I facilitate and encourage its birth. I am aware that I’m caught up in forces beyond myself that are creating through me.
  • I don’t have any « problem ». The current situation is just information. I am facilitating the creation of something that didn’t exist before and that seeks to exist through me.
  • The distance between my vision and the realization of the vision generates a creative tension — which is what keeps me going. It pulls me forward until the vision is realized or until I can’t get any closer to it.

Like oil and water

In real life, the two modes may follow one another or may alternate. One can certainly begin with awareness of some problem, try to solve it, then adopt a creative orientation that explores possiblilities, which gives rise to a vision and further action.

Conversely, one can start out by being drawn to create something when suddenly a concrete problem arises (technical, logistical, structural) that must be solved before one can continue.

But there is a marked difference between the modes. And the two don’t mix, any more than water mixes with oil.

When I’m solving a problem, I seek to get rid of some stench coming from the kitchen. The more nauseating the odor, the stronger my determination.

When I’m creating, I am attracted by an intoxicating odor that comes from I know not where, but that guides my steps, and I want to discover its origin.

Or in other words:

I suddenly have the idea for a dish that would be delicious if I combined some ingredient with such and such spice. I am not totally sure about it because I never made the dish before, but I can almost taste it, I’ve already smelled the aroma — and I put myself to work.

When I’m problem solving, I am irritated. When I’m creating, I’m inspired.

Very different things.

And I wonder, Wonder… What’s your default mode, the one that occupies the better part of your time?

Your ally,


photo: Niklas Morberg