Creativity by the yard

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The split

I’ve heard it said more than once that the world is divided into three kinds of people: those who create, those who support, and those who criticise. The former see the world differently and as a result land up being mostly societal misfits; at least until you become successful (which is nearly never, since the deck is stacked against you for reasons I will explain later). The corporate world wants to have the output and the commercial results, but is unprepared to support the infrastructure and requirements. The second group forms the majority of the population: ‘support’ can mean anything from consumption and patronage to supplier of key enablers such a services, environment or tools. And the latter – some serve as useful moderating reality checks and balances, but most just become bitter and jealous internet trolls. Today’s post is several things: an exploration of these roles, a series of suggestions from the point of view of a creative, and perhaps an apology (excuse?) for my wandering attention.

The jury is still out on whether creativity is innate or learned; I’m inclined to say it’s a bit of both. Young children have no sense of limit or restriction until adults impose it; they learn by exploring and seeing the result. This often results in a lot of failures – broken objects, personal injury etc. – which we as supervising adults try to prevent, both in their own physical interests and our desire not to have to continually fix things. Depending on how that curiosity is handled – I believe the child can be encouraged or discouraged from continuing to explore. By exploring, questions are asked and there are no assumptions or things taken for granted. If this is encouraged for long enough, it becomes a habit, which in turn leads to intellectual curiosity and simply asking the question ‘why can’t it be different?’ Experience with the physical world and societal reality (and logic) may temper that last line of thought over time, but by asking the question at all, you are far more likely to land up with a different answer. The difference leads to creativity.

Similarly, continually discouraging curiosity – “don’t do that” “don’t touch that” “no, you’ll break it” – is probably what ingrains an attitude of acceptance. Whilst this is probably less hassle in the short term, in the long term, it creates an adult that accepts everything at face value because they were conditioned not to question it. (As a parent, balancing this against risk of injury and physical damage is perhaps my most challenging task.) If you do not ask why, you will not realise if or how something might be improved or different. Obviously, too much questioning and lack of discipline can lead to all sorts of other societal problems: you probably don’t want everybody asking why without the framework of logic and knowledge to support it. In essence: asking the right question is as important as asking the question at all.

This leads to the disconnect between creatives and non-creatives: the former are constantly seen as difficult and argumentative and problematic for challenging accepted assumptions, more so when the challenges are legitimate and the non-creative feels instinctively there is some merit to the challenge – but does not want to undergo the discomforting period of change. Again, education and knowledge are required to be able to accept alternatives: being told something is just ‘better’ at face value also requires blind faith, which is even rarer (and tends to result in Darwinian accidents). For this reason, I’d argue that anything truly different and innovative is binary: regardless of whether the solution/ presentation/ aesthetic* is superior or not, success depends solely on adoption. The more revolutionary, the lower the chance of success. And despite increased information flow with the internet, it’s rare that adoption is widespread and rapid (but again, due to increased information flow – if something sticks, it spreads exponentially). In conclusion, a paradox: if something or somebody is truly visionary, they are unlikely to be successful. The more different, the more difficult to understand, the fewer people can support adoption.

*Depending on the ‘thing’ – more about this later

Yet it’s these leaps that have driven the progress of society: things like fire, the wheel, electricity, computing etc. Most of what we take for granted today was unthinkable a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand. Even the aesthetic of the age is driven by the technology and media available: most of today’s commercial photography and cinema couldn’t have happened 10 years ago, simply because the technology didn’t exist.

Those who support rely on the creatives: I’m thinking of big corporate here. Without the individuals setting direction and creating product, there would not be jobs for the producers and suppliers and no products for them to buy in the first place: a continuous cycle. Without the tools and enablers made by the supporters, we couldn’t create. Put simply: there may only be a handful of key people driving camera design at any of the major companies, but without them – there wouldn’t be something for the really innovative photographers to use, and without the innovative photographers, less incentive for Joe Public to want a camera, and fewer jobs for the camera makers etc. Without the camera makers there wouldn’t be a whole host of suppliers; without the innovations at some of those suppliers there wouldn’t be some particular products or features that in turn enable the photographers to get images under previously impossible conditions. I think it’s clear how every industry requires an ecosystem to be successful.

It’s one of the reasons some parts of the world simply innovate more than others: existence of a support structure. Deciding to set up a watch company in Malaysia, for instance, would have been a suicidal move 20 years ago (and may still be, time will tell) since we have zero expertise of note here, and very little value attached to design/ creative activities, either. But given my ecosystem is now global and I can source from suppliers around the world, it’s not such a problem since physical colocation is not necessary: a 3D drawing emailed here is as good as one viewed at the manufacturing plant. My country has tried hard to build ‘centres for excellence’ for various industries, but failed simply because the entire ecosystem did not exist and would have to be built from scratch – unfortunately, an office park and some tax incentives aren’t enough to attract talent and resources especially if there are more conducive options available elsewhere.

I’d also argue that due to the nature of creativity and ecosystem, it’s highly likely that very curious individuals will be restricted to just one medium of output: for example, if you are a painter and want to have a certain presentation or color or method to express a particular idea and it doesn’t exist, you’ll probably land up inventing it. And in the course of doing so, acquire expertise in say brush making and pigment mixing; these things may stay solely as supporting activities, or other intellectual curiosity may be stoked and a new line of work started. Curiosity might seek comfort in the familiar, but is always wanting to discover the unknown. I myself started photography both as an activity with tangible output that could be broken down into small chunks of time (i.e. around a corporate career) and because it enabled me to enjoy watches I could never own; watch appreciation came before photography but lead to an entirely different (and at times, obsessively so) career. Returning attention to watchmaking is merely completing the circle. And I wish to conclude on that note – one of apology – that my creative interests have diversified again, which means that my photographic activities have been somewhat reduced outside the core areas of Hasselblad, commercial (for key clients) and this site. It’s one of the reasons I stopped teaching a year ago (the watch project was gathering steam and requiring increasing attention, though I could not say so at the time to avoid giving the game away). For now though, the forces remain in balance: enough variety to keep me stimulated, and not so much workload to make things physically difficult. Will this result in a change in the way I see/ shoot? Almost certainly, and I’m looking forward to it. MT


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  1. Michael T Tam says:

    Being creative as I understand, is being good at solving problems in a novel manner–not necessarily artistically.

    Further, to be creative (finding that novel process), I first need to identify what needs solving–by being critical. Then to actually solve it I need to create the framework of support to entertain that endeavor. But creativity isn’t an endpoint in my thoughts, it’s the whole process which requires constant thinking and action. The final output is just a frame of reference to me, and is not creative in and of itself. It’s a launchpad to start over again by being critical. So being creative isn’t really one of three person types to me–it’s a constantly swirling cycle of all of them, over a period of time.

    Starting over and doing it again and again to find different ways to approach and solve is what make me a creative person. It’s not a one point score and I win the creative title. There needs to be a pattern and a history to see that creative pursuit. It also reinforces the learned aspect of being creative for me, as opposed to the natural pre-disposition of ‘talent’, which by itself does not engender creativity by itself in my own experience; a passive enabler at best because it is not an action taken with sensible intellect. Talent is more like privilege; starting with a nice camera. it takes no interesting pictures by itself, but it can certainly help.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with my rambling, but suffice to say, being creative is as difficult as it is to define it with any sort of depth.

    • It’s a bit of both – there are elegant and inelegant ways of solving problems. I tend to think of something artistic as the former, though being creative could be either…

  2. Hi Ming
    I had to read this article twice and I think it has to do with the way the word creative has been used and abused over the last two decades or more. Because the term creative is often seen as positive, some people who are not creative claim to identify as a ‘Creative’. These people are just a bit different in taste, contrary, superficial or are attention seeking trying to be cool, however they create misconceptions in the process. I will leave the misunderstood genius narrative alone because that is about socialisation or politics and is not unique to creative thinkers.

    The way I tend to think about it is you need to be able to recognise and appreciate creativity in a variety of forms. Possibly more important is that in a functioning creative working ecosystem you should never consider creative thinking as some sort of higher order function that is delivered from above, but can come from anywhere. It is the innovation in intellectual processes such as investigation, analysis and review that is the foundation or possibly the real source/ spark for creativity, especially in corporate or institutional structures.

    That’s my 2c worth for now, regards Noel

    • Inspiration can certainly come from anywhere, but honestly…I can’t say that I’ve ever been remotely struck by the muse in a corporate meeting…

  3. I love your comments on the way children are raised. They are echoed by Kevin Lemann, an award winning author on children psychology. Highly recommend giving him a read.

    Great post, as always!

  4. That’s a brilliant photo! Congratulations.

  5. As usual, a very interesting entry 🙂 Recently, quite a lot of photographs are also taken and thank you for the tips.

  6. scott devitte says:

    “Watch Company in Malaysia” is this a Graham Greene novel?

  7. Imagilink says:

    Quote: “the world is divided into three kinds of people: those who create, those who support, and those who criticise”
    Dear Ming, allow me to differentiate your message. From a psychological standpoint everyone has all three qualities in themselves. Which property presents itself as dominant at a given time depends on many factors. Such as training, knowledge and experience concerning the present matter, spirit and fashion, intelligence and character of the person. This list is not exhaustive but can be supplemented endlessly and thus to differentiate the judgment.

    • It’s a continuum, I agree, but there’s definitely predisposition towards one of the three if viewed for the majority of the time. Somebody who mostly consumes and criticises isn’t suddenly going to flip to output mode – it’s why art critics are not (and probably cannot) be artists themselves, and vice versa…


  1. […] Ming Thien considers creativity, and how it can meaningfully exist without plenty of support of several kinds. Read Creativity by the yard […]

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