October 14, 2014

SUSSER | Having a Proclivity for Creativity

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The Jack-­O-Lantern — Dartmouth’s preeminent school humor magazine — is a publication that, like The Sun, has a ton of history. Wikipedia, the definitive judge of any noteworthy noun, lists some pretty incredible people who have written for the magazine over the course of its 106-year history. One of the principal writers of Animal House, Chris Miller, cracked his first jokes in the Lantern. Mindy Kaling, known for her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on The Office — the squeaky, Indian, back-of-the-office-makeout, woman-child — wrote for the magazine too. Theodore Geisel was even the Editor in Chief during the roaring ’20s. Who is this man you may ask? To answer this question, I begin with a story. One prohibition-era night, Geisel and his buddies were caught drinking gin in a dorm room. Seeing as Dartmouth was, and still is, a learned institution with little tolerance for youthful debauchery, Geisel was promptly punished, and his duties as editor for the magazine were relinquished. But, being a bold and cunning young man, Geisel evaded this discipline by continuing to publish his work under his mother’s maiden name, Seuss. The rest is history.

In my mind, I would imagine the rhyme probably went something like this:

Me and my friends, were drinking one night.

The dean walked in, and gave us a fright!

He shouted and he pouted, he jumped and bumped.

We got in deep trouble, it’s easy to see.

But when push came to shove, he could not outsmart me!

It’s ironic to think that this influential children’s author was at one point in his life, a writer for the Lantern and a frat boy (the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity) at Dartmouth. Like a freshman with a hidden bottle of vodka in their Donlon closet, Dr. Seuss and his shenanigans prove that the times haven’t changed. But as incongruous as this specific story may be with his professional work, we’ll always know Seuss as a boundlessly imaginative writer. Known as the penman of The Cat in the Hat, originator of The Grinch character, and inventor of the term “nerd” (thanks Wikipedia), Dr. Seuss’ whimsical mind has permeated throughout American culture.

What would have become of the world if Geisel had submitted to “Dean Wormer” after his drinking incident, called it a day and ended his affiliation with the Jack-O-Lantern? A world without green eggs and ham? Where Thing 1 and Thing 2 are no longer ubiquitous Halloween costumes? While this thought experiment is provoking, and admittedly a little arbitrary, Dr. Seuss’s unique capability for charting new imaginative territory shows the power of creativity and its limitless nature.

Creativity is a universal superpower, giving the mind the ability to be stretched like a piece of Silly Putty. Creative thought sometimes defies what we think is true in the world. But just as Peter Pan had Captain Hook, every heroic figure, or entity, must have a villain. In the case of creativity, the villain is economics. The root of this economic nemesis is the idea of diminishing returns. For each increment of effort put into something, less is produced. A fundamental component of economics — the study of not having enough stuff — this theory is quite powerful and frustratingly futile.

Creativity, the emblem of unrestrained thought, is being directly opposed by the snotty, intellectual jargon of economics. Creativity, diminishing returns argues, does have limits, and the returns we get to creative thought is, in fact, decreasing. Dr. Seuss, the The Mindy Project and all the creativity that they represent, must be able to give this economic principle a run for its money.

Many things are linked to creativity — scientific research, music, the latest touchdown dance, etc. Sensibly, creative thought and production builds on pre-existing information. We do not create the same television shows year after year, or make the same scientific discoveries. Rather, we build upon what we know and what has existed in the past. In the case of scientific knowledge, the first discoveries were, for lack of better terms, pretty awesome. Aristotle, Newton and Galileo rocked the world in their abilities to deconstruct physical phenomenon into patterned observations.

But has the production of science, an arguably creative output, diminished in its output in recent history, as would be suggested by economic theory? Some would say yes. The selective inhibition of a protein may seem exceedingly trivial compared to the theory of gravity. But, as knowledge accumulates through seemingly inconsequential discoveries, it can ultimately lead towards something so profound and impactful that it rivals the “first units of output.” These small discoveries can eventually build towards something that can compete in value with the answer to why apples fall from trees. Could a cure for all cancerous growth be as groundbreaking as the theory of gravity?

Creative output could be a unique example of something that is not enslaved to the theory of scarcity. More importantly, it is something that flourishes even when, under conventional thought, we might be in a suboptimal situation. A 2009 MIT economic review proved that under situations in which we are constrained by resource limitations, we thrive in terms of creativity. After the 2008 recession, employees of companies in a financial bind were forced to utilize the right sides of their brain; they found their creative juices flowing like never before. A relatively new field of innovation economics is trying to tackle these questions and develop a new framework that emphasizes the role of creativity and innovation in growth. So maybe economics won’t be the villain for long.

The value of creativity and its unique nature can be a justification for higher education, and, perhaps just as importantly, a well-rounded education. Intellectualism provides the foundation for creative thought, and a multifaceted perspective allows problems to be attacked from multiple fronts. Engineers — who panic at the thought of a reading assignment like a teenager discovering a pimple on their forehead on prom night — have much to gain from expanding their frontiers of thought beyond linear algebra and C++. In an era of super-specialization, there are undoubtedly pressures to keep one’s head down and focus on a given area of expertise. While creativity and innovation is quite easy to romanticize, a limited perspective — absent of any creativity — will ultimately lead to the dreaded diminishing returns. Flexible thinking and a Seussical, Lantern-esque approach will allow us to hurdle over the limitations we may confront in life, and embrace the creative.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.