February 1, 1989

Creativity and Conformity

Conformity n. Doing what you are told to do.

Creativity n. Doing what you have been told to do.

When an elementary school teacher says that your child is very creative, it probably means that he spreads paint on the walls and himself, as well as on the paper. If she says that he tends to conform too much, it means that he can't do anything without first asking for permission.

I have always had difficulty figuring out what the relationship is between creativity and conformity. Most people perceive conformity as making someone stodgy, while creativity makes a person exciting and interesting.

We all conform. What we conform to is what our parents want us to do. We have no choice. Occasionally a parent wants their child to stand out from the crowd, and the kid will do just that. Sometimes a parent thinks that she wants a crazy child, so he will be crazy and end up in the funny farm -oh the crosses that some parents have to bear.

There are even rules in a mental institution that state or imply that if you don't conform, you will get "worked over" either physically or mentally.

The usual definition of a non-conformist is one who doesn't conform to whatever the standards are for the society in which he lives. Place an Iranian in France and he will appear not to conform, while in Iran, he fits in nicely. A New Yorker, who fits nicely in New York City, stands out like a sore thumb in a small town in Kansas.

The amount of conformity required to be a musician is awesome. Even a jazz or rock musician has to learn music. He must know how to use his instrument, which requires massive amounts of practice in conformity. Isn't it strange that for a long time all musicians sat or stood to play? Now pop musicians gyrate; not just one of them, most of them. Those who refuse to conform have a tougher time getting gigs. Of course, you can compose and not have to dress weird or bounce around on a stage. But, man, you do have to speak the language.

Bikers conform to whatever bikers have to conform to. While some are old and some are young, most look alike to me, as do their motorcycles.

Did you ever watch the Nobel Prize ceremony where all of those non-conforming scientists and writers dress up like penguins to receive their awards? And the creative people at IBM in their suits and ties?

The one that takes the cake for conformity is a university graduation ceremony. I knew a student who didn't like the conformity of the graduation ceremony, so he wore nothing but tennis shoes under his gown when he received his doctorate.

I haven't mentioned the military and the church, because they are honest about what is required of their members; conform or get out. Under some circumstances, it's conform or die.

Conform or get out is an unvarying rule of any society or culture. In our country, there are so many subcultures that most of us can find a group to which we can conform: people who have the same or similar parental instructions and cultural background.

What passes for creativity is when a person has reached the limits of conformity. He then adds a tiny bit more that the rest of his conformist colleagues haven't thought of and that's considered to be creative. The great Picasso went through everybody's painting style before he hit on one that appeared to be unique. I don't know whether it was unique, because I am not that well versed in art. He was damn good at what he did; but unique? I doubt it. In music, that creative genius Mozart sounds the same to me as Salieri and the rest of the composers of his period.

I read this to my wife and she asks me "what got you off on that?"

"I don't know," I answer, "I'm creative!"

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