The Importance of Creativity

I never used to value creativity much.  Throughout my younger years, “creativity” was a word synonymous with “art,” and seeing as most kids fail to associate art with anything more than paint and crayons, I saw creativity as an extended version of recess, except it was during class time.  Art in school was the part where I could legitimately slack off, and no one could say anything about it.  I looked forward to being creative for the same reasons I looked forward to watching TV:  It was relaxing, I didn’t have to use my brain, and most of all, you couldn’t do it wrong.  Art was the easiest ‘A’ of the quarter.  Everyone got an ‘A’.  And that fact alone was enough to re-enforce what my parents had already begun to impress upon me:  In the face of science and technology, art isn’t worth too much.  Time spent being creative could be better used solving math problems and running science experiments.  Bettering myself.

That’s how I grew up.  Sure, my doodles would sometimes end up on the refrigerator, but they never generated the same respect from my parents that a perfect score on a test did.  Ten years later (and five years ago), I ventured off to study engineering in college with those very same ideas in my head, and my experiences in there only reaffirmed those beliefs.  President Obama has been quoted time and time again promoting awareness of America’s desperate shortage of students pursuing “STEM” Jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and our school newspaper had the stats to back up those claims; It seemed like no one studied science.  On top of that, the conventional wisdom floating around amongst the freshman poli-sci pontificators was that, “China is going to beat out America in like 10 years dude” and “Those Indians are crazy smart and they work so hard, they’re going to take over fersher.”

Even when spoken like that from a dudebro’s mouth, the argument seems pretty sound.  People in other countries, Asia especially, work much harder than we do, and they work on much more technical, STEM-y things.  It almost made me mad thinking about it.  Americans work days that are 4 hours shorter and weeks that are a whole day shorter, and they work on things that hardly even matter!  How could anyone deny we’re falling behind?  The evidence is right there in front of us!  We’re lazy!

Or so I thought.  Then I took a trip to Asia.

My brother had been living in Taipei, Taiwan for nearly a year at the time (this was at the end of this past June), and I figured visiting him was a good excuse to get out and see a new part of the world, so I took two weeks off work and hopped on a plane.  It only took a week there for my entire perspective on the situation to change.  The interesting part, though, is that it’s not like I was blown away by how wrong my information on Asian culture was–it was actually strikingly accurate.  Taiwanese students do indeed spend an enormous number of hours in school each day.  My brother had been going to school there as part of an exchange program, and he informed me that his high school started at 7:30am and let out at 5:00pm.  He also mentioned that though he didn’t do it, most of the students with any amount of self respect went to additional “cram schools” after regular school, where they studied and memorized everything they might need to know to pass the difficult college entrance exams.  So that much was true;  Asian students really did work much harder than American ones.  (For the record, I also stopped in Hong Kong for a few days and noticed the very same thing.)  What I did not anticipate was the social context of it all, and the impact that their relentless emphasis on good grades, high performance, and maximum output has had on their culture.

As much as I loved the people in Taiwan (and don’t get me wrong here, I had a brilliant time there and developed some truly wonderful relationships), there was a quality to nearly all the people there that I can only describe as being similar to that of an  airplane on autopilot:  They all knew where they were going in life, but rarely did they think to ask why.  Very few specifically chose to go where they were going and to do what they were doing.  They just sort of followed the path and got there.

I asked several people throughout my trip what kinds of things they recommended doing while I was on the island, and the vast majority of them gave me the same answers as the rest:  Go see the Chiang Kai Shek museum.  Go to this town and see the waterfall.  Eat this food.  It was as if they’d all memorized the same bulleted list in a government pamphlet.  I have nothing against being a tourist, but none of the people I asked gave me the things that they personally liked to do, and the more time I spent there, the more I realized it’s because they themselves don’t know.  They spend such an enormous amount of their time in school and doing things for other people that they don’t have any to themselves to develop their character and to learn about what they like to do.

Taiwanese guy with cell phone camera

Taking photos in water reflection

More photos in reflection

And it wasn’t just in asking for advice that I noticed it.  In Taiwan, everyone plays into a role, and if you want to play the “hip young college student” role, you’ve gotta get yourself a camera.  And you’d better make sure it’s an SLR, Rebel or better.  To them, it’s the item itself that matters, not it’s function.  But it seems okay at first, because at least if people are into taking photos, that means they’re showing little signs of creativity, right?  Wrong.  No one knows what to take pictures of.  They just shoot aimlessly at things that move and shine, or even better, they shoot in designated photography locations.  One of the days I was there, I visited a geo-park called Yehliu which is famous for its hoodoo stones, incredible rock formations created over thousands of years by the ocean.  The park was literally litered with the things, and so my brother and I wandered around for quite some time taking pictures of the stones.  When we were ready to leave, we started to head back to the car, but were promptly informed by the family who had taken us there that we shouldn’t leave yet, because we hadn’t taken the “good” picture.  The good picture was one in front of a hoodoo stone that had been named “the queen’s head” due to its slight resemblance to, well, a queen’s head.  The rock was not particularly better or worse than any of the others, save for two things:

1) It had an official name.

2) It had a sign posted in front of it that said “line for photos starts here.”  And I shit you not, it had a designated queueing line for people to stand in before they could take a picture of that particular hoodoo stone, and you better believe that line was a mile long.

The attitude is not “you can do,” it’s “you’re supposed to do,” and no one second guesses it.

I saw this phenomenon throughout the country.  Perhaps most amusingly, I noticed that if I were to stand somewhere and take a picture of something, even if that something were comprised largely of nothing (like a blank cement wall), people passing by with cameras would still stop and take a picture of it too, simply because I was doing it.  I assume their thought process went something like, “Why would this man be taking a picture if this wasn’t a designated picture-taking spot?  He wouldn’t, and therefor this must be something I’m supposed to take a picture of.”

After having made this connection, everything came full circle.  All of a sudden, art class in 3rd grade made perfect sense.  It wasn’t a waste of time.  It couldn’t have been farther from it.  3rd grade art is the reason that I developed the personality I have today.  It’s the reason I like both to develop software, and to produce music.  It’s the reason that I can aspire to one day be a filmmaker, entrepreneur, and world-famous DJ without being discouraged by the conventional “that’s not what you were trained for” clause.  Art gave me the time to think about me, and discover who I am.  Despite the fact that I work in software as do many Taiwanese, it’s my creativity that sets my life apart from all the peoples’ whom I met overseas.  Creativity gives me the ability to decide what I live for, and what I enjoy.  Creativity is the reason that when visitors ask me what to do in LA, my answer doesn’t start and end with The Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Sign.  And so I’ve totally flip flopped, because I get it now.  Yes, America could still use a significant boost in the STEM department, but by no means should we have to sacrifice our creativity for it.  Asia may be ahead in terms of sheer quantity of output, but so much of that output is emulation and copying;  Without the creativity they so frequently source from elsewhere, they’d have nothing to produce.

It seems I’m not the first to make this realization.  Here’s a brief interview with the former president of National Geographic Films.

One last thing.  A few days ago, my brother mentioned to me that he had had an interesting IM conversation with a friend of his who’d been raised in the typical sense by very traditional Chinese parents, and had recently left for college.  She now goes to a top tier school on a full ride scholarship, and is studying to go to med school.  This is the first significant amount of time she’s ever spent away from home.  My brother was kind enough to share an excerpt.  This, to me, shows just how much of an impact an upbringing can have on a child’s entire life.

Friend: Midlife crisis….haven’t even reached middle of my life yet. I can’t figure out what i want to do. or what classes to take next year.
everyone’s got a plan…or at least they seem like it. even if they’re not entirely plausible, they have a plan…
Brother: don’t worry so much!
You’re going to be fine!
Friend: what’s my goal in life?
Brother: Figure it out!
Friend: how?
Brother: Trial and error
Best method
Friend: problem is…i don’t know what i want. or what i like. i just do for the sake of doing and it sucks. so many people here are incredibly passionate about what they like. i’ve got no passion.
pharm could be interesting…i have to learn more
Brother: Watch YouTube videos
Friend: on what?
Brother: Stuff you might be interested in
See if you fall asleep or if you’re like, “THIS IS AWESOME!”
Friend: nothing makes me feel awesome.
i’ve got no passion…..i’m just flesh.
Take from it what you will, but reading this only confirmed the outlook I developed during my trip.  Yes, for a student, respect may very well come from academic success, but without the freedom to develop creatively, that success is meaningless.  What is the point of working toward goals that mean nothing to you?  The people who leave the biggest marks on the world are those who are driven by passion, and just like everything else, passion is a creative art.  It must be nurtured, and it must be learned.