Creativity, power, and compliance


The writing of this post, though not the content, was inspired by this link, on writer’s block, anxiety, and writing itself as the therapy:

It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.”

I don’t feel as though I have writer’s block, but I haven’t been writing. Why not 20 minutes a day? Start now.

I went to a lecture today for one of my classes at MIT, 2.00b Toy Product Design. The professor was leading students through a list of commonly misunderstood and misused terms: engine vs motor; nut vs. washer; die vs. tap; and so on. He got to energy vs. power. He asked for the definition of energy, and a student answered close enough.

He asked, “What is power?” and a student blurted out, “A great responsibility.” I laughed, the professor laughed, and many students in the class laughed.

The definition for power actually is “amount of work or energy transfer per unit of time.” It’s a rate.

I learn a lot in these classes about engineering. In another class this week, I deepened my knowledge of stepper motors. These are very ingenious things.

But this afternoon, as I left class and walked to get some dinner because I have a night lab at 7 PM also in the toy design class, I was thinking about power as a responsibility. The professor had added, after the laughter died down, that he hoped it wouldn’t be used for evil, and he meant the social relations kind, but I suppose also you could apply it to the physics principle. Let’s not use machine power, for example, to plow a vehicle into a crowd.

I have power, and I have prerogative as to how I’ll use it. Over the weekend a dear friend gave me a high compliment: she said I was one of the two most “self-directed people” she knows. That is a kind of power. Therefore, it makes me bristle sometime to have people try to exert their power over me – not the law so much (I’ll comply with that), but the demands or instructions of others especially when they are not consistent with my values or desires.

Jimmy, my husband, once said I am “typical GenX: outwardly compliant and inwardly defiant.” This is true too. Even when I bristle at the demands of others, I often will fulfill them, for peace or ease or even the satisfaction of others.

Is there another generation that is inwardly compliant and outwardly defiant? Some people are this way. They act out, though inside their desires are conventional. (I think of compliant as having to do with some set of rules or expectations or sentiments shared broadly in the culture, and not, oh, compliant with the weather.) An employee, for example, may make a lot of commotion at work in the form of complaints or acting out, but inside s/he is really wanting job security, a promotion, and praise. S/he looks like a change maker or ballbuster but really her/his comfort zone is in safe territory.

Some people want others to have power OVER them to keep themselves in line. Like a friend who says, “Please yell at me if I start drinking too much.” Okay, in that instance, that can be a nice thing for a friend to do, be your external monitor, but it also means you don’t have to muster up your own power.

My remark may be an implied critique of what I assume to be standard advice of a life coach, which could go something like this: “If you can’t help yourself meet your own deadlines or goals, get someone to make you accountable.” [School does this, though, I realize, and I’m part of that.]

That — an external monitor — I do not want. And yet comply I will. Which means the culture itself, for me, can be that external monitor, that traffic cop. Or if not culture, then another social network that matters to me: colleagues, family. What was once external eventually, if it’s powerful and persistent, becomes internalized.

I can talk myself into a circle that I can’t get out of logically. To imagine I could draw a line that says This Is Me, That’s They [yeah, “them” would sound better but it isn’t correct]. We are enmeshed. Our selves are.

I’m sitting in a classroom right now, writing before class starts. The whole floor has been empty, but a student just showed up, and I know this because I hear her in the hall talking on her phone. I know her voice. Now I am listening with half an ear. Her half of the phone conversation is unremarkable to me but probably comforting to the people having it.

Oh, here come my colleagues, Geoff and David, the co-instructors of the toy class (David is the prof, above).  They are wheeling in some food for tonight, into this empty classroom I’m sitting in. How nice, they haven’t turned the light on (I’m sitting near a window and the room is dark), and they are talking quietly. We are friends.

Time is up.

Illustration above by Eli Guterman (2008), found in box of mementos.

One thought on “Creativity, power, and compliance

  1. This is how we became friends, Jane! I love the places you go! Thank you for the thoughtful post, AND, for the link to stepper motors, which reminded me of a pipe-dream project I might just get started on.

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