‘Tis the Season for Creativity

Here in the United States, it is our special holiday season when we celebrate Christmas and the New Year. And there is beauty and joy all around. In these last few weeks, I’ve seen an incredible outpouring of everyday creativity:

  • Visiting a local shrine, I toured a room filled with Christmas trees that had each been decorated by a different nonprofit organization. They were being auctioned to raise money for charity. The decorations were exceptionally creative!
  • On YouTube last week, with my 9-year-old son, I discovered an entirely new domain of creativity: Christmas house decorations where the lights are synchronized to a particular popular song. Check out this display, set to the song “Gangnam Style“.
  • My wife and I have received several extremely creative holiday letters, which describe another family’s events, vacations, and successes over the past year. Many of these are produced as “newsletters” with professional-quality layout and design. (Check out this one on Pinterest.)
  • In my local town center of Belleville Illinois, we recently had a Gingerbread House competition. The winners are displayed in storefront windows facing Main Street. Check out this awesome best in show winner.

I love the holiday season, with its wonderful outpouring of human creativity. It demonstrates that each one of us has the potential to make wonderful things. Many of my blog posts are about the famous creators: Jackson Pollock, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs. But I deeply believe that creativity is something that we all share.

This is my holiday wish: May you find joy in the beauty of human creativity, on display everywhere this holiday season. And may you continue to find wonderful creativity in 2013.

In Search of True Painting

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, has just opened a new exhibit of Henri Matisse’s paintings. Titled “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” the show will be open through March 17.

Matisse is known for his sensual subjects and bold use of color. In response to his works at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, one critic called him a “wild beast.” But the overwhelming message from this new show is that Matisse was systematic, repeatedly returning to the same subjects and representing them in different ways each time. In a review of the show, Mary Tompkins Lewis wrote in the Wall Street Journal * that “the seeming spontaneity central to Matisse’s art was carefully wrought from a lifelong habit of working in pairs and in clusters of closely related images…to explore his options, to gauge his progress.” Lewis continues to say the show’s images “argue definitively for the primacy of serial production in his art…an intensely analytical practice…cautious deliberations.”

Words like these are the complete opposite of our mythical view of Impressionist painters–who supposedly painted in a burst of inspiration in an attempt to represent a fleeting visual “impression” that was untainted by conscious reflection. The same mythical view affects our perceptions of so many painters–see my post from two weeks ago on the American painter Jackson Pollock, who is now known to have used a time-consuming and deliberate process to generate paintings that only appear to be improvised.

The show reveals that Matisse worked on some of his paintings for as long as ten years, and calls them “endlessly reworked canvases”. The show has a couple of rooms devoted to the later period of Matisse’s career, when he hired photographers to come into his studio and document the successive stages that led to each work. In other words, he was proud of “the methodical calculations” that led to the final work.

It’s stories like these that caused me to title my next book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…because the creative path is always a long and winding road. (To be published in late March, 2013…subscribe to my blog to learn more!)

*Mary Tompkins Lewis (2012). The Relentless Reviser. The Wall Street Journal Tuesday December 18, 2012, p. D5.

Caine’s Arcade

One of my creativity students told me about this awesome video:

Caine’s Arcade

It’s a short documentary about Caine, a 9-year-old boy who built a room-sized “arcade” out of used cardboard boxes, in his dad’s storefront shop in Los Angeles. And, there’s a second short video about how Caine’s Arcade went viral, raising almost $250,000 for his college fund.

You really should take the time to watch it! It made me cry.

Nature Nurtures Creativity After Four Days of Hiking

I just read about a fascinating new study* that examined 56 people who went on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. Of the 56 people, 24 took a creativity test before they left for the trip. The other 32 took the test out in the wilderness, on the fourth day of the trip…after four days disconnected from the grid. These 32 people scored 50% higher on the creativity test than the 24 people who hadn’t yet started their trip! The intriguing implication is that those four days enhanced creativity.

The test they used was the Remote Associates Test (RAT). The way it works is that you’re given three words, and your task is to identify a fourth “target word” that is related to all three of those words. For example, an answer to SAME/TENNIS/HEAD would be MATCH (because a match is the same, tennis match, and match head). The test was designed back in the 1960s by Professor Sarnoff Mednick. Mednick designed each triplet so that all three words are related to the target word in a different way; so, to solve the task, your mind has to activate very different conceptual clusters. Hence the name “remote associates.” Mednick argued that people who were better at making these remote associations would be more likely to come up with surprising new ideas.

The test was not timed; you could take as long as you wanted. After four days in the wilderness, the average score was 6.08 triplets (out of ten) were solved. The people who hadn’t left yet scored an average of 4.14 out of ten. That’s a pretty big difference! Kudos to the researchers for getting such strong findings.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet (as the researchers point out).

  1. We don’t know if the higher scores are due to spending time in nature, or are due to simply getting away from work and electronic devices, and taking time off. Psychologists have known for years that vacation enhances creativity, that idle time is a necessary part of the creative process, and that people who work all the time are not going to be at their peak creative potential.
  2. Because the test wasn’t timed, it could be that the people who hadn’t left yet were impatient and were rushing to get everything ready, while the people who took the test out in the wilderness had a lot more time on their hands. Maybe the effects are simply due to the in-hike group spending more time on the test.
  3. The RAT correlates very highly with measures of verbal intelligence, suggesting that it may be more of a verbal skills test than a creativity test per se. (The researchers controlled for age, because older people have higher verbal abilities.)
  4. The RAT requires a person to identify the one correct answer, whereas in many cases, creativity is associated with being able to come up with a broad variety of different answers–what’s known as divergent thinking.
  5. In a large percentage of historical cases, creative insights result from associations of closely related material, not from extremely remote associations. So remote association is clearly not the same thing as creativity, although it seems to be related.

You can learn more about the research behind these points on pages 44 to 46 of Explaining Creativity.

*Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474


How To Be a Polymath

Many successful creators are polymaths: people who seek knowledge relentlessly, who teach themselves a broad range of odd things. The successful venture capitalist Paul Maeda noted that entrepreneurs have a common trait: they all keep educating themselves. For example, John Mackay, founder of Whole Foods, reads a new book every week.

One of my most popular posts, from 2011, summarized a 2009 article in Intelligent Life suggesting that today’s world is too complicated for anyone to be a polymath. Back in the 1700s, a smart person could actually learn just about everything humanity had ever discovered, whereas today, there is simply too much knowledge out there. In a way, that’s true. But there are still polymaths out there, and their thirst for diverse knowledge leads to greater creativity. And you can do it, too.

In 2012, The New York Times reported on a UCLA student, Jeremy Gleick, who has a unique habit: every day he finds time for a “learning hour”—one hour devoted to learning something new. In 2012, he passed his 1,000th hour of self-study, most of it done online.

Gleick has logged every hour of learning in a spreadsheet. The topics range over the breadth of human knowledge: Seventeen hours total on art history; 39 on the Civil War; 14 on weaponry; 41 hours on hypnosis. He’s also learned juggling, glass blowing, banjo, and mandolin. He is, unabashedly, a “dilettante”—defined as a dabbler, an amateur, a nonprofessional. And he says he has yet to find a subject that isn’t at least somewhat interesting to him.

Jeremy Gleick’s Favorite One-Hour Learning Topics:

Humanities (354 total hours):

  • “Papyrus of Ani” Book of the Dead (Internet Sacred Text Archive)
  • “Jazz Insights” audio series with Gordon Vernick of Georgia State (WMLB 1690 AM)
  • “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” audio podcast by Peter Adamson of King’s College London (iTunes U)

Science (254 total hours):

  • A Brief History of Time, 1998 book by physicist Stephen Hawking
  • “Introduction to Psychology” audio lectures by Jeremy Wolfe (MIT OpenCourseWare)
  • “What Technology Wants” lecture by Kevin Kelly (Fora.tv)

Skills (423 total hours):

  • Blacksmithing class, The Crucible arts center, Oakland, CA
  • “The Street Hypnotist’s Handbook” steps to hypnosis by Nathan Thomas (keystothemind.com)
  • ASLPro online dictionary, American Sign Language
  • Card trick tutorials, videos (Expert Village channel, YouTube)

As I write in my forthcoming book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity (coming in March, 2013):

Learning is a lifelong scavenger hunt. The wonderful beauty of the creative life is that no authentic, thoughtful experience, no new glimmer of knowledge, is ever wasted.

The Myth of Artistic Inspiration

pollock Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter, seems to represent the pinnacle of pure creative inspiration. In the Hollywood movie based on his life, we see Pollock painting in bursts of inspiration, almost like an improvisational dancer.

The movie portrays Pollock as severely neurotic and alcoholic. Pollock is the perfect image of the Romantic creative figure–uncontrolled inspiration, welling up from the unconscious mind, causing both neurosis and genius.

But art experts know that this is mostly a myth. Just the opposite: Pollock carefully planned his works and revised them repeatedly. And it’s not as if this is a secret; as long ago as 1961, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (perhaps Pollock’s biggest fan) wrote:

Pollock learned to control flung and dripped paint almost as well as he could a brush; if accidents played any part, they were happy accidents, selected accidents, as with any painter.

Pollock Mural 1943In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, we see a large image of Pollock’s famous masterpiece “Mural,” at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with a group of experts analyzing “nearly microscopic bits of paint from the canvas to probe its secrets”. Right away, they discovered that some of the paint had dried before new layers were applied. They conclude that it’s “unlikely that the entire work was painted in one manic all-nighter,” confirming what Clement Greenberg already knew long ago.

You’ve probably heard lots of stories about famous creators who supposedly created an entire work in a fit of inspiration, generating something so perfect that they never modified it. Mozart is said to have composed in bursts of inspiration (you can see it in the movie Amadeus); the Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge has the same reputation. And guess what? These stories are just as false as the myths about Jackson Pollock.

  • Music historians have known since the 1960s that “Mozart’s creative process was controlled by a consistently practical approach to the business aspects of music” and that “his manuscripts show evidence of careful editing, revision, and hard work” (Explaining Creativity page 339).
  • Coleridge experts have known since the 1920s that he fabricated his own stories about writing poems in a fit of inspiration. The famous poem “Kubla Khan,” for example–which Coleridge claims to have written in a drug-induced haze–went through many revisions that still exist. Among his Romantic-era colleagues, Coleridge was so famous for making up false stories about inspiration, they would often tease him about it (Explaining Creativity page 322).

No great work ever emerges fully formed from the mind. People become known as “exceptional creators” not because of the power of their inspiration, but because of the intensity and dedication of their work process; because of their ability to stay focused through multiple revisions; and because of their ability to negotiate a zigzag path from the first glimmer of an idea to the final full-fledged work.

*Greenberg, 1961/1996, “The Jackson Pollock market soars,” The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 1961 issue; reprinted 1996, April 14, p. 116.

Also see Explaining Creativity, 2012, p. 305.