Creativity: the emotion of being Curious!

Understanding creativity with Feynman, Tonegawa and Taika Waititi!

There has been a long discussion on what fuels creativity or what is the hidden secret behind a creative mind. If one were to google it, one would find a long list of reasons ranging from childhood surroundings, passion and many more similar attributes. But, one thing that would be common behind all these articles online or newspaper articles is the word — Curiosity. Most of the people attribute curiosity to be the basic recipe for a highly creative mind, and they aren’t wrong. History has given us enough examples to prove this simple fact, from the discovery of the atom to the making of ‘The Jojo rabbit.’ So, what is that which makes a curious mind highly creative? Let’s go through some of the famous people from history and find out what they thought and how they lived a creative life, and scourge for any pieces of knowledge that might help us prove that curiosity forms the basis of creativity. We shall start our journey with one of the most sought-after physicists of the 20th century, who redefined how the science community explored the mysteries of cosmos — Richard Feynman.

But before that, we need to address a big question, and that is what curiosity is? To put in straightforward terms, it is to ask, ‘why is that?’, ‘What if?’ and ‘How come it is not that way?’. Our desire to figure out how something works, or why something happens a certain way, and our persistence to find those answers, qualifies us a curious person. And what is creativity? It is our ability to come up with solutions for the above questions. And that forms the basis of human existence from the old myths of Homer to the atomic bomb of Oppenheimer. Our society is constructed by people who dared to ask questions and then provide the answers as they thought fit. So, it becomes an essential matter to understand how curiosity and creativity go hand in hand.

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” ― Richard Feynman

Curiosity is what one would call the mother of eccentricism, and there is perhaps, no greater example of this than the world’s most eccentric and dynamic physicist, Richard P. Feynman. “Surely you’re not joking Mr Feynman!” is reminiscing of Feynman’s close friend Ralph Leighton; a collection of the versatile expressions and extents of Feynman’s curiosity.

When we typically think of pure science subjects like Mathematics or Physics, we tend to box our thoughts based on prevalent narrative. But seldom do we remember that great minds, of any field, be it arts or music or physics follow a certain calling. This calling is true to human nature, and most of us don’t recognize the real potential of it. Those who do remain inquisitive throughout their lives make it a central pillar of their personality. Feynman was one such mind. He was curious about the simple mechanics of locks and ended up a decent safe-cracker. He was curious about the organics of life, so we hear of his quirks as a makeshift microbiologist, experimenting with bacterium and he was curious about the dazzling movements in Samba — So we find him in a parade orchestra in Samba costume. Mind you these were not mere hobbies that he wanted to use to flaunt or to satiate boredom, the stories genuinely depict his childlike curiosity for these interests and how that led to his creative efforts to make them his own.

In the same manner, physics urged a curiosity in him; in fact, more than anything else. That curiosity, that passion is what invoked groundbreaking breakthroughs, eventually earning him the title of being one of the greatest physicists to ever live! It is crucial that we, as explorers of creativity, understand the deeper connection between Feynman’s eccentric interests and his academic triumphs. Both originate from the same raw thirst for understanding and perception. It is when he pursued this thirst unapologetically that he found creative and uniquely innovative answers for most obstacles in his life.

Polish mathematician Mark Kac once said, “Ordinary geniuses make you feel like you could reach them if you worked hard enough. And then there are magicians. And you know nothing of how their minds work. Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre.” It is an expression of awe, an appraisal from one great mind to another. But such dialogue often goes misinterpreted, stemming from the incapacity to understand how the creative mind works and that it resonates in tandem with the logical mind. One very crucial thing to understand here is that like any endeavour churning creativity is also an acquired trait that one needs to hone continually. Someone might be blessed with good genes, but whether the expression of genetics will be dominant, or recessive depends on a lot of key factors- mainly on surroundings, society, family, emotions etc. So, we need to be patient in understanding the curiosity Feynman had and how that curiosity came to be. This curiosity later birthed his creative genius. It is demeaning to Feynman’s creative efforts if we attribute his style of creative thinking as ‘gifted’ or ‘magical’. It is magical in the sense that his lifestyle and creative solutions feel effortless. But it takes ground-breaking and hard-hitting work to reach that level of smoothness. So, we now understand some key connections between creativity and curiosity. It is almost tangible but never linear. And we understand that it takes an insurmountable amount of courage to pursue one’s curiosity.

Feynman at a young age was heavily influenced by his father. The latter instilled in him a mindset, very fluid and versatile, and that was always to question orthodox thinking and to never take any answer at face value. It encouraged him to go that extra mile and give mental effort in understanding something from its roots. Feynman practised the art of creative thinking and thinking for himself from early childhood. Creativity demands originality and that in turn creates a curious outlook of life. It expands the room for more questions — like a budding tree reaching for sunlight in the skies.

Susumu Tonegawa is a name which many of us might not be familiar with, outside the science circles. Still, it is one name that should pop into our heads when we try to define how creativity is not just an inherent quality but an acquired one. Tonegawa is the recipient of the Nobel prize in medicine 1987, “for his discovery of the genetic principle for generation of antibody diversity.” Recently, the Nobel committee conducted a dialogue with him in Tokyo, asking him about how he defines creativity. His answer is fundamental to our discussion here; he gave three basic concepts to creativity. One is that you must be very curious about something, second, you need to have an unfailing urge to find answers to your question and third, to not limit yourself to one specific domain for the answer. We saw all these three combined perfectly in the work of Feynman before, a curious mindset to question everything, an urge to solve them and to branch out to other fields for the answers. This challenges our most fundamental understanding of society, or what we would like to call misconceptions of the society, that creativity is something one is born with.

Most of us are taught that arts or liberal studies are the ‘creative’ fields, and only people who are ‘creative’ can pursue them. But that is not the case, we have seen creativity and creative minds in every aspect of human lives, we have seen mothers come up with fun ways to make their children eat healthy food, we have read about how Alan Turing broke down Enigma being a mathematician. We have a lot of examples to prove that each one of us can be creative and that’s what Tonegawa meant with his answer; one needs the urge to find solutions and his creativity will know no bounds.

If one were to read or listen to the words of the creative people who walked on earth, one would find similarities indicating that one isn’t born creative, one learns to question and then sticks long enough to find answers to it. Before we conclude, let’s hear from one more person, who has been recently in the news for his film the Jojo Rabbit!

The ridiculous events in everyday life are often overlooked — people don’t recognize it as potentially cinematic. — Taika Waititi.

Movies by Taika Waititi

Watiti gave a Ted talk in 2010 about the art of creativity and what is the secret behind his creativity. The answer he gave resonated with many people in the audience. He talked about how he looked at the world as if he was looking through the lens of a child’s mind. When we are young, we don’t know answers to a lot of questions, we don’t understand why the moon seems to be following us wherever we go, and then we come up with our weird yet creative answers to them. But, once we know the answers, we are limited by the possibility of what could have been, We don’t seem to be interested in ‘what if’ anymore. And that is why we tend to call kids more creative than adults. When we see the work Watiti has produced in the past few years, we can see a hint of childlike curiosity in it. Since the end of World War 2, we have had a lot of works published and made on the torments and history of it. Still, the way Watiti took it upon himself to build a film, which was never done before with this kind of perspective and theme, he made sure he got it right factually and yet was able to put in his creative ideals onto the production. And that is the reason the Academy recognized his courage to depict a story from the point of view of a child who was whitewashed into beliefs of Nazi Propaganda. It was a dangerous gamble, but Waititi was curious to follow that line of thought, and he made it out with flying colours. Jojo Rabbit might be a satirical comedy, but it represents every thought and idea that Waititi wanted to convey, that history is tragic and we should learn from it, but there is no one stopping us from finding a way to make it creative so that it reaches everyone.

The reason Waititi asked us to look at the world through the lens of a child’s mind is not just a random statement but also a scientifically proven study that as a kid we tend to be more curious and can come up with more creative solutions. The study started by showing a picture of random shapes put together to both adults and kids, and they were asked to come up with things they think it looks like. Even though on average adults have more knowledge and could have come up with more answers, it was the kids who won the round, because they weren’t restricted by the amount of knowledge they had, they had one tool which adults don’t use, which is being creative about their answers. Most of the answers that adults gave were the things that they see in real life, but the answers that kids gave were things that they saw on cartoons, or thought should exist. Almost all the kids showed a similar kind of curiosity when answering in the study, so creativity isn’t a skill that only a few can possess but it is a skill that one needs to keep giving their effort every day. Most of the adults don’t find a need to be curious about stuff around them, they go on with what life throws at them, but if one wants to do something creative, one has to question and be excited on the prospect of looking for the answers. And that is what made Waititi a great filmmaker and continues to fuel the creativity in many individuals creating art, visuals, or even exploring the depths of cosmos.

We have discussed how being curious can lead to creativity, let’s apply that to the process of writing!

When it comes to writing, we ought to follow the same thought process, be curious about what kind of world you are building and think of a person and ask him the question ‘What would you do next?’ and you will have your plot. We have created a very complex notion about the Arts, that one needs to be extremely talented or super motivated to create art, but it is like Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” One real-life example of this quote is surely the great writer Haruki Murakami, he made his daily routine into mesmerism; getting up at 4 am every day to write for months at an end and maintaining his physical and mental rigor for the sake of creative writing. Artistic sensitivity does not come easy. And certainly, never to those who only keep talent on the highest pedestal. It ages like old wine and writers who have a keen grasp of this sensitivity have ventured into the unknown territory of creativity long enough. Hence their writing feels fleshed out and original. Creativity is elusive and writing rigorously is certainly not all. One must understand the root of curiosity and pour out that emotion constantly into their writing. And it is as simple as that.

In the end, “Creativity has only one limit and that is how much are we ready to question?”

This article was written with inputs from Manasvita Goswami!

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