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Struggling To Be Creative

At a dinner party in New York, I was talking to a fashion designer who owns her own business. At one point in the conversation she told me that she struggles to be creative. I could relate. There are times when you hit the wall and all your ideas are stale and over-used cliches. A voice whispers that you don’t have what it takes. It’s easy to feel discouraged and just give up. But, we all experience this struggle. In fact, it is part of the creative process.  As a creative professional for 20 years, I feel like I understand a lot about creativity and I’m still learning.  

What is Creativity?

Ask yourself: What is creativity? What does it look like? What does a creative person do? Are these creative people – artists, poets, musicians? Most people would say yes. What about plumbers, sales clerks, mathematicians and accountants? Are they creative? Whether we are creative or not really depends on how we approach our work and lives. A very simple example: Today I parked in a far off lot and making my way to my office I decided to take a different route. Because I took a different route, I hit a dead-end and had to turn around. I got lost and had to ask directions. It was not an efficient use of my time. But then I accidentally ran into an old friend and had an inspiring conversation. Then a student from a previous class gave me a good idea I’m going to use. Simply by parking in a far away lot and taking a different route, my world expanded and I discovered new ideas. How do you express creativity in your life? In what ways are you creative? Under what conditions are you most creative –  especially regarding location, space, time, and emotional state? We say creative people have been “gifted.” But creativity is not just a talent. It needs to be cultivated. I don’t think creativity is something you are born with – as though you have it or you don’t. It is an approach. It is a process. And a process is something you can learn. As gradually, struggle gives birth to talent. 

Where does Creativity from?

How do creative people come up with ideas? Are they inspired? The word “inspiration” literally means a “spirit dwells within.” Are creative people possessed of a spirit – a Muse, a Genie? Does inspiration happen to us, or do we make it happen? Does it come from outside or does it spring up from within? If you consider yourself to be a creative person, what is your brush, your canvas in life? If you want to become a master crafts-person you have to learn the tools of the trade. A musician must know his instrument. A violinist, in order to flawlessly perform a solo concerto, must be so familiar with her instrument, so that she knows even its idiosyncrasies. She knows its tuning (when it is slightly off and in what register.  I’ve known guitar players who name each of their guitars because each has a unique voice and personality. This “intimate familiarity” with the instrument comes from spending a good deal of time, much effort, and often a lot of struggle. I’ll ask you the same question I ask the graphic design students I teach at my university. What is your most important “creative tool”? What “instrument” do you need to “get intimate with” in order to successfully perform creative work? The most common answer students give is a list of software programs. I get it. But, it’s not the answer. Tools change. Software become obsolete. Actually, the instrument you need to learn to use is: Your MIND. Ultimately, your success will result from how well you understand your own creative mind. Just as perception comes first. Learning to see is more important than technique. 

How can we Cultivate Creativity?

What if inspiration never comes to us at all? What then? When I teach my Visual Design course I have students participate in the following brainstorming activity. I ask them to pair up. I tell them that they are working for the breakfast cereal company Post, and Post wants to get more children to eat Honeycomb Cereal. The bosses have decided that the best way to appeal to kids is to include a prize in the box. They’ve gotten a deal with the movie company that produced the Harry Potter movies. So, the theme will be Harry Potter books and movies.

The Goal: The team to come up with the most ideas (doesn’t matter how good they are) wins. Next I list the the Restrictions of the Game (which limit: possible solutions). The toy in the box must:

  • must fit in a cerial box (or made from the box)
  • kid-friendly (fun, non-toxic, appropriate to age, interests, etc)
  • relate to Harry PotterBegin!

Finally, I tell them, “Don’t stop until I say stop.”  I give them 5-7 min. I watch and listen. I give teams enough time to run out of steam (ideas). They will start to drift, talk about unrelated things. You will see almost no one writing down ideas anymore. This is the end of the first hump. From at least one team (including the team that eventually will win) I listen to hear someone say something like: “That’s ridiculous!” and laughing. This indicates they have hit the turning point where someone says something stupid and the second hump of “crazy” ideas usually begins.

Next I pause the groups to say: “I want to sweeten the pot with a prize. I know this is kinda hokey, but I’m giving away this un-opened box of Kashi Chocolate Almond bars. I don’t care about the quality of your solutions. Just how many you can come up. So, come up with as many solutions as you can quickly, because your time is almost up.”

When I call times up students usually enjoy counting up their solutions to find out who won. Then I lead a brief discussion. I ask questions like these. “Was this fun?” and “What would make this activity more satisfying?” “If the task were more challenging or LESS challenging? Why? For example: What if – No Harry Potter theme? – ie. What if any prize were allowed, any kid-friendly toy that will fit in a box were an acceptable solution? They usually answer that they like it to be challenging.

If you’ve even been part of a brainstorming session you may have noticed a certain pattern. You start off with lots of ideas, but they’re often not really very good ideas. We know we’re not supposed to criticize ideas during the brainstorming session because negativity really kills the creativity. But, as we go along we get the feeling that we’re not really coming up with anything we can use. Our solutions are the “low hanging fruit.” They are highly relevant. They are very conventional. They aren’t particularly clever, novel or unique. After the initial excitement wears down, this eventually slows to a crawl. Then there is a lull, until … something interesting happens.

Someone throws out an idea (maybe absurd, crazy, stupid even) an idea that is divergent. You can tell when you get to this point because usually someone laughs aloud. Like I said the idea is usually a stupid answer. It fits, but it’s kind of ridiculous. And that is the TurningPoint: something clicks and more ideas (that are better) start coming out. Other people join in as if to say, “well if that stupid answer you gave is permissible, then I’ve got one to add.”

If we were to analyze the session later, and actually graph these proposed solutions we might notice that at this point an upward curve at this point.  So, it’s a good idea to push through past stale, clichй ideas until you break through. Solutions can be graded as having the following two qualities:

Relevance: the degree to which the problem is solved fully. Requirements are limiters. The toy must be appropriate for the target age group. Something kids would like and parents would approve of. It must fit in a cereal box and be related to Harry Potter in some way.

Novelty: the degree to which the solution is original or unique. Solutions with a high degree of relevance and low degree of novelty are cliché.  Solutions with a high degree of novelty? and low degree of relevance are unworkable, and impractical.

Given these two qualities, what’s an example of an idea for a prize that is high in relevance but low in novelty? An answer might be a wand, Harry Potter glasses, plastic character figure, etc. What’s an example of a prize that is low in relevance, but high in novelty? An answer might be a stapler. So, the best solutions are high in relevance, and high in novelty!

The shape of the brainstorming curve ends up looking like a double-humped camel. Notice what is happening in both humps and at the TP (turningpoint). Why are our first ideas so typical, cliché, un-original, stale, boring? You might think it’s because we are not very creative people. But that’s not really the best answer. The best answer is that that’s how our brains work. Your brain is really good at solving problems fast. It was designed to work that way. And it’s a good thing because in real life we have to solve problems all day long and in real life solutions that are cliche (relevant but not very novel) are often the best solutions to solve the problem we face.

I tell my students to imagine this scenario:

You’re home for Spring Break. You’ve been hanging out with a friend from high school. She drops you off at your house at dusk. Your family is gone. No one home. Wave goodbye to your friend. She drives away. You reach for your purse for your keys. Oops you left it in your friend’s car. No keys, no phone. A drizzling rain turns into sleet while you watch the daylight fade to night.

What happens next? Immediately Your brain kicks into action and starts brainstorming solutions. But, what matters most at that moment – solutions with a high degree of novelty? or solutions w/ high degree of relevance? A relevant solution to the predicament above might be to go to check for an open window or go to a neighbor’s house for the night. That would be a good idea. A novel solution might be to heave a rock through your front window. That would be novel, but not really a good idea. In ordinary life, you are an experienced PROBLEM SOLVER. But the solutions – most valued in ordinary life – are highly RELEVANT,   NOT highly NOVEL.

The Creative Process

One of first people to study “creative process” was Graham Wallas, who wrote: The Art of Thought in 1926. An English educator who studied Social & Economics theory, Wallas seems like an unlikely person to  have insights about creativity. His book is not easy to read. It’s part rambling meditation on learning and educational theory, part memoir, and part manifesto. In it he tells personal stories, drops names, reprints favorite poems, takes shots at intellectuals. He quotes what mathematicians, poets, scientists and novelists and other “creative thinkers” have written regarding how their own insights came about. He speculates – Is there a method to being creative? In the process he tries to extract a formula, to come up with a creative process. At the time there was no common language or vocabulary to discuss this most fundamental human ability. Wallas’ goal was straight-forward: to create one. He began by asking is there a series of steps that thinkers take to solve a problem?

Here are some interesting “quotes” from the book from scientists famous for having discovered solutions to difficult problems. As you read some of these quotes you may begin to notice something that Wallas observed. A commonality.

– Henri Poincare (French mathematician) wrote about trying to work out properties Fuchsian functions.

            “Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. During the first half hour, as before, nothing is found, and then all of a sudden the decisive idea presents itself to the mind.”

– Hermann von Helmholtz (German physicist) said: ideas would bubble up after he’d worked hard on a problem and hit a wall.

“Happy ideas come un-expectedly, without effort, like an inspiration. … As far as I’m concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table … they came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”

– Julien Varendonck (Belgian psychologist) traced his insights to daydreaming after a period of work, sensing that …

“there is something going on in my fore-consciousness which must be in direct relation to my subject. I ought to stop reading for a little while and lit it come to the surface.”

It starts to sound like Professional athletes who commonly talk about getting into the zone: “I was in the zone, man; I felt like I was seeing everything in slow motion”      

Wallas observed that these descriptions had an underlying structure. He come up with the following Steps for Creative Problem Solving:

1. Preparation This the phase of struggling through the Problem. During this phase, you should expect to put in hours (or days) of intense study, thought, trials, experiments, attempts, working to exhaustion idea after idea to the point of getting stuck. This often called “hitting a wall” or coming to a “dead-end.” This phase of the process ends in failure with No Solution!

2. Incubation  The thing to be done during this phase is to put the problem aside, relax, take a walk, exercise, play, sleep, cook, get away from it. Deliberatively NOT think about it! Wallas’ theory was that during incubation, some kind of internal mental process is going on. While the conscious mind takes a break, your sub-conscious mind keeps working on the problem. Cognitive Psychology is just now discovering what Wallas surmised in 1906. This phase is sometimes called “percolation” as the sub-conscious mind is not passive, but continues to work. It cleans up, re-organizes, makes associations with new info and past knowledge. The brain continues to play w/ ideas and concepts as if absent-mindedly working on a jigsaw puzzle. By “letting go” it allows us to “get out of the way” and allows the sub-conscious mind to toil on – on its own without the conscious brain telling it where to go/ what to do.

3. Illumination This is the famous “Aha! Moment” when the solution appears all at once. Has this ever happened to you?

4. Verification The last phase is the check point. The task here is to verify the solution. Does the solution actually work? It is possible that some things will have to be re-worked in the solution. It is possible the solution is a pipe-dream (false, illusion)?

For  those of us who have decided to pursue a career as a Creative Professional this is a problem. This means that creativity doesn’t just come all on its own.  To be inspired you have to work at it. You have to BE CREATIVE on a day-to-day basis. You have to know how to turn it on … at need. It sounds like a lot of pressure! So it might be important to understand as much as you can about how our brain works and how to properly tune it for optimal performance. In this blog I will be sharing with you some of the latest research findings in the study of human thinking: Cognitive Psychology, a relatively new field of study (knowing, learning, thinking, creating).

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