Creative Careers

The creative journey is filled with twists and turns, unpredictable developments, and surprising new insights (as well as frustrating dead ends). That’s the message of my new book Zig Zag, which is filled with advice about how to succeed in your creative journey.

At the SNAAP conference here in Nashville, today’s lunchtime presentation was an interview with comedian Lewis Black, by playwright and lyricist Willie Reale. Lewis talked a lot about his career, and I was struck by how many zigs and zags he passed through before he became “Lewis Black” the famous comedian. Until the age of 40, he was a struggling playwright, doing okay in serious theater, but starving artist poor…his path to standup comedy was not at all linear. Check out these zigs and zags:

  1. In high school, he loved theater, and decided he would go to college to study theater.
  2. At UNC and then at Yale’s School of Drama, he followed this dream.
  3. He moved to New York, and got a job as a bartender at a divey bar in the East Village. In exchange for tending bar, the owners let him book acts in the club, so he got experience and connections with the theater scene.
  4. Eventually he moved to manage the West End Theater, where he stayed for eight years. He started introducing the acts, and gradually his introductions became longer as he gained confidence. After a few years, he was doing a special one hour stand-up on Saturday nights.
  5. At the age of 40, still pursuing his career as a serious and respected playwright, he cowrote a quirky musical about the Russian Elvis Presley, filled with Cold War themes; it gained some attention.
  6. It was 1989, and two weeks before the play was to open, the Berlin Wall fell. He and his cowriter had to add a second act to the musical in which the Berlin Wall fell; that took six months.
  7. The revision was successful, and they were invited to produce the play at a respected theater in Houston.
  8. Down in Houston, after several days and weeks of being treated badly by the management of the theater, one night he got really frustrated. To let off steam he went across town to the local comedy club’s open mike night. He did a 15 minute bit, and as he put it, “I killed.” On the spot, the owners offered him top billing and $1500 a week. That, he says, was the moment he decided to give up on playwrighting and become a standup performer.

This story is just like the zig-zag path that leads to successful creative innovation. And it’s not just Lewis Black’s career; this morning, Professor Steven Tepper presented data showing that creative careers almost always follow these unexpected twists and turns.

It’s fascinating that creative careers have the same improvisational, unpredictable structure, as the path that leads to a single creative product or invention.

My new book ZIG ZAG is coming out later this March; pre-order it here.

Arts Leaders in Savannah

I’ve just returned from delivering a keynote address at the annual meeting of the National Council of Arts Administrators, hosted by SCAD in Savannah. Actually, I did my first collaborative keynote address…tag teaming interesting stories with Mk Haley, the associate executive producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU and also with a leadership role at Disney’s Imagineering team. The topic of the conference was “PUSH/PULL: The Artistic Engine of Innovation” and  Mk and I talked about the arts as a driver of cultural and societal innovation. Our message was that collaboration is the key to effective arts departments and programs.

Also on the program were some fascinating people, including Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist working in New York and on the faculty at NYU; Dennis Keeley, chair of photography at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and Sally Gaskill, associate director of SNAAP at Indiana University.

As always, it was a joy to return to beautiful Savannah!

Cultivating Creativity

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Tepper and George Kuh start by stating that

today it is cognitive flexibility, inventiveness, design thinking, and nonroutine approaches to messy problems that are essential to adapt to rapidly changing and unpredictable global forces; to create new markets; to take risks and start new enterprises; and to produce compelling forms of media, entertainment, and design.

At this time in history, we should expect our schools to be working harder than ever to foster creativity in students. But instead:

Regrettably, as other countries, like China, look to America as a model for how to educate citizens to be creative, we are undermining creativity in K-12 education through relentless standardized testing and the marginalization of subjects like art and music.

We know from research that creativity isn’t simple, it doesn’t just magically happen when you release people from constraints. Creativity requires a certain type of long-term education and preparation. These two authors argue that art education has some valuable lessons for how schools might do this in other subjects, such as science and math:

Today a consortium of foundations is working with the National Endowment for the Arts to collect similar information about arts graduates. The vehicle for this work is the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (Snaap), an annual online survey and data-management system designed to improve arts-school education. It is the most ambitious effort yet to track the training, careers, and lives of arts graduates.

The data from Snaap show that 94% of arts graduates have jobs, and 60% work in arts related fields. Over 80% say that creativity is important in their jobs.

These authors are particularly interested in arts education and its benefits; I am, as well. But still we’d all agree that it’s possible to teach any subject in a way that better prepares graduates to engage in creative behavior that builds on the knowledge they’re learning. It could be done in engineering, science, or history. The most promising developments are in engineering education; professors at engineering schools have been very receptive to the latest research, and the National Academy of Engineering has published reports backing a move to a more creative form of engineering education. At least one school of engineering, the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, was recently founded and built from the ground up on research-based findings about how to foster deeper understanding and creative expertise.

I’m now conducting a long-term research study of art and design schools, with the goal of analyzing and documenting their unique teaching and learning practices, and extracting universal principles that could be applied to any subject area. We all have a lot to learn from what these creativity experts do every day in their classrooms.