April 26, 2007
Books: Creative minds at work— business, science and the arts
With meteoric technological advances presenting many businesses with crises verging on the existential, there is a growing need for nimble minds able to adapt to changes in the marketplace. Given this environment, it is fitting that Jonathan Feinstein, a professor at the Yale School of Management, should come out with "The Nature of Creative Development," a book that attempts to model the trajectory of creativity within individuals.
That Feinstein teaches at Yale is also fitting because the School of Management is an institution that, since its inception in 1976, has staked out a unique niche in the business school firmament -- it grooms leaders for careers in the nonprofit and public sectors as well as the for-profit sphere. More recently, the Yale School of Management has pioneered new shifts in curriculum at business schools, reconfiguring the traditional core classes like accounting, finance and marketing into cross-disciplinary perspectives such as courses on the customer, the employee and the innovator.
An economist by training, Feinstein has spent years researching the creative process and not simply that of business leaders like Walt Disney and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who receive case studies in the book. Rather, he focuses on the imaginative evolution of writers like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner and scientists like Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.
Feinstein also includes case studies of lesser-known figures, doctoral students at top-rated university programs in English and American literature, neuroscience and mathematics, three fields that lend themselves to creative exploration.
Quite obviously, this 572-page tome does not fit into the now-common staples of the business literature like Michael Lewis' journalistic forays into Wall Street and professional sports, get-rich-quick guides or textbooks filled with mathematical formulas and diagrams. It is none of these. Just as it is neither a series of light, biographical sketches, nor the latest book du jour about madness, substance abuse and genius.
Instead, it is a treatise grounded in case studies that touches upon biographical elements only insofar as they relate to an artist's "distinctive" approach in developing his or her creative pursuits.
Feinstein writes in the academic vein with the obligatory "I propose to show" statements at the beginning of each chapter as well as the occasional awkward neologism like "revisioning" and "nonstationarity."
Once the reader gets beyond such conventions of the academy, the book provides a thoughtful theoretical framework for assessing creativity. In the process, Feinstein debunks many of the standard assumptions that people make about this most mysterious of realms.
For instance, it is commonly thought that creative artists have fits of inspiration. That might be true, but what is less discussed is that invariably such inspiration comes after years, even decades, of a fermenting or nurturing passion for a subject, characterized matter-of-factly by Feinstein as a "creative interest." Feinstein posits that creative interests percolate in an "intermediate" zone, narrower than a broad field like neuroscience, yet of a greater depth and richness than a hobby or an interest simply in the subject of neurons.
In recent years, some economists who have ventured outside of their area of expertise have met with controversy. For instance, Cornell economist Michael Waldman used a statistical analysis to claim bizarrely that autism may derive from excessive TV viewing, as opposed to genetics.
Unlike Waldman, Feinstein wisely steers away from an economic or quantitative analysis here, since creative artists develop their passions organically in a manner that defies self-interest. It is only later, when older, that an artist might make a "strategic" decision in which he may try consciously to reshape his career by using his creative interests.
Many artists do not succeed initially or do not have their breakthrough for some time.
Faulkner, for instance, encountered rejection from publishers after submitting his early novel, "Flags in the Dust."
Feinstein describes how the future Nobel laureate then delved more deeply into his creative interests, particularly a nostalgic yearning for his native South, a region suffused with dignity and moral decay. This return to the past, often a fecund terrain for writers, paved the way for Faulkner's later success with novels like "The Sound and the Fury."
Counter to the notion that artists are obsessed with one subject, Feinstein also shows that they almost always have multiple interests and that they often work on two projects simultaneously. Faulkner switched back and forth between "Father Abraham" and "Flags in the Dust." Einstein spent years incubating both his theories of relativity and the electrodynamics of moving bodies.
Similarly, Hannah Arendt, the philosopher famous for the often-misunderstood phrase, "the banality of evil," took a passion for German romanticism and merged it with abiding curiosities about her Jewish identity and the origin of Nazism, all of which are reflected to a degree in her seminal work on totalitarianism.
Perhaps most significantly, Feinstein dispels the myth that creativity happens in a vacuum.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not simply that an intellectual like Arendt was transformed by the Holocaust. It is that even a genius like Einstein was heavily influenced by his predecessors, and not only those in physics. Characteristic of many original thinkers, Einstein was drawn to the work of someone in an entirely different field, philosopher David Hume, who wrote about space and time. No other physicist of Einstein's era had such "divergent" interests, Feinstein writes.
Einstein combined these epistemological concerns with his long-held thought experiment about traveling on a beam of light to come up with the general theory of relativity. In so doing, he made a connection or metaphorical leap between seemingly unrelated fields, a pattern shared by nearly all creative artists.
Although the book deals with painters, writers and scientists of all religious backgrounds, Feinstein says that in researching creativity he found that Arendt's work encouraged him to move beyond the Torah, which he had studied as a youth, and explore Jewish intellectual history of a more modern nature.