Earlier today, I was just watching a program on daytime TV called The Wright Stuff (Channel 5, UK), which airs between 9:15 and 11:10, Monday to Friday. It’s a discussion program with a host and a panel of three guests who talk about what’s in the news.

One of the topics this morning was whether toys like Lego, selling kits to make specific models, are stifling creativity. I didn’t have much Lego when I was young, but I did own several Meccano kits.

I remember that each kit contained numerous pieces which were meant to create several different models. Once you’d built each of the models at least once, what was there left to do? What I did was to combine parts from the various kits and start building my own models, from out of my own imagination, occasionally taking an idea from one of the predefined models.

I have a six-year-old great-nephew who loves Lego. He recently received a number of Lego kits for his birthday. I watched as he and another small relative of his put the kits together. They had great fun making everything fit together, but I know that the next time I see those pieces and kits, they will have been taken apart and rebuilt into something completely different.

I was a computer programmer and software engineer for over 30 years, and I believe that I was very creative in that career. There are many who would have you believe that people in the software industry are uncreative, mechanically converting something manual into something automated. I would beg to differ. I have seen the results of what happens when creativity is ignored.

A case in point is a private Swiss bank I did some freelancing for in the first decade of the 21st-century. They had created the specifications for a new system and farmed them out to a software company in India who promised to build the system for around 1 million Swiss Francs. What they got back was so useless that it then cost them another 1½ million Swiss Francs to get into a working form. I was only involved peripherally in the project because some of the things I was working on were relying on the system working correctly. I looked at some of the code and was appalled at how poorly it had been written.

“What has all this got to do with creativity?” I hear you ask.

I personally believe that you can best be creative once you have followed the rules to make something. You received a set of instructions, and you carried them out to the letter. Only when you know how things work can you become creative.

I believe it was Einstein who pointed out that you have to understand the rules thoroughly before you can break them successfully. In other words, you have to know what is accepted or good practice before you strike out in your own direction. You can’t build a mansion if you have no idea about architecture.

Many people think that Lego is a good idea, but you should not force the children to build according to a plan or design. They seem to think that the children will work out how to do it by themselves, without ever having done something to plan. I’ve seen some of those results, and they are not pretty.

In my view, this would be the equivalent of handing a child a dictionary and telling them to write a book. If they haven’t had a grounding in sentence structure, grammar, parts of speech, logical thought or even spelling, what you will get at the end is a mishmash, if you actually get anything at all. The greatest authors who went to create wonderful nonsense had a solid grounding in how to write English first. I’m thinking of such works as Finnegan’s Wake, The Hunting of the Snark, the Alice books, or even e e cummings.

I am a writer these days, and I have had to write a great deal to be able to find some sort of voice. In my time, I have written computer programs, specifications and designs for those programs, and even the instruction manuals, user guides, quick tips and FAQs for them. If I hadn’t been trained in programming and writing, and the way that programs, specifications or analyses are put together, I wouldn’t have achieved anything of any consequence.

As it is, there are companies in Switzerland that are working more efficiently and doing things that they couldn’t have done anywhere near as well without my help. A case in point is a medical insurance company for whom I wrote several projects. I will discuss only one of them.

When someone cancels a medical insurance, there are numerous checks and tests that have to be applied in order to be able to determine whether they can do so at this time. For instance, certain insurances, or parts thereof, can be cancelled quarterly, others semi-annually, and yet others only at the end of the year. Furthermore, some parts can only be cancelled if others are also being cancelled.

The upshot of all this was that the first 3 to 3½ months of the year, the department responsible had to borrow 10 to 12 members of staff from other departments to help carry the load. If you work this out, it means that they had to budget for 2½ to 3½ person-years extra per year just to cover the work.

Why was this such a problem?

Firstly, they had to be able to check the validity of the cancellations before calling up the client’s data. Once they had typed all the data into the host computer screen, they then had to shepherd the process through several more computer screens, depending on whether the cancellation dates had to be changed to valid ones. Once the changes were accepted, they then had to select one of over 40 different letter templates (depending on whether the cancellations were accepted on a particular date, and what exactly was being cancelled) in one of four different languages. They would then have to type in the details in the relevant language before printing the letter out in preparation for being sent to the client.

Depending on the complexity of the cancellation, this could take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour per client. If one step in the process took too long, the system would automatically timeout the transaction after 15 minutes, and they would have to start all over again.

Once my system was in place, the user only had to type in the client’s insurance number, check that the data were correct, tick a few boxes and click the ‘Okay’ button. The system would perform all the validation checks and inform them of any potential problems, allowing them to accept or override the input as necessary. It would then automatically open the correct screens on the host system and ensure that everything was done properly. Then came the best bit; it generated the correct letter in the correct language automatically in MS Word, displaying it on screen for the user to check. If everything was okay, they clicked on the ‘Print’ button, and it would be saved on the server and sent to their printer. Then they were ready for the next client.

The processing time per cancellation was reduced to between 30 seconds and 1 minute. When the department head realised how quickly he could get through the work, they had to ‘pull down him from the ceiling’ as one of his co-workers put it. They wouldn’t need to borrow anyone from other departments ever again.

Without my creative understanding of their situation, in connection with my creative solution to the problem, they would still be borrowing people.

The point I’m trying to make is that without a fundamental understanding of the concepts of design and programming, learned by following the rules and instructions of other people when I was young, I would never have been able to be so creative. There are many other clients who have been thankful for my creativity: various regional and private banks, a nuclear research facility, small business owners, and others.

For me, a vital part of the creative process is to ask such questions as “Does this make any sense?”, “How exactly does this work?”, “What exactly are they trying to achieve?”, and even “Why?” It would be impossible to be able to ask these questions and get a sensible answer if I didn’t know how to do it from my own experience. And that experience has been garnered by following others people’s instructions until I was able to determine my own way of doing things. I then went on to learn from my own experiences and mistakes.

Incidentally, I wrote another article on why on my blog some time ago (http://stephenoliverblog.com/421/).

I see the instructions for such toys as being a springboard for the imaginations of the children. Of course, there will be those who will only ever build what they are instructed to do, never creating anything new. I believe that these children would never have created anything anyway because they have no desire to do so. I also believe that they are very much in the minority. Children, in general, are so creative that they will make something new if they have even the slightest spark within them. Proof lies in the games we watch them play when they are uninhibited by adults or convention. And how many of them have imaginary friends?

Even TV programmes and cartoons can act as stimulants to the imaginations of these children. They will create their own worlds, fight battles between toys, and have the time of their lives living in their imaginations.

It’s the adults we should be sorry for, because so many of them have stifled their imaginations and creativity in their rush to become ‘adult’. And there are many adults were more than happy to aid in that stifling.

When I was about 12 years old, we were told during English class to write an imaginary story, an extended essay in several chapters, about any subject we wanted. I was very much into science fiction in those days (as I still am), and so I wrote a story about a spaceship crew doing a Grand Tour of the planets of the solar system before an accident sent them careening off to Alpha Centauri. When the teacher  handed our work back, he held up my work and derided it as nothing but stupidity, because it was science fiction and nor ‘real’ fiction. He never told us what he had expected us to write, just said that we were to be creative, and then he stamped all over my creativity.

It took me years, nay decades, to get over the hurt he created.

A couple of years ago, I published a self-help book, Unleash Your Dreams: Going Beyond Goal Setting (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EX4FVUI). I’ve been working since then on a follow-up to that book, as well as a fantasy novel and a collection of short stories, plus some experimental stuff written only for practice and my own entertainment. I suppose I have to be grateful to that stupid teacher because at least he was one of the people who taught me the basics of writing good English.

In conclusion, I don’t believe that toys with instructions stifle the creative impulse. On the contrary, they are very much a place to discover whether you have a talent in that direction, and can display creativity with the tools that they supply.

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