Rousseau and Me, We Don’t Agree– A Post in Two Parts and a Coda

For five days I’m writing about the most interesting methods people have used throughout history to raise brilliant children of all types. Yesterday I wrote A Mad Poet and a Sane Mathematician.

Part I:

Around this time– a year ago, I longed to walk outside with my toddler or stand by the pond with my five-year-old checking out brand-new tadpoles. I wanted to bake bread or travel to Ethiopia or  just drive an hour to visit my sister. But I couldn’t. I could wiggle my toes a bit and shift my weight from left to right, but no more than that– doctor’s orders.  If I moved more than that, contractions began immediately. But the tiny person growing inside me needed to swim around in amniotic fluid another 15 weeks.

The slightly-open window behind my chair let in crisp air in waves.  I heard swallows swishing around high in the sky and chirping. Birds so happy to have arrived safe from Argentina and ready to build spring nests under the eaves of my house.  My toddler wanted to share my chair,  but we couldn’t both fit.  She cried and begged me to pick her up.  Later, she dragged her wicker rocker and set it next to me.  I read her books.  My 7-year-old and 5-year-old brought me little snacks of oranges or cinnamon toast.  My 10-year-old made pasta for lunch.

Several weeks later, resting still, this time in a hospital bed, I couldn’t focus to read.  I couldn’t think in complete sentences either. I just lay there, with my uncomfortably quiet mind.  Living requires action–  and without it you seem barely human,  let alone a competent parent of little children.  I stared at their photographs taped to the wall in front of me. All those smiling faces kept me company. But I couldn’t touch them or kiss them.  They couldn’t tell me the stuff they thought or what kept them awake at night. So still, I drifted in and out of mind for hours.  One night, in a moment of both subtle desperation and fierce maternal agency a thought came to me.   My mind’s eye followed the thought as it entered and spread across my consciousness.  It is time to study my children in the way that thinkers do, with closed senses but open mind.  The timing could not be better.

This thought– It is time to study my children in the way that thinkers do, with closed senses but open mind, expanded until it took up so much mental space it squished the limbic helplessness out of my soul.

I’ve wanted to study the lives of sixteenth century Spanish monks or figure out how the Universe really began.  But figuring out Creativity from its simplest reduction to viral idea-spreading– that I could study until I die.  And here I had time!

Instantly I felt the luckiest woman in the world– with a laptop, speedy internet access and several bright children with budding creative powers to think about and later observe. That night I started Creating-Brains, this blog.  I also e-mailed my friends with the link so they’d read my first post and make it all official before I chickened out.

Part II:

Months earlier, I had read the most interesting book on human development theory–  Jean Jacques Rousseau’s classic Emile. Here Rousseau writes the life story of his young aristocratic charge– Emile and chronicles his growth to astonishing mental independence. When Rousseau ends his tutorship (20 yrs. long)  he introduces Emile,  a virgin thinker, to the world.

So how did Rousseau raise Emile?  Here are some highlights:


  • Never wore binding clothes.
  • Ran around barefoot,  even in Winter.
  • Took frigid showers outdoors, even in Winter.
  • Lived in a bare cottage, alone with his tutor, in the countryside.
  • Ate plain food.
  • Cultivated one habit– Have no habits (no bed time,  no wake time,  no set daily schedule whatsoever).
  • Knew no books, was not read to and did not know how to read until age 16.
  • Had no friends.
  • Learned through experience only ( i.e., poking a real skunk to learn it stinks, and not reading about it).
  • Led his own life with little human interference.
  • Had a tutor who followed him from afar outdoors, but sat with him to discuss humanity’s grandest questions to close a day.
  • Could ask his tutor anything and get a question for an answer.
  • Ran free.
  • Lived happy.
  • Thought for himself.

Rousseau’s Emile was an imaginary character (Rousseau was a philosopher, after all).  But the methods used to educate Emile influenced Western thinking about childhood development and education for two centuries.  The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, the Idler in the UK and the International Unschooling movement are examples of today’s Rousseau-groupies.

But what does Rousseau’s Emile have to do with me hanging out in the hospital,  far from my charges?  Plenty (stay with me here). First, disclosure–  a host of loving , sometimes fun,  but always responsible people cared for the kids when I could not. Also, Super-man ( husband) cut his work days dangerously short to come home.  He also spent too many nights awake nursing sick kids (yes, they all got the flu) or warming midnight bottles for our toddler. But back to Rousseau and me: in gist– my children lived a lot like Emile. Rousseau theorized and Emile turned out super human. But real children, I learned by being away, do not thrive cultivating the habit of no habits. Also, real children grow confused, rather than fonder, for lack of gentle touch. But worse of all,  the independent life reeks of danger for little ones and free-thinking is small without limits.

I resolved, then,  as I began to study my children to also study their broken mama and by sheer mindfulness and consideration, we’d learn to live right.  Together we’d learn to live the Creative life,  which, as I’ve written often since my first post,  is not without habits or discipline.


Several years ago,  I would have disagreed with every iota of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother– the book I’ve mentioned several times in this series.  I would have suggested Emile’s lifestyle as the enlightened (and opposite) alternative.  Not today– Chua’s not totally wrong.  Discipline does breed brilliance. But Chua is fundamentally wrong,  because disciplined skills without philosophy make for hollow output.

So there it is.  I’ve told you another piece of my story and dragged you through contrived concepts.  But, stay with me…there’s more to come!

I’d love to hear from you and learn what you think.  Leave a comment.  I love reading comments!




Constraints That Increase Creativity, Part 4: Ignore or Fight Bad Advice or Other’s Expectations

For five days I’m writing about constraints that serve as kindling for Creation. Yesterday I wrote about Limiting Business.

You know someone’s advice fits you as soon as you try it on. Great advice is more like a recommendation for your future than an expectation picked out for you. It is a perfectly timed gift.

The best gift my husband ever gave me had 20 inch-wheels and a comfy canvas seat for my six month old baby. Nobody had a baby jogger in my neighborhood a decade ago. They were a fairly new invention then.  Until the jogger stroller I kept pace and chatted with my friends, the slowest runners in the running club I’d recently joined. I walked briskly, pushing a Tonka-like stroller that stopped on a dime or whenever I let up on the heavy pushing. The jogger not only introduced me to faster friends but always gave more than I pushed into it. It entertained my little child with ever-changing views and a constant breeze. My mood picked up throughout the day to see the jogger, conspicuous in my living room, a Pandora’s box of things worth living for.

Great advice is like this, humbly-given, like my first jogger stroller, but containing a Universe of possibilities and expectations that jive perfectly with the receiver.

Professor Doty Hale  gave me such advice one afternoon after her Children’s Lit. class.  She looked me in the eyes and said, You should go for your PhD.  You’re PhD material. She had noticed me jump at any chance to do research and that I loved philosophy.  That moment, I realized I lived for both the most minute details of a topic and the grander questions.  She’s right! I thought, I am PhD material. Hale’s advice uncovered my truth.

Unfortunately most advice is not so thoughtful or humble.Highly Creative people know most advice is not a gift at all. It often comes instead like badly cut pants, five sizes too large. Bad advice makes you feel lost, confused and less than expected. Advice smothered in someone else’s expectations of a better you, cut to change who you are, squashes your  Creativity.

Bad advice and expectations cover your truth so you won’t see it.

Creativity Scholar E.Paul Torrence studied more than 400 children from kindergarten into their 50’s and found the single most important predictor of a creative child’s future career success and overall life satisfaction was the child’s ability to dodge bad advice and ignore, even fight, expectations that were not a perfect fit.  In his Manifesto, Torrence said,

Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and to walk away from the games they impose on you.

French fashion designer Coco Chanel said,

How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.

A Highly Creative person is not a doctor or lawyer, or even a novelist,  but an individual, irreplaceable and irreplicable; a Someone who constrained himself to his truth.  Highly Creative people don’t even try on ill-fitting advice or bother with other’s expectations.

Constraints that Increase Creativity, Part 3: Grant Quotidian Business Less Mental Space

For five days I’m writing about constraints that serve as kindling for Creation. Yesterday I wrote Keep Your Perfect Idea.

Highly Creative people work to the ebb and flow of mental energy, not according to a preset to-do list.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, did not even schedule weekend work breaks. He says,

A fixed mental sabbath from experiments does not jibe with the reality of the human brain.  It rests effectively only when it does not want to work and is satisfied with what it has done.  With few exceptions, the time frame of experiments cannot be predicted, and mental hibernation should not be preassigned to a regular day on the calendar.  An unanswered experimental question is bound to remain in your subconscious.  Work done on weekends, in fact, can be more fun than that done on weekdays.  You would not be there unless your experiments were going well.

Creation requires obsession and obsession requires a focus to work unfocused on a problem.  Creative insight is mental state-specific and ties up focus to exclude even of the sensual world.  Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, says,

At first the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem.  But once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.

Engaging both hemispheres for Creation requires a longer mental now rather than moments chopped into efficient morsels. The efficiency of quotidian business curbs Creativity.  A calendar bursting with pre-scheduled tasks works against the biology of Creation because business dilutes attention. You cannot obsess about two things, let alone a mess of to-do items to be crossed off every afternoon.

Neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman says, The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.

Making Creative work a priority over pre-scheduled business frees you up to work with your mental energy, rather than against it.

Constraints that Increase Creativity, Part 1: The Truth about Time

For five days I’m writing about constraints that serve as kindling for Creation. Yesterday I introduced the topic of Constraints.

I once sat to the left of a Literature professor at a colloquia round table. She dressed in olive-green and gray, adjusted her smart glasses every few minutes and wore her dark hair short. To my right a round, doughy woman with a slight tan shook her head slowly, opened both her hands and said, I just haven’t had time to review today’s topic. She sighed. I’m just a bit overwhelmed, I have so much to do .

The Literature professor nodded her head. She spoke with a thick Eastern European accent,

Yes, I know sometimes it is very hard to garner energy to read something that seems irrelevant to every day life.

When the communists controlled Bulgaria, I was assigned to work in a factory.  My job was to screw one type of screw onto one section of thousands of refrigerator backs, all day.  I had to do this over and over and fast to keep the production line moving quickly. I started work at 7 a.m. and arrived at home at 9 p.m.  I did not read a single page of Literature those years.

I wasn’t really alive.

The doughy woman sat quietly like a scolded five-year old but nodded her head in  faux-commiseration.   The Literature professor’s truth exposed the doughy woman’s lie of being overwhelmed. She also pointed out a larger truth that eludes many creative types: when someone else controls the minute details of your time,  you aren’t really alive and you won’t Create.

Journalist Laura Vanderkam says,

Being busy has become the explanation of choice for all sorts of things…

But here’s the crazy thing. [Highly Creative persons]–and the people who claim they’re ‘too busy’ to vote, or have only 12 minutes to talk to their spouses,  all have the same exact amount of time.  All of us.  We have 24 hours in our days, and 7 days in our weeks. If you do the math that comes out to 168 hours each week to create the life we want.

You may be reading this post from a jail cell in Nigeria or on a laptop precariously placed on top of unfolded laundry in New Jersey.  Your little children may be climbing all over you all day long  because you home-school or you may be sitting in an office cubicle looking busy and avoiding your gnarly boss. If you can think, Time is yours.

Vanderkam says,

What if we approached time differently?  What if we started with a blank slate? What if we viewed every minute…as a choice?

Writer Maria Housden barely made it up the stairs awake at bedtime when her four children were small.  Her  husband did not understand her need to Create and questioned any time she spent writing. So she stopped writing.

One day, Housden left her children with her sister for a summer break.  Then she rented a tiny cabin in the woods and slept.  Eventually, she gathered her thoughts, took back time as her birthright and wrote.  Two weeks later, when she came back to family life, she couldn’t stop writing.  But, she also realized she wasn’t the mother she had always hoped she’d be or the wife her husband wanted.  So Housden left.  She left her children with her husband and an energetic nanny and lived on her own.  She faced the truth about her time and built her life for Creation.

Vanderkam says,

I will not pretend this is easy.  In order to get more out of their 168 hours, some people have had to change jobs, move, or otherwise create turmoil in the middle of already full lives.

If you believe you are too busy to Create,  you are lying to yourself.  And if you tell others you are so busy and overwhelmed,  you are lying to them.  The truth is that you have not organized your life for Creation.  Constraining yourself to the truth about time will free up energy formally used for excuses and you can move on to actually pursue the Creative Life.