What Happens Next? (The Problem with Plot)

Novelist Marisa Silver describes the creative process, in the Sunday NYTimes book review:

My particular writing methodology, if it could be called that, might be summarized this way: Go inside a dark tunnel filled with conflicting, incongruent ideas, paw around for a few years. Finally, figure out how to crawl toward a pinprick of light that might be an exit.

What a great description of the creative process! In every field, it’s a wandering, unpredictable path. You don’t know at the beginning where you’re going to end up. You just have to engage in the work, and wait for the questions and ideas to emerge from the process.

And Silver writes this about plots in novels:

I find plot the most fascinating and vexing element of fiction for the simple reason that its artificiality can feel difficult to mask. After all, if there is any plot to a life, it can be organized only in retrospect. We are all, for the most part, pawing around in the dark looking for evidence of light, floundering from here to there. We don’t have an author choreographing clear conflicts, rising tensions and satisfying denouements.

The Brick Test: The Most Unusual Use EVER

One of the oldest tests for creativity is the “brick test.” It originated in the 1950s, and it’s pretty simple: Take five minutes, and write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick. It’s called a divergent thinking  test, which means it measures your ability to generate lots of ideas. And, you get extra points if your list has brick uses that most other people don’t think of. These are called unusual uses.

My wife and I had an interesting experience with bricks recently, and it confirms a central finding of creativity research: The more knowledgeable you are about something, the more likely you are to be creative with it. Even bricks.

Here’s how it happened. For some reason, the house we’re renting has a big stack of red bricks in the back.

WP_20160131_001After a few months, my wife and I started thinking of ways use the bricks. The first was when my wife volunteered to organize the annual Halloween dance at my 11-year-old son’s school. To decorate the school gymnasium, she bought some large inflatable witches and scary monsters. They were over ten feet high. But they’re light and unstable, and they fall over really easily (especially with kids dancing around). The solution? Bricks to weigh them down. But, young children could bump their toes on a brick and get hurt. So, wrap each brick in bubble wrap.

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Here’s another use. We had an ice storm recently, so we got our generator ready just in case we lost power. To make sure all of the fuel would flow into the engine, we need to tilt the generator. A red brick is just what we needed: WP_20160131_003

 

 

 

 

A third use: At Christmas, my wife arranges a display of Christmas village buildings. She wanted the houses in the back of the display to be elevated. Bricks work great:

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I saved for last the most unusual use EVER for a brick. Drum roll please! I recently started repairing accordions. One of the first tools you need is a test bellows. You find an old accordion bellows, put boards to seal up both ends, and drill a tiny hole in the middle. You use this to direct air at one selected note in a reed block. To make the bellows work, I needed something really heavy inside, to hold down the bottom board. Here’s mine, with a red brick inside. (It’s so unusual it probably doesn’t make sense unless you repair accordions). Here it is:

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Here are a few more uses. I’m sure we’ll think of more soon. “Necessity is the mother of invention”–necessity, plus a pile of bricks.

 

 

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Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards Now Available!

card-fan

December 15, 2015

I’m excited to announce the release of the ZIG ZAG Creativity Cards!

The card deck has 48 cards, and each one has a different creativity exercise. There are also four cards that describe how to use the cards alone, in groups, and when you’re facilitating a workshop.

The cards are perfect for everyday use. You can do each technique in a few minutes, and use the cards throughout your day. The card deck comes in a hard plastic case so you can take it everywhere (cardboard boxes fall apart pretty fast). It’s time for a new set of creativity techniques that’s practical for everyday use, with exercises that are grounded in the latest creativity research.

The 48 techniques are taken from the book ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. They’re grouped into the eight stages of the creative process:

  1. Ask: how to ask the right question
  2. Learn: prepare your mind
  3. Look: spot the answers around you
  4. Play: imagine possible worlds
  5. Think: how to have great ideas
  6. Fuse: how to combine ideas
  7. Choose: make good ideas even better
  8. Make: make your ideas visible

The 8 stages are based on creativity research (for a summary of the research, see my creativity textbook, Explaining Creativity.) ZIG ZAG  is a practical, hands-on application of that research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two sample cards, with their techniques. If you’d like to see more cards, the card deck web site has a Daily Creativity Card that changes every day.

Card ASK 5

 

ASK is the first step toward greater creativity. Each of the 8 stages has its own color, and has six cards numbered 1 to 6. The six ASK cards help you make sure that you’ve identified the right problem. (This one is number 5.) Often when you’re stumped, and you can’t think of a solution, it turns out you’re asking the wrong question. (Kudos to artist Robert Cori for the illustrations, and to Nyla Smith for the graphic design.)

 

 

 

Card LEARN 6

 

 

The third step is LEARN, preparing yourself for creativity by filling your mind with a variety of information. I love to learn a little bit about lots of different things! It doesn’t take long to learn to juggle, or to play the harmonica. In the past year, I’ve been teaching myself how to repair old accordions! (And yes, I’m still a dilettante, you shouldn’t trust me with your accordion.)

 

 

 

 

The card deck is available from Amazon.com for $19.95. Visit the card deck web site, www.zzdeck.com, for more techniques and games–for individuals, teams, and workshop facilitation.

Does Creativity Exist?

“Creativity does not actually exist at all.” –Monica Reuter

I just read Monica Reuter’s new book on creativity (Palgrave, 2015). She makes the provocative argument that creativity doesn’t comes from individuals; it comes from groups, and from large networks distributed through society. Creativity is always defined by influential people in society, and its definition changes depending on the country you’re in.

Reuter’s new book is academic, so only serious scholars will read it. But you’ll get the gist from these representative quotations:

  • “Creativity does not actually exist at all…it is merely those products and ideas which are so labeled in our various societies and cultures. It is a culture-bound term that is socially constructed.” (page 2)
  • “There simply is no creativity unless a group of influential people agrees that it is.” (page 14)
  • Reuter likes my book Group Genius; she writes “Sawyer leads the charge in dismantling the idea of the lonely genius.” (page 22)
  • Reuter rejects as myth the idea that creativity is linked to psychopathology. The myth persists because “we have a deep-seated need in our society to glorify creative individuals” and “We prefer the myth because we have an occasionally desperate need to retain this ideal notion of the individual genius.” (page 27)
  • “Creativity should be seen as constructed within cultural meaning systems.” (page 45) “Whether or not a product is creative depends on social judgment.” (page 49)

Reuter concludes with an interesting empirical study: She interviewed students in an applied art and design school, and asked them when they felt most creative. They said: while alone (73%), doing personal art (73%), having freedom to create (88%), and when they have passion (92%). She also interviewed prospective employers of these graduates; it turns out that they don’t value creativity that highly in hiring. Only eleven percent of employers said creativity was more important than skills. Only five percent said they wanted colleges to do a better job helping graduates be creative.

Reuter’s conclusion is pretty cynical: “What employers want are good little working ants. What students want is freedom, to work alone, passion, doing something new.” (page 73) Do you agree?

The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)

 

 

Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?

Marc Andreessen on Group Genius

Marc Andreesen, the Silicon Valley investor, has just published a free e-book containing his blog posts from 2007 to 2009. This excerpt from the book was just published in the Wall Street Journal–titled “retaining great people”. It’s really advice about how to build an innovative organization:

Don’t create a new group or organization within your company whose job is “innovation”. This takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often, and it’s hugely damaging. It sends the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they’re the B team. Instead, focus on boosting the innovation culture of the entire company.*

How do you get the whole company to innovate? I give the answer in my 2007 book, Group Genius:

Many companies say that they believe in empowering their employees through participation. But too often, participation is little more than a strategy to increase employee job satisfaction or to get their buy-in for senior management decisions. Real participatory companies are collaborative, improvisational, emerging from the bottom up. It’s a radical rethinking of the organization, and most companies aren’t willing to go there just yet. But as innovation becomes ever more important, there won’t be any other choice. (p. 155)

The reason you have to spread innovation throughout the organization is because innovation today isn’t linear. That’s why you can’t separate out the “idea stage” from the “execution stage”:

The skunk works model places all its hopes on one big flash of inspiration that must come from a select group of special people. In fact, successful innovative companies keep these small sparks coming from individuals throughout the organization, each spark inspiring the next one. (p. 159)

In Group Genius, I tell you the ten features of the most innovative organizations, grounded in this emergent, up bottom approach to innovation. That’s why Andreesen is right; not (only) because the skunk works approach damages morale, but because it never actually generates innovation.

*Andreeasen, The Pmarca Blog Archives.

Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002

 

 

 

 

My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004

Shortcut: How Analogies Drive Innovation

For several decades, psychologists have been studying creative mental processes, and we have a really good understanding of what goes on in the mind when people are being creative. I summarize this research in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity, by grouping all of the research into eight “stages” or “habits of mind” that are involved in being creative. And in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I describe over 100 techniques to train your brain in these eight stages.

One of the most important cognitive processes is analogy–a comparison of two things that seem very different on the surface, but that have an underlying conceptual or structural similarity. A really fun new book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, tells some fascinating stories of history’s most important innovative analogies. The author, John Pollack, identifies four rules for innovating through analogy:

  • Question conventional analogies. Sometimes the most obvious analogy is a dead end. Trying to invent an airplane by copying how birds flap their wings never worked.
  • Explore multiple analogies. Usually, there are lots of different potential analogical comparisons. Don’t stop with the first one. (This seems closely related to the first rule…)
  • Look to diverse sources. The most radical innovations often come from what psychologists call “distant analogies”, where the analogy comes from a radically different industry or discipline. This is why so many great breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary teams.
  • Simplify. The best analogies make complicated things easier to use.

Pollack’s book restates much of what we already know about innovation, but it’s well written, and his stories add to our growing database of historical examples that show how innovation works.