Please note, this is a contributor article by Dr KH Kim and discusses her research, and should not be construed as a generalisation of any group of people.

Creativity is the process of making something unique and useful, and the successful outcome of this process is an innovation. My research coalesced around the three steps of the CATs framework for innovation: Cultivate the Climates (step 1), nurture the Attitudes (step 2), and apply Thinking skills (step 3). I also use this framework for how to develop the three steps, detailing the how to so it can be replicated in homes, schools, and at work. My research focuses on the impact of broad environments, called climates, on individuals’ creativity development. As the base of the pyramid indicates (Figure 1), the most critical part of a creative process is the climates, rather than the creation or the creator. I have found there are four (called 4S) climates necessary for individuals’ creativity to flourish:

  1. inspiration and encouragement (sun)
  2. high expectations and challenges (storms)
  3. diverse experiences and views (soil)
  4. freedom to think deeply and differently (space)

I identify the impact of culture and cultural diversity on individuals’ attitudes, behaviours, and minds. Both home and educational climates are shaped by cultural expectations, beliefs, and values. A child’s creativity can be stifled by home and school climates. To illustrate this, I compare parenting and education in different cultures impacting children’s creative development, especially in Confucian and Jewish cultures.

The Nobel Prize is the ultimate symbol of innovative achievement, but this award is not distributed evenly across all cultural groups. Jewish people constitute less than 0.2% of the world population, yet about 23% of Nobel Laureates have at least one parent who identifies as Jewish––including a recent Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan. In contrast, Asian (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan)  people constitute about 23% of the world population, but only about 4% of the Nobel Laureates. Considering population size, a Jewish person is roughly 625 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize than an Asian. Moreover, Jewish people are well-represented in all innovative achievements, comprising some of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century, representing more than 25% of the world-class conductors, 40% of the pianists, 50% of the cellists, and 65% of the violinists.

Many people have claimed Jewish people are successful in the field of innovation because they are highly intelligent. However, my research does not support this assertion. Asian people and Jewish people have equivalent IQs. The cultural differences between the two cultures’ parenting and education explain why Jewish people are more likely to become innovators than Asians are, despite the high academic standards of Asian culture.

Asian Culture

Asian parenting is shaped by Confucianism, impacting children’s creativity development. Four Asian parenting principles emphasize 1) conformity, 2) hierarchy, 3) filial piety, and 4) academic achievement. These four principles have resulted in Asian children’s low creativity compared to Western counterparts.

Principle 1: Conformity. Western parents tend to emphasize individualistic values of uniqueness, independence, and individuals’ choices and interests over the group’s. Asian parents tend to emphasize collectivistic values of usefulness, harmonious relationships, fitting in with the group, and group’s interests over individuals’. Asian children often suppress their self-expression and uniqueness and are overly concerned with others’ views, avoiding conflicts and confrontation for the sake of harmony and conformity.  This conformity stifles unique perspectives and expressions required for creativity. Innovation must reach beyond current knowledge by employing nonconformity, thinking differently from others, deviating from the norm, and challenging the status quo. Individualistic values are conducive to innovation while those cultures valuing conformity produce less innovation.

Principle 2: Hierarchy. Western parents tend to consider themselves facilitators who support and collaborate with children in an equal relationship. Asian parents tend to drive their children to fulfil the responsibilities associated with their place in the social hierarchy and consider themselves to be controllers, teaching and training children in a hierarchical relationship. Asian parents demand their children’s hard work, self-discipline, and obedience, sometimes using punitive practices to force conformity. Communications with children tend to be one way. Children tend to accept demanding and controlling parenting, perceiving such parenting as warm and supportive of their future success. For developing creativity, however, children must learn to make important decisions for themselves early through discussions and debates, rather than depending on parents’ making decisions for them. Individuals in cultures valuing hierarchy often expect authoritarian figures to make decisions, rather than taking their own initiatives or challenging the status quo. Further, Asians’ cultural values on hierarchical relationships instil obedience, especially in females. Women are traditionally expected to be obedient to their parents when young, to their husbands when married, and to their sons when old. They are forced into submissive roles and their potential is limited. However, creativity requires both traditionally feminine and male characteristics, so children must be encouraged toward gender-bias-free interests. Creative sons tend to identify themselves more with their mothers, and creative daughters identify themselves more with their fathers, developing both masculine and feminine interests and creativity in both gender.

Principle 3: Filial Piety. Filial piety has traditionally been the essential value among Asians and is explained as debt and obligation in which parents push children to obey and be academically and occupationally successful, so the children can financially support ageing parents later. Parents are highly involved in children’s education and invest time and money on private courses and tutoring to prepare for children’s high-stakes tests, often placing heavy financial burdens on the family. To repay the debt they owe for their parents’ sacrifice, children’s goals become wealth and high family status. Further, fear of failure and extreme pressure to do well for their family often make them plagiarize, and those who feel filial piety cheat even more. However, young innovators are inspired by a role model and follow their curiosity in their chosen topic for big-picture goals, enabling them to transcend the concrete constraints and limitations and to eventually achieve innovation. Big-picture goals for patriotism or nationalism increase innovation, but narrow goals for familism or filial-piety decrease it. Fewer innovations have come from those cultures valuing statements like “parents take pride in the individual accomplishments of their children”, “ageing parents generally live at home with their children”, or “children generally live at home with their parents until they get married”.

Principle 4: Academic Achievement.  Asian parents’ main focus of parenting is academic achievement, which they believe solely depends on children’s effort and persistence. This unhealthy focus leads to exam hell. Exam hell is the cycle of excessive rote memorization and private tutoring, starting in early childhood, aimed at achieving high scores among students ever since the dawn of China’s civil service tests system in the 600s. It intended to make its millions of men focus on passing the tests, instead of challenging the social hierarchy. By passing the tests, they and even their distant families and ancestry could rise to the upper class with money, prestige, and power. This motivated many teenagers to purchase and memorize model test answers and to prepare for and repeatedly take tests until they literally died while suffering from extreme anxiety or committing suicide. Even after the exam system ended officially in 1905, both exam hell and suicides among Asian students’ continue due to the cultural emphasis on academic achievement. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian students. In exam hell, parents sort humanity into only winners and losers often seeing the world as an arena of endless competition, instead of collaboration; children are taught to beat their peers and consider children are failures if they do not score highly on tests. Students have no time to explore, question, discuss, or imagine. Even when engaged in the arts, they focus mainly on practising artistic skills through drill, ignoring the importance of enjoyment of or self-expression through the arts.

Jewish Culture

I researched influential Jewish texts; visited synagogues; and participated in Jewish ceremonies and holidays with many friends and acquaintances, in addition to my research on Jewish history, culture, and education.

Fierce Storms: Despite (or due to) the horrific threats to Jewish people and culture in the 20th century, especially the Holocaust, and throughout their history, they became resilient. They transformed the threats and tragedy into wide-spread advocacy for social justice, reinforcing children’s big-picture thought.  Jewish parents and teachers nurtured self-efficacy (true self-confidence derived from knowing one’s specific strengths) by setting high expectations and providing challenges for children.

Bright Sun: Jewish parents and teachers provided children with a model for inquiry and questioning, expanding their curiosity. As “the people of the book” indicates, they nurtured children’s love of reading early. They emphasized “Tiḳḳun olam”, repairing the world, leaving the world a better place than when they found it and establishing generosity as a norm. For example, Jewish families are more charitable and give larger amounts of money than other religious or non-religious families, regardless of their income or wealth level. This reinforces children’s optimism and big-picture thought.

Diverse Soil: Throughout history, Jewish people were forced to flee their homes and countries, exposing them to diverse people, cultures, areas, languages, religions, and arts. These experiences opened their minds to other perspectives, ideas, and ways of life. While instilling in children the values of their Jewish identity, Jewish parents and teachers nurtured bi-cultural identity by valuing the similarities and differences between the cultures. This enables multiple perspectives, complex thoughts, and outsiders’ perspectives.

Free Space: Jewish parents and teachers supported children’s self-expressions and interests in exploring how and why things happen, and their argumentative skills. They did not emphasize cleanliness, orders, rules, and good manners. Being on the margins of society, combined with a bicultural identity, nurtured children’s nonconformity and drove them to self-identify as non-conforming outsiders. They supported children’s disobedience and defiance, such as rejecting the norms, and even their own Jewish heritage, in pursuit of their passion.

People are born with an innate capacity for creativity. The climates play a vital role in helping them effectively express their creativity. Their lack can diminish creative potential. Both innovators and creative underachievers are developed through their climates. Innovators are made, not born.  

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Dr. KH Kim is Professor of Creativity & Innovation at the College of William & Mary. After being an English teacher in Korea for ten years and upon getting her PhD from the University of Georgia, she taught there and then at Eastern Michigan University. She has dedicated her career to researching creativity and innovators. Her research study titled "The Creativity Crisis" was the subject of a 2010 Newsweek cover story that captured the world’s attention. Frequently sought after by the media, she has shared her expertise with numerous outlets including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and others. She is the author of The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation and has won the Early Scholar Award and the Hollingworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children, the Berlyne Award from the American Psychology Association, as well as the Torrance Award from the American Creativity Association.