Dear Writer-Friends,

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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Children and Creativity

Children are surprisingly capable of self-reflection, given the opportunity.

I spent a good fraction of last night's dinner discussing creativity with my three boys (Mighty Mite, 10yo, Worm Burner, 12yo, and Dark Omen 15yo). Their thoughts and insights give me hope for the future, but first, a little background...

Thinking Big Thoughts
Yesterday was a day to think big thoughts.

I try to leave time for that, on occasion, because we so rarely do this in the hustle and bustle of life. It helped that I was recovering from a cold and determined to rest up. So I parked on the couch, watched a bunch of TED videos, and did some thinking.

Along the way, a writer-friend on FB posted that she was stuck in her manuscript. I jumped in and offered to run a brainstorming exercise with her that I'd learned in my screenwriting class. I'd done the exercise myself several times, as well as guided other people in doing it. She was available, so we hopped on FB messaging and did the exercise right then (took about a half hour).

Awesome Thing #1: She came up with great ideas and was pumped to move forward with her book.
Awesome Thing #2: I realized how much this epitomizes modern learning.

Think about it: she posted a problem on social media, I was the right person with the right tool and the time, she grabbed onto the opportunity... problem solved!

The world did not work this way a decade ago.

Why did this work?
(I warned you I was thinking big thoughts, yes?)
You could easily say, "Oh, well, Facebook greases the way for all kinds of interactions now that didn't exist before," and you would be right... but that's incomplete. You could say, "Well, Sue, you're just a nice person, and not everyone's going to just up and help a friend like that," and there you would be wrong. Although I am nice, there's something much more fundamental at work here.

Dan Pink, in this animated TED talk, spells out the best-kept secret of economics and motivation, something that flies in the face of how every normal paying job is structured today: once a task requires even rudimentary cognitive skill, larger rewards result in poorer results.
Basically: people are actually not motivated by money.

If you don't believe me, watch the video.

What Motivates Cognitive/Creative Work?
Dan Pink's Big Idea is this: for tasks requiring any level of cognitive effort, people are motivated by three things (which are all intrinsic motivators):

  • autonomy
  • mastery
  • higher purpose
Autonomy is the intrinsic good feeling that comes from having the freedom to exercise our minds and our creativity. It's what allows us to think outside the box and be creative in finding solutions that are invisible when we are task-mastered into pursuing a narrow goal.

Mastery is the intrinsic good feeling that comes with getting better at something. Joy of accomplishment explains why people have hobbies, why they learn to play musical instruments (even when their moms aren't forcing them to), and why Wikipedia succeeded where Encarta failed (oh, the rich irony of a Wikipedia page on Encarta!).

Higher Purpose is the intrinsic good feeling we get when helping others. This is why people give to charity, participate in fundraisers for cancer research, and volunteer. It's also why people are jazzed to work for companies like SpaceX.

Back to helping my friend: I was autonomous (it's wasn't my job to help her; she asked, I offered, we negotiated a mutually beneficial time and medium). It improved my mastery (I learn something every time I do the exercise; teaching is one of the best ways to achieve high mastery in something). And I helped a friend (serving the higher purpose of helping a fellow writer along her creative path, as well as increasing the sum-total creativity in the universe, something that's part of my Core Values).

It worked because it was a 21st century approach to problem solving. 

The Future Is Already Different
Sir Ken Robinson makes the profound case in his TED talk that we are not currently educating our children for the future...

"All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them. Pretty ruthlessly."
It's seriously worth the time to watch.

His main point dovetails with my observation above: that work (now and in the future) is going to require 21st century problem-solving skills (out of the box thinking, creativity) that our 20th century education system (with its emphasis on linear-thinking skills) isn't adequately preparing our children for. Yes, we have the arts (some schools do a better job of this than others), but that's not adequate to the purpose of preparing our kids for a future we can barely comprehend ourselves. 

As a parent, this scares me to death.

Because just getting good grades in the current academic system is insufficient for the future-world in which my children will be working, living, and trying to eke out meaningful lives.

Naturally, in a 21st Century problem-solving manner, I took this problem straight to my kids...

Autonomy, Mastery, and Higher Purpose
I relayed to my children the story about helping my friend with her novel. I told them, even though I do creative work for a living, the exercise that I did with my friend is one of the ways I'm most creative in my work.

Then I asked each of them: When do you feel like you're being most creative, either in school work or just for fun?

Their answers weren't unexpected, but they were illuminating: mostly they described unique Minecraft creations they had built, and for Dark Omen, he said his novels were his most creative works, followed by assignments at school that he didn't like and so had to find inventive ways to barely adhere to the instructions while turning deadly dull assignments into something fun.

Could it be that I'm raising creative rule-breakers already? (Yes, I think so.)

I went on to explain the ideas of autonomy, mastery, and higher purpose, and how the world they were growing up to work in would require more creative solutions to problems. Just knowing how to do math or program in C wasn't enough - they would need to be able to think creatively as well.

Next I asked each of them: What project or activity would you like to try out that would help you be more creative? Think of something that would give you more autonomy, or help you master a skill, or maybe that would serve a higher purpose.

My younger two were very enthused about this. Worm Burner wanted to learn C++ so he could contribute to BitHub, an open source programming site he lurks on. Mighty Mite wanted to learn how to cook, so he could make his own meals when "you're busy writing, Mom." (This is a higher purpose I'm fully on board with.)

My teenager, Dark Omen, was less excited, but I think this was simply because he has so much going with school and clubs and fencing and music. He's already transitioning to that adult-mode where we are so busy with everything... that we don't stop to think Big Thoughts. Or learn a new skill. Or spend time thinking how we can become more creative in the world.

In truth, Dark Omen already does incredible amounts of creative work, mostly outside of school. He's written three novels. He's an accomplished clarinetist. He plays a mean game of Diplomacy and spends his weekends at Model UN conferences, writing mock resolutions to make the world a better place.

Keep Calm and Keep Creating
The dinner discussion about creativity and my kids' enthusiasm in strengthening their own creative powers make me less panicked about their future (and their current education). I'm going to keep striving to expand their worlds beyond the standard education they get each day in school, but I've realized that our family has already built huge dollops of creative expression into their lives. I already challenge them on a semi-regular basis to answer questions like these. I make sure they know they are Young Masters of their own destinies. That hard work and good grades are important, but that play and creativity are even more so. I know that I'm a role model for them, an object lesson about taking risks, working hard, and achieving your dreams by loving your work.

When the future gets here, I'm confident they'll be a part of making it awesome.


  1. In truth, the education system isn't doing a worse job today than it ever did. 30 years ago, it was not preparing students in a way that would be useful to them. 30 years before that, it wasn't doing any better. In fact, except for a few notable exceptions (like Socrates, and we know what happened to him), no system of education has ever done an adequate job. It's only ever been the people that have been able to step outside of that box that have excelled.

    1. This is no doubt true. The only caveat in today’s age is that the circumstances of our world – the technology, the economy, the political systems – are changing at such a rapid rate that education is even more rapidly out of date.