Creativity Lesson from the Stoics: Practice Virtues

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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.

Thinking About Thinking

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Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

Creativity Tip for Old People: Hangout with Young People

 

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One of the main reasons I teach is to be around young people. I know as I grow older, I become more practical. I’m less apt to take chances or to embark on new endeavors. I also moan and groan more. But as a professor, I’m forced to be around hordes of energetic individuals (students) who push me to be more open, less judgmental and less grumpy. In turn, my students help me to seek out new opportunities where I normally wouldn’t. They help me see possibilities where I’d normally see dead-ends. In turn, they make me more creative.

Too often, we worry about the troubles kids bring and don’t focus enough on the benefits of youthful behavior. Here are some beneficial qualities of young people:

  • They are adaptable
  • They are eager to learn
  • They are enthusiastic
  • They learn quickly
  • They are tech savvy
  • They want to make a difference
  • They like challenges
  • They are aware of trends
  • They embrace change

On the flip side, another benefit associated with hanging out with kids or young adults is they get to be around you. Young people need mentors as much as old people need energy. It’s a two-way street. Young people gain valuable life lessons from emulating mentors. Over time, we’ve lost many of the apprentice/mentor relationships in education due to the heavy reliance on testing as our main source of assessment. Constant interaction between generations brings some of that back.

We all benefit from relationships that cross over generational boundaries. Older people become more flexible and younger people wiser. If your personal or professional networks don’t include young people, I encourage you to begin adding them.

What Project Haven’t You Finished?

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So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

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.

 

How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website

 

I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.

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.