Creativity as a Search for Meaning

Creativity is part of, and not necessarily separate from, our intellectual efforts, explains John Armato in this thought-provoking article about using creativity to make meaning in our lives.

Math is not my friend. It is, as best, an acquaintance, at worst a nemesis, and nearly always an awkward guest in my home. We sit across the room from each other, nervously crossing and uncrossing our legs, searching for something in common to talk about. For my sister, Kathleen, however, math is a friend, a constant companion and even a source of comfort. Math can come into her house without knocking and sometimes they even laugh together.

Kathleen teaches math at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, and formerly taught advanced math at a private school for the gifted. She’s heard me rant over the years about the challenges those of us in PR frequently face in trying to make something meaningful result from the assignments our clients bring us. It’s not always obvious, for example, how to combine banks and rock concerts, greeting cards and cancer research, kids and taxes, sandwiches and New Years, and so on and so on.

It’s supposed to make sense

I once mentioned to Kathleen in an e-mail that at the root of the creative impulse is the need or desire to make sense out of things that don’t seem to make sense at first. Truly creative people are constantly trying to identify, break or create patterns to find connections between things; they are people for whom “making meaning” is a necessity. Here’s what Kathleen wrote back:

“People who achieve great success in any discipline – science, business, education, the arts, etc. are always creative. It makes sense to define the creative part of any intellectual endeavor as ‘looking for patterns and relationships or trying to create them.’ This is very much what mathematicians do. I once had a friend who was an educator whom I greatly respected say to me ‘I had trouble with algebra until I figured out that it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s just a set of rules you follow.’ She was astounded to hear that algebra did make sense to me. It was an interesting moment because I never considered that people actually believed that math isn’t supposed to make sense. Now I’m always telling my classes ‘MATH IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE SENSE!’”

One of my frustrations with perceptions of creativity (especially in the workplace) is that it is the icing and not the cake.

I really liked Kathleen’s belief that creativity is part of, and not necessarily separate from, intellectual efforts. She’s spot on. One of my frustrations with perceptions of creativity (especially in the workplace) is that it is the icing and not the cake. There’s a tendency to equate “being creative” with “being wacky.” This does nothing for making meaning.

That’s why I’m especially passionate about what I call the “Do Something Real” mandate. Consumers just want what they want. And that doesn’t include having relationships with brands just because brands want them to. It’s about saying, showing, giving, or doing something that matters to them, that brings them value, because you can’t fight clutter with clutter. You can fight clutter only with relevance. Simply put, it’s about striving for PR programs and communications that are meaningful to people.

Combinatorial play and ground work

One of my favorite illustrations of creativity as an intellectual search for meaning comes from the fascinating book “E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.” Einstein coined the phrase “combinatorial play” to describe his own ongoing search for patterns that yielded new meaning. Not a student of physics, I had no idea that Einstein didn’t simply create his theory of relativity “from scratch.” It resulted, in fact, from his “combinatorial play” with two existing theories that had been accepted, but never previously considered in relation to each other: the theory of conservation of mass, and separately, the theory of conservation of energy.

Kathleen surprised me with another interesting idea when I shared that story with her:

” … a mathematician named Liebniz discovered calculus independently from Newton, but he didn’t publish so Newton got the credit. But the idea that two people discovered calculus pretty much simultaneously points at that idea that certain ground work had to be laid first. Both Newton and Liebniz had some good stuff in their boxes.”

I’d never really thought about simultaneous-but-independent creation as validation of the “Think Inside The Box” philosophy, but I think it does suggest that the definition of “idea” as “a new combination of existing elements” is indeed true.

No doubt just about anyone can be taught basic techniques that will increase their ability to be creative, but ultimately acting creative and being creative are different states.

Meaning makers

All of this prompted me to consider what’s really going on when people suggest some people are born creative and others aren’t. It seems to me what we’re really talking about is less about an inherent skill than it is about an inherent disposition. No doubt just about anyone can be taught basic techniques that will increase their ability to be creative, but ultimately acting creative and being creative are different states. The first is conscious, periodic and primarily externally motivated. The second is unconscious, ongoing and primarily internally motivated.

Truly creative people create not because they want to, but because they have to. They are in a constant state of wondering why, asking what if, and looking for meaning. When meaning isn’t apparent, they have to find a way to create it. Creators are meaning makers. They’re in an ongoing (and perhaps neurotic) pursuit of existential stasis.

The search for meaning is inherently emotionally and psychologically volatile. That may be why creative masters as an archetype are moody, insecure and depressed. In fact, as Eric Maisel points out in his intriguing book “The Van Gogh Blues,” it’s a cliché that creativity and depression go hand-in-hand. But clichés are the children of truth. Maisel writes:

“… creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or psychological disorder that causes them to experience depression at the alarming rates we see. They experience depression simply because they are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them. People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression. But for creators, losses of meaning and doubts about life’s meaningfulness are persistent problems – even the root causes of their depression… Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning. … Not creating is depressing because [creators are] not making meaning when [they are] not creating.”

The good news is that the creative process helps reveal, create and share meaning with individuals or entire groups of people. Sometimes it’s in the service making of consumers fall in love with a brand. Sometimes it’s in the service of improving our understanding of the universe. And sometimes it’s simply in the service of adding something beautiful to our lives, like music, art, literature, or even, I suppose, math.

John Armato is a senior partner and creative strategist with Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. He invites browsing, commenting, and subscribing at “Think Inside The Box,” his blog about the creative process, communications and living a life of ideas at