In my two previous posts (here and here), I argued that the wide-spread belief that we are swimming in an ocean of cheap innovative ideas–solidified in a popular slogan “ideas are a dime a dozen”–is a myth. Available evidence suggests that the U.S. is facing a growing shortage of novel ideas. Worse, the cost of getting these ideas is growing while their quality seems to be declining.
What’s going on? One thing is clear: the quantity and quality of novel ideas are declining because sources of new scientific discoveries are drying up. Although the total U.S. spending on R&D remains steady at 2.5% of GDP, only about 30% of the money comes from the federal government; 70% of it is contributed by the private sector. With its focus on rapid returns, will private sector spend money on fundamental and, therefore, potentially risky R&D projects? No. (Of note, 75% of U.S. venture capital goes to software and 5-10% to biotech. How is the rest of R&D supposed to be funded?). The industry still can generate incrementally innovative combinations of old ideas–which indeed may be plentiful and cheap–but it is unlikely to create breakthrough innovations.
There are hopeful signs that the newly minted Biden administration is going to pay more attention to basic science; yet it may take a while to repair the damage incurred by decades of neglect.
I also feel we must consider another explanation: we have become less creative as a nation.
This fanciful—and I suspect, offensive to many—idea came to me when I recently re-read a 2017 Wired article. The article described a study showing that bored individuals generated more creative ideas than a non-bored control group. The authors of the study argued that boredom might spark creativity because a bored mind craves for stimulation.
The problem is that the proliferation of social media channels eliminated this “bored” state of mind. We are always “busy” playing with our mobile devices, numbing our brains with the constant flow of mostly useless input. Being constantly artificially “on,” our brains refuse to get positively stimulated. By refusing to get and stay bored we become less creative.
There is another human trait that carries significant negative connotation in the workplace and society at large: procrastination. Procrastinating folks are considered inefficient, unproductive, and—oh, the horror!—bad team players.
However, a recent study shows that procrastination may foster creativity. The relationship between procrastination and creativity seems to be inversely U-shaped: test subjects who procrastinated moderately received higher creativity ratings than those who procrastinated less or more. The authors of the study speculate that moderate procrastination sets in motion a mechanism of problem restructuring, which results in the production of more creative ideas.
According to statistical data, the U.S. is the most overworked developed nation in the world. The average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950; yet we’re working the same 40-hour workweek, at least on paper. Of course, we have no time to procrastinate! But what was the price for this spectacular gain in productivity? What if we paid for that by the loss of our creativity?
Now, I’m not saying that in order to become more creative, we have to trash your mobile gadgets and delete time management software from your laptops. What I’m saying is we have to respect our own brain by treating it with occasional spells of a quiet, unrushed deliberation.
Especially, of course, if after a shower, we went out to the garden and sat under an apple tree.
Image credit: Magnet.me on Unsplash
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