Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fostering Creativity

Creativity has long fascinated me.

What exactly is it? Are there different types? Can it be taught or fostered?

Finding a definition of creativity that everyone agrees on seems impossible. It is generally agreed that creativity often involves the combining of new and/or established ideas in new, innovative ways.

Whether or not a creative innovation is good or bad depends on whether the new idea is effective in some way—does it make something easier, safer, faster or more aesthetically compelling?

Many people associate creativity almost exclusively with the arts. However, creativity is not restricted to any subject, discipline or activity. It is very possible to be quite creative and innovative while doing things that many of us view as mundane – cleaning house, mowing the lawn and so on. Creativity is a way of operating.

Some years back, I had the pleasure of attending John Cleese’s lecture, “Creativity in Management”. This sparked my interest in how creativity might be taught or fostered. I looked for ways to advance my own creative development and for techniques to aid in the training of the comic book artists I was working with.

Cleese’s lecture was incorporated into a series of videos that his business training company, Video Arts, produced. There are three Cleese videos specifically related to creativity:
  • Creativity in Management
  • The Importance of Mistakes
  • The Hidden Mind

You have to pay to see the first two tiles but The Hidden Mind can be viewed online.

In recent years, I’ve gotten involved with public education. This has renewed my interested in finding ways to foster creativity, especially in the classroom environment.

Creative thinking is vital to student success in all subject areas. To prepare students for future success in and beyond the classroom, they need to have techniques that foster creative innovation.

As educator, author and creativity expert Ken Robinson points out, we don’t even know what the world will be like in 5 years yet our schools are now teaching kids who will be expected to work productively for forty or more years from now. The education we give kids today can’t possibly anticipate the information and skills they will need years down the road. However, if they have the tools to be creative and to innovate, they will have a much better chance of succeeding no matter how the world changes.

Here is a link to a great video presentation, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” that Robinson gave at a recent TED conference.

Other Robinson videos can be seen on YouTube. I also recommend his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.

Based on the research I’ve done so far, here are some things that can be said about the slippery subject of creativity:

  • Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating and it can be taught.
  • It is not related to IQ (providing you have a minimum level of IQ).
  • To get into a creative mood, creative people often get into a “playful mood” to explore ideas for enjoyment.
  • The best combination of environment and attitude that is needed to foster creative thinking involves having a quiet space and enough time to get into the proper frame of mind. However, these conditions are not practical to use in a classroom environment.
  • There are a variety of brainstorming techniques for individuals and for groups that are useful in the classroom.
  • For creative thinking/brainstorming, it’s vital to create a climate where people are not identified with/tied to/judged by the ideas they throw out off the top of their heads. They have to feel free to contribute without fear of being judged negatively. You never know what may turn out to be a constructive contribution. Seemingly ridiculous thoughts may spark a chain reaction that leads to a creative solution.
  • Creativity and humor are linked. The way seemingly dissimilar ideas come together when brainstorming is similar to the way a punch line works in a joke. The humor in a punch line is often derived by shifting to a different frame of reference when coming to the end of a train of connected thoughts or events in a joke. You laugh at the movement of contact/juxtaposition between two frames of reference.
  • Mistakes are a vital part of the learning process. There is a British proverb: The man who does not make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.

Ideally, I’d like to discover a group of tools/techniques that enable students in an often boisterous classroom environment to be more creative and innovate across a wide range of subjects and endeavors. I’d also like to be able to measure the effects of adding creativity fostering techniques to various subjects. (That will be no easy feat!)

As I get a chance to do more research on creativity, I‘ll post what I learn here.


Marc Siry said...

Creativity often involves connecting previously unrelated concepts, techniques, methods, or ideas, and coming up with an unexpected result.

These types of connections happen best in an unstructured environment- which is why it's tough for a big, mature company, laden with process, to be creative. It's also why creativity often happens under pressure- when the rules go out the window, previously unthinkable connections can be made.

For old fogies like us, this theory has the unfortunate corollary of implying that creativity is the province of the young- new ideas are more easily born in a mind free of learned behaviors. The inverse of that could be argued- with more total information in a person's head, there's more opportunity for new connections. I do recall reading something depressing about how most brilliant thinkers did their best work in their 30s, which is depressing for my 40 something brain to process.

If any of the above is true, it follows that those making a living off their creativity should endeavor to expose themselves to as wide a range of influences as possible, and they should be comfortable with living with some level of intellectual chaos all their lives. This is counter to the way we're told an ideal life should be run... no wonder true creativity is a rare and precious skill.

Mark B said...

You should check out the Twla Tharp book The Creativity Habit, it's more about just building all the structure of doing the work then being creative, but you gotta do the work to be creative. She's amazingly rigorous in laying the foundations for her work. And a wicked self-editor.

Another book, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt is from the completely different perspective of programming but covers much the same ground of building the structure to keep learning and doing work.

arturo said...

The concept of "freedom" is implied all throughout this post and comments. To me this is the key concept.

It implies no preconceptions and in some cases not even a goal in mind, but simply opening your mind to the infinite stream of thought that occurs when we silence our ego and our own internal noise. In that situation, even the most mundane object, thought or event becomes relevant because all we are doing is letting connections reinforce themselves.

If they are "relevant" to the task at hand they will eventually survive or come around in unexpected ways.

As a deterministic person that I am, all I try to do is to observe what it already is, as the fog of "future" clears before the minds I, since a solution to me already exists (otherwise It would not come to be:-) we just need to recognize it, and let it be.

I think one of the obstacles to great creativity is the need most people have to stake a claim to the end result, this attitude actually impedes the flow and delays the best outcome.

In short, creativity for me is the ability to gently hold the doors open, regardless of whose or what ideas come through.

Lou Bank said...

<< The best combination of environment and attitude that is needed to foster creative thinking involves having a quiet space and enough time to get into the proper frame of mind. However, these conditions are not practical to use in a classroom environment.>>

Like Marc, I'd disagree with this. Quiet space *can* be conducive to creativity, but chaos can be just as conducive. A man in a war zone who is at risk of having his head blown off can become extremely creative when looking for ways to save himself.

Stress can be a great facilitator of creativity. I think you have so many depressed and unbalanced artists because they were raised in the kinds of stressful homes that require them to think quickly and creatively in order to gain a sense of safety and comfort.

As for teaching creativity ... I'd suggest you look back in early childhood for an answer. From what we're seeing in the birth-to-five crowd, asking children open-ended questions about the books you're "reading" to them (don't read books, tell stories--and ask them questions about what *they* think will happen based on the illustrations) and the science "experiments" and cooking activities you're going to do with them gives them the impetus to develop critical-thinking skills. *that* appears to be where creativity can be taught.

<< There were others who were known more as writer/editors but who had drawing skills they didn’t demonstrate to the public very often (Mike Carlin, Joey Cavalieri...)>>

... and Carl Potts!

Steve Buccellato said...

Carl, I've read this post and its comments several times since you wrote it. I guess it has struck a chord with me because I've been thinking about the subject a lot lately. The reason is because I've been experiencing a real creative "block" for well over a year now. It's something I will probably blog about myself...if I can sit down and write, that is! ;)

I think Marc said it perfectly. The idea of " with some level of intellectual chaos" seems right on the money, to me. I often look back at my turbulent teens and twenties and think that while I was often unhappy, I was never at a loss for ideas. Maybe they weren't great ideas, but they were plentiful. Today it is much more difficult for me to be creative while living a happy and content life. Furthermore, as a freelancer working alone at home, without other creative people to bounce ideas off of, it often feels impossible!

Your observations make me hopeful, Carl, because there must be ways to train oneself to think more creatively. Obviously, I don't want to destroy my happy home life in order to jump-start my creativity, but there must be other, controlled ways to change my environment or my habits in ways that will foster that creative spark.

Two solutions that come to mind are: Getting a job where I can interact with other creative people. Or, developing extraordinary discipline, like the writer who has trained himself to produce every day without fail. I assume with that kind of discipline, one can develop a nimble (playful) brain that is open to making those creative "connections" that produce results.

Both solutions have their difficulties.

Anyway, good food for thought. I'll keep thinking about it, and checking back here to see what other good ideas may be suggested!


Carl Potts said...

Hi Steve,

For the sake of this reply I’ll use terms like “being creative” when referring to those engaged in writing and drawing but, as we all know, being creative is in no way confined to the arts.

It may be that if you live in “interesting times” as the Chinese put it, it’s easier for a creative artist to come up with material, to make connections between charged emotions or events. The real life conflicts and tension provide fodder to springboard stories or illustrations from.

However, there are plenty of very creative people who lead peaceful and satisfying personal lives who also produce great and compelling work. Since leading a peaceful life does not make news, these quiet creative folks do not end up in the news or as the subjects of biographies. Only those creatives who have turbulent personal lives make news so we get a warped perception that most creative types lead agonizing personal lives.

As an example, one of the happiest and most easy-going people I worked with at Marvel was one of the best writers I had the pleasure of working with. I suppose it’s possible this writer had some extreme stresses in his/her life that I was unaware of but we were pretty good friends for many years and I saw no evidence of that. The writer approached everything in life and in writing with an attitude of great joy. Personal or professional creative problems were seen as opportunities to do something great (even dealing with a Shooter-imposed crossover!).

A big part of being creative as a writer or artist means being able to extrapolate from your own experiences and those of others.

You don’t need to ever have had a dog, abused your spouse or ripped off your parents to create a complex character who loves his dog but abuses his wife and steals money from his poor parents to give to Greenpeace to fight illegal whaling.

You do need to be able to get into the head of that character and figure out what makes him tick.

A writer’s block is sometimes a case of not knowing your character well enough. Why would a character have a passion for protecting animals but treat the important people in his life like crap? You don’t need to have been such a screwed-up heel in real life, or even to have known such a person in order to write such a character (though it will sure help if you did!). Since we all have experienced the full range of human emotions to some degree in our lives, we can extrapolate from there and project them onto our characters.

To get to know your character more and hopefully bust that creative log jam, figure out what the character’s conscious and unconscious desirers are. Those conscious and unconscious desires are often at odds with each other and that generates internal conflict that can be expressed by external actions and conflict. Most lead characters in a story should be complex (a single entity with many facets) but not complicated (a collection of mostly unconnected elements). Even though he can be a pompous ass in person, Robert McKee is excellent at laying all this out in his book “Story”.

So, in theory, a writer or artist could be leading a very boring life and yet produce tales of rousing adventure. Or, the creator could be in a loving and stable relationship and write riveting and tragic romance tales.

Sure, having experienced the events, emotions, motivations, etc. that your characters possesses will add to the character’s authenticity. But, even those who lead fairly quiet lives have at some point experienced desire, love, hate, fear, etc. to some degree. A creative person can extrapolate how those emotions and events might affect their fictional characters in different situations.

Someone who has a fear of driving in real life can easily transpose and the stressful situations and emotions that fear causes into very different situations with much higher stakes for their characters.

That said, even those who lead peaceful lives can create “controlled chaos” pretty much on demand in order to help get the creative juices flowing through brainstorming, either alone or with others.

Brainstorming with a partner is great to do in person but there is no reason it can’t be done on the phone, or even via email or texting.

While brainstorming, you very loosely circle your thoughts around a particular problem or situation without getting too specific. You need to block out “outside” interruptions, thoughts or concerns (like “I have to get this that and the other thing done today”) so you can get into a “playful” mood. As John Cleese put it, you need to be “childlike” (not childish) with an non-judgmental curiosity and desire to learn and experiment – to take things apart and put them back together in new ways. In other words, to “play.”

When brainstorming with a partner or two, no one should immediately judge whether a contribution one of the participants makes is good or bad. Even a seemingly ridiculous comment might lead down a trail that will arrive at a solution” to whatever is you are trying to address.

Not all brainstorming sessions are productive in the sense that they come up with an innovative solution to whatever issue was being contemplated. However, the more you brainstorm, the odds of success go up. Also, thoughts or ideas that occur during “unsuccessful” brainstorming sessions may prove to be valuable down the road for a different creative situation.

Keep notes of the various seemingly unconnected ideas that occur to you from time to time (whether from brainstorming or when they hit you while in the shower or as you are dozing off to sleep). Occasionally pull them out and see what ideas seem to fit together. Also try combining ideas that, on first glance, seem to have no chance of working together and see how you can make them work.

Of course, as Marc stated, sometimes an emergency situation causes stress that requires you to “get creative” real fast or face dire consequences. But, I don’t know of many people who want to purposely create such situations in order to foster creativity. (Those that do are the ones we occasionally see in the news when they do something destructive or self-destructive.)

As time allows, I’ll be doing a lot more research on creativity and any helpful info or exercises I come across will get posted on the blog.

Hope this was helpful!