Creative Minds and the “Greatness Game”
A response
Michael Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Neuropharmacology; Chief of the Neuroscience Division, The Yerkes National Primate Research Center

Vol. 10 No. 1
September 2007

Return to Contents

Science in the Seams
Computational and Life Sciences Initiative redefines disciplinary lines

High-performance computing at Emory

“Everybody understands or recognizes the combination of computational and life sciences as very promising. . . . Few people have been working in this combination of fields long enough to have established a leadership presence.”

“Rather than 'deconstructing' nature into its simplest parts . . . , the twenty-first century will likely be spent trying to understand, scientifically, the nature of complex interacting systems by “reconstructing” complexity.”

Staging Science
Teaching, and learning from, the interdisciplinary class

Thinking Outside the Pipeline
The impact of the unexpected in work-life issues

Creative Minds and "The Greatness Game"
A Response


The last issue (May 2007) of the Academic Exchange was very interesting in that it touched on many critical issues facing both Emory and academia in general. I want to comment on “The Greatness Game,” that issue’s lead article, which addressed strengthening faculty distinction at Emory. This
is certainly a worthwhile topic, since most would agree that faculty distinction is at the heart of the quality of an institution. It’s not only the work of a distinguished faculty but also what and who that faculty attracts that is valuable. Where is Emory in this game of greatness?

Some of the individuals interviewed in that article I think accurately describe Emory as often being concerned about collegial decorum, civility, congeniality, and politeness. A question raised in the article was whether these attitudes and values prevent Emory from reaching its potential in the “Greatness Game”—a game in which international superstars are sought after and make major contributions. I can think of one way that emphasis on decorum can interfere with “greatness,” and, paradoxically, it has to do with creativity which is highly sought after and valued in academia. Allow me to take a somewhat extreme position to make the point.

Creativity has been studied for many years. Frank Barron explored it as early as the 1950s and ’60s in Creative Person and Creative Process (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1969). In her recent book on creativity (The Creating Brain, Dana Press, New York, 2005), Nancy Andreasen, a prominent psychiatrist, describes the creative person: “Creative people tend to approach the world in a fresh and original way that is not shaped by preconceptions. The obvious order and rules that are so evident to less creative people, and which give a comfortable situation to life, are often not perceived. . . . [A]dventuresomeness and rebelliousness are often coupled with playfulness. . . . [They] may push the limits of social conventions. . . . [They are] driven by their own set of rules derived from within.”
Hence, Andreasen suggests creative people can seem different at least and perhaps even rebellious. Moreover, their (annoying) “openness to experience often permits creative people to observe things that others cannot.” They also have “a tolerance for ambiguity . . . [and] are quite comfortable with shades of gray,” which some might interpret as a weakness or even a lack of principles. They can tolerate varying degrees of intellectual chaos, and “associative links run wild,” often with new ideas. They “enjoy adventure . . . , like to explore . . . , tend to be intensely curious . . . , [and have a] “basic simplicity . . . and dedication to their work. . . . Creative people have traits that make them durable and persistent,” which is one of the reasons why they survive.

Andreasen astutely points out how many of these characteristics can make the creative person vulnerable to social discord and loneliness. They can appear odd and may not fit in. While few recognize it, they pay a price for their talents. A question for Emory is, Can a faculty who values decorum also accept, respect, and even nurture such individuals?

When such faculty are recruited, they sometimes receive mixed
signals from some of Emory’s faculty and administrators. On the one hand, a message is, Please come to a well-off university that has nice weather and wants to be great! On the other hand, a message is, Fit in or else! Maybe you should go to LA or New York! This mixed message engenders frustration, discomfort, and the desire to look elsewhere for a job. The last issue of the Exchange described the French department’s past struggles with such tensions.

I think this is a key issue for Emory and perhaps a difficult one because each side (that is, those wanting decorum and congeniality versus those wanting the highly creative) can feel frustrated of even threatened by the other. Different visions coexist; some like the Harvard or the Hopkins models, which stress excellence and creativity, while others feel strongly that there are “other models.” Perhaps one solution lies in dialogue and discussion of the issues with an attempt for sincere mutual support from and for both sides. This effort will be a challenge because the feelings seem strong on both sides. But realizing that there are healthy aspects to these tensions and discussions is helpful.

Fortunately, many creative people can maintain decorum and congeniality and also embody many of these characteristics Andreasen describes. All of us know many of these individuals. Therefore, depending on the
individual, this issue may not always be a serious one. I realize that I have taken a somewhat biased view in the previous paragraphs, but it does make the point clearly. Creativity does have its costs, and we need to be aware of them, even if the price varies with the individual or circumstance.
This university really has the choice of seeking “greatness” because of its current success and its substantial resources. Some at Emory have decided to—and tried to—put Emory on that path, and the attitudes of everyone here will have an impact on what Emory will be in the future.