You might think that from the title of this post, I am going to spend this post proselytizing breaking any rules in order to be truly creative. If so, you’d only be half right. The other thing you might be thinking is a saying you may have heard: “To break the rules, first you must master them.” This I agree with. But, in the spirit of this saying itself, it’s worth looking at why that is the case…
But surely, you can’t truly be creative if you are following rules? Rules are just boundaries and constraints. The truth is that giving someone boundaries will actually inspire more creative solutions than giving someone absolute freedom. I am always reminded of one of my lecturer’s at university. The final assignment for a visual media class was to create a film. When the class first started they wanted to give students total freedom as they thought this would get them the most creative results. However, they found that by giving the students a ‘theme’, i.e. by imposing rules, the work from the students became much more varied and much more creative.
But following rules can also have as much to do with our social organisation. Following rules, vernacular or tradition within a domain is often seen as an indicator of authenticity. In my previous post on how people are judged to be creative, I discuss the idea of the domain and field. The field being the the social organisations around a subject and the domain being the existing pattern of action (the domains of Architecture, or Carpentry for example have well-established traditions, and patterns of action). In the art world, critics and gallery owners (the field) will judge a brave new artist who has started to break the classical rules of the domain (painting).
In this sense, the domain and its rules are incredibly important. But the creative geniuses who have transformed these domains, a lot them have broken these rules. It is important to note that many, before breaking the rules, spent a very long time mastering how things were currently done. Led Zeppelin’s first album was mostly covers and Picasso’s first major painting looked like this (quite traditional). In fact many of our past ‘creative geniuses’ have conformed to the 10 year rule (That it generally takes 10 years to go from novice to master in any domain (Sternberg, 1999, Handbook of Creativity, 173). That is, their breakthroughs have come only after they have mastered their domain.
Then things change…
For the person who will transform a domain, there must also develop a significant asynchrony between mind and domain such that the mind encounters significant dissatisfaction with what the domain currently offers. – Sternberg, 1999, 173
Generally, this is thought that you must fully understand and master the common method, “the rules” before you see their true flaws. This dissatisfaction drives creativity. This hits right to the heart of creativity being inspired to fulfil a need. But also, one must keep in mind the field, who comprise the gatekeepers. Departure from “the rules” can seen to be tolerated by one who has mastered those, but not so profoundly as to disgust those who have dedicated so much of their life to these “rules.”
Feature image courtesy of Woody Hibbard