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Profiling Picasso

Throw away your de Bono, ignore your critics and embrace your appalling personality. Dr Margaret Boden, OBE, says sometimes it pays to be crazy

Throw away your de Bono, ignore your critics and embrace your appalling personality. Sometimes it pays to be crazy—just look at Picasso. That’s the advice from Dr Margaret Boden OBE, author of The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms and lecturer at Sussex University on the process of creativity. Lauren Bartlett seeks the science behind Boden’s ideas

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Illustration by Daron Parton

In your lecture you refer to successful creative thinkers as ‘swine’. Why do many creative types have personality disorders?

Transformational creative thinkers, by definition, are changing the rules of their field. So, by definition they’re breaking some of the rules. That’s going to cause a certain amount of shock and a certain amount of resistance. I think to do that, and to make it your life’s work and stick to it, you need a special sort of perseverance which can only come from a huge self-confidence. Initially, at least, you’re not going to be applauded by many people, if any.

It is certainly true that many creative thinkers, such as Picasso, are not very nice people because they’re thoroughly selfish. On the one hand, they’re egotistical and think they’re the bee’s knees, but they need to have confidence in their own judgement because it’s going against everybody else.

How do the creative processes used by scientists and artists relate to creativity in business? How can this help profitability?

I wouldn’t say profitability is the same as the value of what’s being created. When I think about the utterly trivial trash that is created, some of it is highly profitable. Of course financial value to the businessman is the same as profitability, but there are many other senses of value. I think business often loses sight of that.

You say transformational thinkers often spend 12 to 15 years truly exploring their field before they can break through the boundaries. Is specialisation or expansion the best way to come up with new ideas?

You need specialisation if you want to get into the detail, hone your skills and really get to know what you’re doing, whether it’s art, sales, business or anything else. You need to know what you’re up to. But if you’re going to make adventurous new links, or combinations, or you’re going to move into new areas, and if you’re going to do it by transforming the rules in some way, that’s going to require expansion of the area to some extent.

But some individuals are drawn more to one than the other, and you need both sorts of person in a university department, in an art school, or in a business.

Do business people require different types of creativity to succeed?

Obviously there are many aspects of business where you can be creative. But I don’t think that creativity in business uses very different ideas or very different processes from creativity in anything else. I suppose it’s more likely to use and rely on combinational creativity—combining unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas—rather than explorational creativity, because the notion of exploring a style of thinking is something which doesn’t fit business as well as art or science.

Do certain types of people respond better to encouragement of creative ideas or theories?

Younger people are usually more mentally flexible in that sense. If you have someone who is 50 years old and already very set in his ways, then perhaps there’s not much hope for him. But I’m certainly not saying that when you’re 50 you’re past it! There are several ways to encourage different types of creativity; it depends on what you want to do.
Virtually all the books that sell creativity to businesses, de Bono’s for example, are actually concentrating on this—although I don’t think much of the so-called theory that’s put into those books. The actual examples and the hints on how to go about trying to find new combinations of ideas can be useful. But if what you want to do is explore a previously existing space, then I don’t think those books are much help at all.

Cities such as New York are buzzing with creativity. What’s the answer for New Zealand cities? Is this kind of creative buzz feasible here?

New York is one place where it appears to happen a lot, partly because there is such a diverse cultural background there. Of course, another thing is the huge sort of energy that there appears to be there, the huge drive towards novelty. For New Zealand and creativity, isolation is a bad thing. And this is why, in general, immigration is helpful. One way to encourage creativity is to present people with as many different sorts of ideas as possible. New Zealand does have the advantage of two very different cultures—and certainly in Auckland, many different cultures. All of that is bringing in new ideas, and I’m sure it’s all helping.

Is collaboration always the answer to transformational thinking?

It’s a buzzword in business and it’s increasingly becoming that way in academia, but it can be very much overdone. There’s rather too much emphasis on people actually working together. You need to learn a lot from other people by talking to them, by reading their stuff and looking at their stuff, if their stuff is worth looking at. But whether you’re actually working with them, collaborating with them, that’s another matter.