Rodeo Clowns

You’ll be more creative if you learn about more stuff.

And especially, if you learn about randomly different kinds of stuff.

That’s why I’m writing about rodeo clowns: because I’m guessing you don’t know anything about them. And research shows that if you learn just a tiny bit about rodeo clowns (or anything else that you know nothing about) it can enhance your creativity.

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal about rodeo clown Justin Rumford, and it was fascinating. I’ve never gone to a rodeo, and I probably never will. But it was fascinating to learn what a “barrel man” is. Be honest, don’t you want to know? And trust me, you really want to know Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname. Click on the link to read the article. The first person to put Mr. Rumford’s rodeo nickname in a comment gets a shout out! And, please suggest your own randomly different stuff we should learn about, just a tiny bit.

To learn more about how creativity research can help you be more creative, check out my creativity advice book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Learning about rodeo clowns is a technique I call “Be a Dilettante” and it’s on page 69.

A New Trend: Educating Entrepreneurs

A Chronicle of Higher Education story reports on a nationwide trend I’ve been studying myself: the increasing proliferation of entrepreneurship classes for college undergraduates (April 20, 2015, “Now everyone’s an entrepreneur.”). Lots of students love the classes, because they combine fun and creative activities with hands-on internships and links to interesting job opportunities. They also send a message of empowerment that’s popular with today’s students: “You can make a difference, you can change the world.” As the Chronicle article puts it, “entrepreneurship offers the creativity and independence that traditional careers seem to lack.”

College leaders and supporters love it, too, because it provides an important rationale for the modern university: It’s a source of economic growth, a way to commercialize innovations that create value for the region and the country. This is the argument made by Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in their book Engines of Innovation. And in fact, way back in 2009, Carolina was one of the first universities to embed innovation and entrepreneurship throughout all academic units, not just in the school of business–for example, by creating its entrepreneurship minor, and a “special assistant to the Chancellor” position in innovation and entrepreneurship, held since 2009 by Judith Cone, formerly of the Kauffman Foundation.

Beth McMurtrie, the author of the Chronicle article, writes with a mild underlying tone of skepticism. When it’s not done well, such programs can seem like “a superficial blend of buzz words and rosy promises.” They quote one professor saying, sensibly, that “it’s unrealistic to imagine that one or two classes will help a student become more entrepreneurial.”  They anonymously quote “some professors” worrying that “focusing on entrepreneurship gives students an exaggerated sense of their own power”.

I read this article closely, because here at Carolina I’m charged with creating entrepreneurship programs in our School of Education. I think this article does a good job of pointing out the potential strengths and also the potential ways that such programs can go wrong. I think we’re doing it right here in the School of Education. First of all, our programs will be graduate degrees for adults–for example, a master’s degree for experience professionals, who have some expertise and possibly, some valuable successes and failures already completed. My classes will focus on the science of creativity and innovation, on how to manage effective collaboration, how to foster innovative organizational designs and cultures–and how these come together to foster successful innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ll also be requiring a hands-on internship with a local innovative educational organization.

Because I study improvisational creativity, I love that “one lecturer likened teaching entrepreneurship to improvisational jazz” :)

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.