The Creative Process Behind “And Every Single One Was Someone”

This Sunday’s New York Times tells the creative story behind a fascinating new book called And Every Single One Was Someone. Here’s how the Times article* begins:

The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed six million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a kind of coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and a thought provoker.

The author, Phil Chernofsky, says:

Get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a “Jew.” That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state.

The creative process behind this innovative book, like all creativity, was not grounded in a brilliant flash of insight. Instead, it was a wandering, zig-zag process over several decades. It began back in the 1970s, when Mr. Chernofsky was a teacher at the Yeshiva of Central Queens in New York City. One year, he was put in charge of the bulletin board for Holocaust Remembrance Day. He decided to get his students involved:

I gave them blank paper, and I said, no talking for the next 30 minutes. I said, I want you to write the word Jew as many times as you can, no margins, just pack them in, just take another paper and another paper until I say stop. We added up the whole class. It was 40,000–nothing.

Many years later, Mr. Chernofsky remembered this assignment. By then, laser printers had been invented. He printed out pages with the word “Jew” six million times, and put them in a loose-leaf notebook. He kept it in his office and would show it to visitors.

One year, his uncle borrowed the thick notebook and took it to a Jerusalem book fair, where a bookbinder saw it, and made a limited edition. Eventually, a Jerusalem-based publisher, Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing, stumbled across one of these limited edition copies. Just over a year ago, he contacted Mr. Chernofsky and asked if he would be interested in a larger print run. The result is And Every Single One Was Someone (I just checked on Amazon.com, and it’s the 69th best selling book today, and it’s out of stock, which is amazing for a book that lists for $80).

This is the nature of the creative process: It begins simply, with a small idea, and with the twists and turns of the zigzag path (and contributions from lots of people) it gradually builds into something great. That’s the key point of my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

*Jodi Rudoren. “Holocaust Told in One Word, 6 Million Times.” New York Times, January 26, 2014, pp. A1, A12.

Teaching Company CEO: MOOCs are “Utter Nonsense” and Will Not Transform Education

Will MOOCs transform college? Or, to borrow from the title of Clayton Christensen’s recent book, “disrupt” higher education?

Here’s what one of the most knowledgeable executives in the education business has to say, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

This scenario is likely to be utter nonsense. Consider one historical fact: This has all been tried, and it has failed.

Who is this skeptical executive, and what does he know anyway? It is Thomas Rollins, the founder and longtime CEO of The Teaching Company. You’ve no doubt seen their ads in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and every other form of media that intelligent people consume. My wife loves their courses and has been purchasing them for years; I can attest they are extremely high quality. (Years ago, I was auditioned to do a course, and I didn’t make it.) Rollins led the company from 1990 to 2006, and he spent most of those years paying close attention to web-based course developments–because he viewed them as competition. Guess what? They all failed. Rollins discusses a long list of Internet education failures–with big-money backing and top scholars at the helm:

  • NYUonline, begun in 1998 with $21.5-­million, folded in three years.
  • Columbia University’s $25-million for-profit venture, Fathom.com, begun in 2000, folded in 2003.
  • UNext began with $180-million, three Nobel laureates in economics on its board, and an alliance with Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. UNext failed.
  • AllLearn was an alliance of Oxford, Stanford, and Yale, headed initially by the late Herbert M. Allison Jr., formerly of Merrill Lynch and later of TIAA-CREF. It closed in 2006.
  • Global Education Network was backed by the investment wizard Herbert Allen and a board of former college presidents. Its goal was to provide Ivy League-originated courses to everyone, particularly other colleges. It failed in 2005.

All of this happened years before anyone had coined the acronym “MOOC” and before Coursera and EdX were founded. Rollins knows what you’re thinking: “This time is different.” But his article is must reading because he goes on to explain the fundamentals that led to these failures, and he argues that the fundamentals of the business haven’t changed one bit. As he concludes:

If you do not allow faculty-student interaction, the MOOC is a cruel joke on students. If you do allow faculty-student interaction, the MOOC is a cruel joke on those people who helped finance a money pit.

And he predicted these failures over a decade ago, because (to his credit) he humbly admits his own company’s failure to transform universities:

The Teaching Company spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising in the past 20 years, and is well known in academic circles. Universities could have replaced any professor’s lectures with a fine substitute. To date, the institutions that have used Teaching Company lectures for credit-bearing courses can be counted on two hands…. It is difficult to understand what incentive a university has to adopt an expensive course of uncertain effectiveness that leads to faculty revolt.

Wow. This article left me breathless. MOOC advocates, is anyone going to step forward and rebut this neutron bomb?

Great New Book: The Business of Creativity

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

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

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.