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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We Think You Need This

Nobody likes commercial breaks, but advertising is what keeps so many of our beloved products like Wordpress, Gmail, and ABC's The Bachelorette online and available. And it's not just a necessary evil, it's a really interesting and really valuable opportunity for creative thinking. Advertisers have a fascinating problem: how do you convince someone that they should purchase a product, given that they're likely bombarded by around 5,000 ads per day and that even if they do notice you they'll probably resent your interruption? Google goes for data. With their giant suite of products they're able to capture ever more data about you, and if you read up on their business plan it's to (eventually) present ads that are so targeted and so relevant that you're glad to see them. In conventional media, ads can be bright and flashy (Sunday Sunday Sunday!), loud and annoying (Head On! Apply directly to forehead!), or downright subtle.That's the idea behind product placement, which is designed to sneak past your anti-advertising filters and make you think, "yeah, Doritos really would be good right now." Companies can appeal to childhood memories (Coke), sports heroes (Nike), heartstrings (SPCA), or national pride (Bud). But the ones that I find most exciting are those that engage our minds and our curiosity.

The Sony Bravia series from 2008 is a favorite. How do you show someone how beautiful a high definition TV can be when they need one to understand? Answer: immerse them in an iconic city, then add some soulful Jose Gonzales and a million colorful bouncy balls.

The result is, well, beautiful. Four years later I still think about this commercial; I haven't bought a Bravia, but they definitely succeeded in standing out from the crowd (and there's even a Facebook fan page). Given the size of the industry and the amount of talent out there, it's easy to name hundreds of memorable ads. What are your favorites?

The Most Creative Music Video

I recently stumbled across this music video by David Fain called "Choreography for Plastic Army Men". It's for an instrumental piece by the Portland band Pink Martini, and - you guessed it - it's got some creativity. Which led to an interesting question: what is the most creative music video of all time?

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What Rock Climbing and Creativity have in Common

El Capitan, a towering 3,000' monolith of granite located in Yosemite Valley, presents a brutal challenge for any climber. Here's how legendary climber Mayan Smith-Gobat describes her 2011 ascent the mountain's Salathe Wall:

"My brain switches off to everything else, and only that moment exists...that's probably when you feel most alive, but you're not thinking about life. It's just being there, right there.. Most of it's just body and mind coming together, everything focused on one task."

Interestingly, that type of language is exactly how creative always people describe their creative process; regardless of their age, nationality, or the project they're working on. And while it is surprising enough that people from all walks of life would describe creativity in the same way, it seems even stranger that the language they use also describes rock climbing - or even religion. As it turns out, all of these activities are manifestations of what creativity scholar Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has termed "flow".

Flow is the automatic, effortless, and highly focused state of consciousness that comes along with stretching one's capacity and engaging in novel discovery and creation. Flow is that feeling that we've likely all had of "losing oneself" entirely in an activity, only to "wake up" minutes or hours later to find that the world has gone on without us. Through in-depth interviews with dozens of highly creative people, Csikzentmihalyi found a few common factors that allow people to find flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one's actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

The last factor is the big one, since that's what what allows us to really lose ourselves in the creative process. Autotelic is a Greek word for something that is an end in itself; it's a poem written because it wants to be written, or a mountain climbed because it is there. An activity becomes autotelic when we're just at the edge of what we're capable of, or "trying something that's right at your limit", as Smith-Gobat says. The balance of this challenge, along with the freedom to focus and a confidence in our ability, is what allows us to engage freely in the creative process. And that's where all the other elements come in. Jack Kerouac famously taped hundreds of sheets of paper together and fed them into his type writer while writing On The Road, for instance, so that he could avoid the distraction of changing pages. His goal was to become completely absorbed in the story he was creating, as flow is found when we're acting and creating and learning without thinking of any of those things.

We actually had a term to describe this same phenomenon in rowing: "swing" was eight rowers becoming one. I suspect that this feeling was a lot like the sensation of mind and body coming together that Mayan Smith-Gobat describes, as well as what a person in the throes of religious ecstasy might experience. All three are instances of people pushing themselves to their limits, searching for something beautiful. And while that doesn't necessarily make rowing (or prayer) a creative activity, it is pretty fascinating that our brains treat all three the same way.

For more, check out Csikzentmihalyi's book "Creativity", or just watch Mayan be a total bad*ss in this absolutely stunning video of her ascent up El Capitan's Salathe Wall.