Notes on Creativity

“Innovation” seems poised to become *the* business buzzword for the next few years, just as “design” has been for the last few. But for all its hype, it’s clear that, as was the case with design, there is no real understanding of what real “innovation” is–e.g. beyond the merely bizarre–or how to get more of it.

Csikszentmihalyi’s _Creativity_ ([amazon](, published in 1996, can shed some light on this subject. But it also rules out the possibility of a clear how-to manual. Csikszentmihalyi repeatedly states that Creativity (capital C) is the actual changing of cultural domains, and as such is something outside the sole grasp of mere individuals or companies. Creativity depends largely on luck and the work of others, so fate usually provides the only opportunities to be truly creative on the cultural level.*

Still, in a connected world such opportunities are growing in number, and there are ways that we can make the most of whatever Creative cards we’re dealt, being *personally* creative as an individual, group, or culture; Csikszentmihalyi details these in chapters 13 and 14. Most techniques (listed below in the notes) center on taking control of our attention, time, and surroundings such that we receive maximal inspiration and are prepared to respond most effectively.

A lot is made of “complexity”, Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the simultaneous existence of seemingly contradictory states in an individual. An example of this is someone who is both introverted and extroverted at times; or someone both playful and disciplined. Possessing this combination of traits, rather than being merely one-sided, allows a person to respond to situations in a variety of ways and see opportunities from different perspectives.

The stated ways of being personally creative influenced the three ways I’ve tried to increase my creativity this year: noticing, expressing, and sharing. In addition, Csikszentmihalyi includes several ways of increasing personal productivity and “flow” so that each of those three areas is maximally effective. Some of them mirror suggestions from Stephen Covey (“focus on what’s most important, not just what’s most urgent”) and other tips I’ve seen recently (reclaim your mornings; spend time reflecting and focusing).

Hopefully the understanding that Creativity (and “innovation”) is something dependent on lots of external circumstances will make the impact of this latest business buzzword more permanent; alas, I doubt it will make it past its first boardroom indictment (“We installed all these whiteboards and still didn’t sell more widgets?”). But I agree with Csikszentmihalyi that enhancing personal creativity, while it doesn’t promise cultural success, is still of value in enhancing our enjoyment of life and seizing whatever opportunities we do receive.

And in the end, I think the word “creativity” should claim simply that something unique is being made, by anyone, whatever its impact on society. We may not hold the all the keys to the success of ideas and products, but without creating something–anything–unique we’ll never even have a chance at it.

*This emphasis on the context of creativity implies that the most impact we can have on the amount of creativity in our culture is by enhancing the cultural conditions themselves to support innovations. This is the most promising way for companies or organizations to increase their creative yield, not by mandating it on an individual level.

### Notes

Three main tenets of creativity; the reasons it is a complex topic.

> * “An idea or product that deserves the label “creative” arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person.”

* “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.”

* “A genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.” – 1

A theory of creativity:

> Creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation. All three are necessary for a creative idea, product, or discovery to take place. – 6

Creative people change *memes*, which is why creativity can’t exist without public acceptance of the innovation.

> Languages, numbers, theories, songs, recipes, laws and values are all memes that we pass on to our children so that they will be remembered. It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture. – 7

Definition: *creativity* – “A process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed.” – 8

Creativity requires an environment where new ideas are easily noticed:

> To achieve creativity in an existing domain, there must be surplus attention available…Centers of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease. *Creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived*. – 8-9

The term “creativity” is used too broadly today, diluting its meaning to Csikszentmihalyi:

> The first usage…refers to persons who express unusual thoughts…I don’t say much about them in this book. The second way [refers] to people who experience the world in novel and original ways…such people [are] “personally creative”. The final use [describes people] who have changed our culture in some important respect. They are the *creative* ones without qualifications. – 25-26

Creativity requires *results*, not personality. Da Vinci was one who wouldn’t have seemed “creative” when you talked to him.

> It happens very often, for example, that some persons brimming with brilliance, whom everyone thinks of as being exceptionally creative, never leave any accomplishment, any trace of their existence–except, perhaps, in the memories of those who have known them. Whereas some of the people who have had the greatest impact on history did not show any originality or brilliance in their behavior, except for the accomplishments they left behind…neither Isaac Newton nor Thomas Edison would have been considered assets at a party. – 26

Definition: *creativity* – “Any act, idea or product that changes an eisting domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.” – 28

Definition: *creative person* – “Someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain.” – 28

Creators must have incentives and consequences, as Renaissance patrons and the Florentine society at large provided:

> It was because the leading citizens, as well as the common people, were so seriously concerned with the outcome of their work that the artists were pushed to perform beyond their previous limits. – 34

We must convince other people for our innovation to be real.

> “I have always looked upon the task of a scientist as bearing the responsibility for persuading his contemporaries of the cogency and validity of his thinking…I don’t think any one person’s judgment is as good as that of a collection of his better colleagues.” – George Stigler, Nobel laureate in economics – 42

Demand creativity!

> One of the major reasons the Renaissance was so bountiful in Florence is that the patrons actively demanded novelty from artists. – 43

Funny description of creativity:

> Perhaps being creative is more like being involved in an automobile accident. There are some traits that make one more likely to be in an accident…but usually we cannot explain car accidents on the basis of the driver’s characteristics along. There are too many other variables involved… – 45

How to be creative: first see the things that are good and basic to your domain.

> The person must learn the rules and the content ofd the domain, as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field…artists agree that a painter cannot make a creative contribution without looking, and looking, and looking at previous art, and without knowing what other artists and critics consider good and bad art. – 47

Jacob Rabinow’s “how to be creative” – 48-49

1. Be interested in things – “You have to have a tremendous amount of information–a big database.”

2. Enjoy and demand creation – “You have to be willing to pull the ideas, because you’re interested…it’s just fun to come up with something strange and different.”

3. Iterate/churn/repeat – “You must have the ability to get rid of the trash which you think of. You cannot think only of good ideas, or write only beautiful music. You must think of a lot of music, a lot of ideas, a lot of poetry, a lot of whatever. And if you’r egood, you must be able to throw out the junk immediately without even saying it.

Note to self – investigate Rabinow’s “Bureau of Standards, National Institute of Standards”, which evaluates ideas…and throws out the bad ones for you.

Again, the need for others to validate your innovation:

> To say what is beautiful you have to take a sophisticated group of people, people who know that particular art and have seen a lot of it, and say this is good art, or this is good music, or this is a good invention. – 50

You have to be curious in how things work:

> Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting problem. – 53

Csikszentmihalyi describes “ten dimensions of creativity”, each a complex combination of traits. Worth exercising each side of each dimension with some regular activities? – 55-76

1. Lots of energy and often quiet and at rest

2. Smart and naive

3. Playful and disciplined

4. Fantastic and realistic

5. Extroverted and introverted

6. Humble and proud (ambition and selflessness)

7. Masculine and feminine; the strengths of both genders

8. Traditional and rebellious

9. Passionate and objective

10. Suffering and enjoying

But one trait describes them all – “complexity”

> If I had to express in one word what makes [creative people’s] personalities different from others, it out be *complexity*. By this I mean that they show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes–instead of being an “individual”, each of them is a multitude.” – 57

Why having a complex, contradictory personality is helpful:

> Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire but usually atrophy because we think that one or the other pole is “good”, whereas the other extreme is “bad”. – 57

Freedom of time and how you focus your energy is important

> “[My father] said, ‘Well, what drove me on tot be my own boss was that the thing that I wanted most was to be able to have a nap every day after lunch.’…I think it is very important. If you will not permit yourself to be driven and flogged through life, you’ll probably enjoy it more.” – Robertson Davies – 59

“Naivete is the most important attribute of genius.” – Goethe – 60

Somehow you must be both expert at the standards of your domain *and* naive about the questions you’re asking:

> People who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the *convergent* [IQ tests, fact memorization] and the *divergent* [lots of different ideas]. – 60

Bored? Anxious? For the part of every design process that just requires endurance, pretend you’re in jail!

> “When I have a job to do like that, where you have to do something that takes a lot of effort, slowly, I pretend I’m in jail. Don’t laugh. And if I’m in jail, time is of no consequence…What else have I got to do?” – Jacob Rabinow – 62

Don’t just be novel:

> “This idea to create something different is not my aim, and shouldn’t be anybody’s aim…to be different is a negative motive, and no creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse.” – Eva Zeisel, artist – 72

Care about things! Get angry!

> “Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them.” – Jacob Rabinow – 73

Traditional creative process has five steps – 79-80

1. Preparation – becoming immersed, learning the field

2. Incubation – ideas churn in the subconscious

3. Insight – the “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment

4. Evaluation – judging the insight’s value

5. Elaboration – the “99% perspiration”

But it’s really more iterative than that. These steps are always mixed up together.

You must learn the craft but then be willing to reject it in the pursuit of more:

“Impara l’arte, e mettila da parte” (learn the craft, and then set it aside) – Italian saying – 90

The hard part is finding out what the problem is (like the answer “42” in the Hitchhiker’s Guide):

> “It is characteristic of scientific life that it is easy when you have a problem to work on. The hard part is finding your problem.” – Freeman Dyson – 96

Sometimes a little distraction allows you to think better–like walking, raking a zen garden…or maybe skateboarding? The “peri-skat-etic” method?

> The Greek philosophers had settled on the peripatetic method–they preferred to discuss ideas while walking up and down in the courtyard of the academy – 137

Cycling may be too intense:

> It may be best to combine these periods of reflection with some other task that requires a certain amount of attention, but not all of it. – 354

> Devoting full attention to a problem is not the best recipe for having creative thoughts – 138

Be interested! Encourage your children’s interests! The young Darwin once found three interesting bugs in the woods and could only carry two in his hands, so he put the other in his mouth and ran home while it tried to escape down his throat. – 157

> Practically every individual who has made a novel contribution to a domain remembers feeling awe about the mysteries of life and has rich anecdotes to tell about efforts to solve them. – 156

Mediocrity seems to be the only thing missing from the childhoods of creative individuals; I was fortunate to have the supportive type, but it’s good to hear that lack of resources don’t always stifle creativity.

> Creative individuals seem to have had either exceptionally supportive childhoods or very deprived and challenging ones. What appears to be missing is the vast middle ground. – 171

Be driven:

> Curiosity and drive are in many ways the yin and yang that need to be combined in order to achieve something new. The first requires openness to outside stimuli, the second inner focus. – 185

Don’t look in the classifieds – “Creative individuals usually are forced to invent the jobs they will be doing all through their lives…In addition, these pioneers must create a field that will follow their ideas, or their discovery will soon vanish from the culture.” – 193

Interesting Roman quote about family and learning:

> The Romans had a saying: _libri aut liberi_ (books or children), referring to how difficult it was to have it both ways…yet there are of course many notable exceptions, and the people in this book in general are among them. – 199

“Caring is a good feeling, and we’ve lost our appetite for it.” – Robert Trachinger, television producer – 224

“I find that my craft helped me very much to make life meaningful, because once you make a pot and it is outside of you, it makes your life kind of justified and not flimsy…it justifies your existence.” – Eva Zeisel – 230

Jonas Salk feels his creations contribute to “metabiological evolution, evolution of the mind by itself, the brain-mind. And now I’m beginning to write about teleological evolution, which is evolution with a purpose.” – 232

Spending time alone as a child seems important–perhaps because it stands in contrast to normal youth, always with others?

> Like all the other creative individuals, he spent much of his youth alone. – 277

It’s worth keeping in touch with people from lots of fields, even at a distance:

> Feeling that specialized scientific interactions were limiting, he started corresponding with kindred spirits, and that correspondence eventually grew into an informal network that spans the globe – about George Klein, biologist – 277

The first serious (e.g. non-Simpsons?) use of this word I’ve seen: “But there are *indubitably* other reasons” – 290

How to notice things:

> “When I was five–you know, like where you just open your eyes and you look around and say, “Wow, what an incredible trip this is! What the hell is going on? What am I supposed to be doing here?” I’ve had that question i me all my life. And I love it! It makes every day very fresh. If you can keep that question fresh and remember what that was like when you were a child and you looked around and you looked at, say, trees, and you forgot that you knew the word _tree_–you’ve never seen anything like that before. And you haven’t named anything. And you haven’t routinized your perceptions at all. *And then every morning you wake up and it’s like the dawn of creation*.” – Hazel Henderson, economist – 298

Also worth checking out: C.S. Peirce’s distinction between “perception” and “recognition”, and Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan’s practice of “stopping the world”.

“To get the things done that I had to get done, I had to be more open and more interested.” – John Gardner – 314

Interesting idea to realize our connection to the world, worth trying!

> According to the ancient Zoroastrian creed, each person was expected to pray forgiveness of the water for having polluted it, of the earth for having disturbed it, of the air for having filled it with smoke. – 315

A good mission/problem to solve: Find ways to represent systems thinking about the world…any success from these folks? Could Google or Wikipedia do this? Is it an interface problem?

> Scientists in the West started to study systems only recently…we are still at the prescientific, metaphorical stage. The myth of Gaia, which describes the planet as a living, self-correcting organism, is one [such system]. The anthropic principle, which claims that our thoughts and actions actually make the existence of the universe possible, is another. – 316

Our continued progress depends on creativity:

> In the last few millennia evolution has been transformed from being almost exclusively a matter of mutations in the chemistry of genes to being more and more a matter of changes in memes–in the information that we learn and in turn transmit to others. If the right memes are selected, we survive; otherwise we do not…to be human means to be creative. – 318

The importance of staying hungry; the innovator’s dilemma applied to culture:

> If necessity is the mother of invention, secure affluence seems to be its dysfunctional stepparent…the more well-off we become, the less reason we have to look for change, and hence the more exposed we are to outside forces. – 321

Creativity has its dangers, but there are ways to recognize and avoid them:

> The argument so far has tried to establish two points: that creativity is necessary for human survival in a future where the human species plays a meaningful role and that the results of creativity tend to have undesirable side effects.

> If one accepts these conclusions, it follows that human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas. – 322

So what ways are there to increase creativity?

1. More creative individuals – individuals should do (and have done for them) things that increase personal creativity. Encouraging complex behaviors is especially important, as is developing interest in things early. – 328

2. More creative field/culture – “It is possible to single out seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope opportunity, and reward.” – 330

> A society that can match effectively opportunities for training with the potentials of children has an impact t on the frequency of creative ideas its members produce. – 331

> Expecting high performance is a necessary stimulus for outstanding achievement and hence for creativity. – 331

More on the confluence of hardship and creativity…perhaps what is needed is not necessarily personal hardship, but clear knowledge and understanding of it such that it still motivates?

> Certainly, if we wish to encourage creativity, we have to make sure that material and intellectual resources are widely available to all talented and interested members of society. Yet we should realize that a certain amount of hardship, of challenge, might have a positive effect on their motivation. – 332

The role of a mentor:

> The mentor’s main role is to validate the identity of the younger person and to encourage him or her to continue working in the domain. – 332

To enable hope, you should connect people with opportunities:

> It is not realistic to expect a great deal of talent to be attracted to a domain, no matter how important it is, if there is little chance of practicing it…after hope, one also needs to have real opportunities to act in the domain. – 333

Rewards are integral too:

> Finally, rewards–both intrinsic and extrinsic–help the flowering of creativity…Money gives relief from worries, from drudgery, and makes more time available for one’s real work. – 334

> Similarly, public recognition and acclaim are certainly not necessary to truly creative persons, yet they are not rejected either…In one of the most high-powered research institutes in the country, where many a Nobel Prize was won, there used to be an associate director whose main job was to pay a daily visit to each scientist’s lab and marvel at his or her latest accomplishments–even though he often had little idea what they were. – 335

The value of simply better showing things as they are, like Copernicus, Galileo, and…Google?

> Whenever a better way of representing reality is found, it opens up new paths of exploration and discovery – 340

“Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it” – 342

“When we live creatively, boredom is banished and every moment holds the promise of a fresh discovery.” – 342

Ways to be more personally creative

1. Be more curious and interested
1. Notice – “Try to be surprised by something every day” – 347
2. Share and practice – “Try to surprise at least one person every day” – 347
3. Record and review – “Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others…after a few weeks, you may begin to see a pattern of interest emerging” – 347
4. Act on your interests – “When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it” – 348
2. Be more productive, via flow
1. State your goals; even daily – “Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to” – 349
2. Increase complexity – “To keep enjoying something, you need to increase its complexity” – 350
3. Develop “habits of strength”
1. Be intentional about time – “Take charge of your schedule” – 352
2. Take time out – “Make time for reflection and relaxation…schedule times in the day, the week, and the year just to take stock of your life” – 353
3. “Shape your space” – the contexts and surroundings of your work and life, including your location – 354
4. “Find out what you like and what you hate about life” – so that you can pursue what makes you happy – 357
4. Develop your internal traits
1. “Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate” – 357
2. Become more complex by working on the opposites of your strengths – “Develop what you lack” – 360
3. Switch from focused to wide views – “Shift often from openness to closure” – 361
5. Find more problems
1. “Express what moves you” – 364
2. Examine problems from different angles – “Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible” – 365

We are our memories:

> One of the surest ways to enrich life is to make experiences less fleeting, so that the most memorable, interesting, and important events are not lost forever a few hours after they occurred – 347

Perhaps why all tech moguls gravitate toward the black t-shirt and jeans outfit?

> At first many people were mildly shocked that the great Alfred Einstein always wore the same old sweater and baggy trousers. Why was he being so weird? Of course, Einstein wasn’t trying to upset anybody. he was just cutting down on the daily effort involved in deciding what clothes to wear, so that his mind could focus on matters that to him were more important. – 351

Place defines you; and why both San Diego and New York may not be ideal for creativity.

> It is important to live in a place that does not use up a lot of potential energy either by lulling the senses into complacency or by forcing us to fight against an intolerable environment. – 355

Develop a routine for some things so you can spend more attention on other more important things.

> Developing a routine for storing such things as car keys and eyeglasses repays itself more than a hundredfold in time saved. If you know your home and office so well that you can find anything even if blindfolded, your train of thought need not be continuously interrupted to look for something. – 355

Maybe worth building an “ESM via SMS” system? Built on Twitter?

> How can you learn the dynamics of your emotions? The first thing is to keep a careful record of what you did each day and how you felt about it. This is what the Experience Sampling Method accomplishes–pagers are programmed to signal you at random times during the day, and then you fill out a short questionnaire.

“The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with techniques that organize time, space, and activity to your advantage.” – 358

It’s important to know what your strengths are so that you can work on their opposites to become more complex. Tell your friends what they’re great at; ask them to do the same for you? – 360

“We can see depth only because looking with two eyes gives us slightly different perspectives. How much deeper can we see when instead of two eyes we rely on four!” – 362

A trick for seeing different viewpoints of a problem: reverse the formulation of the problem; then later, reverse your proposed solutions:

> If someone has been promoted ahead of you, you might define the problem as “This happened because the boss dislikes me.” As soon as you do this, _reverse the formulation_: “It happened because I dislike the boss.” – 365

> [Comparing results of different solutions] often yields the most creative result. It is good to be quick and consistent. But if you wish to be creative you should be willing to run the risk of sometimes seeming indecisive. – 367

Another exercise to try: rewrite random selections of text.

> One exercise involves taking a random paragraph from the paper each day and seeing if you can find unique, more memorable ways of expressing the same ideas. – 369

A possibly-interesting read? “Howard Gardner’s biographical account of seven representative geniuses of our times (1993)” – 415

Don Juan’s “stopping the world”, summarized:

> It consists in registering sensory stimuli without labeling them according to culturally defined conventions; for instance, looking at a tree without thinking of it as a “tree”, or letting any previous knowledge about trees enter into consciousness. It turns out that this exercise is extremely difficult, if not impossible to carry out…The suggestion to be surprised by what one encounters during the day is a less radical version of “stopping the world”. – 427