- Chris Fenwick
Creativity – Necessity is a Mother
Updated: May 15, 2020
When we started brainstorming about what kinds of topics should be in a book regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, I knew I wanted to write about creativity and how this innate quality of humankind could and would save our future. That sounds fantastic, but then, so is creativity. If humanity ever had a superpower, it’s our ability to imagine and then create new solutions to existing problems.
The challenges we face as a nation and as a race are extreme. Even before the Coronavirus spread to every nation and territory around the globe, in a matter of days, we faced an uncertain future. Global climate change, poverty, nuclear weapons, and megalomaniacs with both political and firepower threatened us. But even while we struggled with what we used to think were terrible threats, a few experts saw what a deadly pandemic could do. While most of us were blissfully ignorant, maintaining business as usual, these visionaries peered ahead and began formulating responses. When we finally caught on, it was too late to stop the epidemic from spreading across the globe. Still, these visionaries—creative problem solvers and experts with specific expertise—are what we need to meet this test, as well as other challenges that lie in wait to overtake us.
Of course, humanity is familiar with adversity. Hard times tend to put life into perspective. Facing a pandemic and watching the death count climb could make you decide to live life more fully or make you shut down and hide. Finding it hard to purchase the everyday products you need, could push you to be creative in ways you never knew were possible, or it could make you feel fearful and desperate. Necessity could be a mother or the mother of invention. We invent in less adverse times, but need pushes us harder to use parts of our brain that sometimes lay rusty and unused.
The hardships we face now range from inconvenience for some to profound risk to health and home for others. Where we were when this all happened—financially, in our relationships, and developmentally—has a lot to do with how we are weathering this storm. For many, nothing could be worse, and survival instincts take over the brain, while creativity fights for a moment here or there. It’s hard to think outside the box when you live in one on the street. Those with the least among us, are suffering the most. My heart breaks for them.
For the rest of us, our struggles range dramatically. Some can still access their creativity and look for solutions to new problems. We imagine what could be, what should be, and how to bridge the gaps between here and there.
We don’t yet know the lasting impact of the Coronavirus and subsequent disruption in economic opportunities, but we can look to history and see similarities. The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, is known as the worse economic downturn in US History, lasting ten years. Other factors contributed to the longevity and severity of that depression, including the Dust Bowl that caused a shortage of food and killed many.
Now, we can also see, as “hindsight is 20/20,” that American ingenuity and perseverance were alive and active at this time. What follows are six inventions that we currently use every day, each born from the Great Depression era. Each one contains a metaphor—an example of the type of ingenuity we need now. As you read, allow them to inspire and prompt you to explore new ways to use that fantastic creative mass atop of your shoulders. We need ingenious people like Colonel Schick, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we need you!
A hundred years from now, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will read articles about what came from the global pandemic known as the Coronavirus and the economic challenges it left in its wake. They will talk about their imaginative family members, who used this time to create things that are, for them, run-of-the-mill, ordinary items they take for granted. You can choose what kind of creative thinking for which you’ll be remembered.
Buttermilk Pancakes – Rethinking Sour Milk
Some people today don’t know what buttermilk is, but they know they like buttermilk pancakes and biscuits. Buttermilk has been around since we’ve had butter as it is the liquid left over after you churn the butter out of milk. It is low in fat but contains most of the protein originally in milk. Real buttermilk ferments into a thick, tangy cream. Today most buttermilk is cultured and pasteurized, making it a bit different from what our parents or grandparents might remember during the Depression. It is sourer and tarter than sweet milk.
Farmer’s have been accustomed to buttermilk and using it in recipes forever, but for many poor during the Depression, buttermilk became wildly popular. Some say it was because factories began creating cultured buttermilk, and that is true. But according to my late mother-in-law, Gracie Fenwick, buttermilk became a staple in households during the Depression instead of regular milk because it was a third the price and easier to get. If you consider that a rural family of five could get the same amount of protein in buttermilk for a third the price during the Depression, now you know why your grandparents developed a taste and found many new uses for it. It seems the sour and acid attributes of buttermilk accents pancakes, biscuits, potatoes, and other dishes perfectly, giving them a more robust and delicious taste. Who knew? Your grandparents knew.
I doubt they cared for it much at first, but like many things, when you’re hungry, your taste buds have to adapt to what is available. Much of what is considered ‘southern food’ is comprised of ingredients (okra, collard greens, pig parts, duck liver, morels, etc.) that previously were snubbed by Anglo buyers. Tough times forced people to use them, create ways to make them palatable, and in the end, they became a part of our regular diet and menus today.
We don’t need a global pandemic or depression to change our collective palette. Ramen is a staple of most college kids and can be made into the most delicious meal with a few modest ingredients and very few cents. Even small hardships cause the creative juices to flow.
So, what are we making today, that typically wasn’t considered acceptable, but now is not only acceptable but even preferred? For some, we are limiting our trips to the grocery store to lessen our exposure to the disease. We try new combinations and experiment. For others, we’re trying to stretch that dollar as far as possible.
It doesn’t have to be just food. But I think we may see our taste buds and our everyday lives acclimate to these circumstances because we had to be creative, adaptive and are, either forced or are willing to try new things. Some creative endeavors happen while we are moving forward, albeit kicking and screaming along the way.
Spam –Repackaged Just in Time
Like buttermilk, Spam responded to the need of the time–a cheap, protein-rich product that had a longer shelf life. Spam is a meat product made by Hormel using less popular cuts of pork, ham, and combined with spices, cornstarch, and preservatives to create a popular, easy to transport, versatile meat. Many fresh foodies hate it. But for low-income households, it provides just what they need, when they need it—anytime—since it lasts forever.
Spam’s most versatile attributes are its transportability and shelf-life. Its popularity continued and fed our troops in World War II, around the globe.
Hormel took a low demand cut of meat, combined it with a few products, created a new way of manufacturing—Spam is cooked in the can—and delivered it to fit the need of the times. Even if you don’t like Spam, you can’t deny Hormel’s creativity for a just-in-time product to meet the needs of millions. Spam has stood the test of time too; it turns 82 this summer and may well see a comeback in popularity in tough times ahead.
The Electric Razor – Winners Don’t Quit
Changing pace, the electric razor, invented by Colonel Jacob Schick, has a longer story. Colonel Schick spent time in 1910 in Alaska and grew tired of lathering up in ice-cold water for his morning shave. That’s when the idea of an electric razor first came to him. But his plans got side-tracked when he was recalled to active duty in World War I. During the war, he was inspired by repeating arms and imagined a replaceable razor head. After the war, Schick invented the forerunner to the replaceable blade razor, which was successful, then sold it and used the money to return to his original idea–the electric razor.
But it was now the Depression, and no one wanted to manufacture it. So, he started his own company and filed the first patent in 1930. The design was still clumsy, with the motor independent of the razor, and it didn’t catch on right away. But the colonel didn’t lose faith. He mortgaged his home and worked on the design, putting the motor in a sleek hand-held device. The new model went on sale in March 1931. Most would say his timing was way off. To make sales more difficult, the price tag was $25, which is about $360 in today’s money. But the colonel found his market and sold 3000 in the first year. By the end of the Depression, he had sold well over 1.5 million units.
With unfortunate timing and a high price tag, to what do we contribute Schick’s success? Some will cite that the cost of replaceable blades, shaving cream, and other accouterments needed for a regular shave added up in the long run, so the price tag wasn’t that bad. Some will say the era of electricity and first adopters were excited by new tech and a new toy. Some will attribute his success to marketing his product to those who could afford it. All of these are probably true, but I suspect there is another not-so-secret ingredient in the colonel’s success. It’s obvious when you read about his life. Colonel Jacob Schick was determined and believed in his product. Nothing would stop him, not a shortage of cash, not a Great Depression, not rejections from other manufacturers–nothing. In the end, Schick retired a rich man, and the electric razor is here to stay.
There will be products that come out of this period, and we’ll be amazed at how they survive and thrive. Maybe you have one of those ideas brewing in your mind. Or maybe, you have already begun the process but now are rethinking the release of your new concept to the world. Take heart. Colonel Schick would tell you not to give up, and you know what? He’d be right.
Superman - Distraction and Hope
Before big blockbuster movies, Superman launched as a small comic book. As a matter of fact, all comics were created during the Great Depression. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded the first comic magazine called New Fun in the mid- 1930s. The original comics didn’t do well, but in 1937, Malcolm created Detective Comics (DC). Malcolm had to declare bankruptcy, but the company continued, and in 1938, Superman was born as the incredibly strong man who triumphed against the worst of enemies.
Early comics, went through a lot of hardships and criticism–everything from censorship to a mass outcry protesting their violence, complaining about them for distracting the youth and turning them into delinquents. Some simply said comics lacked true artistic expression.
But comics withstood the test, providing what the country needed—distraction and hope. At a time when there wasn’t a lot of good news, comic books, and then radio shows based on the same stories, distracted people from the direness of their situation. They also provided hope, as everyday citizens read about or listened to the morally upstanding strongman who could save the day. Superman became the embodiment of hope for the future.
Comics have often been relegated to a subculture of young people or dismissed entirely. But that’s not reality. In the year following Superman’s comic book release in 1938, it sold 1.2 million copies. By the 1940s, Superman was joined by Batman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. Proof positive, a creative distraction and ray of hope were sorely needed by the people living during the Depression.
In today’s world, we have entertainment everywhere, and we value it highly. Superman and many other comic heroes have filled the big screen and our culture. We don’t need convincing of the power and need for distraction. We can access it anywhere, anytime. But I wonder what genres will come out on top in the months and years to come. What messages will the population gravitate to, and what will inspire the youth of our generation? I suspect hope will be a prominent and popular theme because when times get tough, hope is what we all need most.
National Parks – Help Wanted
In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt founded the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of the New Deal to give much-needed jobs to Americans out of work. The CCC gave men lodging, food, and pay for working on conservation projects throughout the country. The CCC is credited with planting over three billion trees across nine years—trees that reduced erosion and provided shelter from wind and drought that contributed to the Dust Bowl. The CCC was one of the New Deal’s most popular programs, building miles of roads and trails, stocking rivers and lakes with fish, and fighting forest fires.
One of the reasons this program was so successful is because it gave people purpose. Sometimes, the situation is so dire; you need a handout. But over the long term, people need a hand-up, a goal, a job to do, for a decent wage. As we see unemployment hit new highs, this is the type of program we might need in the months and years to come. These initiatives could come from the private sector, but more likely, they’ll come from government—state and national. I understand the sentiment of small government, but I also know there are times when we need a well-working, wide-reaching federal government. In times of war, pandemics, and national economic hardships, we need innovative, compassionate leaders at the top who can bring people together and roll out new programs to get people back to work. It might not be for parks and trees; it might be for bridges and infrastructure. Many areas need attention. These kinds of programs might be foundational for a family or a community. When you vote, remember these programs and consider who will be this creative.
The Future Depends on Us
In the meantime, don’t be too fast to judge others until you’ve walked in their shoes. If you can give a hand-out or a hand-up to someone who needs it (encouragement, creative ideas, services), this is the time. We’re in this together, and the future depends on us.
The world is more complex and interconnected than during the Great Depression. Even while we are forced to stay at home—else we risk sickness or infecting others—we are more connected to more people around the world. If this type of pandemic happened even fifty years ago, the outcome would be much different. Scientists, a world away, are collaborating on tests and vaccines, treatments, and equipment. This has never been done on this scale before because we have never been here before. This interconnectedness allows us to collaborate and create in new ways, and at a whole new level. We might repurpose things that weren’t seen as useful or palatable prior; we could repackage old products just in time. We all must persevere to deliver products in which we believe. We can create hopeful distractions while we step through the worst of it; and we can envision new programs to get back to work. Some of our creativity will save lives, some will give purpose, and some will provide hope. All are important.
Creativity is humanity’s superpower. We might not be made of steel like Superman, but we have amazing brains that, when faced with extreme difficulty, can either hide away, lay down and die, or get up and be inspired to create some¬thing new. Our kids will judge how well we perform and how creative we are during this pandemic and the economic situation that follows. Buddhist monk and award-winning Korean chef, Jeong Kwan, said, “ego and creativity cannot exist together.” I think what she means is that sometimes, we must get out of our own way. If we can leave the tendency toward self-importance behind, believe in our offering, and be willing to work together, we can see new levels of creativity never imagined. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ve not seen this level of need combined with this level of connection in the entire history of our species.
Sometimes, we wait for permission to be creative. Please allow this time of crisis to be all the permission you need. Often, we crave space to be imaginative. Clear a table, a desk, a room, a corner, a piece of paper, or a new document, if you must, but make the space. Some need quiet to find the creative impulse inside. Headphones might be an option or a walk alone while we are engaged in social distancing. Extroverts often require collaboration as they develop their inventive impulses. Zoom, GoToMeeting, and FaceTime are easy tools to connect with others online. If you set the agenda ahead of time, you’ll be more productive. Whatever you need, find the space, time, and resources required to fire-up that prefrontal cortex in your brain, and then stay healthy, determined, and don’t give up. I look forward to seeing what we all create next. Your superpower awaits!
I wrote this chapter for the new book:
After the Pandemic: Visions of Life Post COVID-19
Sunbury Press, May 1, 2020
Notice: This content is copyrighted. Any use without written permission from the publisher is strictly prohibited.