How can this be? Surprising as it seems, it's what the results show. For nearly all of us, our creativity is at its peak when we are about five years old, and then it decreases steadily until it levels off at around 19 (or about the age we finish high school). This is because our ideas as adults tend to be based on our experience and how we've been programmed to view the world. The Torrance test shows what we've been conditioned to think about what a tin can does. Our ideas are usually not original; we've heard them elsewhere, or we base them on variations of what a can's function is supposed to be. Cans are supposed to hold things. We're thinking the way we've been programmed to think.
The findings from the Torrance test indicate that we lose as much as 98 percent of our creativity by the time we finish high school. Again, we wonder: Why does this occur? Why do we start our lives with nearly boundless creativity and lose much of it by the time we finish high school? Think about the kinds of things we do as kids, and think back to your kindergarten days. We got a box of multi-colored crayons, and we drew wonderful things on a blank piece of construction paper. We played with toys. We played in the sandbox. There weren't too many rules. Ah, those were fun times.
But what happens after kindergarten? Within a year, were taught we have to stay between the lines when we draw things, and the lines are defined by others. By the time we finish high school, our crayons have been taken away. We've been given a pen that writes in only one color, and we've been conditioned to obey many, many other rules -- the rules of language, punctuation, grammar, margins, mathematics, and a whole lot more. We're allowed to be creative, but only within sharply defined boundaries -- again, defined by others. We are conditioned to stay between the lines for fear of ridicule or criticism by our teachers or, worse, by our peers.
In short, our education system and our social environment do a pretty good job of beating the creativity out of us.
I believe it's even worse in our engineering world. Before we entered engineering school, many of us viewed engineering as a discipline that would pay us well while we thought deep thoughts and invented completely new and revolutionary products. Once we enter the engineering curriculum in college, though, it's a different ball game. We learn the laws of physics, chemistry, statics, dynamics, materials, heat transfer, and other engineering-specific topics. We learn how to solve specific technical problems using the formulas and approaches our professors and textbooks provide.
Then, when we enter the workforce as young engineers, we are further conditioned to stay between the lines. We respond to precise specifications and regulatory requirements dictated by customers, management, and the government. In short, as engineers, we become experts at finding ways to do exactly what the specs call for at the lowest possible cost without breaking any rules. It's how we apply what's left of our creativity.
Where does this leave us? Should we surrender to our education and our life experiences and conclude that we can't create exciting new things?
Irving A. Taylor, a psychologist who studied creativity and creative processes, assembled a creativity hierarchy that recognizes five levels.
- Expressive creativity: This involves unfettered, generally primitive ideas that emerge without the benefit of any guidelines, physical laws, or other restrictions. You might think of this as the child using a box of multi-colored crayons to draw something.
- Technical creativity: In this stage, we use rules and physical laws to constrain our thinking, with little expressive spontaneity. You can think of this stage as what we do as engineers. It's a bit humbling, but most of us never need to go beyond this creativity level to do engineering work.
- Inventive creativity: In this stage, we develop the ability to combine concepts creatively using prior design solutions to create new designs. As engineers, we hope to advance to this stage.
- Innovative creativity: Innovative creativity involves making the leap from current thinking patterns to out-of-the-box thinking. Brainstorming emphasizes doing this.
- Emergent creativity: Emergent creativity is the highest level of creativity. It involves rejecting physical laws, principles, and constraints and forming completely new theories about how the world works.
Consultants, psychologists, and professors love to create graphical models, and the Taylor approach is as good an approach as any to express the general notion that creativity spans a spectrum. The spectrum runs from a childlike, unfettered expression to our more constrained engineering approach (developing concepts guided by past approaches, specification requirements, and physical laws) to radical departures represented by such out-of-the-box thinkers as Galileo, da Vinci, and Einstein.
Some people believe that, as engineers, we never need to rise above Taylor's second or third levels. As engineers, we may never operate at the emergent creativity level. By the very nature of the definition of engineering (applying the laws of physics to convert science into products meeting needs), we don't need to become an Einstein or a da Vinci. That's OK, and it's a concept supported by the findings of others. It's what we do as engineers. We find ways to build on the work of others. The challenge, in most cases, is finding the appropriate approach and using it creatively.
This is an excerpt from the book Unleashing Engineering Creativity by Joseph H. Berk, a member of the principal engineering faculty at Eogogics Inc. The book is part of the Eogogics Unleashing Engineering Creativity Workshop, but it is also available separately. In a free, live one-hour web class on Thursday, April 25, Berk will demonstrate how TRIZ, one of the techniques discussed in the book and the workshop, can be applied to the solution of a real engineering problem.