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Creativity as a Process of Reliance in God
Nov 1, 2015

No two consecutive generations in human history have ever lived under the same circumstances. The innovation of new technologies and cross-fertilization of different ideas, which happen across generations, brought today's civilization into existence. Change - either positive or negative - has been an unavoidable reality - of all times, but especially our times. However, the speed of change is not stable. Today's groundbreaking products seemingly emerge one after another. They're extremely complicated technologies, and they are developed in increasingly shorter time intervals. This proves mathematician Vernor Vinge's (2004) idea of exponentially accelerating technological change.

Human beings are endowed with special abilities such as feeling, anticipating, introspection, imagination, and the ability to synthesize. These abilities are essential, because as a consequence of perennial change, we are living in a complex world. This complex lifestyle consists of wide communication networks, larger amount of transactions, intense mechanisms of influence, and the use of advanced technologies.

The massive changes in recent human history could make one's life quite difficult if we, as human beings, did not possess "adaptability." Adaptability is one of the most amazing capabilities humans possess, as it mediates the way human beings interact with their environment. Thanks to adaptability, a smart phone has become a great "toy" for today's toddlers and the same kid can speak multiple languages equally well when sufficiently exposed.

Despite our adaptability, and despite many alluring aspects, this new lifestyle has its problems, including anxiety, stress, obesity, and more complicated health problems such as cancer. We're also confronted with relatively new problems. For instance, though we have more types and sizes of transportation vehicles, cities suffer from worsened traffic. We should humble ourselves when we think about the troubles we have created here on earth. The massacre of the masses with advanced weapons, the use of technology at the expense of environmental safety, as well as ignorance, racism, and hatred, are all unique to human beings. We can observe what is happening in the human body for the diagnosis of health problems, but some of these monitoring tools themselves lead to serious health problems. Our new life style requires a more creative and complex thinking to solve the deep problems we are facing.

How can we fully utilize what we are given for the best of human kind? Can we be more creative for good rather than bad? How can we be more effective at resolving these complicated problems? What does it take to tackle unprecedented challenges?

I want to look at the literature on the process of creative thinking and underline two essential components. The first one is the active stage of preparation, hard work, persistent effort, active elaboration, data gathering, and solution generation; and the second is the period of passive longing, deliberate interruption, and incubation.

The active stage

Scientific studies of problem solving and creativity, as well as anecdotal evidence from stories of innovation, provide useful insights about effective problem solving strategies. An easy practice to test or develop problem solving skills is about generating ideas for an open-ended problem. For example, take a few minutes and try to generate at least 12 ideas for different uses of a chair. You could list ideas such as "sit on," "use to eat dinner," "stepping on to reach the ceiling," or "for protection when playing with kids." Then, split the idea list into two parts. If you ask a number of other people to generate ideas for the same problem, and check which ideas they also generated, this will enable you to see the ideas that were generated by only one person.

These are the unique ideas based on the small group experience. If you count the number of unique ideas that were generated in the first and second part of your list and compare them, you are more likely to see a higher number of unique or original ideas in the second half than the first half. Research results have consistently reported such findings over the years (Milgram & Rabkin, 1980). Original, uncommon, infrequent, surprising, unusual, and even smart ideas tend to come later as opposed to earlier. What would happen if you stopped generating after only six ideas instead of twelve? What you lose would be the original and uncommon ideas rather than the ordinary ones. Originality is the backbone of creativity (Stein, 1953) and original ideas do not come very easily. It takes more effort than the simple, regular, and traditional way of thinking. This is called the extended effort principle (Parnes, 1961; Basadur & Thompson, 1986). Smart solutions to the complex problems of the world require a lot of extended effort.

These empirical findings would be no surprise to Graham Wallas (1926), who proposed his classic theory on the cognitive processes of creative thinking. Wallas argues that the creative process consists of four stages. The first stage is called preparation, in which tremendous amounts of time and energy are dedicated to deep thinking, problem finding, research, and developing new knowledge. This phase often involves the exploration of all possible options or directions with full attention. According to some research, the development of an expertise requires approximately 10 years of preparation through which one can be immersed in specific areas of thought, thus allowing them to make a contribution to this area (Simonton, 1997).

Another 10 year-period may be necessary for greatness (Kaufman & Kaufman, 2007). As seen in the research, preparation can take a really long time depending on the area of investigation and magnitude of potential contribution. The importance of this phase has been underlined by Loiuse Pasteur, who said that "chance only favors the prepared mind." It could also be possible to interpret the following assertion from the holy scriptures: "And there is not for man except that [good] for which he strives. And that his effort is going to be seen (Qur'an 39:40)."

The passive stage

Preparation, knowledge, and expertise may not be sufficient to develop great solutions. According to Wallas (1926), preparation is followed by a period in which one is disengaged from the active working phase and switches to a resting, free-minded, unconscious mode, in which the problem solver does not actively work on the problem but unwittingly lets his unconscious work on it. In a way, deliberate interruptions and ceasing to work on the problem can let brilliant solutions mysteriously emerge. Interestingly enough, the problem solver is at a passive position during this step, employing defocused attention. This so-called "black box" phase of problem-solving is also known as the "incubation" period.

The incubation period may (or may not) result in "illumination," which refers to a flash of insight. This fascinating moment is considered a product of a series of connections or associations made in the human mind during the incubation period. Following years of research and thinking on a mathematical problem (the active stage), Poincare found the solution to his problem while dreaming (Miller, 1992). The moments of inspiration for many Sufis can be regarded as an example of illumination. Some Sufis practice 40 days (or longer, depending on the characteristics of the Sufi) of seclusion with limited or no interaction with other people, while also limiting their food intake and time spent sleeping. They often experience a greater level of openness to inspiration and share their inspirations as they "come to the heart" (Eris, 2006).

The lives of the great historical and spiritual figures prove the significance of the incubation period. Moses had an forty-day seclusion on the Mountain. Jesus went into a self-imposed seclusion to fight against Satan. Disappointed by the troubles he faced in his time, the Prophet Muhammad would go into seclusion in the cave of Hira, after which he received the first revelations (peace be upon them).

The power of a pause or interruption has shown its impact quite often in recent history. Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in prison, where he contemplated and refined his thoughts, which led to the success of his movement. Despite years of great reputation and closeness to power circles, Said Nursi, a prominent Muslim scholar, ultimately praised the time he was in exile, where he would dictate his "letters," which were the seeds for one of today's most influential and peaceful social movements. Clearly, these great people greatly benefited from their passive, paused, and incubated period.

Creativity and tawakkul

The active and passive stages of creativity underline the importance of hard work, diligence, and persistence followed by moments of patience, pause, and longing. The necessity of the latter entails humility and modesty, because we have no control over the incubation period. One can never know when "the chance comes to the prepared mind" - or if it will come at all. Our skills, abilities, talents, time, and energy are involved in the active stage of creativity, but these do not guarantee the desired outcome.

This reminds us of the limitations of human beings. From this spiritual perspective, creative thinking can be seen as a process of "tawakkul." Tawakkul is translated as "reliance in God" in English, and refers to "doing all that is necessary to obtain a desired or intended result, and then waiting in expectation for the Eternally-Powerful One to bring about His Will" (Gulen, 2001, p. 67).

The idea of incubation makes the process of inspiration unclear. The moment of inspiration can be best described as a "black box." Tawakkul, however, views the Divine Knowledge as the source of inspiration. Persistent hard work in the active phase is seen as the operational prayer to God, and the second phase, if it occurs, is the acceptance of that prayer. When the parallel between creative thinking and tawakkul is recognized, creativity is viewed as a spiritual process - and, therefore, creative individuals need to practice tawakkul.


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  • Eris, S. (2006). A religiological comparison of the Sufi thought of Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen. Unpublished thesis, University of Georgia.
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