To follow up on our exploration of creativity, the Scientific American paper ‘Where Creativity Comes From‘ makes the point that creativity occurs rarely in a very stressful environment where people have no time to seek opportunities or take the risk of inventing something new.
Rather, creativity seems to happen rather in settings where the basic needs are satisfied or at least alleviated temporarily. This allows curiosity and exploration initiatives to happen. As the paper shows this is being demonstrated in a number of settings, both in human and animal colonies.
Our previous post discussed that there needs to be a small amount of stress to foster creativity. Here we see that curiosity and exploration can only happen if basic needs are satisfied. This all brings us back to the conclusion of an optimum in between.
The gist of the argument and of the findings is that “creativity calls on persistence and problem-solving skills, not positivity“. Hence, creativity would be found in rather tougher environments where problem-solving is paramount to survival.
It is a rather similar argument about the fact that expatriation and exposure to other cultures promote creativity: because problem-solving abilities are challenged significantly when moving to another country, plus exposure to other ways of thinking, there is a good fertile soil for creativity.
On the other hand there needs to be quite some protection afforded to allow for time and reflection that are involved in creativity. Extremely tough environments will not afford that. There must be some optimal spot in between perfect bliss and total disruption.
Conclusion: to achieve a creative environment, provide a protective setting but don’t pamper people too much!
Flaubert said it best: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” [h/t Austin Kleon]
Being creative and original in certain fields requires brain power, attention that can’t be used also for other activities. Therefore, the rest of the life of creative people is often boring. For example, they don’t change their type of clothes because they don’t want to think about it in the morning, and they often adhere to a very strict daily routine – often waking up early in the morning so as to be able to work without too much disturbance.
Hence, the behavior of people you meet is not necessarily correlated with creativity. And in fact the most hectic, stressed-out, busy people are probably not the most creative.
What part of your life do you keep boring so as to have space to be creative?
Creative work is tough and it takes a lot of time to reach the point of true creativity. Most of all we need to overcome our taste.
I like very much this quote from Ira Glass. It is very deep about our taste and the work required to overcome it: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.
We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Yes it will take lots of time and work to really become creative, and so many people drop it before. What about you?
I like this quote: “Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers” —Bernard Haisch.
Questioning answers is a great tool in many instances in life, and it is true that it sometimes leads to deep insights. It is too easy to be led by the soothing sound of answers delivered with assurance. Answers reflect the common knowledge, the knowledge that the person talking wants you to share.
Question answers more often. It will lead you to discover new areas of thought. It is a great skill. It is a great creative tool too!
An interesting segment of the comments is that the machine won using strategies that no human had used before, and some found beautiful (see this Wired article). Interestingly enough, quickly however (after 3 stunning defeats though) the human Lee Sedol was able to take the machine to its own game. The graphic analysis of what happened is exposed in this great article very worth reading on Quartz ‘Google’s AI won the game Go by defying millennia of basic human instinct‘.
Is AlphaGo actual Artificial Intelligence? There are even some articles denying it like Why AlphaGo is not AI.
My take on this momentous event is that it shows again that the machine can help us develop new abilities and look at things differently. It probably still cannot equate the humans in learning ability, but does provoke thought supports us by finding new ways to consider problems. And that is possibly the main message from this experiment.
The rule is simple – in doubt, treat the situation as a dilemma.
This will force a much wider range of considerations and solutions, and will probably be more right. Consider a situation to be a problem only when it is clearly delineated and where linear thinking appears to be applicable. All the rest should be treated as dilemmas.
Dilemmas implies choice, it implies regret and it generally requires prompt action to be released. It requires character more than analytic thought. It is harder but nowadays it is often more useful to consider situations as dilemmas rather than problems.
Managing complex situations cannot be dealt with linear thinking. Another sort of thinking is required: non-linear thinking, also called lateral thinking. The thing is, our education is very much oriented towards linear, inductive thinking. We definitely to up our collective game in lateral thinking.
Lateral thinking is tough because it is related to creativity, “thinking out of the box”, and taking leaps and bounds beyond logical induction. This leads to many dead ends, failures and mistakes. But that is required to find a way in the ever-more complex world.
Staying with logical, linear, inductive thinking can only keep us within the same context that we are in. If we are to find disruptive solutions, we definitely need to adopt lateral thinking. When do you start upping your own game?
Being creative entails some kind of risk. But further than that, it is not possible to be creative if you don’t take risks.
Creativity requires by definition being unconventional, exploring new spaces and ways of doing stuff. It entails risks. It means frequent failure, and pivots and new tries. It is necessarily messy.
Is it possible to “manage” risks while being creative? Yes, and that is the job of e.g. car designers, who develop concepts and test them with members of the public. There is a fine line between managing creativity and killing it, and many organizations play with that line.
Being creative is a risky business and you must be ready for what it entails – rejection, failure, agony over concepts and ideas. Yet it is worth it. Are you ready?
More and more I find that focusing on my personal energy level is the right way to go. “The way I approach the problem of multiple priorities is by focusing on just one main metric: my energy. I make choices that maximize my personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities.” writes Scott Adams in his book ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life‘.
My energy level is directly correlated with whether I am keen to perform certain tasks or engage in certain work. Also, it is clearly relevant to stop working on something when energy is low: production will anyway be poor too!… Better do something to regenerate at that time!
Managing one’s energy level through the day is also important, and it is where what we eat and drink (like coffee) comes in to make sure we keep the relevant level.
I also struggle with a particular energy-killer: jet lag. That does not help because it is difficult to remain adjusted to the local natural rhythm, creating unexpected energy troughs and highs.
At the end, managing our energy and responding to its variations are probably an essential skill in the modern world. And you, how do you manage your energy?
Talk about disruption of whole industries by the internet is everywhere. Yet that does not work out all the time. The dabbawalas are a famous organization in Mumbai delivering every day to workers in town-center meals prepared by their family in the outskirts – all with a very low percentage of error. As reported by Bloomberg ‘Startups Haven’t Replaced India’s 19th Century Food Delivery Service‘, many start-ups have attempted to displace them in the past years and they have all failed.
This goes to show that it is not so easy to disrupt traditional processes even in the area of distribution, in particular when cultural aspects need to be taken into account (Indian workers seem to largely prefer home-made meals, possibly on hygiene grounds and/or family pressure! – and they appear reluctant to order meals from restaurants).
As a hypothesis for this interesting failure, the fact that those startups have tried to replace at the same time the distribution system and the sourcing of the product. This might have worked in some instances (Uber, Airbnb) but that remains a very rare occurrence.
This reminds us that we need to always remain very humble when it comes to disrupting any kind of industry or process!
Following up on our post on ‘How Leadership is a Relationship‘ on how you can’t be a leader without a relationship with others, one of the quotes from Barry Posner’s talk was that “Leadership begins with belief in yourself“.
Now this made me think about the importance of self-confidence in leadership. There is an issue though – in my experience, it is difficult to reach a 100% self-confidence, but in any case at least a significant amount of self-confidence must be projected out to the team for leadership to work.
How can we manage self-doubt at the same time we need to project self-confidence? It might be one of hardest issues in leadership, in particular in situations where failure is quite possible (e.g. in a startup or during some experimental project).
Authenticity is, I believe, the solution. Authenticity with oneself (acknowledging one’s doubts), and authenticity with the team (acknowledging uncertainties). However it is always a difficult path to be sufficiently open while at the same time not be discouraging. The solutions lies in the quality of the personal relationship with the team, that can acknowledge difficulties.