A Writer Is…

William Stafford, on “Writing,” has this to say:

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

This quotation appears in a book by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley called The Creative Process, filled with exercises for writers they’ve taken from their own workshop for writers. They go on to write:

The perfect stanza or paragraph does not leap fully formed from the writer’s brain; rather it is the result of much experimentation–tightening and expansion, rewording and reordering, through draft after draft. (p. 6)

The writer might put it this way: I don’t know what I’ve got to say until it’s down on paper, but I can’t start getting it down on paper until I know what I’m going to say. (p. 7)

Keep Creativity Alive in Children

I just stumbled on a fascinating essay about creativity in schools. It could have been written yesterday! Read to the end to find out who the famous author is, and what year it was written:

How can we keep creativity alive in children?

Creative children are likely to be unusual children. They get bored with the idea of Jack’s always going up the hill with Jill. They do not accept things as they are; they do not easily settle down to their lessons as they are given to them.

The good teacher may be genuinely searching for creativity in her pupils. But she is continually defeated in her efforts by the demands of her supervisor, the politics of the local school system, the lack of space, the lack of materials, the lack of assistance, the size of the class. Given these obstacles, she is unprepared to cope with the child who uses his creativity to defeat her. The child who constructs questions that will arouse the boys to raucous laughter, whose raised hand she must therefore distrust; the child who invents secret clubs and ciphers and signals and ceremonies that turn the classroom into something strange and unpredictable.

We fail to see obstructiveness as an aspect of creativity. The teacher cannot risk disrupting the precarious balance of her overcrowded classroom. The best teacher has little time or energy for any kind of creativity, and none for the disruptive sort. But we can remedy these things quite easily and inexpensively. We can build enough schools. We can hire clerks and janitors and guards to take much of the burdensome load off the teacher’s back. We can pay our teachers well enough to keep as teachers all those who really want to teach.

We want people who are original, creative, spontaneous, innovative. But we want them to be produced by teachers whom we condemn in a hundred ways to be overworked and uninspired, unrespected and underpaid. We would like the children of America to be creative, to learn about creativity, while we make the best change they have to learn, to respond to teaching, as uncreative as possible. There is only one sure way to develop creativity in all the different kinds of children in schools. We must cherish the creativity of all those who have elected to become teachers because they want to teach.

If we are to give more than lip service to creativity in children, we must actively support the creativity of the teacher. We must come to recognize fully the creativity of good teaching.

Year: 1962

Author: Anthropologist Margaret Mead, author of the famous book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

This article was published as “Where education fits in” in Think magazine, Nov-Dec 1962, pp. 16-21.

Teaching is an Art (John Dewey)

I’m re-reading John Dewey’s 1934 book Art as experience in connection with an article I’m writing. This passage, near the end (p. 347), jumped out at me:

It is by way of communication that art becomes the incomparable organ of instruction, but the way is so remote from that usually associated with the idea of education, it is a way that lifts art so far above what we are accustomed to think of as instruction, that we are repelled by any suggestion of teaching and learning in connection with art. But our revolt is in fact a reflection upon education that proceeds by methods so literal as to exclude the imagination and one not touching the desires and emotions of men.

In the first 346 pages of his book, Dewey argues that art is an experience that a person has while interacting with an artwork. It is not the object, the work of art; it’s the interactive experience. Great teaching is interactive and improvisational, and when it’s effective, the interaction has the characteristics that Dewey calls “aesthetic experience.”

Videogame Design as Art

I was going through some old files this weekend, and I found a journal I kept while designing videogames for Atari in 1982. My journal ends on December 22, 1982. I’ll never read the whole thing, but I scanned the first and last pages, and here’s the final paragraph on the last page:

Though I can’t speak for all of the designers here, I myself approach game design as a very special, almost sacred art. I treat it, in many ways, as any artist would treat his work. The immediacy, plasticity, and interactiveness of the videogame design medium heightens all of these traditional artist feelings beyond what static art can provide.

It’s a little self-important, I have to admit, but I’m blogging this anyway–because even though it all seems so obvious now, back in 1982 no one took interactivity or videogames seriously–they were just toys. (And note that “interactivity” wasn’t even a thing; I called it “interactiveness” because in 1982, there wasn’t a word for it.)

To Be Creative, Read a Lot

You’ll be more creative if you fill your mind with a variety of information. It helps you make those distant combinations that lead to bigger and more surprising creative ideas.

So I loved reading this new article in Science Magazine, by Julian West, a doctoral student in organic chemistry at Princeton. I’ve excerpted the passages that resonated with me.

I aggressively curate and monitor the notifications I receive about newly published papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if they’re not directly related to my research. Perhaps the biggest question is why I make the effort. The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself for whatever might come along in the lab. My biggest fear is the one that got away, the important discovery that I missed because I couldn’t see it for what it was.

Reading only in my subdiscipline would limit the kinds of connections I can draw.

Time and again, strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a result that had been bugging me for weeks.

My advice: Read widely and voraciously.

One of the key lessons is that it’s not easy. It takes time and effort. It’s easier to stay focused on one thing, to work on what everyone else is working on, to read all of the same articles that your colleagues are reading. But creativity? You’ve got to work at that, to do things your colleagues aren’t.

Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

Fast Company has just published its annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. It’s easy to be skeptical, given that they change the list every year; I’m sure that all 50 companies don’t change their level of innovation every year…but the magazine has to make it newsworthy. Anyway, all fifty companies are definitely innovative!

Here’s what I found most interesting–in  the top 50, a lot of innovation is based in collaboration. The highlights:

  • Facebook’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg says “Creativity’s never been so important.” (ranking: #6)
  • Slack and its collaboration app ranked #23.
  • Glossier (#24) collaborates with customers to create cult cosmetics. (“Collaborating with Customers” is the title of one of my chapters in Group Genius)
  • Adobe (#35) for pushing its creativity suite into the cloud

FYI the number one most innovative company is Amazon.

Group Genius: Today It’s the Accepted Wisdom

In 2007, my business book Group Genius  was one of the first books about collaboration and innovation. Since 2007, a lot more books have been published on that topic, each one affirming the points in my book. That’s because Group Genius  was grounded in scientific research, and that research has stood the test of time.

The March 13 article “In Search of the Perfect Team” in the Wall Street Journal* makes the same recommendations that I did in 2007:

  • “Each member of the team is engaged” (WSJ)–everyone talks and listens about the same. This is in Group Genius, pp. 50-51
  • “There are a diversity of ideas, and everyone is willing to consider new ideas” (WSJ)–In Group Genius, pp. 70-72, also pp. 14-15
  • “Everyone is setting goals for a project” (WSJ)–each person explores something slightly different, but goes in the same direction. This tension is one of the main themes of Group Genius, but it’s most explicit on pp. 44-46.

The WSJ  article connects these themes to new technologies, like Slack, and Google’s data-based approach to team productivity in their People Operations Department. These help drive collaboration; I talk about Slack and also Google’s research in the forthcoming second edition of Group Genius  (coming this May!). But this technology doesn’t change the underlying social dynamics of effective collaboration. Stay grounded in the research, and you’ll stand the test of time.

*2017, May 13, “In search of a perfect team.” Stu Wu, Wall Street Journal, p. R6.