How Creative Acts Are Different

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Creative acts are not all the same. They vary by magnitude, originality, influence and intention. The following are types of creativity and novelty as described by psychologist Stephen Smith.[i]

Types of Creativity and Novelty

  • Individual versus social definitions of creativity
  • Deliberate versus non-intentional creations
  • Goal-defined creativity
  • Subjective sense of novelty
  • Degrees of novelty
  • Continuousverses discontinuous problem solving

Individual versus Social Definitions of Creativity:

Every quarter students make new discoveries. They have moments of enlightenment that dramatically change their understanding of the world. These breakthroughs don’t change the world, but they do change the person. During my time teaching high school, a student described his discovery in the field of mathematics.  While doing his math homework the night before, he had invented a new way of solving his equations. Slump shouldered later in the day, he told me how his math teacher explained it was centuries old. His discovery was creative non-the-less. It didn’t change the domain of mathematics in any way. But it did change his understanding of the subject. This is an example of individual creativity: particular to the individual.

 

So a particular act “may be novel for all of humanity, for a specific social-cultural unit, or for an individual.”

Deliberate versus non-intentional creations:

Often times, inventors consciously work toward their inventions as lifelong pursuits. However, many times they are not deliberate. Take, for example, party conversations. Informal conversations go in any number of directions that are not premeditated. They just flow. Each participant in the conversation freely and effortlessly adds to the progression of thought. Since the conversation is novel it is creative. In these creative acts, it is not the intention of each participant to be original. Therefore, they are not deliberate. Maybe the best example of non-intentional creativity is the verbal development of a young child. Kids experience an amazing rate of development as they learn to talk.

Goal-Defined Creativity:

Being deliberate implies working toward a goal. One sets a goal and then works to achieve it. Problem solving situations are goal oriented and they involve creative acts. Searches for solutions are novel because the problems to be solved are novel. If the problem weren’t’ in some way new, it wouldn’t be a problem. As each incremental discovery is made on the path to solving a problem, the nature of the problem changes and therefore new creative acts emerge. All problem solving situations have some relevance to past experiences and require the transformation of that past knowledge so that it may be applied to the present task.

For example, when Amy Windom was restrained during a home invasion in Atlanta, she needed a novel way to free herself. Her solution was to “toe-type” an instant message call for help. Obviously, this was an unusual experience for her. The perpetrator tied her up and had taken her digital camera, phone, iPad, and car. The thief didn’t take her laptop because she was able to convince him it was outfitted with a tracking device. After several hours, she said in an interview with The TODAY Show, she decide to use her feet to open her bag: “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give this a shot, and I pulled the laptop over and propped it up on top of the down comforter at such an angle I could see both the keys and the screen.” She gripped the end of the power cord with her feet and started tapping the keys. Eventually, she was able to communicate with her boyfriend to call the police.[ii]

In this situation, creative problem solving led her down a goal- oriented path (to get free) that culminated in a solution that was new to her. Each stage of advancement led to a new problem solving situation. Her laptop was not outfitted with a tracking device; she told him that so he would leave it. Even though the cord is not used for typing, she associated its properties as similar to something that could.

Subjective Sense of Novelty:

The novelty of our acts is not always as apparent as you might think. Going back to the party conversations, each conversation, or more specifically, each phrase, is a creative act. No one in the conversation has experienced that exact situation before, nor will they again. Therefore, each phrase is new—novel. Trying to “get the phrase just right” is more deliberate. By consciously constructing phrases or arguments, we become aware of the process and the novelty of the act. An even more deliberate approach would be to plan a speech or presentation. And the scale goes up from there in intentionality. Frequently, we are more of aware of the novelty produced by others than ourselves.

Degrees of Novelty:

Creativity is mostly associated with “truly novel” acts. But the less revolutionary acts that make up our day to day existence can also be creative. It could be said that in some way, everything we do is novel to a degree. Each day is different and we react to new situations as they arise. Disparities between strikingly creative acts like inventions are easy to differentiate. Differences in more habitual acts like getting ready for work in the morning are more difficult to distinguish. Both big and small creative acts, however, are creative.

Continuous verses Discontinuous Problem Solving:

Some problem solving instances require that a continuous series of problems be solved until the final goal is achieved. The lady toeing her way to freedom on her laptop is an example. She was literally “bound” and determined to get free.

Other times, a period of rest or incubation occurs once or several times before a final solution is found. Epiphanies in the shower relate to ongoing problems we have yet to solve. During the day we take in new information. Having a problem at work or with a girlfriend, or more commonly now, Facebook, that doesn’t seem to have a good solution is considered off-and-on throughout the day. During the relaxing environment of the shower, attention is taken away from the problem. This period of rest allows the subconscious to organize the data and decide on a novel solution.

Creativity is in everything we do. In its smallest form, it helps us get through the day. In larger applications, it makes the world a better place. But the best thing about creativity is that it is teachable. Anyone can do it better. I know, I teach it to students all the time. With the new understanding of creativity that researchers are bringing to light, it is no longer such a mystery. It is a process for improvement.

[i] Smith, Steven M. The Creative Cognition Approach. MIT Press, 1995.

[ii] Rothman, Wilson. “Tied-up woman uses toes to IM for help.” MSNBC.com. MSNBC, August 4, 2010.

 

 

 

Creativity Lesson from the Stoics: Practice Virtues

Argument

Think of a time when someone really pushed your buttons—when some jerk was rude, broke in line or did something totally inappropriate.  What was your reaction? Did you treat it as an opportunity?

Going back to the times of Ancient Greece, we find a group of people who did think these moments were opportunities. They were the Stoics. To a Stoic, a time of adversity is an opportunity to practice virtue. To the Stoics, virtue is similar to excellence. And as a good citizen, you practice being virtuous. I lifted a list of these as described by John Stobeaus from UC Davis’ website. They are below.

  • Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
  • Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
  • Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
  • Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither.

So what does this have to do with creativity? It’s about seeing opportunity where no one else does. To most of us, we see problems as problems—things to be avoided. But in a pursuit of excellence and practicing virtue, a Stoic engages with problems as a means of practicing virtue.

Let’s take temperance for example. Say, a stranger comes up and says you’re an idiot for blocking the sidewalk while waiting to cross the street. Then, instead of firing back an insulting a jab of your own, you decide to temper your response and counter with a witty comeback humorous in its approach to engage that person in a moment of reflection. You might not change that person’s mind, but you practiced changing people’s attention to a topic of your choice.

That kind of skill might come in handy during a pitch. Often times in pitches, committee members make off the cuff or rude comments. And you should be ready for those situations. Real pitches are not the time to practice skillful retorts, those are the times to capitalize on them. Having practiced temperance in the past can help you skillfully seize on the opportunity to turn an insult into insight.

Next time you run into adversity, practice a virtue.

Two Underrated Creative Strategies: (1) Start Now (2) Finish Early

Start-Now2

My classes are past midterms and now beginning to focus on the later part of our definition of creativity – usefulness. The definition of creativity we go with is, the production of something novel and useful. So far, we’ve covered the novelty side of things. We’ve learned a lot of strategies for generating more, unique ideas. But for the next step, we’ll find ways to make these ideas more functional. Two incredibly effective strategies to make creative ideas more useful are to “start now” and “finish early.” On the surface, these may not seem like creative strategies, so let’s take a look.

Start now: The sooner you jump on a project, the more time your brain gets to spend with it. If you begin immediately and work in a start-stop-start-stop fashion, you give your brain more time to reflect on what you’re doing. Therefore, by the end of the project, your subconscious brain has refined the concept many times. This is called, discontinuous problem-solving.

Binge working in one shot to meet a deadline forces you to continue in one direction until it’s obvious the concept isn’t working. Therefore, you really don’t know if what you’re doing is the best solution. However, by working periodically on a project, you utilize what’s called the incubation process where your subconscious brain makes random associations. These are where “Aha” moments come from.

Finish early: This is an excellent method to get all the kinks out. The way this works is to set the deadline a few days to a week before the real deadline. You finish the work early and get feedback from others. Having a real prototype enables you to gain empirical evidence and tangible feedback from your peers.

When a project itself is a hypothetical, the criticism others give you on it is totally dependent on those hypotheticals actually working. Your ability to convey your thoughts to another are very limited without a product. Also, having a finished product early allows you to see what tiny things should be tweaked to make it perfect.

So start now, and finish early to create more useful designs.

 

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator is one of the best startup accelerators for tech entrepreneurs. It’s been around since 2008 and launched an amazing array of success stories including: Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit and Twitch. Now, they’ve launched an online course explaining their methods. And for the best part, it’s free. The course, “How to Start a Startup” is exactly how it sounds, a course on how to start a startup. And it’s great. I haven’t watched all the lectures. But the ones I have are really informative.

I recommend it for any creative person wanting to take control of their future.

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

 

 

 

If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.

 

While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.

 

To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.

 

How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.

 

How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .

 

What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.

 

What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.

 

How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.

 

For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.

 

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Chance favors the prepared mind

Over the summer, I had the privilege of serving as a reviewer for the Ocean Exchange. The Ocean Exchange is a nonprofit organization awarding grants to innovative ideas for improving our environment. They give two main grants, the Gulfstream Navigator Award and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics Orcelle Award. Each is worth $100,000. It’s a very generous foundation with a great cause.

The conference for Ocean Exchange began on Sunday. The final winners will be decided later today. Starting the conference, the emcee Dain Dunston made an immediate impact. He opened with Louis Pasteur’s quote, “chance favors the prepared mind.” He followed with statements like, “prepare to see opportunity” and “observation predicts outcomes.” All these are profound and true.

What we expect to see largely determines what we actually see. Studies have shown that in situations with expectations, our first inclination is to think our expectations are being met. Take for instance, if I were sitting at a café table along the sidewalk waiting for a friend. Sitting at that table, I’m expecting to see the person I’m waiting for at any moment. Therefore, as each person walking toward me comes into view, I see my friend in them until otherwise proven wrong. First, it may be hair color that differentiates them as not being my friend. Or, it could be body shape.

This kind of expectation can also lead to what’s call change-blindness and innatentional blindness. These are forms of selectively seeing what we want to see. So if you want to see opportunity, prepare to see opportunity. If we try to see more opportunities, we will in fact do so.

One way to see more of what’s actually happening around us is to be more empathetic. That might seem odd, being empathetic to see better. But if we don’t understand someone else’s situation, it’s hard to see why they do things. Reality is very interpretive with many possible solutions for the same problem. Learning to see can help us be prepared for unexpected moments of insight.

Using Metaphor as a Creative Strategy

 

Metaphor as a Creative Strategy

Creativity is valued in businesses these days because creative problem solving leads to larger solutions that can drive innovation. Since many of the problems facing companies are ambiguous with many potential solutions—some good, some not so good—creativity is necessary in developing solutions for larger scale issues.

Creative people are broad, conceptual thinkers visualizing the world through metaphor. They tend to see the forest over the trees. The use of metaphor is an effective strategy for seeing the world differently. Visualizing problems through metaphors assist in the process of finding creative solutions.

Take a moment to visualize what you think a corporation looks like. Is it big, or is it small? Is it run by nice people or mean people? How does your idea of a corporation change when you visualize it as a machine? See how changing that metaphor can change how you begin solving problems. Now change your corporate metaphor to a prison, a carnival, a brain, or an organism. With those in mind, how would you increase productivity for each of those metaphorical visualizations? See how the metaphor changes the way in which you choose to solve problems.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Are there really any boring problems?

Are there really any boring problems?

Creativity starts with a problem. As one who teaches creativity, I advise starting with an interesting problem. It’s seems logical that interesting solutions come from interesting problems. But when you think about it, are there any boring problems?

Often times, the determining factor of a boring or interesting problem is in the way you look at it. If you think a certain topic is of little interest, problems associated with that topic are likely to seem that way too. But if you put your brain to work, seemingly dull topics can become interesting. Like many things, once you identify hindrances to clear thinking, it becomes easier to view problems more objectively. Here are some barriers to clear thinking that get in our way.

Egocentrism – we have a self-serving bias when viewing topics. So if we don’t like it, we may think it’s boring.

Sociocentrism – this is defined by group centered thinking. If the group doesn’t think it’s interesting, it isn’t.

Unwarranted assumptions and stereotypes – we often take things for granted. The topic of accounting might not interest a lot of people. But there may be a lot of interesting problems within accounting where innovation could take place.

Relativistic thinking – this is when we believe that truth is a matter of opinion. Last year, I had students describe simple tools in depth to prepare for a pitch. One of the students said, “Why are we describing a screwdriver? Everyone knows how to use one.” Then a student next to him chimed in and said she didn’t.

Wishful thinking – sometimes we believe things to be true because we wish them to be. Maybe that accounting problem seems boring because we don’t want to work on accounting problems to begin with.

It’s hard to be impartial on all accounts. But if we give problems a chance, they can all be interesting. Sometimes by just focusing on the topic, it becomes interesting in itself. Take for instance, numbers deemed uninteresting. These are numbers that don’t fall in any type of loaded sequence like primes, squares or Fibonacci. To view these in these as uninteresting is actually a mistake, because the mere fact that they don’t fall in a sequence can make them interesting. See how in this video from Numberphile on uninteresting numbers.

Should the market define our values?

'Moral principles' highlighted in green

Should the market define our values?

 

As we continue forth into an economy based more and more on market principles, interesting questions arise. Part of the issue is technology.  Technological innovations have enabled the market to invade every part of our lives like never before. But another part of the issue is that many believe the market to be amoral. True market interactions are between two consulting parties. But is that really true?

In my mind, the creative people moving the market and technology forward should be asking the big, philosophical questions shaping our society as we advance into a more market based morality.

A couple of years back, Michael Sandel wrote, What Markets Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It’s a fascinating look into what can actually be bought and sold today. As a consequence of market based pressures, many of the morays of old seem to be fading into the past. Thusly, a lot of interesting ethical questions arise. Here are a few.

  • Should we teach our children to break in line? The market believes line-breaking is moral. First class flyers go straight to the front of the line at airports, past all the poor folk. Most amusement parks offer fastpass tickets.
  • Should we profit from the deaths of others? The market believes yes and no on this one. Companies now carry life insurance on low level employees. Essentially, they think blue collar workers won’t live that long. Oh, the beneficiary is the company, not the employee’s families. In a failed attempt, the defense department once proposed a website to for gambling on which world leaders would be killed first. Dubbed the “terrorism futures market,” it would have essentially crowdsourced certain analytics pertaining to world stability. This could have saved money and improved global insight.
  • Should justice be equal for the rich and poor? We all know that has never been the case.

And how invasive should we allow our technology to become? According to Clark Howard, Microsoft’s Bing app agreement allows the following.

  • Record audio from your phone at any time without your prior knowledge
  • Add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without your knowledge
  • Add, remove, or change events
  • Read stuff that’s on your phone in many different ways

So as we look to the future, we should have this conversation. And those creating the innovations of tomorrow should be thinking about how invasive we want market mechanisms and technology. What should we monitor and what is off limits. I’d bet nothing will be off limits in the future.

So when does technology make a person not themselves—after a heart transplant, arm transplant, brain transplant, or head transplant? Do cyborgs have rights, and what about robots? I’ve shown this video of the Big Dog robot to a lot of people. Often times they express empathy for the robot, especially when it is kicked.

The matrix always seemed like a Sci-Fi fantasy. But really, it’s not that far away. Ask the big questions now.