The Inherent Creativity of the Down Climb

Today, my wife and I took Max to his daycare, and becuase it was President’s Day, and the Big Ones didn’t have school, we took them on a little adventure to a place west of town called Three Peaks. It has pretty vistas of the mountains to the east of us. It’s close, but not too close. We weren’t trying to hike forever, or anything. We just wanted to get outside and move our bodies a little during this non-wintery February.  

Here's a picture Zoë took with her ratty old 3rd Gen iPod Touch.

The trail was hard to find. The kids got a little bored, broke away from us, and started scrambling up the side of some really crumbly rock. Ike was up the side of that stuff faster than a mountain goat on a sugar high. Zoë, who was moping about the whole trip like some bored teenager in a television commercial, followed him straight away. I was just about to call them back down to the safety of the trail, when I noticed my wife scrambling right up behind them. Zip—off they went.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a dubious history as a YMCA camp counselor, unit director, outdoor school teacher, ropes course facilitator, life guard, and assistant program director. I run everything my kids do through a pretty elaborate risk analysis algorithm, which is not entirely unlike the way Guy Ritchie had Sherlock Holmes plan out his fight moves. 

I’ve had enough experience with this sort of thing that I can predict an accident with uncanny accuracy. Often times, I can shut tragedy down before it happens like a Minority Report agent, but this time, I just shut the algorithm down and just followed them quietly up the boulders. They all did a good job getting up to a great vantage point, and I fought the urge to shout out advice like: 

“Three points of contact at all time!” 
“Bend your knees to keep a low center of gravity!”
“Use the sole of your shoe for friction. You need a lot of surface area!”
“It’s easier to climb up than down!”

In then end, there were a few scrapes and scuffs, but not many. They were red-cheeked and huffing, and thrilled by their accomplishment. The views were great. We were high enough that a raven circling nearby was below us.

After a rest, they decided to go down the other side using a route that seemed easier than the way up. I spotted that route on the way up and was pretty sure it wasn’t a good way, but I just kept my mouth shut. They figured it out pretty fast and headed back and found another way down. During that time, my wife and I stopped to talk about what was going on.

She said, “You know, this is just problem solving and creative thinking.”

I agreed. It was a fantastic insight. Add that to the list of why I married the right woman.
“It would be easier if I'd just told them which way would be safest, but they wouldn’t have learned a thing,” I said.

We went on to discuss convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the type of thinking one uses when creativity isn’t needed. It's usually used to solve a problem that has a single approach and a single, well-established answer. It’s not an entirely useless form of thinking, but when you’re have to be creative it can hamper your progress. Convergent thinking is something you might use later in a creative process, once you know what direction you need to take, once you’ve tested out the possibilities.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is most useful when there are many possible solutions or approaches to a problem, and you need to try them out or iterate before you can settle on the best one. Route finding is the perfect example of needing divergent thinking first, and convergent thinking second.

Both are needed to get you where you're going.

There we stood, my wife and I. One an art teacher and teacher of art teachers, the other a creative writing professor and the director of a university creativity center. We were watching our kids go through the process of figuring out how to get down the side of this little mountain safely.  It wasn’t an entirely risk-free enterprise, and we could have made it faster for them by showing them the way, but that would have stolen any success they earned that day. So, instead of a couple of kids who got down onto level ground and said to themselves, “We did it.” The attention would have been turned to the wise parents who kept them from catastrophe.

How often does this happen in the classroom or in the workplace? Correctness has become the goal. We use correctness to measure our success, even though failure is so often the most thorough instructor. When teaching people to be art teachers, my wife often reminds them that if every art project on the wall looks the same, then you’re doing it wrong. 

It’s almost always the wrong choice to take away someone’s ability to choose their own path through an assignment, a project, or a life event. One can imagine a few criminal examples where others might have to intervene, but otherwise it's no help to meddle. People who have experience really do mean well. They want to save people the trouble, grief, and anguish they've had in their own experiments. Sometimes they want to save themselves the trouble of having to come around and help that person who messed up. They don’t want to be bothered. But the goal as a teacher, parent, or leader is to help people grow and to help people feel proud of their own accomplishments, not to make things easier.

That happened today on the rocks. And we all came back in one piece, a little cold, a little scratched up, and a little winded, but better people all around. When you're a parent and a teacher, there's a constant meta-level to everything you do because, in the end every parent is, in fact, a teacher, the most important one those kids will ever get.