Killing The Genius of Childhood for the Thought Factory Production Line

Thursday, October 21st 2010

Here's something Picasso had to say:

Unlike in music, there are no child prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood. It gradually disappears as they get older. It is possible for such a child to become a real painter one day, perhaps even a great painter. But he would have to start right from the beginning. So far as I am concerned, I did not have that genius. My first drawings could never have been shown at an exhibition of children's drawings. I lacked the clumsiness of a child, his naivety. I made academic drawings at the age of seven, the minute precision of which frightened me.

Why does the "genius of childhood" gradually disappear?

From Genius Kids to Boring Adults

Sir Ken Robinson had this to say:

There was great study done recently about divergent thinking. Published a couple of years ago. Divergent thinking isn't the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn't a synonymn. But it's an essential capacity for creativity.

It's the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question. Lots of possible ways of interpreting a question. To think what Edward de Bono would call "laterally". To think not just in linear or covergent ways. To see multiple answers, not just one.

There are tests for this. One cod example might be "how many uses can you think of for a paper clip?" Most people might come up with 10 or 15. People who are good at this might come up with 200. And they do this by asking "Could the paper clip be 200 foot tall and made out of foam rubber?" Does it have to be a paperclip as we know it, Jim?

Now, there are tests for this. They gave one to 1500 people. It's in a book called "Breakpoint and Beyond". And on the protocol of the test, if you scored above a certain level you'd be considered to be a genius at divergent thinking.

So my question to you is: what percentage scored at genius level for divergent thinking? Now you need to know one more thing about them. These were kindergarten children. What percentage? 80?


They retested the children five years later. At ages of 8-10. What do you think the percentage was then? 50? Then they tested again at ages 13-15. The percentage of genius level answers went down with each re-test.

Kids had lost an essential capacity for creativity. The genius of childhood was ebbing away. Why? Sir Ken goes on:

This tells an interesting story. You could have imagined it going the other way. You start off not very good, but you get better as you get older. This shows two things. We all have this capacity. It mostly deteriorates.

A lot of things have happened to these kids as they've grown up. A lot. But one of the most important is that they have been educated.

They have spent 10 years at school being told there's one answer. It's at the back. And don't look. And don't copy. That's cheating. (Outside schools that's called collaboration!)

It's not that teachers want it that way. It's because it happens that way. It's in the gene pool of education.

So why does "being educated" make you less creative?

Let's look into what kids are like, first. And then work out what happens as they turn into adults.

Dylan Moran Explains more

Kids are annoying, shallow, emotional. They are often quite selfish and lacking in social graces, too. But they also have a certain magic.

Irish comedian and drunken philosopher, Dylan Moran:

I meant to talk about something else earlier on, but I forgot what it was. I've remembered what it is again. But I've also forgotten. And that's really what adulthood is like most of the time.

You spend a lot of time walking back to the room to get the thing you left the room for. So that you would go and use it somewhere else. And you're on your way back to the room to get the thing, but you forget not only what it is but what room it was in. You're faced with the people who love you looking at you going:

"What do you want? Why are you here?"

"I don't know," you say.

You spend an awful lot of time like that.

And children aren't like that.

Which is why they look so young. Because they always have a sense of style and purpose. When they're walking around they have a very definite purpose. They're walking and walking. And it's a great walk as well. It's not an adult sort of bemused shuffle.

It's that ...

"I'm going over here"

You say "Why are you going over there?"

"Cos I have a harmonica"

"What are you going to do with the harmonica?"

"I'm going to put it in the toilet"

"Why are you doing that?"

"Enough questions! Goodbye!"

Because children express themselves. That's how they look young and vibrant and alive ... and why we all envy them.

So adults graduate from having style and purpose to having a bemused shuffle. Most adults lose the ability to express themselves. They create Picasso's "academic drawings". All skill and no inspiration.

Why is this so? Moran again:

Children can be incredibly difficult to understand. You forget you were once a child. Something simple like a child going to bed.

You say "bed time, bed time, bed time"

That's not what the child hears. What the child hears is:

"Here. Lie down in the dark. For hours. And don't move. I'm locking the door now."

... they're not really interested in your views of the world. They have their own questions. What is the name of the spaces between the bits that stick out on a comb?

I don't know.

What do you call the place underneath the kettle?

I don't know! Bed time, bed time!

You lose so much of that natural human panache that children have.

You tell the child to go to bed. It compares that to what it wants to do. And it synthesises. And it says "I hate you." "I really hate you."

As it scratches its arse with a toy elephant.

If you could retain that sense of self in your adult life you could have a totally different experience.

But ...

Difficult to hold on to. That's why adults are so confused.

The important part: adults "lose so much of that natural human panache that children have."

It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. In some people growing out of glorious things such as Heavy Metal, for instance.

Bruce Dickinson, singer with Iron Maiden, reckons heavy metal only makes sense if you retain some of the "natural human panache" kids have. He reckons heavy metal ...

... really gets inside the mind of an eternal 15 year old. If you ever lose that 15 year old kid inside of you then it won't make any sense at all.

Some people will start saying ... "oh yes ... " cough, cough, that was the part of my life, I'm reallyy embarassed about it all, I mean I wore those stupid trousers, cough, cough, and had that long hair ...

... it's as if people are somehow ashamed of what they were like when they were kids. (Bruce Dickinson, interview in Heavy metal - a headbanger's journey)

This shame is a form of fear. And that leads us to ...

Education for the Thought Factories

Ken Robinson thinks most education systems are about standardisation. Standard tests. Standard hours. Standard qualifications. It's a production line. Kids come in one end. Adults come out the other, ready to work. Ready to meet the needs of industry and business. They want standardised workers who can fit into existing organisations and systems.

Education is seen as rational. About acquiring objective knowledge to carry out useful work. Mechanistic, rational, verbal, scientific, reductionist. The ideals of the enlightenment.

Importantly, the metaphor for existence and for the mind is a mechanistic one. Educators engineer intelligence from the raw material of kids' brains.

The emphasis is on the conscious, the logical, the deliberative and the categorical. Hence the division of thought and activity into the sciences, mathematics, the Arts, etc. Hence the emphasis of anything perceived as more rational. Maths over painting, for instance. God forbid you approach Maths like a painter, though! You can't combine those! (Mandlebrot famously copped a great deal of flak for taking a visual approach to maths, for instance).

We test for information retention. If you don't retain the correct information you're wrong. If you deviate from the process you are wrong. And no-one likes to feel like a failure. But if you don't pass the tests, that's how you are made to feel.

What happens? We dismiss things that bob into the conscious mind because they don't fit into the scheme of things. We are afraid of trying new ideas out. Eventually we lose the knack of creativity. And this becomes a habit.

More than that, if don't lose the knack of creativity, people will ask questions. "So, they will say, how will this make you money?" or "But is that good quality enough?" for instance. Creativity is valued if it has a purpose.

If creativity is without purpose, you don't fit in. Because you are not useful to others. You're irresponsible, mad, or dangerous. At the extreme, drug prescriptions, counselling, interventions, etc, ensue. (Foucault would say madness of this kind is an invention.)

Although not doubting ADHD is a problem sometimes, Ken Robinson mentions that a lot of the time it's just kids being medicated to suit the system. The "ADHD epidemic" is a myth.

Thought Factories - the Work of the Future

What sort of work are we preparing people for? Factory work. Factory work - that means standing on a line packing boxes or attaching a part of something over and over again. Or applying the same techniques over and over again at a work-site. Thought Factories are more abstract. But they are the mental equivalent of factory work. Only the factory or work site is replaced with an office.

Just like the guy in the production line producing 200 widgets an hour, the thought factory worker produce 200 pieces of thinking work an hour. He might classify pictures of different types of widgets, answer 30 calls, respond to 50 support emails, fill in a schedule in a system, ponder a meeting, pump out a report, or whatever it may be.

Now consider this idea for a business:

Miettinen calls Microtask "the extreme approach to digital labor." The company's software divides work into highly standardised tasks - on the level of validating the data in a single form field - that can be completed in 1 to 2 seconds. Unlike something like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, workers don't get to choose their next project; Microtask queues up new tasks for as long as the person works. Because Microtask can create "strictly defined inputs and outputs" and use redundancy, it can offer customers service level agreements to guarantee its results.


"The extreme approach to digital labour." "Microtasks" are carried out in "Thought factories".

Thinking is structured, measurable and repetitive. The results of the work are known. People who do it are replaceable, fit into the system as malleable, replaceable, interchangeable "resources".

And what does Thought Factory work that do to the mind?

Two things it discourages:

  • divergent thinking (don't deviate from the process!)
  • creativity (algorithmical, repetitive tasks are, by definition, routine, not experimental).

Nicholas Carr would tell you there's an even bigger problem. He'd tell you "multi-tasking" on microtasks means we're losing not only child-like inspiration but also adult focus and depth of thinking.

Carr's essential idea is that the internet encourages constant stimuli, constant change, constant input - often form several sources at a time. Distractivity, if you will. Busywork. He quotes from a study by Ap Dijksterhuis.

We usually make better decisions, his experiments reveal, if we shift our attention away from difficult mental challenges for a time. But Dijksterhuis's work also shows that our unconscious thought processes don't engage with a problem until we've clearly and conscious defined the problem. If we don't have a particular intellectual goal in mind, Dijksterhuis writes, "unconscious thought does not occur." (Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, p.119).

Our brains are "plastic", they can change in response to what we do. If we do microtasks in thought factories, spend all our time responding to instant messages, reading short, pithy things, gradually we lose our adult ability to concentrate. What's more, we may actually damage our child-like ability to tap into our unconscious. We become neither adult nor child!

We start to devlelop the mental equivalent of the "bemused shuffle".

Forced, constant, distracted stimulation of the conscious mind, combined with rigid, rote-learned skills. The cramming of the conscious mind with information makes for stress and a sense of "not having enough time".

All of this crushes creativity.

Certainly, exposure to lots of stimuli, followed by rest, followed by deliberate practice is a good recipe for inspiration. But what if there is no deliberate practice, no rest, no concentration? Isn't that what the world of Thought Factories and Microtasks looks like?

There is something else at work, too.

It no longer makes any sense. Because thought factories are gradually being automated out of existence.

Read more here:

*Pink's Cocktail Party, at Emotional Hierarchies.

So we kill childhood genius for nothing. Not really a very good idea, surely?

But there is something else at work, too.

Instrumentalism Versus Playfulness

Let's say you do work to get paid, for instance. Not to learn new skills or have fun. You play music to impress others, not for the sake of it. You write to sell books, not because you like writing. You go to the building site not to have fun building something cool and exciting and learning new skills, but to use your well tried skills over and over again. And so on.

In all these cases things are not valued as ends-in-themselves but as a a means to achieving something else.

  • work -> money
  • music -> fame
  • write -> sell books


Playfulness means experimenting and having fun. To the playful, things must have intrinsic value.

Instrumentalism, valuing things as a means-to-an-end stops play. You see the mentality in workplaces, in politics, in the Arts, in business. Example:

Of course, there's nothing wrong with doing things toward an end. But when everything is instrumental, then you lose something very important. There isn't time for playfulness. Experimentation. Fun. Feeling good. Instead you get people dragging themselves to boring meetings. Off to the building site, again.

Kids do things for ends. Sure. But they also do more things for the sake of it. They simply haven't had the experience in life to know that there are ends out there.

For instance, a kid paints a picture. Why? The kid will probably say they wanted to. And adult will probably say "because X, Y, Z." It's part of an exhibition. It represents something. People will also want to know what you want to do with the painting. There has to be a purpose to the activity. That is, it must be a means-to-an-end.

With play there is usually an internal system to it, invented purposes, but they serve to create structure for play. And they change when the play needs to change (when it gets boring). Kids take this stuff seriously. Most adult behaviour is play with the fun removed! Wise adults re-introduce play, but do it without the bad sides of the child-like temperament.

Next ...

The Permission Aesthetic

When Dylan Moran says kids are "not really interested in your views of the world", he's right. Kids are more interested in their own world than yours.

As social awareness develops, kids start to be more influenced by the group and increasing self-awareness. They turn into young adults. Teenagers. Creativity becomes all about getting "permission" to do what you want to do. Is this art worth doing? What do other people think? Is this music good? What do other people think? The invisible audience of judges arrives.

Venkatesh Rao sums it up nicely:

A social skill, such as joke-telling ability, is a behaviour whose effectiveness is determined by the reaction of a group. A joke is funny if the audience laughs. A proven mathematical theorem remains true even if a billion people scream that it isn't.

more here

As social experiences increase, you can imagine how things will go. What people will say. You have a new vocabulary of words, ideas and experiences to judge your activity by. And like the river running down a mountain, you will take the easiest way. Where there is the least disapproval. Where there are the most pats on the back.

That's why there is such fear around performance. It is testing your creativity in this social realm. Fear of what other people will think. Fear of failure. We are not taught to disregard this fear. Instead, it is fostered. Tests. Job interviews. Discipline.

*The aesthetic that develops is not about creativity. * It is about fitting in. Asking permission. It is the "Permission Aesthetic". "Success", "performance", "aims", "popularity" are some of the many forms it takes.

It crushes genius and it can make people unhappy.

Let's re-write the Dylan Moran's harmonica story:

"I'm going over here"

You say "Why are you going over there?"

"Cos it's an important part of the project we're working on."

"What are you going to do with the harmonica?"

"At this stage, we are working on a plumbing based system for harmonica disposal that meets all the guidelines in the specification the client sent out."

"Right. Can we have a meeting about that?"

"Sure ..."

Now, the big problem with all of this is ...

Catharsis versus Neurosis

Through the Permission Aesthetic, being educated, and so on, people often learn a way of thinking to which they are not naturally inclined. Symbolic structures are imposed and censor the less structured, personal mind. A singular human intelligence is replaced with a interchangeable "human resource".

But ... Dylan Moran says we're not really adults. An adult is ...

... really just a tall child holding a beer. Having a conversation [he doesn't] understand.

Shuffling in a bemused, uninspired fashion through life.

But here's the strange twist to the story.

People remain creative despite all the things impinging on them.

But it's the dark side of creativity.

It's Hitler missing out on Art school and putting his creative energies into hatred (and spiffy uniforms).

The Darth Vader / Ming the Merciless side of it.

Instead of using talents in a healthy fashion, people express them in insanity. I don't use that word lightly.

Building lasers to destroy earth. Plotting to blow up buildings. Instead of honing creativity into skills, they remain underdeveloped, habitual, unconscious neuroses. Instead of unleashing pent-up emotion or ideas or physical energy it is repressed and expressed neurotically. Or, worse, it is expressed in evil ways.

Hitler and art school. Pol Pot and twisted philosphy. Drug addicts. Gangsters are often great actors. Dancers become fidgeters. Actors turn everyday life into a drama. Painters become vandals. Musicians have repressed emotions they should express as music but express as violence, anger, depression, madness. Mathematicians become rigid bean-counters. Intellectuals become incoherent ranters. And so on.

A lot of the time, these people don't even realise they are artists.

As a society we use:

  • routines
  • sleep deprivation
  • bad food
  • entertainment media

... to burr the edge off the insanity. But it remains. It informs everything we do.

And, oddly, we also incessantly criticise those who are creative. Because they are a threat. A threat? Yes. Why so?

The very presence of artistic folks stirs up thoughts of one's own creativity, the dark side. And people want to avoid that morass. Other people's positive creativity sheds light on one's own Ming the Merciless style creativity. It makes us delve into our own insanity. Creativity is associated with madness, with neurosis, with failure, with fear. So creative people make us uncomfortable.

Creativity is something to be feared.

You see this self-censorship (the fear of judgement) throughout the Arts. People will admit to the guilty (fearful) pleasure of liking Abba. Or be afraid to reveal a Lady Gaga t-shirt at an Iron Maiden concert for fear of ridicule. Or be afraid to ask a question in a meeting because it seems stupid (fear again).

Ultimately, the aesthetic is toward more abstract, less viseceral constructions. Toward rigic norms. Enforced by fear of judgement.

Leaving the Permission Aesthetic Behind

In an address to some University students, Steve Jobs put it this way:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

He is giving us a variation on the two most useless pieces of advice of all time:

  • to thine on self be true
  • do whatever makes you happy

Useless? Yes. Because they don't meant anything to most people.

  • to thine on self be true

Who am I? What am I? Err ...

  • do whatever makes you happy

What is true happiness?

These are old questions. Some might say hackneyed! But without asking them you end up with whatever is around. Whatever you are conditioned to think you are. Whatever you are told happiness is.

"I'll be happy if ..."

  • I bought a car
  • I went on a holiday
  • I got married
  • I built a business empire

"I am ..."

  • a doctor
  • baker
  • candlestick maker
  • heavy metal fan

Back to Dylan Moran. Why are kids more creative?

Because children express themselves. That's how they look young and vibrant. And alive and why we all envy them.

Okay, "express yourself" is another one of those useless pieces of advice, though, isn't it. What does it mean?

I think you need to return to a more literal interpretation of the world. To a more visceral sense of what feels good and what feels bad. And to follow it. Again:

Children can be incredibly difficult to understand. You forget you were once a child. Something simple like a child going to bed.

You say "bed time, bed time, bed time"

That's not what the child hears. What the child hears is

"Lie down in the dark. For hours. And don't move. I'm locking the door now."

Rather than the abstraction of "bed time", the kid thinks about what it actually will feel like. What he will experience. He delves into what will actually happen. "Bed time" is an abstraction. A routine. An idea. A social construction.

Lying in the dark. That's visceral and immediate.

Rather than absorb and think in the concepts given to you, really pay attention to what actually happens in your mind. Inklings, intuition, divergent notions. Kids do it naturally.

It doesn't mean you throw out the more sophisticated adult thinking. But you see that for what it is and use it as an addition to a more visceral, literal, direct form of thought. There's no reason the two can't work together. But usually, because of schooling, Thought Factories, etc, etc, the conscious, deliberative mind starts to repress the child like literal mind.

What Next?

If you've got this far (well done!), you ought to forget everything you've read.

The tendency is to now start thinking "I must be more divergent" or "The aim is be more child-like." Must be more aware of the "Permission Aesthetic". Etc. Blah.

These are all abstractions. Means-to-an-end.

If you combine new abstractions with existing social conditioning you are back to square one. People start taking tests in divergent thinking, score themselves on the "Child-like" indices ...

It won't work.

Organisations - and sets of ideas - designed to solve problems end up have a vested interested in perpetuating them. After all, if the problem goes away then the organisation (or ideas) are no longer needed!

If something isn't working, the solution for these organisations (and sets of ideas) isn't to think again. It to keep doing what they were doing. Just do more of it. Lots more. The same old patterns hidden in new jargon. Clothed in new abstractions.

The mind is similar. It has set up a set of habits. You can't change habits by building on them.

Practical Steps

The adult hones talents into skills. Engages in deliberative thought and practice. The kid jumps around and follows his instincts.

The secret is to combine child-like literalism and interest in the world with adult intelligence. And that's something you can do through artistic practice.

But before you do anything. Do you judge it by thinking:

  • I wonder what people will think?

Or based on

  • Does this feel good?

It's easy to get confused. Will it feel good when I show this to other people?

Do you try and fit what you do into existing structures:

  • how can I earn a living doing this?
  • how do I classify what I'm doing?

More ... do you say things such as:

  • I am ... X
  • Or I want to be Y

These are all indications thought factory training, the Permission Aesthetic and so on, kicking in. They get in the way of creativity.

They have a commen "feel". "Effort". A form of mental pain. Learn to recognise it.


You're writing a song. It feels good. The words come out.

You think to yourself: "Those lyrics are a bit cheesy". A slight feeling of stress and tension.

Are you thinking: "I'm afraid what other people will think"? Or are you thinking: "These lyrics don't feel right."

Let's say you like a film. Then someone says "That film's crap." Are you afraid to say you like it?

Let's say you're doing something else. Playing cricket. Do you think - "there's no point, I'll never be good enough to play a state level". Are you really playing sport or are you looking for a way to make money?

Then there's fear and risk. Do you worry about the future? Do you fear ridicule, failure? Are you afraid you're constantly taking a test of a kind. Are you fearful of judgement? Do you judge yourself?

Let the internal aesthetic, where one pays attention to the little genius of the kid combine with the application and intelligence of the adult. In that there's a great combination.

There's an odd contradiction in this, though. It's important to do things for others and with others, too.

But without fear. Where there is fear, trace it to its roots. Ask: what's the worst that could happen? It's not as if you're running from a Lion. It usually just fear of repeating some previous experience. What is it?

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