Resolving the Paradox
Viewed in this light, a LEGO builder encountering a thorny design problem might well enter a state of flow as she works through the possible configurations of bricks. Suppose she wants to avoid having any studs on top so that viewers of her creation see only flat surfaces. To do so will require the clever usage of specialized pieces originally designed for other purposes. She will need to call on her experience with LEGO pieces, her ability to visualize the internal layout of her creation, and her knowledge of how best to achieve the overall effect. It is no surprise that many adult fans of LEGO find working through these problems to be relaxing, as they bask in the afterglow of a flow state.
Yet our LEGO builder will not be able to solve the problem if she lacks the experience with the fundamentals. In LEGO: A Love Story, Jonathan Bender recounts the first fumbling steps when he returns to constructing LEGO creations after some time away. Techniques that seem obvious to experienced builders baffle him. Because he has not regained his familiarity with the fundamentals, he cannot yet see the path to the problems he has set for himself.
The LEGO Movie’s competing conceptions of creativity can be thus construed not as adversaries but as stages in the development of a creative builder. Everyone starts like Emmet, building from instructions and making small, novel modifications. As they become more skilled, they develop the vision, like Finn’s father, to attempt larger, more complex projects: a cityscape, a mosaic portrait, a 100-stud-long spaceship (spaceship! Spaceship!). The true joy of LEGO, however, lies in following Wyldstyle and Unikitty, and building freely.
And so the resolution of the paradox snaps into place like a tiny LEGO windshield. Our initial error was to think that being creative meant having no idea of the purpose of our actions, building doubledecker couches in the air, but we can see now that creativity also requires intense thoughtfulness, manipulating the resources at hand. Creativity lies in the joy of the mastery of the process.
To master the process, however, requires practice. What better way to practice than to learn how all of the little pieces fit together, building a database of moves that can be retrieved later? What better way to motivate someone to build that database than by providing them with a set of instructions that promises to result in a really cool spaceship? Following the instructions is as necessary in the initial stages of promoting creative construction as is doing basic math problems to the development of fractal geometry, or as practicing etudes is to the concert violinist.
Return to the playroom. My son is building a new LEGO creation. He soon informs me that he is making a DUPLO pot, so that he can cook some soup, which will undoubtedly require simmering tasty DUPLOs until they are tender. His tongue pokes out again as he loses himself in the flow, as he constructs his pot, and himself, brick by brick.