Where Does Creativity Come From (and Why Do Schools Kill It Off)? (Ep. 355)

Listen now:

Studies show kids are more creative when they aren’t promised a reward. But schools — with their incentives for performance and emphasis on quantifiable outcomes — may not be set up to prioritize creativity. (Photo: Ben_Kerckx/Pixabay)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Where Does Creativity Come From (and Why Do Schools Kill It Off)?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Family environments and “diversifying experiences” (including the early death of a parent); intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations; schools that value assessments, but don’t assess the things we value. All these elements factor into the long, mysterious march towards a creative life. To learn more, we examine the early years of Ai Weiwei, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Maira Kalman, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Egan, and others. (Ep. 2 of the “How to Be Creative” series.)

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

*      *      *

Stephen DUBNER: I don’t understand why you’re not in prison in China. It sounds like — obviously they did it for a little while.

Ai WEIWEI: I’ll tell the truth. I tried to think about it and suddenly, just this moment, I realized the answer. The jail in China is not large enough to put me in.

DUBNER: What do you mean?

WEIWEI: I’m just too large for them. My ideas penetrate the walls.

Are your ideas big enough to penetrate walls? His, apparently, are.

WEIWEI: My name is Ai Weiwei. I’m 61 years old. I was born in 1957 in Beijing, China. But in the year I was born, my father was exiled.

In our previous episode, we asked the art economist David Galenson to name a true creative genius.

David GALENSON: I mean, Ai Weiwei is a giant. Ai Weiwei I believe is not only the most important painter in the world, he’s the most important person in art. Ai Weiwei has changed the world. With his art, he has made a contribution to political discourse. This is a unique person in art, almost in the last hundred years.

So we went to Berlin to visit Ai Weiwei. We interviewed him in his subterranean studio, a former brewery in the former East Berlin.

DUBNER: And how do you describe what you do now?

WEIWEI: That is a little bit confusing, because as a profession, most things I did relate to so-called art. So people call me artist. But since I have been also working in defending human rights or freedom of speech or human condition, they call me activist.

DUBNER: Do you care what people call you?

WEIWEI: I don’t really care. I think I’ll live my life. I do care if I still can wake up the next morning. I do care if I can walk to school to pick up my son.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty)

You can see why people are confused by what, exactly, Ai Weiwei is, or does. He spends a lot of time making things but also a lot of time on Twitter, calling out institutional hypocrisies or cruelties. He once created a museum piece comprised of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds; he also made a series of photographs in which he drops a Han Dynasty urn to the ground and smashes it to bits. Lately, he’s been consumed with the global refugee crisis: he hung 14,000 life vests around Berlin’s main concert hall; he installed a sprawling public-art project in New York called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”; and he made a documentary film called “Human Flow.”

WEIWEI: The officials came here and told them, look, there’s no way you’re going to get papers to continue. Either you go voluntarily, or we arrest you.

Ai Weiwei’s enduring obsession has been to stick his finger in the eye of the Chinese government. He helped design the Olympic stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Games; but by the time it was built, he’d attacked the organizers for cronyism and corruption. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed tens of thousands, he launched a citizens’ investigation into the poorly-built schools where so many children died; he gathered up the mangled rebar from quake sites and turned it into a sculpture called Straight. When the government placed him under surveillance, he responded by making a sculpture called Surveillance Camera. In 2011, Ai Weiwei was kidnapped and jailed by the Chinese government. Upon being set free, he decided it was best to leave China.

WEIWEI: Since I was born, I would be seen as a son of the enemy of the people. They see you are dangerous. They see you are someone who could have a potential to make big trouble.

DUBNER: They were right.

WEIWEI: They’re perfectly right. But I try to live up to that kind of conditions, too. I am not satisfied with what I did.

Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was a prominent poet and intellectual. Before the Communist revolution, he was considered a leftist subversive. When Mao took over, Qing started out in the new regime’s good graces but eventually fell out of favor, and the family was exiled from Beijing.

WEIWEI: So I grew up in the Xinjiang province, which is Gobi Desert. And spent about 18 years in that location.

DUBNER: So when you were a kid, you’re growing up in — we call them labor camps or reeducation camps. I don’t know what you call it?

WEIWEI: We call it reeducation camps to remake you, to become a better part of a society.

DUBNER: It didn’t seem to have worked.

WEIWEI: It did work on me.

DUBNER: Well, if the state was trying to reeducate you —

WEIWEI: But that reeducation is very important, because it builds your reactionary to this kind brainwashing or trying to limit individual’s rights and freedom of speech. So you get, somehow, immune to these attacks.

For several years, the family lived underground, in a cavern. For two decades, Ai Ching did not write.

WEIWEI: My father is so scared. There is no single day he comes home not physically shaking because he’s been so mistreated and —

DUBNER: He tried to kill himself several times.

WEIWEI: He did. He attempted three times.

DUBNER: How did he try? Do you know?

WEIWEI: He once, the electric — how do you call that?

DUBNER: Socket.

WEIWEI: Socket. Of course, the whole light went off because of the shortage. And he once tried hanging himself, and it’s so lucky the nail was loosened.

DUBNER: And you were a teenager then or younger?

WEIWEI: I was about eight or nine.

DUBNER: And did you know what happened?

WEIWEI: I didn’t know at all. He told me.

DUBNER: Later.


Concerning Ai Weiwei’s upbringing, at least two questions come to mind, both of them probably unanswerable. The first: what are the odds that that boy, living in a labor camp in the Gobi Desert, would become one of the most influential artists in the world? And: how much did that environment have to do with who he became?

*      *      *

Ai Weiwei’s childhood was of course atypical. And a lot of his art is clearly a response to his family’s treatment during China’s Cultural Revolution. But is there any way to say that his upbringing was a cause of his creativity?

Dean SIMONTON: Yeah, that’s very important. We actually have a term for it. We call it “diversifying experiences.”

Dean Simonton is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California-Davis. He’s spent decades studying the biographies of great artists and scientists to help understand where creativity comes from.

SIMONTON: What “diversifying experiences” means is you’re exposed to one or more events, in childhood or adolescence, that puts you on a different track from everybody else. So instead of being raised just like all the other kids on your block in a very conventional fashion, you all of a sudden find yourself different. You see yourself as different. You have different goals. And these diversifying experiences can take a lot of different forms, and often you look at the lives of a lot of creative geniuses and you see more than one of them operating.

DUBNER: So you’re saying that diversifying influences would tend to lead to higher creativity then, yes?

SIMONTON: Tend to lead to creative genius.

Pat BROWN: I didn’t realize that he was a spy until I was a teenager.

That’s the scientist Pat Brown. He grew up all over the world — in Paris, Taipei, in Washington, D.C.

BROWN: The way I figured it out was that a good friend of mine, my dad was his boss in a way, and he made some mention of the fact that his dad worked for the C.I.A., and I thought, “Well, that’s weird because —”

DUBNER: “My dad doesn’t.”

BROWN: Yeah.

For a time, Brown was best known as an inventor of a method of genetic analysis called the D.N.A. microarray, which has become useful for the study of cancer.

DUBNER: Was this research primarily within the context of solving cancer, addressing cancer, or no?

BROWN: No. Let’s put it this way. It’s kind of hard to, for so many of these things that I would do, any scientist would do, it’s not necessarily that there’s a single reason why you’re doing it. You just realize that, if we could do this, there’s all these cool things that you could apply it to. Okay. And in fact, in the early days when we had first got this thing working, we had a few good ideas there was reason enough to do it. And then as you’re actually doing experiments you realize, “Oh we could do this. Oh we could do this.”

Until a few years ago, Brown was a sort of high-end researcher-without-portfolio at Stanford. And then he took a massive left turn and founded a startup with rather modest goals.

BROWN: I’m currently the C.E.O. and founder of Impossible Foods, which is a company whose mission is to completely replace animals as a food production technology by 2035.

I asked Brown whether he saw any connection between his globe-trotting childhood with a C.I.A. dad and his scientific career.

BROWN: I think the fact that I traveled and lived in multiple places in the world. And in those days kids were a lot more like free-range at a young age. And I felt like I had a lot of freedom to explore all these places and so forth, I think had an impact on me in the sense that it just it just made me aware of the fact that there is basically no place on earth that’s inaccessible.

Maira KALMAN: Probably the base of everything that I do is a fantastic curiosity about people, intense empathy that we’re all struggling, we’re all heroic to just even wake up in the morning.

That’s Maira Kalman.

Maira KALMAN: I am an illustrator and author.

And she’s got a son.

Alex KALMAN: My name is Alex Kalman and I’m a designer, a curator, a creative director, a writer, an editor, and someone with generally many ants in their pants.

DUBNER: Can one or both of you — you can take turns, you can interrupt, whatever you want — just describe briefly the family. That’s a small topic, but just a little bit about the family growing up and until now.

Maira KALMAN: Did you say that’s a small topic?


Maira KALMAN: Oh my God. That’s an epic. I think that’s the epic topic. There is no bigger topic than the family.

Maira Kalman is best known for her children’s books and her illustrated edition of The Elements of Style and her work for The New Yorker, including one of its most famous covers ever, called “New Yorkistan.” Her work manages to be whimsical and melancholy at once. Paintings of cake and dogs and demure old ladies in plume-y hats. She once bought a pair of the conductor Arturo Toscanini’s pants at auction, just to have them. Actually, she bought the whole suit …

Maira KALMAN: But his pants have a lot more panache when you say his pants.

For years, Maira Kalman was best-known as the right-hand woman to her husband Tibor Kalman, a wildly creative and influential designer. He died young, nearly 20 years ago, when their two children were young. I’ve known them since around that time.

DUBNER: Pretend I don’t know either of you at all.

Maira KALMAN: Okay.

DUBNER: And we’re sitting next to each other on an airplane or something and I say, “Who are you?” Oh, you guys are a mother and son, tell me a little bit about yourselves. What kind of family was this? Where did you live and what was that household like?

Alex KALMAN: I think we’d say, “Do you mind if we swap seats so that we don’t have to sit next to each other on our flight.” Yeah. We’d prefer not to talk, actually.

Maira KALMAN: I’m going to say, I’m going to be in business class and he’s going to be in — no, anyway, so go on.

Alex KALMAN: Mom!

Alex and Maira are collaborators too. They created an installation called Sara Berman’s Closet — Sara Berman being Maira’s mother and Alex’s grandmother — and the installation consisted of the contents of Sara’s closet, artfully curated and arranged. It’s appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. So I was curious what the Kalman house was like to grow up in.

Alex KALMAN: It was a really joyful and wild and fun childhood. We were all very close and we went on many adventures. And days were filled with looking around and making books when we were bored and cooking dinner and listening to music from all corners of the earth and just a real — really deep exposure to everything and anything that was not familiar in our day to day.

Maira KALMAN: And I thought that a house where we’re making books and dancing and making costumes and turning the furniture upside down is — How could you not do that? So the creativity in the home, in the family, was a sense of play and a sense of loving language and art and music.

Alex KALMAN: I think that real creativity isn’t this thought to say, “Okay now let’s be creative.” It’s just a natural feeling or understanding of saying, “All these rules are opportunity to create new rules or bend certain rules.” And the joy in that type of experimentation and that type of play, hopefully with some result that is meaningful or profound or funny or entertaining.

Nico MUHLY: My parents to their enormous credit were really not that pushy.

That’s the composer Nico Muhly, the youngest person to ever have a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, in New York. He grew up in New England with a painter mom and a documentary-filmmaker dad.

MUHLY: And it’s the usual, you have to be driven to the thing and then you have to get all the books and you have to pay for these classes and whatever. So my parents were really great about that, but it wasn’t this version of the thing where it’s as if we were going to press you so hard to become a concert violinist. Nor was it, isn’t this a cute hobby but you need to work for Goldman Sachs. I think they found the good middle point.

It’s less about them being artists and more about them creating a household in which ideas were spoken about. And I think that’s the real luxury of my childhood was not necessarily being surrounded by art in that way, but by people who read and thought about a million things and channeled that into, not just artistic expression. I mean, we all know, we all have horror stories of people raised by artists.

Horror stories, maybe. But also success stories. Growing up in a creative household means learning not only that a creative life is possible; but if you pay attention, you can learn how to do it. That was the case with Elvis Costello, the singular singer-songwriter, whose father was a singer with a popular dance band.

Elvis COSTELLO: Nobody would regard them as hip in the slightest way but the leader, Joe Loss, he managed to front a band from the late 20’s to the 80’s. He was a remarkable character in English light entertainment. They weren’t by any means up with the rock and roll vibe or anything like that.

Young Elvis — actually his name was Declan MacManus back then — young Declan would hang out in the darkened balcony of the Hammersmith Palais in London during the band’s Saturday afternoon set. Watching his father emerge into the limelight, in jacket and tie. Which is why to this day, Elvis Costello pretty much always wears a jacket and tie.

COSTELLO: You have a sort of admiration for your parents’ ability to do whatever it is they do. That was one perspective of performance. And he brought music into the house that he was learning for the weekly broadcast. Later on, after my parents separated, his life transformed. He then sort of took on an appearance closer to sort of Peter Sellers in What’s New Pussycat? He grew his hair long and he started to wear fashionable clothes and listen to contemporary music, because he left the safety of the nightly gig with the dance band and decided he wanted to do his own thing.

So that striking out and being independent thing was sort of from his example, no matter what the music was or the style — and bear in mind my taste in music changed just like any teenager; it was all about one thing, the next day it was all about another; it was always about the song. I had spent the last two years of schooling in Liverpool which at that time was musically very quiet in the early 70’s, and tried to make my own way playing my own songs. I had a partner, we sang in bars and any evening where they would let us on the stage, really.

We were making tiny little bits of money, just about covered our expenses, and I learned a little bit how to do it, but I never really thought that I was — I looked at the television every Thursday to see Top of the Pops and saw the distance between the way I looked and felt and sounded and what was a pop singer right then, which was a lot of people in baker foil with eye makeup on; that was the music of that moment, the glitter, glam moment. That seemed very distant from a 17-year-old.

DUBNER: Did you wish you could do that?

COSTELLO: No, I never wanted to do that. I might be the only person in English pop music that made a record that never wanted to be David Bowie, while still loving everything he did.

Wynton MARSALIS: My father really struggled a lot. He couldn’t make money playing modern jazz.

Wynton Marsalis is one of the most celebrated musicians alive — a jazz and classical trumpeter who also composes, teaches, and runs the landmark Jazz at Lincoln Center program. His father, Ellis Marsalis, is also an accomplished jazz musician: a piano player.

MARSALIS: He played with great musicians, but the people didn’t really want to hear the style of music they were playing.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, when Wynton was growing up in New Orleans, the dominant popular music was funk and R&B; not the modern jazz his father played.

MARSALIS: I’d grown up around the music, so my father and them played, they listen to their music, no one else was listening to it, but I heard it.

So Ellis Marsalis supported the family by teaching.

MARSALIS: Well my daddy, the first jobs my father had paid $5,000 a year, $6,000. He was a band director for segregated high schools and in towns like Opelousas, Louisiana. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

But Ellis was still an influential musician in New Orleans — and for his son.

MARSALIS: Musicians knew what he was. People in the neighborhood respected him for his opinions. Yeah you can’t say nothing to jazz musicians; they know stuff. The barbershop or something. And also because in the barbershop, at the height of black nationalism, my father was always the one who was not nationalistic and that was a great embarrassment for me.

I’d be saying, “Man, why are you always talking to stuff that’s against what everybody is saying?” And he would always be very philosophical: “Man, you don’t attack people that’s not there. You gotta tell the people in front of you what they don’t want to hear.” And he was always, a big one, he used to say, “All of everybody never does anything.” If you said, “they,” he would always say, “Who is they, man? Can you tell me who they is? Do you know them? Who are their names?”

Wynton’s mother was also a big influence.

MARSALIS: My mama was unique, and she had an originality. Her food tasted different, she had her own way of doing stuff. She was a big creative person.

DUBNER: The way she decorated your house, I understand was artistic? Yeah.

MARSALIS: Everything about her, everything. She grew up, she’s from the projects. So, she’s very unusual, because she very much had the street element which has become a cliché now. Then it wasn’t as cliché. And she was also it was her first to graduate from college, she went to Grambling University. She was extremely intelligent in terms of just her ability to do, she could do my chemistry homework when I was in high school and any spatial problem she understood. But she also had a very deep social consciousness that was not, it was not cliché.

And Wynton Marsalis distinguished himself at a very young age.

MARSALIS: Well, I played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic when I was 14. And the Brandenburg Concerto with the New Orleans Youth Orchestra when I was 16.

DUBNER: How did you recognize that trumpet was going to be what you were good at?

MARSALIS: Well, I didn’t know till I was 12 that I was going to be interested in it and then it was just a matter of applying, practicing and stuff. I noticed, if you practice you got better. Because a guy in my neighborhood was always picked on. And he saw Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon, and he decided to get some nunchucks. And man he would swing these sticks and then all of a sudden, maybe five months of him swinging these sticks every day, he became a virtuoso at it.

Then there was no more picking on him, calling him fat, taking his money, stuff that people liked to do him. All of a sudden it was, hey, say Fats, come swing them sticks for us. And then Fats, his name was Theodore. We called him Thedo. We grew up, we were in the country, Kenner, Louisiana the black side, segregated side. And I noticed one day, he had an encounter with a guy name we called Big Pull, and after that encounter he definitely was not picked on.

And I thought, “Man, practicing is something.” This guy, six months ago, everybody was picking on him, now he practiced swinging these sticks and his whole position in the hierarchy of this food chain has changed. I understood from watching him that just the diligence and repetition, intelligent repetition you could become better at things.

A couple of years later, Wynton and his brother Branford joined a funk band.

MARSALIS: I was good at making a bass line. I’m left-handed so they would always say, “Put a bass line on this bro,” so I’d put a bass line or something. We rehearsed in the 9th Ward, we had a band called The Creators at that time. In New Orleans, my brother and I were the two youngest musicians on the whole funk scene. I was 13 and Branford was 14. Our band was mainly older men, maybe in their early 20s and teens, late teens. There were maybe 10 to 13 bands they all had names like Cool Enterprise, Flashback, Stop Inc., Vietnam, Blackmail, the Family Players.

We would have battles of the bands, we’d play dances. We’d play gigs everywhere, wedding receptions. We did a series of talent shows that the police department would sponsor to make community relations, and people would come up out of the audience, we played the worst areas of New Orleans, and it was the most fun we ever had. And they would come up and sing or play. And we had to learn their 15 or 20 songs and we learned that, we never look at music of course, most of the times there was never music. We just learned the music and we played and it was great.

I actually didn’t want to join the band, because at that time, when I was 12, I wanted to play jazz. And my daddy is the one that said, “Man, play in the band.”

DUBNER: Oh really?

MARSALIS: Yeah he said, “Man, join the band.”

DUBNER: Because why?

MARSALIS: Because you have to have experiences to know what something is. Don’t cut yourself out of experiences when you’re young. He was always saying, don’t adopt my prejudices; develop your own.

Mark DUPLASS: Jay and I were just this little two-person team.

That’s the filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass, one half of another New Orleans brotherhood.

DUPLASS: We would sleep in Jay’s single bed together for way too late. Jay had already gone through puberty. I mean it was weird. But I think we started to develop this sense of we might try to become artists. And that seems like an impossible thing to do and be financially sustainable. So we better link arms and souls.

Mark and Jay Duplass both write, act, and direct, sometimes together, sometimes not. They had a pretty standard-issue suburban upbringing.

DUPLASS: Mom’s home with us while Dad’s cranking away 50 to 55 hours a week, building the American dream. So we can one day take a vacation that’s not in the car, one day fly to a vacation. That was the goal. So what that meant practically for me and Jay is that we didn’t have a lot of stuff. Our parents gave us a lot of emotional support and a lot of love, but they didn’t buy us a lot of stuff, so we were very bored.

And I think when cable arrived which was a marker of success. My dad was like, “We’re getting cable and we are doing it.” That’s when H.B.O. came into our lives and that really lit us up as a storytellers, because for those of you who don’t remember in the early-to-mid 80’s, there was no curation as to when certain kinds of movies were shown. They generally leave the R-rated movies for the nighttime now but back then we would come home from school and it was Ordinary People and Sophie’s Choice and we were just enjoying the hard-hitting dramas of the late 70’s and early 80’s. And I think it really shaped a lot of who we were.

DUBNER: I’m curious, so you guys are what? You’re maybe 10 and Jay’s 14 or something at this point?

DUPLASS: Yeah, right around that age, yeah.

DUBNER: Yeah. So you’re watching Ordinary People and Sophie’s Choice, which are not exactly teen or tween fare. Were you aware that you were outliers in that regard?

DUPLASS: It was still very subconscious, because we would take our bikes to the streets and still play with the other kids and play football. They really wanted to talk about Star Wars. And we were fine, and we watched those movies to keep up. But it was this feeling, which I think a lot of people have maybe later in high school when you start to realize, “Oh, this is not my tribe. I know how to play this game. I know how to talk about the things to get along, but when I go home, I’ve got my one or two people that are really are my tribe. And we’re talking about that stuff.” That sort of dynamic happened to me and Jay much earlier than most people talk about it happening.

The Duplass brothers pretty much built their mental model of a creative life from scratch. For Rosanne Cash, the opposite was true. She’s the daughter of country-music legend Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian. As for Rosanne following in his footsteps:

Rosanne CASH: My mother was afraid of the life it would lead to. So she didn’t encourage me that much. My mother was very creative in other ways. She crocheted, and she painted, and she was president of her garden club and she was creative in some domestic realms. But writing and music just carried a lingering fog of fear around it for her.

But I remember my dad was on the road and I remember secretly writing him when I was 12 and saying everything I wanted to do with my life, that I wanted to be a writer that I wanted to do something important, that I wanted people to read my words, that I loved language, that music was so important to me and had changed my life. I told him all of these things and he wrote me back and he said “I see that you see as I see.” It was powerful even to a 12-year-old. It gave me encouragement.

Her parents got divorced around this time; her father had become a heavy drinker and a drug addict. This made her rethink putting music at the center of her life.

CASH: Well, that was complicated for me because my dad was a very famous musician and I grew up thinking that fame was a terrible thing that happened to you, like a disease. And I thought, why would I go into that? Why would I try to attract that kind of attention? And you never have any privacy and privacy is so important to me because a writer needs privacy and I don’t want to go on the road and I don’t want to take drugs and get divorced. Well, actually I did want to take drugs in the beginning so that was — But most of that imprint came from my mom because she was really afraid of fame because of what happened in her life with my dad.

For Rosanne Cash, it was a cautionary tale but, in the end, not enough to stop her.

CASH: Yeah, I started writing songs and then I wanted to sing them myself and then I made demos and then I showed them to a record label. There was no turning back.

Rosanne Cash went on to put out many records, mostly country and pop, some of them big hits; she’s also written four books. She’s about to release a new record, called She Remembers Everything. A childhood like hers — a musician father, always traveling; drugs and alcohol; fame and its attendant burdens; her parents’ divorce: it’s practically the model for what we think of as a dysfunctional family. And having a dysfunctional family is often seen as the model for living a creative life.

Teresa AMABILE: It’s false.

That’s Teresa Amabile, a social psychologist from Harvard who studies creativity.

AMABILE: Many creative people do have dysfunctional families but not every creative person has a dysfunctional family. There’s some interesting research on this by David Feldman and Robert Elbert and a number of other people who have looked at the biographical backgrounds of people who have distinguished themselves for their creativity. Very often they faced a lot of adversity in childhood. Maybe they had a serious illness themselves. Maybe a parent was seriously ill or died. Maybe there was an ugly, acrimonious divorce or they lost a sibling.

Those kinds of events can crush a child, they can they can lead to a lot of problems; they can lead to substance abuse, they can lead to various forms of emotional illness. They can also lead to incredible resilience and almost superhuman behaviors, seemingly, if people can come through those experiences intact. I don’t know if we — we being the field in general — have discovered what the keys are, what makes the difference for kids.

It is true, however, that eminent people in a range of fields are much more likely than the average person to have lost a parent at a young age. In the U.S., the rate of parental death before age 16 is 8 percent. For high-performing scientists, the rate is 26 percent; for U.S. presidents, 34 percent; for poets, 55 percent. But, we should note, the rate of parental death is also disproportionately high for … prisoners. So it may be that a parent’s death is a shock to any child’s system, but that it’s hard to predict the direction of that shock. Too much depends on the circumstances, like how talented the kid is or whether they have some key guidance.

AMABILE: Sometimes it’s one key adult who can somehow rescue them in their lives. Sometimes it seems to just be a trait of the kid. Something within themselves.

There’s also the notion that creativity itself can be a kind of coping mechanism — as it was for the graphic designer Michael Bierut.

Michael BIERUT: I was a really good elementary school and junior high school and high school artist. I was very accomplished, I could do very realistic drawings that impressed people. And boy, did I take pleasure in impressing people. Most of my other physical attributes and mannerisms were the things that would provoke many strangers just to beat me up. But this magic ability to draw things actually seemed to be a thing that even bullies would be impressed by.

Early on, I started associating creativity not with just something that I would do in a lonely room for my own satisfaction but something that somehow would give me a way of operating in the larger world. If you were designing a poster for the school play, you got to go to rehearsals. So even if you couldn’t sing or dance or act, you got to make a contribution to the overall effort that went into bringing that play to the stage.

SIMONTON: Well, that’s another example of a diversifying experience. Being in an out group.

Dean Simonton again.

SIMONTON: Being a minority, as long as you’re not oppressed. I mean, this is the problem. A lot of minorities are oppressed, and so they’re not going to realize their potential, even though they are more inclined to think outside the box. If they can’t get a job, then it’s not going to help them much. I mean, a good example of that is that Jews in Europe are well-known to be overrepresented in a lot of domains of creativity, particularly in the sciences. For example, Nobel prizes in the sciences, Jews are overrepresented.

DUBNER: It’s something like 20 percent.

SIMONTON: But, guess what? That’s most likely to be in the case where Jews were emancipated, where they were no longer subject to the kind of anti-Semitism that they saw in medieval Europe. In Switzerland and a number of other countries. So Switzerland, that disproportion is much much higher than you see in Russia, which actually has many more Jews, but had a much longer history of anti-Semitism.

Maira KALMAN: I used to use the Nazis invading my studio as a motivator to finish an assignment that I was dragging. And I would say, “Well, if the Nazis came in two hours, would it be done? What if they came in one hour — would it be done then?” And that was expecting the worst. And I was brought up, of course my family — especially from my father that sense of you never know what’s going to happen. Horrible things will happen.

Kalman grew up in Israel, her parents having escaped Belarus before the Holocaust. But the rest of her father’s family did not make it out.

Maira KALMAN: In our family, all roads lead to the Holocaust. It’s kind of an inescapable part of a section of our lives and it’s a reference point for so many things. When we talk about politics or things being bad and we say, “Well, it’s not the Holocaust so get a grip.”

When I visited Kalman recently in her Greenwich Village apartment, one room was dominated by cardboard boxes, recently freed from storage. They contained the possessions of her late husband. She and her son Alex are planning to make a documentary about Tibor Kalman.

DUBNER: Would it be fun to open a Tibor box and just see what’s in one?

Maira KALMAN: No. I mean, it could be. Oh wait, I take that back. Let’s open this box.


Maira KALMAN: This box is — no, not that box. This box — Yes. Okay. This is — he used to take this extendable fork to a restaurant. And he’d opened the extendable fork and then all of a sudden — this is — well this needs to be repaired but he would reach over to another plate from the customers next to us and take the food off their plate.

DUBNER: Oh, not at your own table?

Maira KALMAN: No, not at our own table. What would have been the fun of that? The fun of this was that he would reach over into somebody else’s table and take their food. He did it in Italy, and everything is much more jolly and festive there and everybody’s laughing a lot at this guy who’s reaching over. And these are Karl Marx communist potato chips which I made for the Tiborocity show. We created a mock store, and this is after he died of course, and I thought, shouldn’t we have Karl Marx communist potato chips, as if that was part of our collection.

The Mmuseumm is housed in an old freight elevator. (Photo: alexkalman/Wikimedia)

Maira and Tibor Kalman’s son Alex is now 33 years old. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of his creative spirit comes from his mother and his father. His main project at the moment is a small museum called Mmuseumm, he calls it “a contemporary natural history museum” and a form of “object journalism.” This is where “Sara Berman’s Closet” originated, before it landed at the Met. We visited Mmuseumm with Alex Kalman one afternoon. Mmuseumm is very, very small. How small? It’s housed in an old freight elevator. About three people can fit comfortably. And yet: it is a museum.

DUBNER: This is nicely done.

Alex KALMAN: Museum quality.

DUBNER: It is museum quality.

Alex KALMAN: It is.

DUBNER: Seriously.

Alex KALMAN: Yeah. Well the idea is that it’s a museum. There’s certain rules we felt we had to follow.


Alex KALMAN: And if we did that then, there’s other rules we could play with. So this collection is called “Modern Religion,” and it’s basically exploring how these ancient traditions stay relevant in today’s society and one way of staying relevant is redesigning the elements or the tools of that religion to fit in with modern trends. So today, everybody’s gluten-free. So now there’s gluten-free communion wafers. Or everybody’s on-the-go, so there’s on-the-go Communion kits. It’s looking at these seemingly banal objects, and

DUBNER: And this one here is the

Alex KALMAN: Yeah.

DUBNER: Really? It looks like a piece of Nicorette, and is that wine and a little host, then?

Alex KALMAN: That’s right, yeah. The idea in Mmuseumm is that we want to touch on many different notes of what it means to be human. So there’s things in here that are totally devastating and there’s things in here that are completely absurd and we don’t want the trick to be on you. We want you to be a part of it.

I asked Kalman how his father, and his father’s death, influenced him as a human and as a creative.

Alex KALMAN: There always felt to be a really deep and natural and profound connection between Maira and Tibor and Lulu and me.

Lulu is Alex’s sister.

KALMAN: So there is just a sensibility and a way of feeling and interacting and thinking and doing and why we’re doing and what we’re doing that feels very just binding and natural. And I often think that, subconsciously, the work that I do today feels like a way of maintaining a dialogue with Tibor and he feels very present and very active in it all.

*      *      *

Dean Simonton, you will recall, is a psychology professor who’s studied the biographies of creative geniuses.

Dean SIMONTON: To get back to just pure psychology, there’s something called the “Big 5” personality factors.

The “Big 5” are: conscientiousness, extraversion-slash-introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and …

SIMONTON: And one of those “Big 5” factors is the openness to experience factor. And it has a lot of different facets to it. It is openness to values, openness to actions, you’re willing to try out different foods, try out different music, all sorts of different things. And this factor is so powerful as a predictor of human behavior, that you can actually tell by going to someone’s dorm room in college whether or not they’re high or low in openness to experience. Okay? Well it turns out this correlates very, very highly with creative genius. Creative geniuses tend to be very, very high in openness to experience. They’re willing to explore different values, different approaches.

We did find a lot of openness to experience in the creatives we’ve been speaking with, often starting in childhood.

Margaret GELLER: I was very much interested in the arts as a child.

That’s Margaret Geller, a path-breaking astrophysicist.

GELLER: And my mother, who was a walking dictionary and loved literature, used to take me to the beautiful Morristown, New Jersey library. It was in a very old building, and one of the things that we read together were plays by all the famous American playwrights. And from that, I really inherited a love of the language and I became fascinated by the theater and by the human condition. So I demanded that I go to acting school. I don’t think my father was that fond of this idea, but it was impossible not to do it.

Geller’s father was a chemist at Bell Labs, the famous tech incubator.

GELLER: I think he started taking me there when I was around 10 and he used to have a mechanical calculator, probably nobody listening, or virtually nobody, knows what one of those are. But they were called Monroe calculators, and the fascinating thing was all the noise they made. And the best thing was to, say, divide one by three, so it would just go, “ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk,” and just put out all the threes it could.

I learned how to load an X-ray camera, and I learned how to measure an X-ray diffraction photograph, how to use a Vernier. And people would come in and chat with me. And also Bell Labs had, in its lobby, a Foucault pendulum which I used to be fascinated by, many stories high. So that was a fascinating thing to see.

The inventor James Dyson, he of the multi-billion-dollar vacuum fortune, was not predestined for a life of engineering.

James DYSON: My father was head of the classics department at my school till he died. My brother was a classics scholar. And my mother was an English scholar. So there was no engineering, or manufacturing, architecture, or anything in sight.

So how’d that happen?

DYSON: So all I knew about creativity, or the only creative thing I did in school, was art. I went off to art school or arts university to pursue art as a career, as a painter, in fact. But when I got there — and this is in London — I discovered that you could do quite a large number of forms of design, like furniture design, interior design, architecture, ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking, and so on. And I became interested in design but ended up doing architecture.

And while I was doing architecture I discovered that I was very interested in structural engineering. I don’t know why. Except that at that time, it was the time of Buckminster Fuller and his triadic structures, geodesic structures, and Frei Otto with cable-tensioned structures. And it was a time that concrete and, for that matter bricks, were disappearing as the structure for buildings and being replaced by steel structures of one sort or another. And I realized that architecture was going to be about the structure and the engineering, and not so much the form. And I found engineering fascinating, I don’t know why. I’d never come across it in my life before.

DUBNER: I’m curious if you were at all intimidated by the notion of architecture and engineering as much as it appealed to you, did it strike you as something that lay outside the realm of possibility for a boy who came from a family where the classics were the foundation? Did it seem at first just too hard?

DYSON: Not at all. You have to remember — or maybe it’s my arrogance, but you have to remember this was the mid-60s in London, where anything was possible. And it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t be an architect or a structural engineer or anything for that matter.

It’s probably no coincidence that moving to a big city like London changed the way James Dyson thought about his creative prospects. The same thing happened to Ai Weiwei years ago when he lived in New York City for several years.

WEIWEI: Yes, basically the whole universe is so quiet. Not everywhere is like New York City.

The world has gotten more urban over the past few decades. And that’s probably a good thing for the sake of creativity and innovation. Economists like Harvard’s Ed Glaeser argue that cities play an outsized role in economic growth.

Ed GLAESER: I think the city is our greatest invention because it plays to something that is so fundamental in humanity. It plays to our ability to learn from one another.

Our ability to learn from one another in cities. Ideas colliding, on purpose and by accident. Also, there’s competition in cities — and with that competition comes strong incentives to create. But this raises its own, larger question: is creativity best-served by external incentives and motivation, or internal? When Wynton Marsalis was first thinking about pursuing a career in music, his father warned him: he said don’t do it unless you truly love it. “Don’t sit around waiting for publicity, money, people saying you’re great,” he told him, because “that might never happen.” Things obviously worked out well for Wynton Marsalis, but he remembers his father’s message well, and passes it along to his own students in the jazz program at Juilliard, where he teaches.

MARSALIS: My first thing I have my students do is write a mission statement. And that mission statement has three sentences. What do I want to do, how do I achieve it, and why am I doing it? And based on that mission statement, I teach them. And I have, my fundamental teaching to them is, I want you to rise above the cycle of punishment and reward. I’m not going to reward you or punish you. This is information, and you can do what you want with this information. So, you’re always actualizing. And I always tell them, if you want to learn something I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn it, I cannot teach you.

What Ellis Marsalis taught Wynton, and what Wynton teaches his students, is supported by the academic research on creativity and children. A few decades ago, the Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper ran an experiment with nursery-school students in which he first watched them doing various activities, one of which was drawing with markers. Teresa Amabile, who studied under Lepper when she was getting her Ph.D., tells the story.

AMABILE: He then took all of the children, if they’d shown any real interest in these markers, he put them into his experiment. And had them go into a separate room and they were randomly assigned to one of a couple of conditions. The experimental condition was one where the children sat down, and the experimenter said, “Hi, I’ve got some Magic Markers and some paper here for you. I wonder, would you be willing to make a drawing for me with these materials in order to get this “good player award?” And the experimenter then held up this little award certificate with a big shiny gold star on it and a place to write in the child’s name. That was the expected-reward condition.

The kids in this group, as promised, got the certificate for making a drawing. A second group of kids were invited to make a drawing — with no mention of a reward — and got the certificate as a surprise afterwards. This was called the “unexpected-reward condition.” And a third group of kids, a control group, made drawings but were neither promised a reward nor surprised with one.

AMABILE: The results were amazing. They were very strong. The kids who were in the control condition, who were in the unexpected-reward condition, were just as interested in playing with those markers and drawing pictures in their free play time as they had been before they went into the experimental room. The kids who were in the promised-reward condition, the contracted-for-reward condition, were significantly less interested in playing with those markers. So this showed very clearly — and there were many subsequent experiments showing — that intrinsic motivation, intrinsic interest in children and in adults, can be undermined by the expectation of reward.

This finding — that extrinsic motivation can erode someone’s intrinsic desire to create — came as a surprise.

AMABILE: It was revolutionary at the time, which was the early 1970s, because behaviorism still held sway in much of psychology, the notion that rewards are purely good, that they motivate behavior, that you can shape behavior with reward and that is true. In fact it’s still true that rewards can be very powerful shapers of behavior. But Mark discovered this very counter-intuitive, unexpected, unintended negative consequence of reward.

Amabile herself, in a follow-up experiment, explored how extrinsic motivation affects the quality of creative work. She gave kids a bunch of art supplies and asked them each to make a collage.

AMABILE: Without a really strict time limit, although we generally guide people to finish the collage in 15 to 20 minutes.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group was not promised any sort of reward; the second was told that the best collages would win an Etch-a-Sketch or a Magic 8 Ball. This was called the “competitive-reward condition.” Now all Amabile needed were some judges.

AMABILE: I brought in people from the art department at Stanford individually and asked them to rate each collage relative to the others on creativity on a nine-point scale, something like that. And when I analyzed the data, I found that the kids in the competitive-reward condition, made collages that were significantly less creative than the ones made by the kids in the other condition.

Based on this research and more, it would seem that the promise of extrinsic rewards — the kind of incentives that economists think encourage productivity — that actually discourages creativity, and decreases the quality. At least for kids, in these settings — it’s impossible to generalize. But the evidence is strong enough for Amabile to draw some conclusions.

AMABILE: I think that the biggest mistake we make in our schools, and I’m talking about everything from kindergarten now up through college, is to focus kids too much on how the work is going to be evaluated. Part of that is the extreme focus on testing in the United States right now and the past several years. Part of it is the way curricula have been structured, even before the current major push on testing.

There’s too much focus on “what is the right answer, what are people going to think of what I’m about to say?” and too little focus on “what am I learning, what cool stuff do I know now that I didn’t know last week or a year ago, what cool things can I do now that I couldn’t do before?” And I think that if we could if we could switch that focus, we would do a lot to open up kids’ creativity.

Kids come intrinsically motivated to learn, and we stamp that out of them through the educational system. I don’t think it’s impossible to reorient the way we teach. It’s not going to be easy. But I think we can do it. I think we have to do it.

Walter ISAACSON: I think we all see kids who are slightly rebellious, who talk back, who question the teacher.

That’s Walter Isaacson, who’s written biographies of Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.

ISAACSON: And at a certain point, the teacher either spends more time and lets the imagination wander or punishes them and says, “Quit questioning me.” Einstein ran away from his school in Germany because he was expected to learn by rote, and he was swatted down every time he tried to question the teacher. So he was lucky — he gets to run away and go to Switzerland, where they have a new type of school system that nurtures questioning authority.

One institution that has raised the questioning of authority to an art form is the M.I.T. Media Lab. It has research units called Opera of the Future and Biomechatronics — and Lifelong Kindergarten. That last one is run by a professor of learning research.

Mitch RESNICK: My name is Mitch Resnick.

Resnick argues that randomized, controlled experimentation — the gold standard of a lot of science — just doesn’t work very well for a subject like creativity.

RESNICK: One problem is it changes one variable at a time. And I don’t think any one variable is going to be the key to creativity. I think that what we see is the most creative environments have lots of different things that work together in an integrated way. So it’s really not so easy to take the classic approach of make a tweak in one variable and see the changes. I don’t think it’s going to be the way that we’re going to get a deeper understanding of the creative process.

Resnick argues that the lack of clear, quantifiable outcomes is a big reason why schools don’t prioritize creativity.

RESNICK: Schools end up focusing on the things that are most easily assessed, rather than focusing on the things that are most valuable for kids and valuable for thriving in today’s society. So what we need to do is to focus more on trying to assess the things we value rather than valuing the things that are most easily assessed.

Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten group develop software that lets kids make things, like animated stories or interactive Lego models.

RESNICK: Very often, traditional learning has taken the form of delivering information, delivering instruction. And the view has been if we just find a better way to deliver the instruction, kids will learn more. But I think research has shown that learning happens when kids, and adults for that matter, actively construct new ideas. There’s the expression we “get” ideas. We don’t “get” ideas. We make ideas. So I think that yes, there’s some role for just delivering information. But I think the most important creative experiences come when kids are actively engaged in making new ideas through their interactions with the world.

The program is called Lifelong Kindergarten because Resnick thinks the ideas should extend well beyond childhood.

RESNICK: We focus on four guiding principles that I call the four Ps of creative learning: projects, passion, peers, and play. So we feel that the best way to support kids developing as creative thinkers and developing their creative capacities is to engage them in working on projects based on their passions in collaboration with peers in a playful spirit.

We lead most of our lives by working on projects. A marketing manager coming up with the new ad campaign is working on a project. A journalist writing the article is working on a project; in our personal life, we plan someone’s birthday party. That’s a project. So we want kids to learn about the process of making projects.

We also want them to work on things that they’re passionate about. We’ve seen over and over that people are willing to work longer and harder and persist in the face of challenges when they’re working on things they really care about. They also make deeper connection to ideas when they’re working on projects that they really care about.

The third P of peers — we’ve seen that learning is a social activity, that the best learning happens in collaboration and sharing with others. We learn with and from others.

Then the final P of play, I sometimes call the most misunderstood P. Often when people think about play they just think about fun and laughter. And I have nothing against fun and laughter but that’s not the essence what I’m talking about. I see play not just as an activity but a type of attitude and approach for engaging with the world. When someone has a playful approach, it means they’re constantly experimenting, trying new things, taking risks, testing the boundaries. And I think the most creative activities come about what we’re willing to experiment and take risks.

Jennifer EGAN: I remember when I would come home from school and no one was home and I didn’t have a plan. There was this almost mysterious excitement that I would feel about just being alone.

That’s the writer Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad.

EGAN: I have to say, I feel I lost touch with that through maybe even decades of my life where I was so worried about what everyone else was doing, how I measured up, how what I should be doing as opposed to what I was doing whether there was some important thing everyone else was doing that I should be doing too. And this was before social media. I think this is a scourge for young people now. From everything I hear. But if I can get that out of my head, which I find easier and easier as I get older, there’s a feeling that there’s sort of a mystery that’s waiting for me that I can possibly enter.

There’s so many childhood narratives that are really about this. I mean, The Secret Garden, all the Narnia books about passing through a membrane or a border or a door or jumping into a pool and being in another world. It’s a really basic fantastical longing. This wish to be at a distance from one’s own life and to touch something outside it, which is first of all thrilling in and of itself. And second of all returns you to your real life charged in some way. That’s what fiction writing does for me.

ISAACSON: I think that when we’re young, we really indulge our wonder years.

Walter Isaacson again.

ISAACSON: That notion of playing and being imaginative, and having downtime where you can be creative — that’s something we sometimes lose in our school systems today.

One beneficiary of this creative downtime? Leonardo da Vinci.

ISAACSON: He had the great fortune to be born out of wedlock, which meant that he couldn’t go to one of the Latin schools that middle-class families of the Renaissance went to. And so he’s self-taught — he sits by a stream and puts rocks and different obstacles in it to see how the water swirls, and he draws it. And then he looks at how air swirls. All of these things you get to do when you’re young, you’re full of wonder, and you’re using your imagination.

We see that in Ben Franklin as a young kid, just being interested in, “Why does condensation form on the outside of a cold cup?” The type of thing that maybe we thought about, but somehow we quit thinking about. So that’s the number-one secret of being imaginative and creative, is almost being childlike in your sense of wonder. Albert Einstein said that. He said, “I’m not necessarily smarter than anybody else, but I was able to retain my childlike sense of wonder at the marvels of creation in which we find ourselves.”

But Walter Isaacson — like Mitch Resnick and Teresa Amabile — isn’t calling for a ban on conventional instruction.

ISAACSON: I think that creativity is something you can nurture, and even try to teach. But more importantly, creativity without skill — creativity without training and learning — can be squandered. If Louis Armstrong had not found somebody — King Oliver — to teach him how to play the cornet, all of his imagination would have been lost. So we should not disparage the role of training, of learning.

The same is true of Einstein — as a little kid, he’s wondering how the compass needle twitches and points north. What’s important is that he goes to the Zurich Polytech and starts understanding the concepts behind Maxwell’s equations. So people who think we should just nurture creativity without the skill sets and the training that allow creativity to be turned into action, to allow for things like applied creativity, they’re being too romantic about it. Leonardo had to work in Verrocchio’s workshop and learn how to do a brush stroke.

There are, of course, plenty of obstacles that may keep a person from gaining both proper instruction and the latitude to play and imagine. Nor is every kid lucky enough to grow up with two parents as talented and creative as Tibor and Maira Kalman. Or with parents like Margaret Geller’s, taking her to Bell Labs and indulging her passion for acting. These are privileges, not rights. They’re not always fully appreciated. Here’s John Hodgman, the comedian, author, and former Daily Show correspondent.

John HODGMAN: People who are hand-to-mouthing it and are really economically anxious, of course they’re going to have a disadvantage to, say, an affluent white dude from Brookline, Massachusetts who is an only child who had the full benefit of all of his parents’ love and never had to share anything in his life. I had a lot of time to sit around thinking and daydreaming to the point where, when I went to college, my dad said, “I don’t care what you do in college, I ask you only that you take a single course in bookkeeping and finance, so you know how that world works.” And I was like, “Dad, I love you, but no way.”

DUBNER: Really? That wasn’t a big ask on your father’s part.

HODGMAN: Even that. I know, fathers, I know.

DUBNER: What a spoiled brat you were.

HODGMAN: Totally. This is what I’m saying. I’ve regretted it every day of my life. It was an incredibly selfish and ridiculous thing to do, because I was spending his money to go to college. And yet I was like, “No, I’m going to sit on the grass and read 100 Years of Solitude for the fifth time.” You could make an argument that it paid off for me, to a certain degree.

But I mean, look: art comes out of all communities everywhere. Communities of means and communities of no means. I mean, the greatest art movement of the 20th and 21st century, that is probably the most globally meaningful art movement, is the development of hip-hop, which was creation in the South Bronx by young people who were obviously not affluent.

John Hodgman sure sounds like he’s got a grip on the causes and consequences of creativity. Wouldn’t you say? And that he’s got his own creative ducks in a row. He’s had a lot of creative and commercial success. But do not be deceived. If you think prior success insulates a creative person from — well, anything, you should think again.

HODGMAN: I mean, let me put it this way: I am a person for whom being creative is terrifying. It is the most rewarding thing that I can do. But it is a constant struggle with a very clear feeling that I am out of gas every day, every day. And that I will not be able to support myself or my family, because I have now finally run out of ideas, for sure, this time, I mean it. It’s not even a fear. It is a certainty that I’m done, that I have no further ideas, and I’ve been doing this — this and only this, whatever this is — now for 21 years.

We’ll explore that fear, and many other aspects of creativity, in future episodes of this series. Until then, keep your ears open for a bonus episode, our full conversation with Elvis Costello, who’s had one of the most extraordinary careers in modern music and has just put out a wonderful new record, called Look Now.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam and Matt Frassica. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Alvin MelatheHarry Huggins, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode: