Friday, March 04, 2016

Creativity and the 20-80 Split

A common story we like to tell ourselves is that everyone is creative. We perpetuate this by calling a large number of what are essentially uncreative activities creative. 

For example, if you have a sewing machine and you buy a pattern and you make a shirt on your sewing machine and wear it, people will compliment you on how creative you are. The problem is, you weren't creative at all. You literally copied a pattern someone else developed and selected cloth with a pattern someone else designed. You are a copier in this case. Now, you may in fact enjoy sewing, and you may in fact enjoy following purchased patterns, and there is certainly nothing wrong with loving to do this activity, but it's not creative.

The above kind of person probably constitutes 20% of the population. They are an uncreative core of copiers who greatly stabilize society. Many of these will even go so far as to resist change. This has the social/cultural benefit of preventing change from taking place so fast that the culture/society is torn apart. For the creatives they are a royal pain in the neck, but from a group selection standpoint, they are vital for social health.

At the other extreme are what I would call the extreme creatives. These are novelists, poets, artists, creative programmers, technological innovators and other disruptors of society, culture, the economy, etc. Those who engage in "creative destruction" and are thus Schumpeterian entrepreneurs. These people probably constitute another 20% of the population. They destabilize society and keep it on the edge of chaos. They are the change-makers. 

In the middle is a wide variety of modestly to rarely creative people. They may have a clever idea once or twice in their lifetime. Many won't even follow up on it. Some will, but it will be something like adding embroidery to the shirt they sewed. The remainder of the population---about 60%---are these kinds of slightly creative people. These will also be entrepreneurs, but mostly in the Kirznerian sense of noticing opportunities. Which is a form of creativity, and an important one socially and culturally, but certainly not in the way we think of highly productive creative people as being creative. 

From the highly creative person's perspective, only about 20% are creative and about 80% are not, while from the copier's perspective, only about 20% are copiers and 80% are those crazy creatives. This mixture seems to be the most stable one to maintain a stable culture/society, which must always be changing to remain stable, but but also be stable to remain stable. Resistance is necessary for movement, even at the social level. It is the simplest expression of the power laws that necessarily underlie all complex systems. Another way of understanding it is that the 20% highly creatives almost certainly engage in 80% of what we would identify as creative activities, while the other 80% engage in only 20% of such activities. And as noted, the 20% who are almost pure copiers won't share much if any of that 20% creative actions.

Copying is a vital aspect of cultural/societal stability, because we need to be able to copy what we have been shown to work. Tradition is vital, and the copiers keep tradition alive. Studies show that the vast majority of people are indeed copiers the vast majority of the time, and will engage in copying even when they can see that there is an easier way to do things. Indeed, even the ultracreatives do not extend their creativity to every single aspect of their lives, even if they may do so to much more of their lives than most people. They may raise their children in more traditional ways, for example. Or like eating the same things over and over. Few are like Goethe and seem to be a genius at everything. Most genius creatives are geniuses like Shakespeare, and genius at one thing. Of course, those we identify as geniuses, let alone universal geniuses, constitute a much smaller percentage of the population still. And they typically require specific times and places and networks to arise. 

I also address the 20-80 phenomenon here 

* The percentages given above come from Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, and have likely changed somewhat since the publication of their book. the percentages provides are intended to give a rough sketch of what is happening. 

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