Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, is the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We spoke in his office on campus.
Q: You believe that creativity can be learned and cultivated. You don’t buy into the myth of an individual being endowed with a gift –
A: I think that’s nonsense.
Q: Have we, as a society, conveyed that message effectively?
A: I would say that, in fact, America is probably where creativity is the strongest message in the society as a whole. I would say on Wall St, in Silicon Valley, and Hollywood – I mean that’s the message. Schools don’t particularly promote it, but it’s less important here than if you were in China 30 years ago where the message didn’t exist at all. I wrote a book 15 years ago about creativity in China and the United States, and I argued that – it sounds kind of simplistic, but I did manage to make a book out of it, which nobody read — that it’s important both to have skills and to be able to go beyond the skills. And the problem in America was people thought they were creative but they had no skills, and nobody was interested in what they were doing. And people in China had tremendously developed skills, but they were afraid to part from those skills. And what I learned from going to China was that it didn’t matter which order it occurred in. I had thought that you’ve got to play first, and then you pick up the skills. But in China, if you could develop skills and the message goes out to use those flexibly, people are good at it.
Q: So do you feel that in this country our emphasis on individualism is an asset when it comes to –
A: It has been an asset because creativity has been largely individual. I mean the good question, which you’ll undoubtedly run into, is to what extent is that changing because of the digital media or because we’re all in touch with everyone? 100 years ago, the assumption was that creativity was a germ that came out of somebody’s mind. And that may be much less true nowadays, for the reasons I just stated. I think we’ve been successful for two reasons. One, we’ve had a frontier which then became a cyber frontier, and things like Hollywood, which is it’s own kind of frontier, and Silicon Valley. And because we’ve allowed immigrants. The flowering of creativity that occurred in the sciences and in other areas mid-century was when you had Europeans coming here and they wedded the theoretical orientation, the systematic thinking of Europe, to empiricism, which is what we do in Anglo-American societies. And that contributed enormously to all the Nobel Prize winners. I mean if you look at how many people who are purely Americans get Nobel Prizes, almost nothing. They’re almost all Italian American, Chinese American, Jewish American. And so certainly one thing that everybody who studies creativity will tell you is you don’t get it when you have little islands. This may be the Japanese problem. I mean England was an island, but it owned the world.
Q: I listened to an interview you did with Kurt Andersen for Studio 360, where you talked about the challenges of shifting from a scholarly life to the life of an activist, and you said that you were considering the possibility that you had become gutsier as you had gotten older. That resonated for me because I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking as a pillar of creativity, especially as I contemplate this foray into songwriting which I mentioned earlier.
A: Okay. Two things about how I think about creativity, which you may or may not know. One is I don’t think creativity is particularly connected to the arts. As I always say, you can be creative in any sphere. People in Wall Street are very creative, alas. And most artists are not particularly creative. They’d like to be, but so would most salespeople. So I think it’s unfortunate that the word has come to be used so exclusively for the arts. The other thing is I make a big distinction between big C creativity and what the rest of us do. From a research point of view, I’m interested in the things which affect what other people do. It’s a big difference if you enjoy your singing and you sing for your family, and if the way you sing actually affects how other people sing.
Q: In terms of big “C” creativity, as far as your observations go, how strong is the link between youth and Creativity?
A: It all depends on what sphere you’re talking about. You know, you don’t have a lot of mathematicians who flower in their 50s. You have plenty of psychoanalysts who kind of emerge at that age. In fact, I was a student of Erik Erikson, if you know that name.
Q: Oh sure.
A: And, you know, it really was a book he wrote when he was 50 that first made him a big deal. And there are certain sectors or fields which are youth fields. Chess, music, performance, mathematics, probably some sciences where if people aren’t kind of there by the age of 30, the chances they ever will be are very small.
Q: And why is that?
A: I think it’s mostly not having gotten encrusted in certain ways of thinking. Having to be able to keep huge amounts in your mind at the same time. I’m not a mathematician at all, but what they’ll tell you is that to break new ground you have to keep enormous amounts of stuff in your working memory, so to speak. And that gets harder and harder, so that you can teach math forever and you’d probably be a good critic, but the chances that you’ll prove one of Hilbert’s theorems when you’re 45 is very small. People often hold Mandelbrot as a counter example, but I don’t think he is. I think he just had some ideas when he was very young and they were fruitful so he could keep developing them. And that’s what you find with people who are creative throughout their lives, is they typically have come up with an idea that’s so original that they can work it through indefinitely. But again, now that everything anybody comes up with could be spread around the world, it’s probably going to be harder for people to be distinctive.
Q: That’s so interesting.
A: I mean, take Darwin or Freud. It took a while for their ideas to get out. But if they were posted online they wouldn’t have that territory for themselves.
Q: You’ve studied neurology. How familiar are you with what happens in our brains that may impact our capacity for creativity as we age.
A: I can’t give you any kind of a scientific account. I mean, 90% of what you hear is people meaning mind but saying brain. We used to think that we never sprout new neurons, but apparently we do. We certainly sprout new connections or we couldn’t do anything new.
Q: I’ll take a non-scientific answer.
A: I think what I said earlier, to break away from ways of thinking gets really hard. And so obviously here’s where your own biology is important. I always said pick your grandparents carefully. To remain creative, I’m trying to use all sorts of techniques to help that along. I’m working now on the issue of new digital media, which I have no intuition for it, almost no knowledge. But I went into it for three reasons. One, I could get some money, and that’s not immaterial, but it’s not the major reason. Number two was I knew I couldn’t just circulate my old ideas. And everybody who works with me is half my age. I’m sitting here reading something called Intentions of Identity in a Networked Era. What does identity mean in a time of Facebook? It’s not a question I could have asked, even though I studied with Erikson a few years ago and he was doing identity. And you just see it over and over and over again. We could go through the list of all the artists who surround themselves with young people. One of my teachers is Jerome Bruner, he’s 95 years of age, he’s still teaching. He’s really very unusual. He was a very distinguished psychologist and now actually teaches at NYU law school. This is a guy who every day gives himself new challenges and who can’t abide repeating himself, or being bored, or being boring, which I think is an important motivator. If you really hate being bored it pushes you to do new kinds of things. There’s nothing worse than being an old bore. Unfortunately when you’re an old bore you don’t know it, unless somebody tells you. But if you fight very hard – I mean, my mother’s 99 and she is very sharp intellectually. And one of the things which makes her stand out so much from other people, and she’s completely uneducated, is that what you told her yesterday becomes a topic of conversation today. I mean, she’s updating things, whereas it’s so easy when you get old just to play the old tapes over and over again. And she’s lucky. I don’t think she works at it, I think she just happens to be that way. Bruner clearly works at it and most people who are in the creative sphere, they work on it very, very hard. Freud has a wonderful line which I quote somewhere, he says, “When I was young ideas came to me, now I go halfway to meet them.” And I think that’s a wonderful figure of speech for old people.