If you want to lead a more creative life and participate in the creative process that is original and meaningful to you, it is important that you consider different perspectives and form your own conclusions. We might be conditioned to having right or wrong answers that we fear making wrong decisions in our lives. But in the field of creativity, there is hardly any clear right or wrong in many situations.
Should you use more than 3 fonts in your design of an invitation card? To me, maybe not. While aesthetically speaking there are guidelines when it comes to designing an invitation card, who is to say that you cannot break any of the guidelines? If deviating from the guidelines work for the message that you are trying to communicate, then perhaps you might want to deviate from them.
The ambiguity of the creative process requires you to make tiny decisions as the process unfolds itself. The more you can make conscious decisions instead of reactionary decisions, the greater the meaning you can achieve and the deeper the depth of thought you can have in your project. The wider and the deeper research you do, the more resources you have to make your decisions, helping you to achieve a good level of originality in your creative process.
Growing up in a densely-populated country with a strong emphasis on putting the family and society before self, it was hard for me to avoid being inculcated with values that are largely dictated by societal norms. I had never been taught to question whether existing norms would continue to work far into the future. Independence of thought is not something that is widely encouraged.
In modern societies, institutions such as governments, schools, financial institutions as well as companies and marketers, each with their own agendas, seek to have a level of control over our thought lives. Each of these institutions tries to tell us what to think and how to think. Whether their messages are relevant to our own individual lives is not important as they try to teach us what is good for us.
While I am not advocating for extreme individualism where we act according to whatever pleases us, I believe that each of us needs to develop independence of thought that thoroughly reflect on everything that is going on around us. Such independence of thought is not about satisfying our selfish desires but to help us to find that balance and perhaps paradox of being an individual human being that is inextricably still tied to the society around us.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that the ability to free ourselves from both the social influences around us and our fleshly desires will help us to learn to find meaning in the everyday experiences of our lives. This ability shifts the power from the institutions around us back to oneself, freeing us from always succumbing to the rewards that such institutions dangle before us.
When we give up the power to think for ourselves to be led by the messages bombarding us every day, we give up the responsibility for our own lives at the same time. If our actions then lead to undesirable side effects, who do we have to blame other than ourselves for not taking responsibility for our own lives?
If we were to choose to develop our independence of thought, one of the things that we have to face is to take responsibility for our own actions. It is very easy to blame others for our situations. We blame governments for the increasing income inequalities in our own countries. We blame schools and teachers for the deviant nature of our children. We blame the for-profit companies for our materialist culture. I am not immune to such actions either. And yet how often do we stop to consider whether there is anything that we can do to effect the change that we want to see?
Independence of thought is also not about being a contrarian either. There is hardly any wisdom at all in going against all kinds of conventional wisdom just for the sake of going against the grain. It is about questioning whether such pearls of wisdom are still true in the culture of our time. Independence of thought forces us to develop our thinking and to arrive at our own conclusions, even if such conclusions remain the same as conventional wisdom.
So how then do we develop more independent thinking in ourselves?
Alan Jacobs argues that pure independence of thought, which is thinking “independently of other humans beings”, is not possible at all. He writes that thinking is a social action that is the result of the interaction between us and those around us.
I think the first step is to be aware of the social influences around you. What is the culture around you that influences your professional life, your personal life and your social life? Are you making major decisions in your life because of the voices of others around you? Or do you usually think through not only their perspectives but also your own and other perspectives before making your decision?
It is important to question everything that you think is worth questioning as well. One of the reasons for my varied experiences in my professional life was that I began to question whether life in one single profession throughout my entire life is something that I truly wanted. While many students enter architecture school to become a licensed architect eventually, I began to question whether that was the kind of success that I want to have in my own life as well. I began to wonder whether there were things that were valuable that I have learnt in architecture school that I could apply to other aspects of my life as well. Why can’t I organise my professional life around my varied interests and try to find the intersection between those and how I can create value in this world?
As you start to question, you will inevitably begin to research viewpoints regarding the issue that you are considering. Imagine that you have questions regarding the increasing prevalence of heatwaves in European countries. You could begin to search on climate change and look for viewpoints from varying perspectives. Some people think that climate change is a serious issue of today. Others refute that climate change is even happening. Why did these perspectives emerge? Do those who claim that climate change is happening, or not happening, have evidence to back up their claims? As you interact with different perspectives regarding the issue that you are learning more about, you will eventually begin to start forming your own opinions. Note that your opinion might change as you gain further knowledge on the issue that you are looking into. But that does not stop you from forming an opinion with the current knowledge that you have. What is important is that you are forming your opinions because of the time and effort that you have put into to learn more about an issue instead of accepting the opinions that you hear from someone else.
As humans, we are complex beings that can exert an influence in the world around us. There are many issues that we might be interested in. The great diversity in the types of careers one can have tell us that each of us is probably very different from the next person beside us. As such, it is unlikely that we can gain perfect independence of thought in that we have considered every issue surrounding us. At each stage of our lives, there are still things that we have not thought about and have not formed our own opinions about.
Some issues might speak to you more and therefore you might spend more time and effort into researching them. Other issues might not interest you at all and therefore you seek the wisdom of others to help shape your opinions regarding them. Some issues to you might seem trivial that you feel there is no need to question.
And that is all okay.
We do not have to give up progress in learning how to be more independent thinkers just because reaching the state of perfection that we have in our minds is near impossible, if not outright impossible. I believe that as we grow to become more mature in our thinking and grow in our knowledge, we will develop the wisdom to form our own opinions and make important decisions that are truly our own. This is important in the creative process as it will help you to become a more original creator instead of copying everything you see around you exactly.
This post is an excerpt from Your Creative Life.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008), EPUB e-book
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2017).
- “Why Have One Career When You Can Have Three? Or Four? Or More?,” WBUR, 2013, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2013/07/12/slash-careers-amy-gutman.