2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Creativity, Conformity and Aging

Creativity is about taking risks to make something new; to explore, conceive, develop, dream of something that has not existed before. There are no rules except those which may be inherent in a product that must function. On the contrary, conformity is all about rules and staying within boundaries. This can mean masking your persona to adapt in a job or social group so you are accepted by its commonalities. It can be especially true in organizational structures where politics play an important role and maintaining the group’s expectations and invisible guidelines are paramount. Peer pressure to conform is with us from childhood on to our later years. However Psychologist Robert Ornstein, PhD (author of The Psychology of Consciousness) says “If you spend too much time being like everybody else, you decrease your chances of coming up with something different.” Although creativity and conformity are different entities, some people have been able to dream, conform and succeed. It’s about having a vision and knowing that it will fit in the world around you.

Inspired by seeing a voluptuous doll on the market in Germany, Ruth Handler made some observations. She saw that her daughter was playing with adult paper dolls rather than children and babies and that these dolls were all flat chested. So in 1959, she designed her first Barbie doll, an attractive small scale plastic feminine figure with improbable proportions and breasts. Ruth thought young girls would enjoy role playing with a three dimensional doll fashioned to look stylish and youthful as they look toward their growing up years. She revolutionized the doll industry by creating a play figure that was completely different from any on the market and she followed it by giving Barbie a boyfriend, Ken (both named for her children). It was a huge design leap and yet her brilliant creativity was anchored on understanding the psychological needs of young girls. Ruth says “The consumer made the Barbie doll an instant success”

Thomas Edison held more patents than any other person in US history. Yet he was not your stereotypical reclusive and struggling inventor; he enjoyed collaboration and had 6 or more main assistants with unique expertise to help him. “One of Edison’s greatest overlooked talents was his ability to assemble teams and set up an organizational structure that fostered many people’s creativity,” says Greg Field, historian. He had a genius mind for creating new devices while relishing the group process where success of the group means conforming to the underlying group rules (perhaps his own). And his inventions needed to conform to society’s needs to be successful.

Yet groups can thwart creativity. Jeremy Dean, a researcher at University College London, writes about Why Group Norms Kill Creativity. “When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.

Afterwards when they judged each others' work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the 'words' group rated posters with more words as more creative and the 'images' group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.”

So how does aging fit with creativity and conformity? There lies the paradox. As we age, we can continue to develop new neural networks if we are actively engaged in activities that may be social, creative, cognitive and/or physical. Sure we can have memory lapses and concentration difficulties but older adults also have beneficial neurological changes. Pattern recognition and more efficient brain signal transmission provides stronger problem solving capability. And problem solving is integral to the creative process where there are many potential solutions and no fast conclusions. So it would appear that as mature adults we can be mentally wired for new explorations and more creativity yet what halts so many? I believe it is fear of the unknown, unwilling to risk social exclusion, depression based on health concerns and the comfort of their recliner. Motivation to seek new challenges is just as important as the discipline to eat nutritious food and exercise regularly. As Eric Maisel, PhD, creator of the Meaning Solution Program, says “Life feels more meaningful when you decide that your creativity matters.”

Conformity and creativity are part of the landscape of our lives. Finding ways to effectively manage them to strengthen our spirit as we age is a critical lesson for all of us.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing."
--George Bernard Shaw


  1. I am a big fan of non-conformity--came out of the closet as a non-conformist in high school in NJ. At the time, it seemed an essential gesture to me. I wrote a blog on the subject recently in my Sage's Play blog, http://sagesplay.blogspot.com. I really like what you have to say on the subject here. Thank you.

  2. Very interesting post! It illuminates how even the art world falls into the doldrums of conformity "under the guise of creativity" until someone or a group of artists knocks everyone off their feet again.