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Great New Book: The Business of Creativity January 19, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in New research, Organizational innovation, Uncategorized.
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I just love this new book by Professor Brian Moeran of Copenhagen Business School. Professor Moeran is a business anthropologist, which means he goes into real companies and watches what real creators do. And just as I’ve found in my research, when you study closely the reality of creative work, you quickly get disabused of a lot of creativity myths. Myths like the belief that creativity results from a solitary person having a flash of insight (when really it emerges from groups and teams); or, myths like the belief that creativity is all about having an idea, when in fact creativity is about engaging in the hard work of making and doing.

In this new book, The Business of Creativity: Toward an Anthropology of Worth, Moeran brings together many different anthropological studies of creative workplaces. After reading this book, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the reality of creativity and innovation, and you’ll never believe in those creativity myths again. I loved the book so much, that I agreed to write one of the back cover endorsements, and here’s what I wrote for the publisher after I read a pre-release draft:

This brilliant book is filled with profound insights on every page. Moeran’s book is a window into the creative process; he convincingly shows that creativity is embedded in cultural practices and collaborative relationships. His ethnographic studies, mostly in Japan but also in Denmark, reveal that creativity emerges from collaborative improvisations, unpredictable but always grounded in conventions, norms, and cultures. If you are interested in creativity, innovation, and the role of creative work in today’s economy, you absolutely must read this book.

When I received my copy of the book last week, I saw the other back-cover endorsement, by one of my scholarly heroes, Howard S. Becker (author of the seminal book Art Worlds):

Brian Moeran’s deep, detailed investigations of a sparkling variety of work situations lead him to an understanding of creativity, solidly based on close observations of people at work, that anchors this field, so often mired in vague talk, in the real world of potters, fashion magazines, perfumers, and other workers who are on creativity’s front line.

Amen. And by the way, if you haven’t read Becker’s book Art Worlds, stop everything you’re doing and buy it right now.

I should probably add that Moeran’s book is not written in the accessible, trade press style you would associate with someone like Malcolm Gladwell; this is a scholarly book, and it will take some effort and energy to read, especially if you are not a scholar or professor. But the effort will be worth it.

How the Beatles are Like Duke Ellington January 17, 2014

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What two musical groups could be more different, right? Duke Ellington’s big band jazz from the 1940s, and the English group that made rock and roll famous. Writer Adam Gopnik* finds a common thread that he calls “the mystery of modern creativity.” Gopnik’s article is a book review of two books: an Ellington biography by Terry Teachout called Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, and Mark Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Tune In. About Ellington, he writes:

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school….He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

This is exactly the argument I make in my own writings on creativity, grounded in creativity research. Gopnik is attacking what I call “the Western cultural model of creativity” (in my 2012 book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation). Right on!

Decades ago, editor William Shawn (of The New Yorker magazine, where Gopnik’s joint review was published) wrote:

You can’t talk about the Beatles without mentioning the transcendent Duke Ellington…Like Ellington, they’re unclassifiable musicians.”

In reviewing Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Gopnik gives one of the biggest complements a book reviewer can ever give an author: “Lewisohn manages to fill in blanks that no one knew were empty.” This reminds me of the famous quotation attributed to the philosopher Schopenhauer:  “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” So why does Gopnik review these two books together?

If one thing stands out as the source of the Beatles’ originality, it is the theft of improbable parts, the sheer range of their stealing.

And then:

A Beatles-Duke playlist, folded together, has a common quality (which took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have), and that is excitement. Go from “Please, Please Me” to “Take the A Train,” and you hear the shared fervor of musicians not just making a new sound but listening to themselves as they do. It’s the sound of self-discovery.

In the end, I’m not really convinced that Gopnik makes the case that Ellington and the Beatles are essentially similar. His article is subtitled “The mysteries of modern creativity” and it doesn’t quite live up to that ambition. Honestly, I think Gopnik just really liked these two books and couldn’t decide which one to review, so he came up with a way to do both. In the end, Gopnik is doing what he says these bands did: He’s working it through on the page, thinking out loud, trying to figure out what he means, how his intuition plays out. It’s a fascinating read, even if he doesn’t quite get all the way there.

*Gopnik, “A critic at large: Two bands.” The New Yorker, December 23 and 30, 2013, pp. 121-126.

Entrepreneurs and Con Artists January 17, 2014

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Jim Surowiecki’s weekly economics column points out that entrepreneurs use the same skills as hucksters:

Entrepreneurs have skills that are very much like those of con men. To raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imagined future–a dream.

Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism; like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism.

Surowiecki’s top example? Steve Jobs and his famed “reality distortion field”:

Job’s endless rehearsals for his public presentations and his scripting of every moment for maximum effect–these are all straight from the con artist’s playbook. So, too, is the sense of conviction he projected.

Of course, con artists know that the fantasies they’re selling are lies, whereas entrepreneurs really believe in them. And in many cases, entrepreneurs actually deliver, and investors make money. Still, it’s a fascinating article, and it shows why Surowiecki is still doing the New Yorker weekly column after many years–because he’s an insightful and brilliant writer.

*Surowiecki, January 13, 2014. “The Financial Page: Do the Hustle”. The New Yorker, Page 21.

Can Technology Change What Music Gets Produced? December 24, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.
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In the old days, when people bought music on CDs, the music industry was focused on making sure a new album had a big opening weekend–kind of like a Hollywood movie. They would make sure the album’s songs were on the radio and on MTV. They would put ads on highway billboards. Maybe you heard the album’s “single” on the radio, and thought it was pretty cool, and then you decided to buy the CD. That happened to me many times back in the 1980s. And for some of those CDs, I got tired of them pretty quickly and I just left them on the shelf. But the music company didn’t care how much I played the CD; they already had my money.

The Internet has changed the music business dramatically. For years now, people have been buying digital downloads of single songs for 99 cents, instead of entire albums. And today, people aren’t even buying the digital download–they’re just renting access to song libraries for a fixed monthly fee. When you sign up for Spotify, each time you listen to a song Spotify pays the record label a fraction of a cent. How could the record label ever make as much money as if you paid 99 cents for the song download? To break even, you’d have to listen to the same song at least 99 times plus.

In a recent study by the Wall Street Journal, data showed that one major record company makes more per year, on average, from paying customers of streaming services (like Spotify) than from the average customer who buys downloads or CDs. How could that be, when almost no one is going to listen to the same song 100 times? Well, think about your life over the last five or ten years. For your most favorite songs, you probably listened to them a lot. And the data shows that’s true. In the Wall Street Journal study, it took 34 months for (anonymous) one indie rock album to make more money from streaming than from sales. Another album, by a male rapper, broke even in four months. And what happens after the breakeven point? People keep streaming their favorite songs, and revenue continues to climb. But album sales only keep going down.

The biggest exception was with pop acts, which tend to rely on lots of advance marketing and get almost all of their sales in the early days. Under the new streaming model, those acts almost all lose money–because they don’t have the kind of staying power where listeners keep listening to them for years. The study concludes that the nature of musical creativity will change:

The lesson for record companies and artists appears to be: making disposable hits may once have been a viable business, but new technology could demand tunes built to last.

On this day, Christmas Eve, I can’t help but think that Christmas songs will do well in the new model, because people listen to them over and over again, year after year.

Magnetic Poetry Creativity October 26, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Uncategorized.

I just opened my new box of Magnetic Poetry–those tiny refrigerator magnets, each with one word, that you can string together on your fridge when the creative urge strikes you. This isn’t the original set; it’s a new collection of words titled the “Creativity Kit.”

First, you have to peel the words apart; they come in sheets, each with between 10 and 20 words loosely connected together. But I don’t want to separate the words that were printed together (presumably at random) on this sheet:




WITHOUT FEAR                   SAUSAGE

TOO MUCH          SURE          REALITY


I can’t top that poem!

The Secret of San Francisco’s Entrepreneurial Success October 20, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, Regional innovation, Uncategorized.
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I’ve been reading and re-reading an awesome article about San Francisco’s entrepreneurial culture, by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine.* Heller spent some time shadowing Johnny Hwin, an entrepreneur and musician who he calls “one of the best-connected kids in San Francisco.” Heller’s article is driven by a puzzle he can’t figure out:

Hwin is “a collective kid who, for reasons I still didn’t understand, seemed to have mastered everything about the new Bay Area and how it worked….I didn’t understand how people like Hwin appeared to float above the exigencies of career….If I hoped to understand the first thing about American culture in this decade, I realized, I’d need to figure out exactly what was going on in San Francisco.”

Heller’s article is long and brilliantly written. To really get the full sense of what he learned, you really need to read the full article. But here I’ve excerpted some highlights:

The art and technology collective called the Sub…is part of a network of places where the new mode of American success is being borne out…..a blend of business and small-scale creative art.

Hwin has been working as a musician, a tech entrepreneur, and an investor in other people’s startups. His two-person band, Cathedrals, just released a debut single and is producing an album. He and a friend are managing investments of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in private companies.

People who are young and urban and professionally diffuse [the three business card life] tend to regard success in terms of autonomy–designing your life as you want–rather than Napoleonic domination.

San Francisco’s young entrepreneurs appear less concerned about flaunting their earnings than about showing that they can act imaginatively, with conspicuously noble ethics. Hwin is into “creative, mindful living” in part because it helped his business interests.

In the second half of the article, Heller picks up on this theme of “business interests” blending with creative and mindful living, and begins to delve down into the underlying core of the culture:

In 1966, Hendrik Hertsberg wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism” of the Hippies and the Beats. The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on lifestyle over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts–only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

But Heller’s article ends on a critical note:

The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams–and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise…. I just sat there, wondering whether this was it, the kingdom of which we so wildly, and so effortlessly, dreamed.

I am not sure I agree with Heller’s critical tone. I know many of these people, and they believe there is no contradiction in doing good and doing well. I myself am a former hippie, Grateful Deadhead, Rainbow-gathering attendee, and now I’m advising corporations on innovation, and creating a university program in educational entrepreneurship…and I don’t see any contradiction. It’s not like the Yuppies of the 1980s, who were former hippies who worried they were selling out by wearing suits and selling junk bonds. Hwin doesn’t worry about selling out, because he is pure; it’s never crossed his mind. Heller’s article, although wonderful, seems like an early thought piece…like Heller is still mulling it over, still not sure what to make of this new cultural moment. Maybe none of us really are. There are strong parallels with David Brooks’ 2001 book Bobos in Paradise, referring to the “bohemian bourgeois,” the former hippies who became affluent and yet retained the same values. Heller certainly made me see things, and wonder about things, I hadn’t before. I hope Heller continues and turns this into a series of extended articles about entrepreneurship and modern America.

*Nathan Heller (2013, October 14). “Bay Watched.” The New Yorker Magazine, pp. 68-79.

For MOOCs to Work, We Need to Talk October 17, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, Uncategorized.
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Online courses have proven they can attract thousands of students, but then almost all of them drop out before finishing the course. Well, guess what? Sitting at home alone and staring at a pre-recording lecture is just about the most boring thing ever, as Geoffrey Fowler writes in a Wall Street Journal article published on October 9, 2013. Learning scientists have known this for years: we have decades of research showing that engagement and social interaction result in more effective learning.* Fowler reports that MOOC developers are re-discovering the same thing:

“The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is
interpersonal interaction and support,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant
director of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. She has
compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college
students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In
Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses,
compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.

Learning scientists have also known for decades that getting students to talk to each other, while they are learning, results in better learning.* MOOC developers are re-discovering this solid finding, as well:

One way to provide personal interaction at mass scale is to get students talking to each other. Several studies suggest that many students who spend more time contributing to course discussion forums end up performing better. More than answering specific questions, the boards send a message, says Mr. Ng [a co-founder of Coursera]: “You are not alone.”

A study of the online-only version of edX’s course Circuits and Electronics offered in the spring and summer of 2012 found a mild correlation between the number of posts people made in the discussion forum and their final grades. Some 52% of the students who earned a certificate for the course were active in discussion forums, according to the study by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at Harvard.

I’ve been arguing that educational technology developers need to work more closely with learning scientists, so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel. (And even worse, reinventing the wheel after they spend millions of dollars first trying ineffective shapes like squares and triangles.) In the new master’s degree program I’m creating at the University of North Carolina–in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–we’re going to make sure students get a solid grounding in the learning sciences. That way, ed tech innovations will be much more likely to result in solid learning outcomes.

*Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

Teaching Day at George Washington University October 4, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, Uncategorized.
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Today I was the second invited keynote speaker at GWU’s annual Teaching Day. The first keynote speaker was the legendary psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, famous for his studies of expertise and the finding that it generally takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to attain a world-class level of expertise (discussed in many books, but most famously in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers).

WP_20131004_003Professor Ericsson’s talk was fascinating, and deeply grounded in his research. He has studied a wide range of experts, from chess players to ice skaters, to violinists and pianists, to medical doctors, to school teachers…on and on. And no matter what type of expertise he studies, he finds that there is essentially NO evidence that talent is innate–no evidence that people become experts because they have a natural ability in the area. Instead, what he finds repeatedly is that anyone can attain world-class expertise if they invest the time. The reason why most people do not become experts, according to Professor Ericsson, is that it takes a LOT of time and effort to attain expert level performance. The type of practice that gets you there–”deliberate practice”–is effortful and demanding. It involves a lot of failure, which means you have to have a strong desire and keep going through the 10,000 hours of failure and intense effort.

In fact Ericsson’s research is consistent with the creativity research. Creativity researchers have found that every exceptional creator has invested the 10,000 hours of hard work and deliberate practice. The world’s top creators don’t just stumble into great ideas; they invest the time and they pay their dues. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts to creativity, no shortcuts to expert performance. The good news is that high levels of performance are accessible to all of us, if only we invest the time and effort.

WP_20131004_004GWU asked me to talk about “The schools of the future: Educating for creativity.” We now know a lot about how to teach in ways that foster creative learning outcomes. And it turns out that teaching for creativity is the exact opposite of what goes on in many university classrooms: big lectures where professors deliver information to students, who are expected to absorb the information, take notes and study them later, and then prove they’ve absorbed it by taking an exam. I call this uncreative style of teaching “instructionism”. In contrast, to develop creative graduates, we need to engage students in active learning, where they are working on a complex, real-world problem, designed by the instructor so that as they solve the problem, they learn the required disciplinary content knowledge. It works even better if the students work in teams, and if they develop visible products along the way. That way, they can receive frequent constructive advice and critique from the instructor and from their fellow students.

After my talk, I spoke with several different professors at GWU. I learned that many of them have developed research-based teaching strategies aligned with these learning sciences principles. In particular, GWU professors are using “learning assistants” and group project-based learning–in physics classes, and in biology classes. And they’ve documented impressive gains in student learning compared to the traditional lecture. I’m not surprised; researchers have found this over and over again (if you’re not convinced, Google “Carl Wieman Nobel Prize in physics” or “Peer led team learning”).

At the morning’s breakfast meeting about “The future of the university” we talked about the new possibilities opened up by the Internet, for example the possibility that physical campuses will go away, to be replaced by Internet-based lectures and exams. To date, too few of these new technologies are grounded in learning sciences research. I’m leading a new program at the University of North Carolina, with the goal of grounding ed tech innovations in the learning sciences. That’s the best way to help our students learn most effectively. I don’t know how the Internet will transform schooling. But I will make one prediction: One hundred years from now, no one will be lecturing any more.

Messy Desks Make People Creative September 23, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in New research, Uncategorized.
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Everyone that I know who has a messy desk claims that it’s a sign of creativity. I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical…it just sounds like a convenient excuse. Well, if you need an excuse for your messy desk, you will love this new scientific study from the University of Minnesota*, because it finds that a cluttered office made experimental subjects more creativity.

The researchers created two offices to use in the first experiment. One was extremely tidy and organized, and the other was unusually cluttered. (If you can get access to the online article, the photos of the offices are fascinating. The orderly office looks like no one works in there, like a furniture showroom. The disorderly office looks like every office I’ve ever seen, including my own.) Then, undergraduate students were randomly assigned to spend about ten minutes in one of the two fake offices. They sat at a desk and filled out questionnaires that were unrelated to the study. After ten minutes, they were told they could leave, and they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar. The students who sat in the clean and tidy office were twice as likely to choose the apple! They also chose to donate more money.

So the researchers kept going, and decided to evaluate creativity. The students randomly were assigned to work in one of two conference rooms, but instead of filling out a questionnaire, they were asked to come up with new uses for Ping-Pong balls. (The photos here are hilarious–the messy conference room has papers scattered on the floor, and every square inch of table space is covered with random papers.) All of the ideas were judged by two independent raters for their creativity. The students in the messy offices generated more creative ideas.

One final test, adults were brought in to work at one of two desk spaces. (Again the photos are really funny. The disorderly space has about 20 pens and pencils lying on the floor, among other messy things.) The participants were given a choice of adding a healthy boost to their lunchtime smoothie, either the “classic” or the “new”. Those who had spent time in the messy space were much more likely to choose the “new” one. The researchers argued that this means the disorderly environment led people to break free from tradition, to be more open to new things. (On the other hand, it could lead you to eat way too many chocolate bars!)

Surely some of these participants must have wondered why the researchers were such slobs? Or, did they blame the subject who was in the room just before them? Maybe just trying to come up with an explanation for such a messy space is enough to stimulate creative juices.

*Vohs et al., 2013. Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867.

Spatial Ability and Creativity September 23, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in New research, Uncategorized.
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In the late 1970s, the psychologists Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski identified a highly talented group of 563 13-year-olds; all of them scored in the top one-half of one percent on the SAT. This study is known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). These teenagers were given a broad range of psychometric tests, and one of those was a test of spatial ability. Benbow and Lubinski have stayed in touch with these highly talented individuals, who are now in their late 40s, to see which of the tests–given to the teenagers–could predict various adult life outcomes.

In a recent scientific article*, Benbow and Lubinski, along with two other Vanderbilt University researchers, looked at the creativity of these 40-something adults. They classified the person as creative if they had obtained a patent, or if they had published a refereed journal article. The journal article publishers were grouped into three categories: arts humanities and social sciences; biology and medicine; and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Those who published journal articles scored better than the other 13-year-olds on the SAT verbal measure; those who had patents scored below the group’s average SAT verbal.

Those who published in the arts and humanities had scored below the 13-year-old average on SAT math measures; the other published authors, and the patent holders, scored higher than the group’s average on SAT math.

And here’s the really interesting finding: Overall, the SAT math and verbal scores accounted for 10.8 percent of the variance in adult creativity. When spatial ability was added to the mix, it accounted for an additional 7.6% of the variance in adult creativity, above and beyond what the SAT score accounted for.

The take-home message is that spatial ability contributes to adult creativity, even after you take into account a relatively standard measure of human ability, the SAT. This means that standard measures of ability and intelligence might be missing some people with exceptional spatial ability, and those people seem to have elevated creative potential. The authors conclude:

Without spatial ability, the psychological architecture supporting creative thought and innovative production is incomplete.

Kell et al., 2013. Creativity and technical innovation: Spatial ability’s unique role. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1831-1836.


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