The Value of the Creative

This piece will be appearing as a newspaper op/ed in mid-April, 2021.


One might say that I was fated to see “Creativity” as something of great value.

Consider: When my brother and I were deciding what to put on our mother’s gravestone, what we came up with – and felt hit the nail on the head – was “Devoted to Family and Creative Expression.”

So, clearly, she valued creativity—as she showed in the poems and plays she wrote, the paintings she painted, and the bedtime stories she made up on the spot when putting my brother and me to bed.

Add to that the fact that our mother was a great teacher. (As I’ve often been told at reunions by my high school classmates who had her for World Literature.)

So, being around her much of the time for the first 17 years of my life, I got taught in a variety of ways that creativity made life more fun, more fulfilling.

Creativity can be defined as coming up with something that’s new and of value.

“Of value” can mean the value of Truth, or of Beauty, or of Usefulness. Creativity’s value can be manifested in works of art, in new insights, in problem-solving in any endeavor, or in the spontaneous play of human interactions.

But the “newness” in itself points to an important value in creativity.

To see how that is, think of “the creative” as the opposite of “the habitual”—seeing and doing in the well-worn way.

There’s no denying that “the habitual” is also of great value. Even necessary. If it weren’t for habits, we wouldn’t be able to tie our shoes mindlessly in the morning, or drive a car while conversing. A habit is a trail well-worn as we traverse our life. The motto of the habitual is It worked before so let’s keep doing it.” And by “worked,” habit means that it led to a satisfactory outcome.

That makes the habitual – i.e. doing what’s worked – a fine strategy for winning the game of dead vs. alive. Survival – avoiding defeat — is the goal in that game.

(Given that for billions of years, natural selection has been mostly about “selecting out” through death, a “satisfactory outcome” is plenty good.)

But the habitual has a cost.

Experiencing things – seeing, feeling, thinking, acting – in habitual ways may work, but repetition over time tends to drain things of their meaningfulness.

(The face of one’s wife is just there, and it isn’t filled with a beauty that one experiences through one’s love. The mountain across the way is just there, rather than being the dramatic expression of the earth that also bore us, and a marvel for that. The proverb becomes shopworn, and no longer packs the punch it did when some creative person first came up with it.)

So while the habitual helps keep us alive, it also has a “deadening” effect.

It turns out that “dead” has two meanings, and that the game of dead vs. alive is really two games. The second game is about deadened vs. feeling alive.

(The spiritual task in life is not just to keep drawing breath, but also to go deeper into experiencing the value of being alive.)

So while the habitual is a fine strategy for staying alive, the creative is one of the good strategies for feeling alive. While the habitual plays to avoid defeat, creativity is a way of playing to win.

Creativity breaks out of the habitual into new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding, new ways of putting things together, new ways of interacting with the world. Getting around the shopworn and stale to encounter the world freshly, the creative mode enlivens through its newness.

As creativity enlivens the experience of the creative person, so also does it give experiential benefit to the wider world.

When the rest of us take in the fruits of others’ creativity – in a movie, or poem, or some illuminating breakthrough theory, or an improvised joke – we, too, experience some kindred breakthrough into what is new and alive.

(The impressionist painters saw the world in a new way, and were valued by those they taught to see in that new way, too.)

Almost everything of value that makes up our civilization started out as an act of creativity. (Indeed, were it not for human creativity, our kind would not have its unique place in the world as the only one, among all earth’s creatures, to invent its own way of life.)

Such benefits are why we honor the Mozarts and Shakespeares and Michelangelos of the world, as well as the Edisons and Einsteins. 

In view of all these benefits – to the person who lives in the creative mode, and to the world at large – should we not be concerned about what’s widely said about our schools: i.e. that they tend more to stifle rather than nurture the creativity of our children?

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