Creativity and Challenge

New research from the University of Amsterdam* shows that when people encounter an obstacle, it causes them to stop using routine, automatic thought, and to step back and adopt a more global, big picture approach, to try to figure out a way around the obstacle. That might not be so surprising; but the researchers also found two related results that are really fascinating.

First, the mind’s shift to a big picture approach lingered even after the problem was done. Here’s the experiment: Participants were given a maze to solve, and for half of them, the most obvious path through the maze was blocked. After finishing the maze, both groups were given 10 Remote Associates Test (RAT) triplets to solve–a traditional measure of creative ability. The people who had the blocked maze solved, on average, 4.75 of the triplets; the people whose maze was not blocked solved only 2.83!

This study is consistent with my own interviews with artists and arts educators, who say that students learn much more effectively when the teacher introduces constraints, and designs tasks so that students will have difficulty, thus forcing them out of their usual way of thinking. 

The second finding is that the first finding only holds true for people who are “low in volatility,” and not for people who are “high in volatility.” High volatility people are “inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities” whereas the low volatility people are more likely to stick with it and finish. So basically, you don’t get any benefit from the obstacle if you’re one of the high volatility people. If you’ve read this far in my blog post, I’m guessing you are low volatility!

*Marguc et al., 2011, Stepping back to see the big picture: When obstacles elicit global processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 5, pp. 883-901.

Hard Work Plus Talent Equals Creativity

I’ve often cited the research of Professor Anders Ericsson, showing that world-class expertise only emerges after you invest 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.” Ericsson’s research is consistent with a well-known finding of creativity research: “The ten year rule,” the observation that major creative contributions generally don’t happen until a person has been working in an area for at least ten years. (If you do the math, ten years comes out to about 10,000 hours.) Ericsson studied a wide range of expertise–chess players, musicians, and others. In one of his more famous studies, he analyzed how many total hours violin students at a top music conservatory had rehearsed over their lifetimes. The number of hours rehearsed correlated highly with ratings by conservatory faculty.

Many authors have latched onto these findings; they align with the meritocratic American belief that anyone can be exceptional. All you need is hard work and stick-to-it-ivness. The 10,000 hour finding has been repeated in books by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, David Brooks’ The Social Animal, and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

It’s absolutely true that you don’t get to a world class level without 10,000 hours. But I’ve always thought the research has been misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean that anyone can spend 10,000 hours and be famous; after all, the violin players that Ericsson studied were a carefully selected group. They had self-selected by choosing to invest years of their childhoods practicing violin. They had been admitted to a highly selective conservatory. Ericsson’s research actually has a more subtle meaning: among all of those people who display some talent or gift, what distinguishes the top people is hours of practice.

I just read an article in the latest Sunday New York Times that describes research by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They’ve dedicated their careers to tracking more than 2,000 people who scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. And their research doesn’t support the “effort is all you need” position. Instead, they found that intellectual ability at age 12 was a surprisingly good predictor of educational and occupational accomplishments twenty years later. For example, those who were in the 99.9 percentile outperformed those in the 99.1 percentile, fairly dramatically: they were between three and five times more likely to earn a doctorate, to get a patent, to publish in a scientific journal, to publish a literary work.

Many people find this depressing. It’s not even good enough to be in the top 99 percent! You have to be in the top 99.9 percent to reach the top of your profession! And mathematically, that’s only 1 out of 1,000 people. It’s no wonder that these studies don’t make it into the newspaper, and instead “hard work is all you need” is the message we hear.

The NYTimes article citing this research* was by two professors of psychology who studied expertise in pianists; they found that Ericsson was partly right: hours of practice are a good predictor of ability. The total amount of practice over a career predicted half of the differences in performance quality. But in addition, raw intelligence also predicts ability: Working memory (a core component of intelligence) predicted about seven percent of the difference in ability. In other words, even among pianists with the same number of hours of practice, there are differences in ability that are predicted by an intelligence measure.

Actually, I don’t find this depressing at all. After all, this is common sense, right? We all know that there are early differences in ability and propensity for talent. You can’t necessarily be whatever you want to be. I personally have no drawing ability whatsoever; I’m sure that even with 10,000 hours of drawing, I would still suck. When my sister and I were young, she took to painting like a natural, and I failed miserably. But I took to the piano like crazy, whereas she stopped after a year.

And we all know that success in life takes a lot of hard work. That’s why Ericsson’s findings are important: they demolish the myth of the “natural born artist,” the myth that some people are just born creative and they succeed because they have a gift. Yes, the do have a gift, but we would never find out about it if they didn’t invest long, hard hours of work.

The lesson is to choose an endeavor where you start out with some natural talent, and then to move forward and invest the necessary hours. Again, common sense: your parents probably told you that long ago.

*David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz, “Sorry Strivers: Talent Matters,” New York Times Sunday November 20, 2011, p. SR12.

Creativity World Forum, Day 2

The speakers today were just as awesome as the first day. The morning began with Scott Belsky, who gave an excellent keynote talk based on his book Making Ideas Happen. His book and his company,, help creative professionals to realize their ideas. My spot on the first day, the after-lunch keynote, was today filled by Garr Reynolds, one of the most famous critics of Powerpoint presentations in his book Presentation Zen. I got real value out of his presentation, and was scribbling notes about how I could improve my own keynote talks! I followed Garr to the 90-minute workshop that he did afterwards, for 50 lucky people (another 20 or so stood outside the entrance listening).

I heard some wonderful 20-minute talks (basically, the TEDx length) from Pattie Maes of the MIT Media Lab, and Hannah McBain formerly an innovation and change consultant for the BBC. (On the first day, I liked the 20 minute talks by Peter Hinssen and Alexander Osterwalder.)

And of course, Day 2 ended with an on-stage interview with the famous movie writer and director Oliver Stone. I must admit I was a bit skeptical about what he could add to such a high-level conversation about creativity, but he was really quite impressive and his comments and anecdotes were on target, relevant for the audience, and completely consistent with what the other speakers had been saying about the nature of creativity.

Kudos to the organizers at Flanders DC for organizing such a wonderful event!

Creativity World Forum 2011

Poster with Sawyer, Gladwell
Event Poster at Ethias Arena

I’ve just delivered my keynote talk at the Creativity World Forum in Hasselt, Belgium. With over 2,000 people in the stadium, this was one of my largest audiences! The morning keynote was by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, who talked about Web 2.0 and participatory innovation, and the evening keynote was by Malcolm Gladwell, who told several stories about how the first company to create something often is not the company that successfully commercializes the idea. I did the mid-day keynote, right after lunch, and my message was that collaboration is the key to creativity.

The organizers, Flanders DC, did a wonderful job selecting the three of us because all three keynotes reinforced the same message about creativity and innovation: it’s a process over time, that involves many small ideas from a lot of people, that takes unpredictable and surprising paths, and that has many dead ends and failures along the way. It’s a relatively well accepted message these days, of course, but my own contribution is to emphasize the improvisational nature of the process, and how the most successful collaborative groups and companies are the ones that have figured out how to manage improvisation.

After my keynote, I did a special 90-minute workshop for fifty people who had pre-registered, and I focused on specific techniques and exercises, based in psychological research, that help people come up with better ideas. The workshop was great fun–the 50 who made it in were energized and focused on creativity.

Hasselt is known for Jenever, made in these copper kettles

There are people here from all over the world; the 12 worldwide “districts of creativity” are having their annual meeting here (a shout-out to my friends from Creative Oklahoma) and the “Making Creativity Work” international project is also meeting here. I’ve talked to people from Finland, Barcelona, Germany, and Scotland. An incredible event!

Art and Technology

I’ve just returned from the bi-annual “Creativity & Cognition” conference at the High Art Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, hosted by Georgia Tech. The first C&C conference was held in 1996 at Loughborough University in England, and the event has thrived as a showcase for cutting-edge art-technology collaborations (the conference is affiliated with the Association for Computing Machinery or ACM). We got to see cool videos and demos of new technology, and creative performances in the evenings. Here’s a quick sampling of the cool things I saw:

* A creativity support tool that allows each member of a group to digitize their post-it notes, and then to display them on the floor and walls of a special room. As you walk around the room, your own ideas follow you, and you can mingle and exchange these visualized ideas with your collaborators. (see

* Software using Microsoft Kinect (sometimes more than one) that recognizes gestures and dance movements

* A program that uses improvisational theater principles to enhance user interaction (by Brian Magerko)

* A music performance using a new toy/instrument where notes are made by placing colored geometric shapes on a special surface

* Presentations about a new creative toolkit for children that allows them to make “intelligent clothing” (it contains conductive thread and colored LEDs) by Yasmin Kafai and Kylie Pepper

I believe I was the only one there representing my psychology of creativity colleagues; there isn’t much conversation between the psychologists and these computer scientists. But there were researchers there from Europe and Asia as well as the Americas; this is an international effort. In the U.S., a lot of this work has been funded by the NSF’s CreativeIT program.

I recommend that you check out these cutting edge technologies! They might be in your home in five years.

Arts Leaders in Savannah

I’ve just returned from delivering a keynote address at the annual meeting of the National Council of Arts Administrators, hosted by SCAD in Savannah. Actually, I did my first collaborative keynote address…tag teaming interesting stories with Mk Haley, the associate executive producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU and also with a leadership role at Disney’s Imagineering team. The topic of the conference was “PUSH/PULL: The Artistic Engine of Innovation” and  Mk and I talked about the arts as a driver of cultural and societal innovation. Our message was that collaboration is the key to effective arts departments and programs.

Also on the program were some fascinating people, including Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist working in New York and on the faculty at NYU; Dennis Keeley, chair of photography at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and Sally Gaskill, associate director of SNAAP at Indiana University.

As always, it was a joy to return to beautiful Savannah!