Rabbi Yohanan's statement is deeply puzzling. If God imparts wisdom to those who already possess it, then what kind of gift is wisdom, and how do the rest of us get in on it? Do we show God our IQ or SAT scores or a solid GPA? Wisdom sounds a lot more expansive than these abbreviated, indexed and narrow measures of our intellectual abilities. I recently heard a talk on creativity that has made me mull over it in relation to Rabbi Yohanan's words.
We know much more today about how the creative mind works and what is needed to nourish creativity and what squelches it. Loosely defined, creativity is the use of imagination or the production of original, innovative ideas. We often associate creativity with the fashioning of artistic works that require a degree of inventiveness. But this, like our abbreviations above, is too narrow a way to think about creativity. There are creative problem-solvers and original thinkers in every arena of human endeavor. Steve Jobs once said that creativity is just connecting things. "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."
Creatives, those for whom creativity is more than the production of original work but a way of thinking and being in the world, have been described as "consistently original." This may mean that the way they act, think, work, dress or form relationships has elements of freshness and newness all the time. Creativity for them is not limited to one area; it spills over into everything. This description helped me understand Rabbi Yohanan's statement. The creative is constantly using wisdom to generate more wisdom, in the elastic sense of allowing the brain the freedom to take an idea and move it in many different directions, layer it and change it.
This characterization is reminiscent of a description of our chief biblical creative: Bezalel, who was tasked with the responsibilities of overseeing the creation of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, our portable sanctuary in the wilderness. God, the Hebrew Bible states, literally filled him "with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship..." [Exodus 31:3] A few chapters later, we have a repeat of these gifts and an extension of them to anyone with similar capabilities: "every wise-hearted person, in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding to know how to execute all the work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the Lord has commanded. And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every wise-hearted person, in whose heart the Lord put wisdom, and to everyone whose heart stirred him to come to do the work," (Exodus 36:1-2).
Talent here is twinned with volition. One could argue that you don't need a lot of creativity to execute the exact plans you are given, unless, of course, you have ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture. You need a certain kind of creativity to put together something in an intelligent way that maximizes and encourages the creativity of others. Bezalel's creative genius lay not only in his capacity to carry through on God's word but also to bring others into the work with him and expand them in the process.
And this is another thing I recently learned about creatives: they need nourishment and recognition. Nothing kills a creative impulse more than no one noticing creative output. Perhaps nothing grows creativity more than the recognition by others that stimulates a desire to do more. In love and parenting, at school, work and in our volunteer giving, our ability to note, pay attention and comment on the work of others is a feedback loop that offers encouragement to keep on going. When no one notices our creative output, we being to question ourselves and our own worthiness. Bezalel, it seems, was able to nurture the creative gifts of others.
Creativity is also highly personal, as the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp notes in her book on the subject: "In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it." Creating the right conditions for creativity helps bring out our own originality.
So where and when are you most creative?