Sunday, June 10, 2007

Creating Minds: Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner’s lasting contribution to human psychology is perhaps the classification of the human mind into multiple intelligences, as expressed in books like Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences, among others. In Changing Minds, he focuses on creativity, quite often seen as an outcome of intelligence.

Changing Minds is a study of the life and times of seven eminent contemporary greats – Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mohandas Gandhi. Gardner analyzes the life and achievements of each of these luminaries, and synthesizes the commonalities to, in a sense, the dimensions of creativity.

As is Gardner’s wont, he approaches the task in a structured manner, defining organizing themes, an organizing framework, and issues for empirical investigation, and identifying emerging themes. The last one, identifying emerging themes, is particularly interesting, because they have emerged out of the study of the seven individuals. In other words, Gardner seemed to have looked for a commonality across the seven individuals on some pre-determined parameters, but the two themes that emerged caught even Gardner by surprise.

The first self-confessing truth that Gardner talks about is that almost all creators (Gardner is unable to establish this clearly in all cases though, especially in the case of Gandhi), during the time of their important breakthroughs had some kind of a significant support system.

The first issue surfaced during examinations of the period during which a creator made his or her most important breakthrough. I knew that at least some creators had close confidants during this time. But what emerged from the study was more dramatic: not only did the creators all have some kind of significant support system at that time, but this support system appeared to have a number of defining components.

It is perhaps a slightly counter-intuitive argument because it is quite often felt that creative geniuses are reclusive individuals who achieve everything they do in spite of resistance from their environment, not because of support from it.

The second commonality that emerged unannounced is that each individual seems to have had to sacrifice something significant to achieve their creative breakthroughs.

My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal experience.

While not surprising in itself, it suggests that at some level, creativity (interestingly referred to as the act of creation by Gardner in the aforementioned extract) demands its own pound of flesh.

Another insight that Gardner comes out with is the duration of time that it takes for an individual to achieve mastery in his / her métier. And, astonishingly, in the case of all the seven individuals portrayed in this book, there has been a gap of at least ten years before they came out with creative breakthroughs in their fields. And even more staggeringly, it took them a similar time period for their next big breakthrough.

The structure of the book is biographical in nature, with separate chapters on each individual with synthesizing arguments interspersed. This leads to the interesting facets about each of the worthies. Depending on your comfort levels with certain domains, some chapters are easier to comprehend than others. (For instance, while I found it easy to follow the life and times of people like Freud, Eliot, and Gandhi, I quite got lost reading about Stravinsky and Martha Graham.)

In a study of characters as diverse as these and with the objective of establishing a common set of observations, it is inevitable that there are areas where force-fitting sets in a bit. The explanation of Picasso’s Faustian bargain is one such.

Picasso had promised God that he would stop painting in gratitude if Conchita’s [his sister] life were saved; and since this bargain had not been accepted, the deeply superstitious Picasso felt both free to do whatever he wanted in his professional and personal lives and concomitantly guilty at this hubristic seizure of power.

Another gap in the book is perhaps attributable to the fact that all the greats profiled are fairly recent figures and so Gardner seems to have a qualitative view of them. That Gardner has been inspired a lot by Freud seems to reflect in the almost-hagiographic profile of Freud. On the other hand, Gardner seems to be overly critical of Gandhi, focusing more on his negative aspects than in the case of the others. Surely each individual had two sides to his/her personality?

Notwithstanding these gaps, Changing Minds is an insightful read into the lives of seven people who fashioned the world in the 20th century. And considering the nature of the topic, a surprisingly easy one at that.

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