When Less is More

Although there's plenty of research that highlights the importance of constraints in creativity and innovation, it's often hard to imagine that being true in our own lives. After all, if I can cook this delicious meal in my own kitchen, imagine what I could do with double the budget!

Less is often more, though, and I recently had a chance to see that maxim in action by taking part in Research As Design, a short-form course designed by Marilyn Cornelius, Amanda Cravens, Anja Nabergoj, Nicola Ulibarri, and Adam Royalty, now in its eleventh iteration at Stanford. The basic premise of the course is that although research can be an enormously creative endeavor, academics rarely have any real training in the creative process. The course goal is thus to apply the design thinking mindset and tool kit to the process of academic research. If you're at Stanford, I highly recommend participating. If you're not, get in touch with Marilyn anyway: they've got great lessons and they're eager to share.

The prompt for this post, though, was a momentary outburst of frustration from one of the students during a brainstorming exercise. We were working as a group to identify solutions to an issue in our research when the instructors imposed an arbitrary constraint: the solution had to cost a million dollars or more. It honestly made no sense. How do you stay focused while working on a difficult problem? Jewel-encrusted headphones. Build a private office on a desert island. Hire Ryan Gosling to distract the people who were trying to distract you. What?

The goal of brainstorming is to encourage outside-the-box thinking. Adding arbitrary, or even silly, constraints does this by making you think of crazy, impractical, or even impossible solutions. Not only might one of these "crazy" solutions turn out to be totally feasible, but at the very least you're forced to identify (and maybe ignore) the implicit assumptions that had constrained you before. It sounds crazy, but it works.

And here's a testimony to prove it. Phil Hansen is an artist who suffered irreparable nerve damage that eliminated his ability to draw straight lines. Rather than being stymied, he took this constraint and used it to launch his art into a new realm of creative (and sometimes crazy) expression. Take a few minutes to watch his 2013 TED talk here:

Killing Creativity...Or Not

If you've been with us for more than a few posts, you'll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstormingasking questionsbreaking routines, finding the right environmentBut what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn't it look like? In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn't look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it's one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who "come out on top" in the current system, after all; who "win all the brownie points and do everything they're supposed to." As children grow, Robinson argues, we "progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side." Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It's a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here's the one that got the loudest applause: "creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."

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TEDLuck: A Recipe for Geekin' Out

Last week my housemates and I hosted our second "TEDLuck" event, which is designed around the idea of bringing together a diverse group of people to share in good food and wine while geeking out over a handful of TED talks. Our theme for the night was "Stories", so we watched Billy Collins' illustrated poems in "Everyday Moments Caught in Time" and Sarah Kay's spoken word "If I Should Have a Daughter" while enjoying a hearty potluck dinner of pasta, salads, butternut squash, and wine. From the perspective of creativity theory, the event works well because it brings together a diverse set of viewpoints, adds just a small dose of structure, and then allows the discussion to flow as it will. The group is thus on a collaborative mission (see last post) to learn and explore interesting ideas. From the perspective of the people involved, the event works well just because the food is delicious and it's a fun way to hang out with people after a long day. Here's the recipe, if you want to organize one yourself:

  1. Select a theme. So far we've done "technology" and "stories".
  2. Get your group. We had 7 for the first and 10 for the second, but I think smaller groups would work well too.
  3. Select three TED talks or other similar videos roughly related to your theme. You can browse all of the talks at TED.com, and there's no shortage of bloggers who have sorted and tagged their favorites as well.
  4. Have everybody bring over a dish, give everyone a glass of wine, and sit down to enjoy some talks! We've tried discussing each talk individually as well as waiting until the end; the best approach seems to be to let the discussion flow organically.

Both TEDLucks that we've held held have been fantastic, fun, and enlightening evenings. If you host your own and have suggestions or improvements, let me know! We'll probably run another within the next couple of weeks on the topic of community or citizenship; themes that resonate with personal experience and don't presuppose a correct answer (e.g., "sustainability") seem to be the most exciting.



Elizabeth Gilbert on the Daemons Within

Those of us who study innovation tend to believe that individual creativity is a skill; certain people may have greater initial aptitudes, but anyone might be able to learn and hone their creative process. Not only does this viewpoint give scholars like me a fair amount of job security, but it also offers a fundamentally optimistic take on the ownership and agency that individuals have in their creative lives. In a 2009 TED Talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert explores an unanticipated dark side effect of this perspective. If artists are fundamentally in control of their creative lives, how are they to deal with the "utter maddening capriciousness" of the creative process? And is it a coincidence that have creativity and anguish become so indelibly linked in our minds?

She's speaking after the knockout success of her own "Eat, Pray, Love", and speaks candidly about her personal fears that her best work is now behind her. She also discusses the strategies she uses to overcome these fears, drawing in particular on the ancient Greek and Roman ideas that creative brilliance was due to divine spirits (Daemons, in the Greek) that attended to and inspired artists' work. Without giving away everything I'll share the key lines:

"So the dancer [who had inspired such beauty the night before] wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11am and he's no longer a glimpse of god; he's just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he's never going to ascend that high again…what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

"But maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you, but [instead] you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you're finished to somebody else."

The message to artists is thus "don't be afraid - just show up and do your job." Work hard, be ready to capture brilliance should it come, and when it does - or doesn't - it isn't all on you. Watch the talk here.