Creative Contradictions #2

What’s this series all about? Read Creative Contradiction #1.

2. Convergent and divergent. The folks with the most consistent creative output are thought to be using two contradictory yet complimentary modes of thinking: convergent and divergent.

Convergent thinking is logic, measured by IQ tests.  It’s used to solve a definable problem and find its one right answer.  Black and white.  Cut and dry.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, leads to no one conclusion but generates a mound of ideas and possible relationships between them.  Central to divergent thinking is the ability to see associations between seemingly unrelated thoughts, and to see all sides or perspectives of an issue.

Most of my day is spent in divergent thinking.  My wife asks me often, “Who are you talking to?” My mouth and hands move a lot when I’m driving or making breakfast.  I’m dialoguing through songs, blog posts, conversations, pitches. It’s embarrassing but I can’t stop it.  And I don’t want to really.  It’s true that 99% of that mound of ideas created by divergent thinking is crap. But that 1% is golden.

Here’s an example of how these two kinds of thinking work together.  One night I dreamed I was watching a hummingbird outside our kitchen window.  I woke up thinking about hummingbirds and everything related to them.  I wasn’t trying to.  It just happened.  By the time I got out of the shower a mound of hummingbird related stuff was piled up in my head.  And it stayed there, with all the other piles, for weeks. Then one day, eating dinner before a show, someone said I looked tired.  They asked me how I was doing.  I told them I felt “run down.” And I don’t think I heard anything else anyone said at dinner from that moment on.  Instead, my brain started connecting stuff in the pile about hummingbirds with stuff I was feeling.  And in the next few days I wrote words like “Feathered, tethered, feels like all the world’s a cage/worked up, run down, in this race to earn a wage/something inside tells me I was made to split the sky, so tell me why I’m living like a hummingbird/getting nowhere fast from all this work…”

One dream and a morning of divergent thinking built the mound.  And divergent thinking connected the mound to a seemingly unrelated thought/feeling.  And convergent thinking went to work on the pile to find only the best stuff.  Convergent thinking sifted the pile by saying “Yes” and “No”, “Keep it” and “Trash it” a hundred times until the song was done.

Now, beware.  If a creative person’s divergent thinking is stronger than their convergent thinking, they’ll have lots of projects going on and few completed, lots of output but low quality standards.  They’ll tend to think every idea is a great one.  But, if their convergent thinking is stronger than their divergent thinking, they’ll be so self-critical (always saying “no” in their head) that they’ll have low output of a higher quality – at least in their mind.  But, and I know this from experience at the moment, if convergent thinking is turned up to 11, output will end altogether.

Ideally, we creatives need both kinds of thought in balance.

If you live or work with creatives…

  • Let them talk, if they’re a talker, about what’s in the pile.  And then help them sift through it for the best ideas.
  • Do not tell a creative person everything they have done or are doing is great.  Great means nothing if it’s all we hear.  And hearing it too often kills our ability to self-critique, to think convergently.
  • Help develop the divergent part of a creative child’s mind, especially if he/she has perfectionistic tendencies, by drawing a doodle with a pencil on a piece of paper.  Then ask the child to tell you everything they see in it.  Don’t critique at all.
  • Help a child develop the convergent part of their mind by handing them a crayon and asking them to turn your doodle into one of those things they saw. They’ll have to make choices, pick from the pile they just made.
  • Does this help at all?