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Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often July 30, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, New research.
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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.

Today’s Wall Street Journal (7/30/2014) reports on additional research showing that doodling has many cognitive benefits–all consistent with the creativity research I drew on in writing Zig Zag:

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.

Jesse Prinz doodle faceThey 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, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Genius Groups.
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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.


The Most Entertaining Obituary Ever…and, the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014 June 30, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.
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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, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.
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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.

Most economists agree with Professor Mokyr that this historical rate of growth will continue, and that it will be driven by technological innovation.

So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?

Great Quotations About Writing June 14, 2014

Posted 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, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
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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.



Sawyer’s Book “Explaining Creativity” Published in Chinese June 3, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.

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!

Explaining Creativity, Chinese cover

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.

Creativity = Expertise? Discuss… June 1, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Case Studies.
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Toward the end of an interview with the groundbreaking chef Ferran Adria, TIME reporter Belinda Luscombe says:

You talk a lot about creativity, but you actually seem to be emphasizing expertise. Which is more important?

Adria, the chef who created El Bulli, considered the best restaurant in the world, answered:

If I understand what I’m doing, I can create better. You can be anarchic only if you understand what’s going on. If you don’t, you’re not going to have a long life span within that world. Creativity, if you’re at the top level, is brutal and relentless.

This resonated with me, because I often get the same reaction when I give talks about my interviews with professional working artists: Someone in my audience will always say, “I’m not sure they are really talking about creativity” because what artists really talk about is learning about other ideas and works, mastering new techniques, and the hard slog of generating good work.

Innovation in Mathematics (It’s Not About the Lone Genius) May 31, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Case Studies.
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Dr. Jordan Ellenberg, a child prodigy and now a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, challenges “The cult of the child genius” in the Wall Street Journal:

There is a myth that progress in mathematics is driven by the cognitive one percent of one percenters, marked at birth, who blaze a path for the rest of humanity to trot along. But in the real world, math is a communal enterprise. Each advance is the product of a huge network of minds working toward a common purpose, even if we accord special honor to the person who sets the final stone in the arch. As Mark Twain said, “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph…and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.”

Dr. Ellenberg might have been reading my book Group Genius; in that book I show that Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph in a brilliant burst of inspiration, but how instead it emerged from collaboration. The real stories of innovation are always collaborative and distributed. Ellenberg continues:

Terry Tao, a UCLA professor and a winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honor a young mathematician can achieve, once wrote: “I find the reality of mathematical research today–in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck–to be far more satisfying that the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of ‘geniuses.'”

This is the reality of creativity and innovation in all of the arts and sciences, and that’s why we the real story is always one of group genius, not lone genius.


Lemelson Foundation Invention Education Workshop May 20, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, Enhancing creativity.

I’ve just spent two days in Washington, DC, with a group of 50 thought leaders working on ways to help our students learn to be more creative, inventive, and innovative. The event is hosted by the Lemelson Foundation, and here’s their mission:

The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.

The 50 people gathered here include:

  • nonprofit foundations who are funding creativity education (Paul Allen foundation, Henry Ford foundation, Lemelson Foundation)
  • Educators doing invention education, like the Lemelson-MIT “InvenTeams” high school program
  • Successful inventors
  • Scholars who study creativity and innovation (that’s me)

As I head off to the airport, here are my initial impressions.

  • Most of the participants want to do invention education through schools. But the most successful invention education programs are after school programs, summer enrichment programs, and science center programs. What makes it so difficult to implement invention education in a traditional school environment?
  • Most of the participants associate invention education with science and engineering. But we need creativity and invention in all disciplines, including policy, arts, social innovation, international affairs, economics, business processes…I wish there had been more discussion of this broader conception of invention.
  • I worry that “invention education” overly focuses on an outdated myth of the solitary lone genius. But research shows that creativity and innovation today always emerge from group dynamics, conversation, social networks, and collaboration. How can we re-envision invention education to avoid the traditional connotations of the solitary lone genius?

I’m really happy that the Lemelson Foundation has dedicated their substantial resources to this important national issue: enhancing the creative potential of everyone. I’ve been inspired by these two days, surrounded by smart people who care about creativity and education.


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