Nancy Napier on Creativity: The link between traffic rules and creativity

Executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and InnovationFebruary 27, 2014 

I’m lucky enough to travel for my work — sometimes around the U.S., sometimes outside the U.S. But I’ve learned that one of the first challenges of self-preservation, especially in another country, is figuring out how the traffic works, as a pedestrian, let alone a bike rider or car driver.

On a recent trip to Denmark, I also realized that traffic rules and creativity may have more in common than I thought.

I was at dinner with a friend when we got into a discussion about culture in Denmark and traffic in particular. I mentioned that the first time I ever visited, perhaps 20 years ago, I was out one evening about 9 o’clock, walking along a small road and needed to get to the other side. I crossed in the middle of the block, about 30 feet away from the traffic light at the intersection. I figured since there no cars coming and only one other person nearby at the intersection, it must be safe to cross over.

A man waiting at the intersection on the other side of the road walked down the sidewalk and stopped me. He spoke in Danish, which I don’t understand and so I apologized and said I didn’t speak it. He switched to English and said, “do not cross in the middle of the road, without the light. In Denmark, it is the law.”


Of course, after my reprimand, I got very conscious of watching other people crossing the streets. And indeed, people do not jay walk, they wait for the green lights, they stay in the zebra crossing zones.

At dinner that night, then, when I mentioned all this to my friend, she was nonplussed and said, “oh yes, of course. The rules about traffic, and especially jay walking, are very clear. We follow them all the time.”

Then she skipped a beat and said, “It’s easier to follow the rules. You don’t have to think about it.”

And that was the aha moment for me. Following those rules is like telling the truth all the time — you don’t have to “think about it” and remember what you said to different people. Following the rules, at least the traffic rules, removes that choice — and the effort of making a decision — whether to cross against the light or in the middle of the block. It’s one of the benefits of structure. And structure, as I have learned over the years, is also so critical for creativity to succeed.

Thinking about the need for structure to enhance creativity is like having basic traffic rules. In some parts of our lives, having routine or structure frees up our mind space to focus on other areas, like where to break rules that should be broken--rules like which ideas to consider for new products, or how to change or improve processes that may slow down effective business. Or even ways to develop better traffic patterns.

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