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

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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

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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

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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.”)

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

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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.

12 CEO Leadership Tips April 30, 2014

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Everyone moving into a leadership position should closely read these 12 tips, from the experienced CEOs of Northwestern University and Lewis & Clark College. They resonate with all of the other advice I’ve heard (and read) from CEOs over the years:

  1. Think first, talk later. Everything you say will be taken literally.
  2. Talk less, listen more. This is especially true for a new leader brought in from outside.
  3. Show up. Every constituency wants you to be physically in the room on important occasions.
  4. Engage veteran employees. You want them on your side and you’ll learn from them.
  5. Don’t ignore the staff.
  6. Customers want to be consulted. You don’t always have to do what customers want, but you do need to seek their input.
  7. Answer nearly all messages. Sending a reply will save you trouble down the road.
  8. Use the board of trustees or directors. The board is your boss, and if you don’t like that, keep your resume up to date.
  9. Community relations matter. Bad relations with the local community can interfere with everything. Any effort you make will be graciously accepted and rewarded.
  10. Don’t take things personally. Many bad things are going to happen, and you will be blamed for most of them. Most of the attacks have more to do with the attacker than with you. Don’t beat yourself up.
  11. Don’t believe the hype. Hyping short-term success can undermine long-term progress.
  12. Don’t neglect your health. You will be fed constantly at meetings and events. Reserve time to enjoy your life. Act like a president and take control of your schedule.

From Barry Glassner, Lewis & Clark College, and Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University. WSJ April 29, 2014, p. A15.

No More Books, No More Schools…Predicted in 1951 by Isaac Asimov April 28, 2014

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Everyone working in ed tech should read the brilliant short story by Isaac Asimov titled “The Fun They Had.” Here are some excerpts:

On the page headed May 17, 2157, Margie wrote, “Today, Tommy found a real book!”

It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper. They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to–on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.

And then:

“Well, I don’t know what kind of school they had all that time ago.” She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, “Anyway, they had a teacher.”

“Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn’t a regular teacher. It was a man.” “A man? How could a man be a teacher?” “Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.” “A man isn’t smart enough.” “Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.” “He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.” “He knows almost as much, I betcha.” [In their future, the teacher is a computer.]

And later:

She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A cautionary tale for futurists everywhere.

 

 

 

Educational Technology and Venture Capital in Arizona April 24, 2014

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Central networking hub at ASU GSV

I’ve spent the last two days here in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the fifth annual ASU GSV summit, which likes to call itself “Davos in the Desert.” It brings together ed tech entrepreneurs looking for funding, and venture capitalists looking for the next new thing. Quite often, they meet and do deals. Based on my experience here, I would say the organizers have accomplished their goal of “bringing together the world’s most visionary, passionate, and energetic players in the education innovation space”. I’m a bit fuzzier on their mission statement, which is “to become the fulcrum of activity and influence on the current and future states of global education. We’re creating a platform for advancement.” That’s a bit too mission-speak to mean much.

So what really happens here in Scottsdale?

What I saw was a lot of very serious people primarily interested in making money. They are all super-smart, connected, and knowledgeable. Michael Lewis would call them “the smartest guys in the room.” Five years ago the event began as an investor gathering with about 40 venture capitalists. The GSV in the title refers to Global Silicon Valley Advisors, a VC firm playing in the education space. In subsequent years, entrepreneurs followed the money and started to come here to pitch their new venture ideas.

Since taking my new professorship in educational innovation at UNC Chapel Hill in August 2013, I’ve seen a lot of ed tech startups and nonprofits, and I can attest that the organizations pitching here are working at the very highest level. They know their target market, they can tell you their value proposition in their sleep, their founders are connected and experienced. I have no doubt that millions of dollars of deals took place in the last two days. It is wonderful to be surrounded by people who share my mission: to improve education and learning.

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L to R: Dan Greenstein, Andrew Ng, Arthur Levine, Ben Nelson, Nicholas Zeppos

But. As a learning scientist–an expert in the science of how people learn–I was disappointed at how little of what I saw here is grounded in the science of learning. I only saw one presentation that made any reference to this forty-year body of research–by Professor Jim Stigler of UCLA (who has done very important research, and also founded multiple ed tech startups, and worked for Pearson for 4 years during a leave of absence from UCLA). At the many reception events, when I described my own mission at UNC Chapel Hill–to create new programs that will help educational innovators understand how to ground their ideas in the science of learning–a few people got it right away, but many people seemed confused about why they would need to know anything about the science of learning. And these are really smart people. So I’m trying to figure this out: Why wouldn’t educational innovators want to ground their ventures in the science of learning? Why wouldn’t venture capitalists want to be assured that what they’re funding is based on solid science?

Here’s my tentative answer, and I’d be interested to hear what you think in the comments on this post.

  • First: Everyone here is in a big hurry. They want to be first to market, they want to get to Series A, B, and C funding, they want their exit strategy (e.g. selling out to a big corporation like Pearson) to repay their investors. The problem with learning sciences research is that we know it takes time, two to three years minimum, to develop an innovation that works. The entrepreneurs and investors here don’t want to hear that.
  • Second: People here think we don’t need research, because they think markets will naturally work towards the optimal solution. Their belief in markets is so strong that they think markets essentially remove the need for scientific education research. Of course, no one would make this argument when it comes to medical innovations. You don’t start selling a bunch of new heart valves, and then wait to see which people die and which people live, to figure out which heart valve works best. We have a body of research, and a community of researchers, who can tell you that BEFORE you put the heart valve on the market. The analogy with learning sciences research is fairly direct: We have a large body of scientific knowledge that can guide the development of more effective educational innovations. So why wouldn’t you want to know about that BEFORE you go and design an ineffective app or curriculum?
  • Third: Learning sciences researchers largely stay inside the Ivory Tower, and do academic research. They generally don’t know how to commercialize their innovations, and the incentive systems at universities don’t reward that anyway. They don’t have backgrounds in business and they don’t have the skills to create entrepreneurial ventures. There are exceptions, of course, but overall the learning sciences community hasn’t done an effective job of making the case for the value and relevance of this research.
  • Fourth: People in the finance and technology space generally think they are smarter than people who work in education. I can say this because I used to be one of them: My undergrad degree is in computer science, and I worked in two high-tech startups back in the 1980s. We always referred to squishy social scientists as making “hand wavy” arguments (that’s pejorative and means “arguments full of holes with no scientific backing”). But after editing two editions of the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, I can attest that this body of research is solid and rigorous and has powerful implications for how to design educational innovations. Smart people generally are good at paying attention to solid scientific evidence, but I think there’s a cultural blindness among the finance and technology people here that makes them tend to discount education research.

The good news is that lots of people get it right away. Among them are my colleagues, working at several top universities, who are also creating programs for educational leaders, including at Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Southern California. And of course, there’s my own new MA program at UNC in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, to a cross-fertilization of learning sciences research with the innovative energy of the entrepreneurship and VC community. Then we’ll move more quickly toward the goal we all share: to improve education for everyone.

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

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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.

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