Sources of creativity

My cousin Paul asked me to send him the names of some books I like that deal with Creativity. Titles that have been particularly helpful to my own creative process. I looked through my bookshelf, and found that, while I have bought a few of these kinds of books, I don’t have very many of them. And I haven’t been terribly inspired by most of those I’ve acquired.

So I started thinking about what books have truly inspired me. And, then, what other activities have stoked my own creativity over the years. This list is anything but definitive. But here’s what comes to mind.

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Dr. Edward de Bono

I heard de Bono speak at a Westweek conference at the Pacific Design Center several decades ago. It was one of the most interesting, simple, inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. I loved his way of talking about the subject of creativity. Totally low-tech — just him doodling on an overhead projector. I bought a couple of his books, including this one, and ended up teaching from them at Art Center. We’d start every class with one of his exercises. It was a fascinating experiment. And I still use his techniques from time to time to jumpstart the creative process.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

This book is somewhat related to Lateral Thinking. It explores all sorts of ways to think creatively in a little less theoretical and perhaps more practical way. To be honest, I’ve read chunks of it, but not the whole book. Good chunks. (But I devoured de Bono.)

Seth Godin: Pretty much anything he writes or talks about

I find Godin incredibly smart yet accessible. Fun to read. Fun to listen to. Full of ideas and new ways of looking at the world around him. He inspires me to see things differently and take nothing for granted.

And creative process development, other than books?

Improv classes

When you’re interacting with other people and making up dialog and situations in real time, you learn something critical: you learn to trust yourself. People are inherently creative. They just censor themselves too quickly. Staying open to the what’s going on in the moment is the trick. Being here. Now. If you’re open, you can see connections quickly. If you’re trusting, you’ll write them down or speak them out before they disappear. And a trusting and trusted partner only adds to the process…and to the fun.

Music

I play blues harmonica. Guitar, too, but the harp is the only thing I play well enough to get into a state of flow. If making music is creative, then improvising is even more so. You have no time to think; you just do it. You listen to the other musicians and to yourself, let the ideas come, and balance it all out so it sounds as good as you can get it right then. When you get too involved in “doing it right” you choke, or you sound rigid and over-controlled. Letting it flow is far more fun and usually sounds better. And if you hit a clinker, well, big deal. In the next moment, it’s gone and you’re making more music. Vocal harmonies are like that, too. You get that buzz, and you create something larger than the sum of its parts.

Museums

Art, natural history, science. All good. All expose different parts of your brain to different stimuli. All of which triggers new ways of looking and new ways of thinking. Travel works the same way.

Forget what you think you know

I think the creative process is this: fill your head with information, then forget it. Your unconscious mind will sift what you learned and help you stay pointed in the right direction. But when you’re creating you’ve got to let go of your knowledge and come at the problem like someone who knows nothing. Play more than you analyze. Trust. Step off the cliff. It’s only a metaphor. You can step right back on if it doesn’t work out.

Consuming content makes me queasy

I was listening to an interview with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. He was told by his team that they had a multimillion-dollar offer from Nokia who was looking for content for their phones.

His response was, “Content?”

‘”You know. Content.”

“What? You mean music?”

“Yes. Content.”

Yorke explains, “I think really my problem with it is, like, it’s now something to fill up the hardware with…The music itself has become secondary, which is a weird thing to me. And I think that will change because there’s only so many different permutations of the same hardware you can make before people go, ‘Well, actually I have an iPod now, so thanks.'”

I have hated the term “content” used to describe music, films, videos, literature, art, photography, since the moment I heard it uttered. It’s the ultimate commercialization and diminshment of creative work.

And what makes it worse is when people talk about “consuming content” as if there’s a ravenous public out there, bloated and gorging itself on the huge amount of junk food that all this creative work represents. While that may be the case, do we have to lump everything under this lame, lazy umbrella?

I can go with “content” to describe stuff I’m not that enamored with. Reality TV. YouTube videos of cats. And, yeah, I can see that those are consumed like Cheetos. Pop ’em in your mouth and they go straight to your hips.

But putting that disposable crap in the same category as thoughtful films like Philomena and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the powerful writing of Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon, or the innovative music of Laurie Anderson or Radiohead, seems absurd. Not only does it belittle the creators, but it belittles the reader, viewer or listener. It denies the power of art and its impact on our thinking, on our society.

I realize there’s a blurred line here. Malcolm Gladwell to me represents fascinating insights packaged in accessible ways. But to other people, he’s a huckster. Steven King produces both cheap thrills, and vast admiration of his craftsmanship and intelligence. And painting is highly subjective: Was Jackson Pollack an example of groundbreaking innovation? Or a perfect representative of non-art, as in “my kid could do that.”?

But whatever it is, it’s not “content”. It’s not a stream of thoughtless Hostess Twinkies of the mind and spirit designed to fill mobile phones and MP3 players and keep us fat and sitting on the sofa. It’s the work of real people, with real talent and something real to contribute to the human story. And I would love to see their work spoken about and thought of in that way.

As Yorke says in the same interview, “What’s weird about putting a record out now, really – and this is not like sour grapes at all – is just the fact of volume, literally the sheer volume of stuff that gets put out. It’s like this huge frickin’ waterfall and you’re just throwing your pebble in and it carries on down the waterfall and that’s that. Right, okay — next.”

Guess what? A pebble like that has value to the people who love pebbles. You admire it. You play with it. You keep it in your pocket. And perhaps you skip it across the surface of the water so someone else can enjoy it.

But you don’t “consume” it.

Bold vision: Alexa Meade paints stuff. On the stuff.

First email I opened this morning was from the fabulous TED Talks. (Please tell me you know about these. If not, go immediately to their site and watch something. Anything.) I heard a young woman articulately explain her vision, her embarrassments, her decisions and her art. She paints people — beautiful, impressionist compositions — directly on the people themselves. On their hair. In their ears. Totally covering every surface with thick acrylic paint. Then she photographs them. The results are striking.

In the world of bold leadership — an area of deep interest to me at the moment — people get the hell out of the way of themselves. They take risks and test things. They turn vague visions into action. Alexa Meade did that, and now we get to enjoy her work and celebrate her talent on TED. I wonder what bold vision is hiding inside us, waiting to be turned into its own amazing form of art?

We all lie. Imagine that.

livestrong

With Lance Armstrong’s public confession, the idea of lying is getting a lot of coverage. Clearly the guy is no paragon of virtue. But the truth is, we all lie.

Doubt it? Here’s a quote from an article in the LA Times:

“People do it because it works,” said Robert Feldman, dean of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a leading researcher on the psychology of lying. “We get away with lies all the time. Usually they’re minor: ‘I love your tie.’ ‘You did a great job.’ But in some cases they’re bigger.”

According to Feldman’s 2002 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, during a short conversation between two strangers 60% lied at least once, and the average was 2-3 lies per liar. In 10 minutes!

We rationalize, we feel guilty, we justify it, but we all do it. A lot. Men tend to lie to make themselves feel more comfortable during social interaction. Women do it, too, but often their purpose is to make the person they’re conversing with more comfortable.

The biggest liars

Perhaps shockingly to us designers and writers, you know who lies most? Creative people. It turns out that the more creative you are, the easier it is to lie. And “regular” people who are simply urged to be creative also increase their propensity and ability to lie. It’s directly related.

Why? Because imagination and lying are basically the same function of the human psyche.

When small children tell a lie, they’ll often convince themselves that what they are saying is real. Teaching them the difference between what’s made up and what’s not is a challenge parents know well. But kids’ prevarication is a way of exercising their imagination in order to try to change their parents’ minds and get them to look at a subject a different way. Which is essentially what we do in  design, advertising and marketing.

That flexibility and creativity is exactly what marketers seek. We want to present the “facts” in the best light possible to have our audience look favorably upon our client’s products or services. It’s kind of manipulative and controlling. But it’s also completely natural and human.

And there’s a huge upside to all this: envisioning a better future and creating something wonderful.

When Steve Jobs imagined a world where computers were friendly and usable, it was a lie that he told himself — until he and everyone around  his “reality distortion field” believed it. When Thomas Edison imagined motion pictures, it was a lie. There was no such thing. At least, not yet. Movies themselves are lies. Novels are lies. Beautiful photographs are lies. And so are ugly ones.

Everyone imagines first

We are strange creatures who live largely in our thoughts and our imaginations. We envision things and then we create them. Even people who aren’t “creative” do that. It’s the only way anything ever happens. It’s how a piece of wood and a rope turn into a swing. It’s how sugar and flour become a cake.

It seems that we are natural “liars”. And, like almost anything we humans do, lying can be a force for good. So go tell yourself a lie. A great big, beautiful, visionary one. But pay attention to when and why you’re doing it. With great power comes great responsibility.

Lie well.