Seeing Green (or, Maybe Blue) Makes You More Creative September 15, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, New research.
Tags: christopher chabris, jonah lehrer, juliet zhu, lichtenfeld
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I’ve just read a scientific article that provides evidence that green makes you more creative. The researchers conducted four different experimental studies, and in each study, people performed simple creativity tasks that could be easily scored (such as “think of unusual uses for a tin can”). Before the creativity task started, half of the subjects were “primed” with a two-second glimpse of green, and the other half saw instead white, gray, red, or blue, depending on the study.
The people who saw green were quite a bit more creative, in all four studies. In one of the four experiments, the people who saw green scored an average of over 2.0 on the creativity scale, and the people who saw white scored about 1.75. It might seem small, but for only two seconds of color that’s a pretty big effect!
I personally like this result–first, because green has been my favorite color since childhood; and second, because green is the color of the artwork in my 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…not only the marbles on the cover (at right) but also the interior artwork.
But wait a minute…didn’t Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine report on a study showing that blue made people more creative? I went back and checked, and sure enough, here’s the 2009 study from the University of British Columbia: 600 subjects were given various cognitive tasks against different colored backgrounds, and blue backgrounds made people more creative. Hey, I like blue too (light blue is the color of my university, the University of North Carolina) so green…blue…I’m happy either way. But what’s going on here?
In the 2012 paper arguing for green, one of the studies compared green with both blue and gray. They found (again) that green resulted in the highest creativity. Blue made people even less creative than seeing gray! That sounds pretty bad for fans of blue.
So how would the 2009 authors respond? Their study left out green entirely, comparing only blue, red, and white. That would seem really odd to the authors of the 2012 paper, who make their love of green obvious from the start; they argue that green is the color of growth and fertility in a wide range of cultures around the world, concluding that “This green-growth link is undoubtedly rooted in societal learning that may itself be grounded in an evolutionarily engrained predisposition.”
Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. Frankly, I find it implausible that you could increase creativity just by painting your walls blue, or green, or whatever. Dr. Christopher Chabris, in his brutally critical review of Lehrer’s book Imagine, notes that “research on such color priming effects is hardly settled science.” That sounds right to me.
But hey, at least we know to stay away from red, white, and gray.
How to Write a Book September 6, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance.
Tags: Allan Massie, creative writing, John Casey, spartina, zigzag
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Here’s some great advice from the new book Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey:
- I can’t teach someone how to write…but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
- I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
- You don’t have to only write about what you know. (Haven’t you read novels that contain murder scenes?)
- “Show, don’t tell” is great advice–the same advice you’ll get in an improv theater class–but many great novelists do a lot of “telling” and it can be done very well.
- You should probably avoid explicit sex scenes.
- Take breaks during your writing, so that your subconscious mind has time to incubate new ideas for rewrites and revisions.
All of this advice works just as well for non-fiction writing. (Especially the advice to avoid sex scenes!) What really resonates with me is the emphasis on rewriting that’s signaled in the book’s title. Good writing comes from reading, editing, and revising–a zig-zagging path from the initial idea, through an emergent process where the characters and the story surprise you with something you didn’t realize was in there. My research shows that this zigzag is the source of all creativity. Allan Massie’s review of this book in the Wall Street Journal points out that close and careful reading is perhaps the most essential part of the creative writing process. That’s why all good writers are also very good readers…and all good creators are good critics, reviewers, and editors. In my book Zigzag, this ability is the seventh step in an 8-step process that I call “Choose: How to pick the best ideas and then make them even better.”
John Casey won the National Book Award in 1989 for his novel Spartina and he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.
How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens September 2, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Case Studies, Enhancing creativity.
Tags: Chris Buck, ed catmull, elsa, frozen, Jennifer Lee, john lasseter, kristin bell, princess anna, the snow queen, toy story, zig zag, zigzag
Frozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?
As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.
Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,
It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.
Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)
It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:
- Pixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
- The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
- Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.
These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:
- The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
- You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
- Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.
So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.
Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often July 30, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, New research.
Tags: doodle, doodling, jesse prinz, sunni brown
One of the most solid findings from creativity research is that you should externalize your thoughts early and often. By “externalize” psychologists mean to take your nascent ideas out of your own head, and create a visual or spatial representation. This helps drive creativity in several ways.
- First, in most cases you have to transform your idea, usually a little but sometimes a lot, to make it visible. That transformation is always a productive creative process. Working hard to get your idea on paper makes you more creative than if you simply think harder and longer inside your own head.
- Second, once your idea is visible, it takes on its own life. And then, you can start to interact with it, to engage in a dialogue with your work.
- Third, this process drives creativity by helping to make it more clear what’s great, and what needs more work.
This research is so important that in my creativity advice book, Zig Zag, the eighth and final step of the creative process is “MAKE: How getting your ideas out into the world drives creativity forward”. Externalization is a core component of design thinking; it’s why design firms have white boards all around the room, and even silly putty and Tinker Toys on the table. In my chapter about this research, the first and most important creativity technique that I describe is “Draw a Picture.” I quote the American painter, Robert Motherwell:
In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.
Research research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information…allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.
They cite a cool new book by Sunni Brown, called The Doodle Revolution. The WSJ article is published with some fascinating doodles that were done in meetings and during presentations, like this one at the right by Professor Jesse Prinz (we both used to be colleagues together at Washington University in St. Louis). Dr. Prinz tends to specialize in face doodles; others specialize in “font doodles” (writing down key concepts but using fancy elaborate fonts). This new research continues a long line of research that leads to the most important creativity advice I know of: Get your ideas out into the world, early and often.
Is the “Lone Genius” Finally Dead? July 21, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Genius Groups.
Tags: joshua shenk, lennon and mccartney, lone genius, powers of two, susan cain, vera john-steiner
In 2007, I published Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, where I argued that collaboration is the most important driver of creativity. I called the book “group genius” because all of the research showed that the “lone genius” was a misleading myth. But what about those stories you’ve heard about solitary geniuses coming up with great ideas? Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, or Coleridge coming up with a poem in an opium-induced daze? These two stories, and others like them, are completely untrue. (As historians have known for many years.) When you scratch beneath the surface of any story about a big creative insight, you can easily find that the real story is one of collaboration and conversation.
I quickly learned that my one book wouldn’t be enough to kill the lone genius myth. The most powerful evidence of this appeared in 2012, when Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain’s claim that solitude enhanced creativity fed directly in to our deeply held beliefs about the solitary genius, and her book sold incredibly well. Since then, in 2013 and 2014, I’ve read many more stories in magazines and newspapers, all based on the belief that creativity is driven by geniuses–what makes someone a genius, what we can do to be more like them, and how we can help our children realize their genius potential.
I’m delighted that we now have another book presenting the overwhelming evidence in favor of group genius: Josh Shenk’s new book Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Pairs, excerpted July 20, 2014 in the New York Times in an article titled “The end of genius.” Shenk makes many of the same points, and cites some of the same research and stories, that I did in my 2007 book. Many of his stories also appeared in an influential 2006 book by Professor Vera John-Steiner called Creative Collaboration. (All creativity researchers know that creativity is always based in collaboration.) But the lone genius myth is still alive and well. Shenk attacks the myth right up front:
The lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: The creative network…or the real heart of creativity–the intimate exchange of the creative pair.
I show in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity that the myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work: Shenk mentions Shakespeare, Freud, Picasso, and Einstein. For example, how many people know that Einstein did not discover the formula e=mc squared? It was well known to physicists already, years before Einstein’s 1905 paper about the formula, but the mathematical proof hadn’t been developed. It turns out that Einstein was a pretty bad mathematician, and he made lots of errors, and his proof wasn’t valid. (He often worked together with mathematician colleagues for that very reason.) It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof. (Click here for more on this story.)
The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming. Of course, some collaborations are ineffective and actually block creativity. To make sure your collaborations are the creative kind, it helps to read a book like Group Genius–where I draw out key lessons from decades of research–to help you make sure your collaborations are the creative kind.
I highly recommend Shenk’s new book Powers of Two. Given my own recent experience, publishing a similar argument that collaboration drives creativity, I am not that optimistic that Shenk’s book will kill the lone genius myth. But I hope so.
Tags: aspen ideas festival, harper lee, michael brown, to kill a mockingbird, wonderful world of chemistry
I’m here in beautiful Aspen, Colorado, at the tenth annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a tutorial session about how to be more creative, drawing on my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This morning, I woke up very early, and was reading the New York Times during morning coffee. With lots of spare time, I did something I rarely do: I read the obituaries, and I learned about a fascinating creative life, with lessons about creativity for all of us.
The musician and composer Michael Brown died on June 11th at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of those behind-the-scenes creators who rarely comes up when we’re talking about exceptional creativity. Brown was a true creative genius. He wrote, produced, and directed a musical that has been performed and viewed 17,000 times, more times than any other. After Brown’s musical, the second most watched musical is “Phantom of the Opera,” with 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.
The musical was called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” performed at the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair–at least 40 times a day, by at least 8 different companies, for months on end. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” is what’s known as an “industrial musical.” Many of these musicals were paid for by large corporations in the middle of the 20th century for advertising and promotional purposes.
Mr. Brown was “one of the genre’s most sought-after creators,” according to today’s New York Times obituary. Brown created musicals for the J.C. Penney company, Singer sewing machines, and DuPont. He made big money creating a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in the fall of 1956. In the 1950s, industrial musicals were a big deal. Companies paid as much as $3 million to produce Broadway-style extravaganzas for their employees. (Hollywood musicals, by contrast, typically were produced for $500,000.) The musicals were usually performed only once or twice at sales conferences and managerial meetings, to build employee loyalty and motivate the troops. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” was the rare exception that was performed for the public.
A fascinating creative life, right? But wait, there’s more. In addition to his many big-budget musicals, Michael Brown played an important role in the creation of Harper Lee’s famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael and Joy Brown had met Harper Lee through her friend Truman Capote; Brown came to know Capote when he wrote the lyrics to a song in the 1954 Broadway musical “House of Flowers” with a book by Mr. Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Ms. Lee was a basically a starving artist; she had no time to write because she was barely scraping by, working as an airline reservations clerk. But both Capote and Brown saw potential. In 1956, the Browns were flush with cash thanks to the windfall from creating the Esquire fashion show musical. As a Christmas present that year, the Browns gave Harper Lee a special gift: they told her “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year off allowed her to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She told this story long ago, in a 1961 interview in McCall’s magazine, but she never identified the Browns by name.
Everyone kept the secret for almost 50 years. The story didn’t become public until the 2006 publication of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” a biography by Charles J. Shields.
I’m here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, with several of my creativity research colleagues, giving talks about “The Age of Creativity.” So naturally I’m making connections between Michael Brown’s life and the many lessons about creativity that we’ve been discussing over the last few days.
- We have many stereotypes about creative people, about famous creators like Einstein or Hemingway. But imagine: how many other creative geniuses are there, like Mr. Brown, that never make it into the popular consciousness as creative figures?
- We associate creativity with pure art, inspiration coming from an inner inspiration or intuition. But so much creativity is in service of a customer, a client, an audience. Mr. Brown created for large companies. Does that make him less creative, somehow, than an artist who works without constraint, guided only by an inner demon or genius?
- We think of Harper Lee as “the creator” of the famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But before this work could be created, supporters and friends like Truman Capote and Michael Brown provided essential support. It turns out that this is always the case with great creativity–as documented in the brilliant 1982 book by sociologist Howard Becker, Art Worlds.
In my session here at Aspen, I described one of the creativity techniques from my book Zig Zag: I call it “strange magazines.” The next time you’re in a bookstore–for example, in the airport–make a point of buying a magazine that is completely unrelated to anything you know anything about. It could be a jewelry making magazine, or a motorcycle magazine, or a guns or tattoo artist magazine. Then, thumb through and try to figure out the key concepts and issues facing readers. Make sure to look closely at the advertisements. After you’ve gotten through the magazine, put it aside, and start thinking about a creative challenge you currently face. Then, by analogy, work to find links between your problem, and the issues and concepts you’ve identified in your magazine.
If I ever write a second edition of Zig Zag, I’m going to add another creativity technique: Make a point of reading New York Times obituaries, especially of people who work in fields very different from your own. The more diverse ideas and information you put into your brain, the more creative you’ll become.
Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again? June 16, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.
Tags: economist, gdp growth, inventions, joel mokyr, robert gordon, technological innovation
Two professors at Northwestern University have been arguing: Is the age of innovation coming to an end?
Professor Robert Gordon, a 73-year-old economist, argues that we’re nearing the end of a historically unusual period of rapid innovation. Professor Gordon knows that we’ve invented many amazing things in the past 250 years; he just thinks today’s innovations are puny by comparison. Reading the historical list, one might be tempted to agree with him: indoor plumbing, running water, urban sanitation, steam power, electricity (and everything enabled by it: telephone, television, air conditioning), antibiotics. Many of these innovations saved millions of lives each year. Even the most optimistic Internet visionaries can’t believe that Uber or Instagram will do that. Dr. Gordon likes to ask: if you had to choose, would you give up indoor plumbing, or your iPhone?
His colleague, Professor Joel Mokyr, a 67-year-old economist, argues that technological innovation is most likely to continue its historical trajectory, and perhaps even to accelerate. The Wall Street Journal published an article about this debate on June 16, 2014 (subscriber content only), with a graph showing a fairly linear increase in GDP per capita, like the one below.
So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?
Great Quotations About Writing June 14, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.
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As I writer, I often buy and read books about writing. Here are some of my favorite famous quotations, from the book The Writer’s Quotation Book:
A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. — Thomas Mann
Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. — T. S. Eliot
Another illusion, seldom entertained by competent authors, is that the publisher’s readers and others are waiting to plagiarize their work. I think it may be said that the more worthless the manuscript, the greater the fear of plagiarism. — Stanley Unwin
(I include this last one because this has actually happened to me: once a complete stranger, when they found out I had published books, told me they had drafted a book, and when I offered to take a look, they said “I can’t show it to you because you’re a writer and you might steal my idea.”)
Create Collaboration With The Right Incentives June 9, 2014Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: alstyne, collaboration, Gore, incentives
I just read some fascinating research by Marshall W. Van Alstyne in Harvard Business Review. The figure below shows a network of high collaboration on the left, and a network of much lower collaboration on the right. The explanation turns out to be simple: it’s caused by two very different incentive systems. Alstyne found that “the people rewarded for individual performance shared information least; the people rewarded for team performance shared more; and the people rewarded for company performance shared most.” In the figure, each connecting line indicates email traffic between two people. Thicker lines correspond to a greater volume of email. As Alstyne explains it, the reasons are pretty simple: it reflects each person’s self interest, aligning with the different incentive systems. If your compensation is linked to the performance of everyone else, then you benefit from sharing and helping others. If your compensation is linked to your own performance, relative to others, then you’re likely to “hoard” information to maximize your own performance (and to undermine that of others).
This aligns with my own study of W. L. Gore, as I wrote about in my book Group Genius. At Gore, everyone at the company receives the same profit sharing percentage; no one gets profit sharing directly from their own projects and successes. When I asked CEO Terry Kelly why, she said it’s because it encourages a culture of collaboration. She said, “at Gore, you can pick up the phone and call anyone in the company to ask for help, and they will take that call.” And imagine the alternative: with individual rewards, why would you take a phone call from someone in a different division, who you’ve never met? It’s just going to slow you down in your progress on your own work.
I have something to celebrate: I just received a copy of the Chinese language translation of my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, here it is!
To my Chinese blog followers, the publisher is East China Normal University Press. This is my third book to be translated into Chinese; the others are Group Genius and The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.