Defying Yourself: How Creativity Ignites Personal Transformation
Are you right? Of course you are. We all think we’re right! You’re right about politics. You’re right about those disagreements in your marriage. You’re right about who you are – your critics or enemies don’t know the real you.
As the seventeenth century French writer and author of many a sage maxim François de La Rochefoucauld put it: “Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgement.”
Now you may acknowledge that you used to be wrong about something. Ah those naïve days when you saw things very differently until – thank goodness – you woke up to reality having processed things well enough to finally arrive at the blissful state of rightness. (Funny how you’ve always gone from being wrong to right, never the other way around, isn’t it?)
Scientists call the kind of belief you have in your own judgement being better than others’ (and perhaps your own past views) the superiority illusion and above-average effect. They’re among our unbiddable menagerie of cognitive biases that serve to undermine our ability, as psychologist Professor Stuart Sutherland once put it, to “think straight”. Research shows that despite our assumption that we are not only an intelligent but rational species, in fact there are a great many ways in which – largely unbeknown to our conscious minds – we make errors in memory, judgement and decision-making. Cognitive biases may help us to live, even prosper; overconfidence may help you to bluff your way into an advantageous situation you had no right to be in, for instance. But often their deep-lying power over us undermines our ability to succeed. Being overconfident can lead to complacency, a reluctance to learn and grow.
So what’s the connection between our inherent biases, personal transformation and creativity? Personal transformation means a radical and positive shift in thought and behaviour. Take the inspirational example of Christian Picciolini. An American former white supremacist, Picciolini is co-founder of peace advocacy organisation Life After Hate and author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. In his book (and in an emotional 2017 TED talk) he charts his remarkable journey from leading white power skinhead – a community he entered aged just 14 – to someone who passionately fights against racism and extremism.
One of the core dimensions of creativity – what I call one of its three Requisites – is the ability to override default or intuitive thinking. To think counterintuitively. To take instinctive, automatic and predictable patterns of thought and feeling and turn them upside-down.
This much is familiar to most of us, I think. We know that creative thinking goes against the grain, is unconventional, even rebellious. Virgin Atlantic gave the middle finger to British Airways. (Certainly, Richard Branson’s key role in the rise of punk earned him that right.)
But my point here is rather that creativity can mean going against your own “conventions”. A creative idea is often one where the mind that hatched it has rebelled against itself. It’s revolution within.
Christian Picciolini needed to begin to see his own emotionally charged beliefs as flawed, wrong, even immoral. That took some doing. It took creativity.
Now not all personal transformation requires creativity by any means. That’s because in many cases, you are fully cognisant of the things you’re doing wrong that you need to change. Take being addicted to something like alcohol, cigarettes or some other drug. Usually, you’ll know full well that this substance is damaging you physically, financially and possibly emotionally too. Intuitively, you know – you feel – using this substance is wrong, but you’re doing it anyway. So quitting it requires strength of will, focus and discipline rather than a radical rethink of your view. Same with exercise. If you’re badly out of shape and eat like crap you probably know it and just don’t have the resources to change your behaviour.
Yet even in cases such as these, creativity can come in because sometimes you really don’t realise quite how bad things are. You see yourself as just a “social drinker” or someone who “doesn’t need it” when in fact you sort of do. In other words, to overcome self-delusion or self-deception means overcoming an intuitive belief, something that takes creativity.
The lesson is that to affect personal change, whether subtle or radical, you may need to give the middle finger not to the world, but to yourself.