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Perceptions of Creativity in Asia

Admit it. Creativity is often associated with “beautiful designs” or with highly visual skills like painting or sketching. Not everyone will readily identify themselves as creative. Interestingly, one would discover that root word of creativity is the Latin word creō means, which means “to create, make.” Everyone, at some point or another, has created something. Every child’s obsession is to “make things,” be it a tree with purple leaves or a replica of the neighbor’s dog made of cereal puffs. To create is man’s way of making sense of the world and his expression of personal agency.

Many people lose this personal inventiveness and curiosity because of the boxed-in rigor of structured education, among other things. In the following chapter excerpt, Jaye Buchbinder proposes that creativity is something we all have. And it’s something more like a muscle than a bone. She talks about how creativity is really about daring to go beyond the “obvious solutions” and understanding problems from users’ perspectives. It’s about having the creative confidence of a child who is not afraid to “be wrong.” A child rarely doubts that his creation works, because he’s willing to try again and again until he gets it right.    

Buchbinder, who served as a Design Leadership Consultant at the Stanford Design School, shares her experience teaching Asian youth about creative confidence during the Asia Leadership Youth (ALY) Camp in 2015. The full chapter Perceptions of Creativity in Asia can be found in the book Rethinking Asia 2: Entrepreneurship and Economic Development.  

Is Creativity a Bone or a Muscle?

One overlap between Asian and American students is their definition of personal creativity. Among my American friends and colleagues alike, with the possible exception of my peers in the mechanical-engineering product-design program at Stanford, most people do not consider themselves creative. This is also true in Asia, but even more so, as the students believe that creativity is an intrinsic rather than a built trait. At the beginning of my workshops, I asked the students to raise their hands if they thought they were creative. Only in Malaysia, at the Asia Leadership Youth (ALY) Camp organized by the Center for Asia Leadership, did more than one student raise a hand, and even then it was only two.

Many of the students I worked with defined creativity as the ability to draw well, envision aesthetic objects, or come up with wild ideas; they suggested that these abilities are tied to a fixed portion of your brain. To counteract this belief, I told them that creativity is a muscle that can be developed rather than a bone that stays the same into adulthood. I also introduced them to an article by Mr. David Kelley and his brother in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence.” Essentially, the Kelleys suggest that the practice of empathy and of pushing past your comfort zone into new projects and challenges helps develop the creative muscle (Kelley and Kelley, 2012). I reaffirmed this notion with a video of Mr. David Kelley explaining his ideas and then told the story of my own journey into creativity.

I did not consider myself a creative person before taking design thinking courses at Stanford. Coming in, I anticipated studying neuroscience in a pre-medicine track, with the aim of eventually going to medical school and becoming a neurosurgeon. But after spending freshman year in the pre-med track and feeling completely burnt out on chemistry, I took an environmental engineering course and fell in love. Still, it wasn’t until my junior year, when I stumbled into the Design School, that I learned the process of understanding users and thus began to understand the technical side of creativity.

Creativity is a useful skill regardless of your profession. The creativity I have developed through the Design School plays a large part in my ability to excel in other parts of my life, especially in my engineering courses. In my course on chemical engineering, we had to use our knowledge of battery capacity and renewable energy to create a system that could supply the entire country with energy. Like the other students, I focused on one type of energy and on the book we had been supplied with, but it was my design-school knowledge—the idea that creating a solution requires understanding the problem—that pushed me to look outside the boundaries. I spoke to experts in the fields of battery design and electric vehicles as well as regular citizens in order to craft an innovative solution.

Creativity not only aids design and engineering processes, it also makes them more fun and meaningful. By striving to understanding the user, you can develop a deeper connection to the problem you are solving, and the more original your solution is, the more driven you are to make it succeed. This became apparent to my students during our exercises in problem-solving analysis, which my colleague Mr. Attiq and I ran almost every week. At the beginning of a three-hour session, we presented the students with a problem and walked them through the process of acquainting themselves with both the problem itself and the stake-holding groups.

It was frustrating to see the ubiquitous lack of creative confidence across student groups in Asia, but it was deeply rewarding to see their rapid development over the brief span of a week or less. The quick turnaround reinforced the importance and pay-off of practicing creativity and strengthened my desire to work on my own creative confidence. To me the lack of creativity ties into a larger cultural theme that was evident in all the Asian countries we visited, a theme visible even in the most creative pockets of the United States: the battle between artist and scientist.

By Jaye Buchbinder