“In order to allow ourselves to be creative, we have to relinquish control and overcome fear.” Madeleine L’Engle

Creativity cannot operate without choice. We may have total freedom, or we may start our work within a given framework, but within it we must make choices, for there are always alternatives to choose from. Without them, there there is no creativity.

 Some people fear creativity, even as they long for it. They may see it as the area of “crazy artists” or as sometimes associated with madness. They may fear what is outside of the bounds of the norm. It may be something they do not understand. Yet creativity is all around us, and every individual is capable of creativity at some level. It is not confined to the artists and the daydreamers, but because they believe that it is, some people deny themselves the blossoming of expression and discovery.

The homemaker who, without help from a recipe book, tweaks a recipe in a way that mom would never have considered – is being creative. The new pattern of color in the flowerbed, or the re-decoration of a wall – they may result from creativity. The effective solving of a problem in a way that no one else had considered – that is creative.

Apollo 13

Do you remember the movie Apollo 13? In it there is a scene in a lab in Houston. The people there were given replicas of every item that was available to the stranded astronauts circling above, and told to figure out how those items could be used to solve the technical problems faced by the crew. Those items were not designed to fix those problems, they were there for other purposes. The technicians and scientists in Houston had to use every iota of creativity they had to find new ways to use them in order to save the astronauts and their craft. It is an agonizing scene because initially the task seems impossible (even though we know that in history they succeeded).

I believe that scene is one of the best illustrations of the use of creativity in problem-solving ever shown on film. Of course the fine arts are excellent, the world is better for them. But what happened in that lab, in the real situation, saved lives and made history ONLY because of the creativity used in that emergency.

Divergent thinking

In the creative process there are two phases. First comes the part that most people think of when we talk about creativity. When we are wearing our scientific hats we call it divergent thinking. Sometimes it is called brain-storming. It is the time when everyone is encouraged to come up with every idea, every possibility, withholding judgment of good or bad. Did Van Gogh sit at breakfast running through his head what he would paint today? We don’t know, but if he did then maybe there’d be sunflowers, stars, cornfields, people, houses, irises, rooms, churches, trees… and then from each category maybe a dozen or so more. But this was to be today’s subject and so, from that divergent phase, he had to select one. That brings us to the convergent phase.

Convergent thinking

 We can call it “convergent thinking,” or we can say that from all the brilliant ideas that you, or a group of people, came up with, we have to decide which one is best, which one will solve the problem. It also has to be one for which we have sufficient resources. The lab in Huston could not include even one tiny safety-pin if it was not available to the astronauts. (Perhaps one day Van Gogh, in the divergent phase, included a brilliant idea for a picture of sunflowers, but then, thinking convergently,  realized he was almost out of yellow paint. So, perhaps that day he chose the next best option, and painted the Church at Auvers – which is nearly all green and blue – instead. You do know I’m imagining, don’t you.) Deciding which is the best for which we have the resources is one of the tasks of the convergent thinking phase of creativity.

What gets in the way of creativity is having learned to not ask “How?” “Why?” or “Why not?” It is being afraid of the people who say “We’ve always done it this way, not like that.” It is being so attached to whatever is familiar that anything unfamiliar is frightening, or seen as hostile. Creativity is saying – or thinking – “What if….?” and following up to find out – within, in most cases, the bounds of safety and possibly a smidgeon of common sense.


In every moment of that scene in Apollo 13 they were making choices, trying new ways, sometimes finding they would not work and trying again. They were in completely uncharted territory and they had to make choices on which people’s lives depended. Perhaps they were accustomed to creative thinking, but I suspect that not all of them were. I suspect that some of them would have told you, had you asked, “Oh, I’m just a tech.” That did not mean that they could not be creative when the occasion arose. So can you.

(You may want to browse the categories section on the right. The Creativity category will take you to a couple of blogs I have written on creativity and the other categories will take you to other topics.)