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Creative Stereotypes

By Peter Lloyd

An Erdös 1 mathematician declared to me, “I can’t do arithmetic.” This from a man with a left-brained list of publications on lattices, arithmetic mean ideals, trace extensions, and infinite dimensional Schur-Horn theorem and majorization theory. How does this compute? Well, he also informed me, “I think of myself an artist.”

Allow me to introduce another paradox. I love math concepts but also hate arithmetic. Maybe because of the way I was forced to do math in school. Later in life, I invented my own way of computing, seeing spacial relationships rather than walking step by step through the algorithms I was taught. Did my math teachers fail me, or do I have rocks in my head?

Consider this: I asked my mathematician friend to estimate, off the top of his head, which is larger, the cube root of four or the square root of three. In an informal way, I simply wanted to see if a highly trained math genius would guess more accurately than everyday folks. Were his mathematical instincts superior? Could he feel the correct answer? He flatly and absolutely refused to estimate!

I had read that some great minds judge the quality of their theoretical results by how beautiful they appear, how right they feel. Einstein valued absurd ideas and solved problems with more than just reason. “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” So why would my friend refuse to play a guessing game in the interest of my survey? Especially if he considered himself an artist. Chalk it up to his reverence for accuracy.

I should not have been surprised when he called himself an artist. Nor should it have surprised me to see how low his students rank him on Rate My Professors. The people we think of as left-brained rank among the most creative, even if they fail to inspire in the classroom or come off unartistic in the way they dress or behave. They solve problems. That requires creativity. But I have yet to learn, obviously, how to regulate my expectations of people who call themselves creative.

Human creativity makes artists of us all. If only because we express ourselves in original ways, whatever creative course we pursue. Some math geniuses can teach, some even dress well. Some artists can do math. And just because you can’t do math, doesn’t mean you have rocks in your head. In short, all stereotypes are doomed to exception. Except sometimes. And therefore all expectations come with surprises. Except when they don’t.

Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.
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