Creativity, Freedom and Coloring within the Lines of Tradition
By Ed Brenegar
Consulting Fellow
Morris Institute

A friend of mine put a question to me related to an incident that recently happen to him. The question concerned the role of creativity in the development of children. Here's his story.

During a recent visit by his in-laws, my friend and his family, wife, three year old son and mother and father-in-law went to a local restaurant for dinner. As is the case in many chain eateries, the waitress gave his son a coloring book and crayons to occupy his energy while waiting for their dinner to be served. My friend was helping his son color within the lines of the drawings when his mother-in-law became agitated by this. She complained that he was stifling the boy's creativity, hurting his self-expression. My friend disagreed with her, believing that creativity functions within a set of rules and structure. According to his account, the discussion that ensued wasn't pleasant.

Now is this just a difference of opinion, a matter of perspective, or merely a topic for researchers on creativity to discuss at annual association meetings? Is the question of tradition, freedom and creativity relevant to our lives?

My friend works in the world of science. He is a dentist. If he were to conduct his work without consideration for the lines, then he would be out of business very soon. Yet, knowing how he works, there is tremendous creativity as he applies his knowledge and experience to solving the multitude of individual problems that are presented to him everyday. Often, while I'm lying flat on my back, we discuss new technological advances, like the use of lasers, that enable dentists to more creatively address the problems their patients have. Still, they must work within the lines of tradition, or the professional standards that guide how that creativity is applied in each instance.

Chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi has said that scientists operate within a tradition, or within the lines, yet are bothered by the questions unsolved by tradition. In his view, scientists, whether physicians, chemical engineers in industry, or university researchers, creatively work like artists to discover solutions to the problems that confront them. Polanyi believes this creative discovery happens in what he calls "the tacit dimension." What he means is that scientists or discoverers depend on their intuitive insight which has come from their mastery of theoretical knowledge along the lines of tradition, and their personal experience in testing those traditions, to see where those lines really exist. They practice this creative craft under constant and rigorous scrutiny by peers who defend the lines of tradition against corruption and vagueness. The constraints of tradition make scientists' creativity all the more essential to resolving problems.

Creativity, unless of the biblical proportions of the divine creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), is always within the structure of some predetermined lines. Now my friend's son can color the bear in the coloring book any color he wants, even put a hat on his head and fishing pole in his hand, and it will still be a bear. To ignore the lines as if they do not matter is to miss the beauty of the structure and to miss the chance even to perhaps discover new dimensions of the bear. If the bear didn't matter, then the back of the place mat would do.

For years, I've watched my children draw pictures on church bulletins. They always use the structure of the placement of the words on the page as the backdrop or context for their highly imaginative visions of people, fighter jets and dinosaurs. Paragraphs become buildings and spaces, rivers, for a D-Day invasion of our church's steeple on the cover. My guess is that the pictures are more interesting because they are having to work creatively within the constraints of a form.

To ignore the lines of tradition in the name of self-expression may, in truth, be mere self-indulgence. We do not create ourselves out of nothing. We are products of the social context of home, school and the gathering places of our communities. To say these do not matter, these lines of tradition, is not to say they do not exist or impact our lives, but is only to indicate that we don't like how these traditions have impigned on us. So we rebell in the name of self-expression, and wrestle with the reality that, even in our rebellion, we must creatively work within the lines of another tradition, albeit, a different one from our raising.

In our society, it seems, though, that we are presented with a choice: either stay within the lines of tradition and order, or, break out of the lines through self-expression and freedom. I think this is a false distinction. Freedom has always operated within the boundaries of a tradition or a form. Artists who create must use materials, even if they are computer generated bits and bytes. It is discovering the beauty hidden within the lines of tradition that makes creativity so much more challenging, and satisfying.

Healthy communities recognize that the values and history that form their society are the lines from which we can creatively solve such problems as those of economics, race, urban/suburban development and education. Learning to color within the lines of traditions as a community requires the recognition that there are beneficial common traditions that transcend the differences of people.

What is it that sustains the lines of tradition, so communities can together express their freedom through creatively resolving problems that the traditions no longer answer? I believe that one place this happens is in college and universitys where an emphasis is placed on the liberal arts or the humanities.

The new chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Jim Mullin, believes the liberal arts serve as a foundation for learning to be able citizens. Mullin's university promotes itself as the state of North Carolina's only "public liberal arts university." As in many private schools, every student completes a humanities curriculum that focuses on helping them learn to think, to write, to serve and to engage people who are from outside their traditions.

The strongest liberal arts programs on campuses nationwide to some extent focus on the development of character. There is a particular strand of personal character that can only be developed through a thorough knowledge of the many lines of tradition that have contributed, over the generations, to form our diverse society. Whether as a scientist, a student or the parent of a child, we discover our greatest, most satisfying freedom our willingness to chart out our self-expression within the lines of tradition. Only then can we, together, creatively address ourselves to the challenges that will confront our organizations and communities in the future.

Ed Brenegar is Consulting Fellow of the Morris Institute, and President of Community of Leadership, Inc. serving leadership teams in the areas of community building, strategic planning and change management. He can be contacted at 828/693-0720 or at


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