How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

The Art of Tinkering

I’m reading a fascinating book about creativity called The Art of Tinkering, curated by the two co-directors of the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. The book brings together creations and practices of artists and makers from all over the United States.

I love this list of “Tinkering Tenets” from the book–daily practices that help you create:

  • Revisit and iterate on your ideas
  • Prototype rapidly
  • Merge science, art & technology
  • Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways
  • Create rather than consume
  • Express ideas via construction
  • Embrace your tools
  • Be comfortable not knowing
  • Go ahead, get stuck
  • Reinvent old technologies
  • Try a little “snarkasm” (joke around and be playful)
  • Balance autonomy with collaboration
  • Put yourself in messy and noisy situations
  • Take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously

These Tinkering Tenets are completely aligned with the advice that comes from creativity research, and the techniques I describe in my creativity advice book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

I first met the two co-authors of this book–Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich–when I was a Visiting Osher Fellow at the Exploratorium for one glorious month in the summer of 2009. I analyze their “cardboard automata” activity in a forthcoming scientific article in Teachers College Record titled “How to transform schools to foster creativity”.

Check out the final sentence of Mike and Karen’s “Author Acknowledgements” on page 223 (Mike and Karen are husband and wife, by the way): “Tinkering as a way of being has been the way we’ve operated since the day we met (well, maybe three months after we met, but that’s another story).” Please tell us the story!

 

ZIG ZAG Published in Chinese!

Great news! My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, was just published in a Chinese language edition, by Cheers Publishing in Beijing. Just minutes ago, I received my author copy in the mail. It’s so exciting to see that my ideas are available to readers in China!

ZIG ZAG Chinese cover 2014Check out the home page of Cheers Publishing: you’ll see that they’ve translated many wonderful science-based books, including:

* Proust was a neuroscientist (Lehrer)

* Where good ideas come from (Johnson)

* The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (Haidt)

* Shop class as soulcraft (Crawford)

* Design-driven innovation (Verganti)

Many thanks to the team at Cheers Publishing, for their professionalism and their rapid speed in translating and publishing my book!

Seeing Green (or, Maybe Blue) Makes You More Creative

I’ve just read a scientific article that provides evidence that green makes you more creative. The researchers conducted four different experimental studies, and in each study, people performed simple creativity tasks that could be easily scored (such as “think of unusual uses for a tin can”). Before the creativity task started, half of the subjects were “primed” with a two-second glimpse of green, and the other half saw instead white, gray, red, or blue, depending on the study.

The people who saw green were quite a bit more creative, in all four studies. In one of the four experiments, the people who saw green scored an average of over 2.0 on the creativity scale, and the people who saw white scored about 1.75. It might seem small, but for only two seconds of color that’s a pretty big effect!

Cover design with marblesI personally like this result–first, because green has been my favorite color since childhood; and second, because green is the color of the artwork in my 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…not only the marbles on the cover (at right) but also the interior artwork.

But wait a minute…didn’t Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine report on a study showing that blue made people more creative? I went back and checked, and sure enough, here’s the 2009 study from the University of British Columbia: 600 subjects were given various cognitive tasks against different colored backgrounds, and blue backgrounds made people more creative. Hey, I like blue too (light blue is the color of my university, the University of North Carolina) so green…blue…I’m happy either way. But what’s going on here?

In the 2012 paper arguing for green, one of the studies compared green with both blue and gray. They found (again) that green resulted in the highest creativity. Blue made people even less creative than seeing gray! That sounds pretty bad for fans of blue.

So how would the 2009 authors respond? Their study left out green entirely, comparing only blue, red, and white. That would seem really odd to the authors of the 2012 paper, who make their love of green obvious from the start; they argue that green is the color of growth and fertility in a wide range of cultures around the world, concluding that “This green-growth link is undoubtedly rooted in societal learning that may itself be grounded in an evolutionarily engrained predisposition.”

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. Frankly, I find it implausible that you could increase creativity just by painting your walls blue, or green, or whatever. Dr. Christopher Chabris, in his brutally critical review of Lehrer’s book Imagine, notes that “research on such color priming effects is hardly settled science.” That sounds right to me.

But hey, at least we know to stay away from red, white, and gray.

 

How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.

Get Your Ideas Out Into the World, Early and Often

One of the most solid findings from creativity research is that you should externalize your thoughts early and often. By “externalize” psychologists mean to take your nascent ideas out of your own head, and create a visual or spatial representation. This helps drive creativity in several ways.

  • First, in most cases you have to transform your idea, usually a little but sometimes a lot, to make it visible. That transformation is always a productive creative process. Working hard to get your idea on paper makes you more creative than if you simply think harder and longer inside your own head.
  • Second, once your idea is visible, it takes on its own life. And then, you can start to interact with it, to engage in a dialogue with your work.
  • Third, this process drives creativity by helping to make it more clear what’s great, and what needs more work.

This research is so important that in my creativity advice book, Zig Zag, the eighth and final step of the creative process is “MAKE: How getting your ideas out into the world drives creativity forward”. Externalization is a core component of design thinking; it’s why design firms have white boards all around the room, and even silly putty and Tinker Toys on the table. In my chapter about this research, the first and most important creativity technique that I describe is “Draw a Picture.” I quote the American painter, Robert Motherwell:

In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.

Today’s Wall Street Journal (7/30/2014) reports on additional research showing that doodling has many cognitive benefits–all consistent with the creativity research I drew on in writing Zig Zag:

Research research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information…allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.

Jesse Prinz doodle faceThey cite a cool new book by Sunni Brown, called The Doodle Revolution. The WSJ article is published with some fascinating doodles that were done in meetings and during presentations, like this one at the right by Professor Jesse Prinz (we both used to be colleagues together at Washington University in St. Louis). Dr. Prinz tends to specialize in face doodles; others specialize in “font doodles” (writing down key concepts but using fancy elaborate fonts). This new research continues a long line of research that leads to the most important creativity advice I know of: Get your ideas out into the world, early and often.

Is the “Lone Genius” Finally Dead?

In 2007, I published Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, where I argued that collaboration is the most important driver of creativity. I called the book “group genius” because all of the research showed that the “lone genius” was a misleading myth. But what about those stories you’ve heard about solitary geniuses coming up with great ideas? Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, or Coleridge coming up with a poem in an opium-induced daze? These two stories, and others like them, are completely untrue. (As historians have known for many years.) When you scratch beneath the surface of any story about a big creative insight, you can easily find that the real story is one of collaboration and conversation.

I quickly learned that my one book wouldn’t be enough to kill the lone genius myth. The most powerful evidence of this appeared in 2012, when Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain’s claim that solitude enhanced creativity fed directly in to our deeply held beliefs about the solitary genius, and her book sold incredibly well. Since then, in 2013 and 2014, I’ve read many more stories in magazines and newspapers, all based on the belief that creativity is driven by geniuses–what makes someone a genius, what we can do to be more like them, and how we can help our children realize their genius potential.

I’m delighted that we now have another book presenting the overwhelming evidence in favor of group genius: Josh Shenk’s new book Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Pairs, excerpted July 20, 2014 in the New York Times in an article titled “The end of genius.” Shenk makes many of the same points, and cites some of the same research and stories, that I did in my 2007 book. Many of his stories also appeared in an influential 2006 book by Professor Vera John-Steiner called Creative Collaboration. (All creativity researchers know that creativity is always based in collaboration.) But the lone genius myth is still alive and well. Shenk attacks the myth right up front:

The lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: The creative network…or the real heart of creativity–the intimate exchange of the creative pair.

I show in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity that the myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work: Shenk mentions Shakespeare, Freud, Picasso, and Einstein. For example, how many people know that Einstein did not discover the formula e=mc squared? It was well known to physicists already, years before Einstein’s 1905 paper about the formula, but the mathematical proof hadn’t been developed. It turns out that Einstein was a pretty bad mathematician, and he made lots of errors, and his proof wasn’t valid. (He often worked together with mathematician colleagues for that very reason.)  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof. (Click here for more on this story.)

The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming. Of course, some collaborations are ineffective and actually block creativity. To make sure your collaborations are the creative kind, it helps to read a book like Group Genius–where I draw out key lessons from decades of research–to help you make sure your collaborations are the creative kind.

I highly recommend Shenk’s new book Powers of Two. Given my own recent experience, publishing a similar argument that collaboration drives creativity, I am not that optimistic that Shenk’s book will kill the lone genius myth. But I hope so.