Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."
The knowledge we gain from learning and life experience continuously shapes and molds our perspectives, which creates a variety of predispositions. Some might call this gaining wisdom. However, these predispositions may alter our thinking in ways that could overly narrow our scope or even distort how we view things.
Take a moment to solve the following problem, which is typically solved by children in less than a few minutes:
6020 = 3 3305 = 1 8809 = 6 7777 = 0 1970 = 2
2321 = 0 7783 = 2 2022 = 1 3928 = 3 5588 = 4
9999 = 4 1111 = 0 1619 = 2 7175 = 0 7756 = 1
3333 = 0 5395 = 1 6666 = 4 5531 = 0 2253 = ???
Did you struggle with it? Did it create anxiety or stress? I’m sure many of you viewed it as a math problem, and when you saw that children can easily do it, you may have assumed it would be fairly simple to solve. But why?
Our education has taught us that numbers and equal signs reference mathematics, and since we as adults are so much smarter than children, it must be easy to solve. Yet, the problem has nothing to do with mathematical equations, only shapes and counting. If you count the closed loops in each number, you arrive at the solution. In this case 0 = 1, 6 = 1, 8 = 2, 9 = 1, and all other numbers equal 0. Therefore, the answer for 2253 is zero.
Our predispositions affect how we look at everything from numbers and shapes to art. Many years ago, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. While observing the creativity on display, I came upon a “painting” that was nothing more than a plain white canvas. Fittingly, it was entitled, “White.”
I laughed as I thought about the absurdity of this piece. Thoughts like “Seriously?” and “They actually hung this here?” and “Anyone can do that!” filled my head as I stood and stared at it…and continued to stare at it. My emotions shifted from laughter to surprise to irritation and back to laughter.
Over the years, I have conversed about this piece with many people––often jokingly, but also inquiring as to why and how someone could get away with calling it art. The conversation would frequently shift to the definition of art and its ultimate purpose.
I’ve come to realize that despite all of the great works on display that day in the museum, I can’t remember a single one of them other than this painting. Despite its simplicity, it has caused me to think at length about what the artist was trying to do or say. Perhaps that simple white canvas was created so anyone could fill it with their imagination, without predetermined limitations. Perhaps it was a metaphor to represent the emptiness which exists in all of us. Perhaps it was nothing more than an ode to simplicity and minimizing the clutter that surrounds us. Or, perhaps the artist just ran out of time before the deadline and threw up a white canvas, which was better than nothing at all.
I will never know the artist’s intent, but I do know how it affected me. When I start feeling overwhelmed when trying to solve a problem, it serves as a mental image to help me regroup and begin the creative process with a clean white canvas, so to speak. It’s become a personal metaphor about having an open mind without limitations, and realizing that creativity is nothing more than how we choose to think about something.
Ironically, what began as the subject of a personal joke I now see was actually the most creative piece of all––a piece without limitations or constraints, opening the endless imaginations of those privileged to see it, a piece without detail and the predispositions attached to it.
Practice Challenge: The next time you struggle with chaos or feel overwhelmed at a time when you need to be creative, close your eyes and picture a clean, white canvas. Challenge your predispositions by focusing on the simplicity of the canvas and open your imagination to filling it with something new.