In my first installment of “The Art of Creative Thinking,” I talked about the myths regarding creativity and the three axioms of creativity. As a reminder, those three axioms were: Many Before One, also known as divergent thinking; then there was Time is Our Friend, which is called convergent thinking; and lastly, Pressure is Good, meaning set a deadline. In this post, I would like to expand on this subject to give the reader a fuller understanding.
As I begin, I would like to mention something about our intellectual capacities. As our minds develop, we are taught to both learn and to think. These are actually two different categories. Educators classify our intellectual capacities into four groups. These are:
- The Absorptive Capacity: This refers to the ability to absorb and retain information. This requires observation and attention. When we enter school, these are the things that we are first taught. How to tie your shoe, the alphabet, how to read, etc.
- The Retentive Capacity: This involves memory and recall. Remember your multiplication tables and spelling bees? Of course, both of these abilities overlap, and part of the definition of absorbing is retaining. But both of these capacities are very important in our early education because developing these qualities is how we learn. As we get older, especially in colleges, there is a shift of emphasis. Knowing something doesn’t mean that you are automatically a thinker. For that, we need the next two capacities.
- The Relative Capacity: This is where we get to take all those things that we have learned and remembered and stack them up against one another. This is the ability to judge and analyze information. If learning can be thought of as getting a bunch of little beads of information and putting them in a box, the relative capacity helps us put all these beads on a string so that they work together and help us understand their relationship to each other.
- The Creative Capacity: This involves foreseeing, forward-thinking, generating new ideas and relationships, and seeing new possibilities. The relative and creative capacities are where we learn how to think.
What is interesting in all this is that when one absorbs or retains (or even analyzes) things, one doesn’t have to necessarily use the other capacities. Only with the creative capacity must all the other three be present. Thus, creativity uses every part of both our learning and thinking skills. Creativity is truly whole-brain learning.
So the question I have often pondered is why colleges will teach logic as a course but will most likely offer nothing in regard to creative thinking. When the students who took my creativity course transferred to other schools, most colleges had no idea where to put these credits because they rarely offered such a course. I am still perplexed!
Under the Creative Capacity, there are two subheadings. The first is called ‘analytical creativity,’ and the second is ‘insightful creativity.’ This is where the fun begins!
This kind of person is also known as the ‘structured’ person. They are deliberate, controlled, and rational in their thinking process. They are ‘one step at a time, one stage at a time’ reasonable and logical in their behavior. This is associated with convergent thinking—one solution and a one track mind. Convergent thinking is the process of narrowing or reducing. This works much like a magnifying glass, which converts light into a powerful but narrow beam.
Remember as a kid what you did when you got your first magnifying glass (at least if you were a boy). You went outside and either burned ants or started a piece of paper on fire. Oh, what power! The goal of convergent thinking is to reach a solution, arrive at an answer, and obtain closure or a conclusion. Edison seems to have been this type of creative mind. Technicians, contractors, administrators, and many teachers exhibit this type of mind, yet it can still be creative.
This type is also known as the ‘free’ person. These people have a free-form way of thinking, often random and flowing in many directions. They can take many steps at a time going in many directions at once. This is associated with divergent thinking, looking for many solutions. Divergent thinking is the process of expanding or broadening. Instead of focusing on an answer, they think in terms of possibilities.
Divergent thinking is similar to what a prism does to light, expanding it into an array of vibrant colors. The goal of the divergent thinker is to avoid closure and conclusions and to entertain as many possibilities as they can because they don’t want to miss anything. These individuals rely on insight, inspiration, hunches, emotional direction, and imagination. Picasso would fit into this category.
People tend to favor one thinking style over another. If you favor convergent thinking, you want answers, seek solutions, or insist on coming to a conclusion. You dislike having things ambiguous or unresolved. You are uncomfortable around a divergent (unfortunately, you probably married one!).
If you prefer divergent thinking, you want to consider your options, look for possibilities, or explore alternatives. You dislike making decisions prematurely. Divergents are often hesitant to go ahead with an idea because they are afraid they may have overlooked an alternative.
If you are reading this post now and are thinking, “Geez, I wish Professor Smudgebottom would get to the point,” then you are thinking convergently. If you are thinking “This information is giving me a whole bunch of new ideas and insights,” then you are thinking divergently.
Convergent and divergent thinkers often experience conflict. Convergent thinkers see divergent thinkers as weak, indecisive, impractical, or unwilling to take a stand. Divergent thinkers perceive their opposites as narrow-minded, too quick to make a decision, rigid, and stubborn.
As an example, let me share a story about my 44th wedding anniversary. Linda, my wife, and I were in Minneapolis to do an art show. We had met in the Twin Cities and went to college there, so we had many fond memories. I decided to take her out for a special anniversary meal. Unfortunately, the city had changed over the last 44 years, and there were no restaurants that we recognized.
As we walked hand-in-hand down the street, the question arose, “Where shall we eat?” I wanted this to be very special. So the first restaurant we went into was an upscale Italian place. Linda said, “Oh, this is nice.” But in my mind, it wasn’t “special” enough. As a result, we continued hand-in-hand down the street. The next place was a fine steakhouse. “Oh, this is nice.” But it wasn’t “special” enough.
Still walking down the street, although no longer hand-in-hand, we came to restaurant number three. Well, you can see where this is going. After the 5th restaurant, we began to have serious words, and after the 6th, we weren’t talking to each other and sat in silence in a restaurant that neither of us liked. By the way, my wife is convergent; I am divergent.
I believe that most people marry or are attracted to their opposites because we all have “holes,” in us and we are looking for someone who can fill those “holes.” The differences make us feel “whole.” Then we get married and for the remainder of the marriage often try to change our spouse into what we were before we got hitched, rather than celebrating the differences that can make us whole.
Is it possible to be balanced between convergent and divergent thinking? Of course, it is possible. In fact, that is the goal. But this often requires work. Neither is better than the other. In regard to creativity, we should always start with divergent thinking (many before one) then finish by engaging our convergent thinker to arrive at the proper solution. We must understand that freedom and structure are perfectly compatible.
As a final thought for my church-going friends, in worship, divergents want freedom, and convergents want order and structure. I wonder how many churches have split because we mistook different thinking styles for something spiritual. I will leave you with that to ponder.
Featured Image by Markus Spiske
This post was written by Gary Wilson, who has been working as a professional artist since 1969. After receiving his B.F.A. from Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an M.F.A. from Michigan State University, Mr. Wilson taught as an Associate Professor of Art at Monroe Community College from 1971 until 2016, where his course load included Ceramics, Drawing, Art History, Art Appreciation and Creativity.
Having developed a college course in creativity which he has taught for over 40 years, he is able to communicate to others how to take the mystery out of the creative process. To learn more about Gary’s art and mission, or to read more of his Collective posts, head on over to his member page here.