Dilbert and the flower pot

March 19, 2012

Yesterday’s Dilbert.com comic strip showed our hero at a party, drink in hand,   trying to impress a young lady. When she asks why he’s wearing a flowerpot on his head, he announces that he’s creative.  Hmmm…

Is wearing a flowerpot on your head, an act of creativity?

He then states that creativity is random.  I guess he means that  it  just happens without a  method or plan.  I wonder about the colleges and universities that teach courses in creativity, and about the many scholarly articles published every year that aim to describe, understand, and test the theories (which Dilbert calls “the algorithm” ) that explain creative behavior.

What do you think?  Is creativity random?  Can it be planned, or encouraged with a method?

Please share your thoughts below, in a comment.

5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Judging Creativity: Timing the Test

June 23, 2010

3. Timing the test.

Creativity requires the kind of relaxed attention that allows one to be “in the flow.” Sometimes that comes quickly, but it often takes time to tease out new ideas from the many mundane ideas that pass through our awareness.

Consider the new TV reality show: Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, where aspiring artists are pitted against one another in timed competition to create works of art of a particular type in 12 to 14 hours. This brings the shocking juxtaposition of our on-demand lifestyle to the world of culture.

While some professional art fields (industrial and graphic design, for example) require production on a schedule, the constraints of the TV show’s production schedule make the artistic products more like art school test projects than actual works of art. It must be frustrating for the artists on the show to have to set their artistic goals to what can be achieved in the time available.

On creativity tests, as well, the fact that you’re being timed can be an inhibition to creative production. Certainly, one cannot wait forever for a creative idea, but putting pressure on test takers is not conducive to the most creative solutions. If you have to limit the time that is allowed to solve a problem, make the amount of time provided ample so that test-takers are not rushed.

Destined for Success?

May 2, 2010

Lately I’ve been reading a couple of books about how successful people grow up to flourish and show their creativity, while others do not.  These two books that have some similarities, but also some important differences.

They’re both written by journalists who excel at making scientific information accessible to the general reader.  They both treat the subject of personal achievement in society and how it emerges.

  • Both David Schenk’s The Genius in All of Us and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers advocate the virtues of practice, perseverance, and steadfastness.  Both debunk the myth of the gifted loner who by her special gifts is easily able to surpass all others. And both stress the importance of societal supports for creating a level playing field for achievement.
  • Both also devote significant attention to the Louis Terman “genius studies,” their results (disappointing) and their methodological shortcomings (among them the selection of participants, and defining giftedness as intelligence.)
  • Another similarity is in the fact that both push back on two different types of “predestination” theories that attempt to explain success and failure.  Schenk’s book is an extended essay debunking the notion that genes alone (or even genes and experience) combine statically to determine ability.  He maintains (and documents his point of view with a section of backup resources that amounts to about half of the book) that it is the dynamic interaction between the two: nature and nurture, plus the efforts of the individual through practice and self improvement to overcome weaknesses and strengthen abilities.  Gladwell is so interested in the social and cultural aspects of the nurturing of talent that he nearly suggests that the poor and under stimulated have very little chance of success in modern life.  This point of view is nearly as discouraging (or excusing) as the pure genetic explanation of success and achievement.

Outliers emphasizes how idiosyncratic, simply lucky, events can affect future success. In an interesting section he makes a case for the importance of date of birth in the emergence of the talent of hockey players. Gladwell puts an emphasis on all of the aspects of the environment around the achiever to make his point that it isn’t intelligence alone, or even pluck and perseverance, but having ability, being at the right place at the right time, and having mentors or others to support and encourage you that make the difference.

Schenk, likewise, points out the importance of having familial, cultural, and societal support for those persons able to create outstanding work. He gives tips for parents, teachers, and for individuals with a passion, for strengthen and developing that ability.

After reading both books, I developed a few takeaways from the two that seem important to me:

  • Whatever your level of ability, trying hard is important.  Both books stress how important is the passionate practice of your favored activity.  Especially for people for whom many pursuits are easy, the notion of trying hard on something is not immediately apparent.  But for truly outstanding results, many long hours of practice and trying hard are essential.
  • Giftedness as an explanation for achievement has outworn its usefulness.  There are too many people whose promise of giftedness has not been manifest in their creative products or their life achievements for those termed “gifted” to rest on their laurels, or for those not so classified to be discouraged or give up.  The proof of one’s giftedness is not in one’s abilities or scores on an exam, but rather in one’s products: what one actually makes, does, or achieves.  But, at the same time, until all children are given the support to help them pursue and develop their passions, attention to gifted education is important.
  • There is a persistent and increasing value accorded by the world in general to both the concept of creativity and the value of its practice – in child-rearing, education, management, and invention.  Though we may not all be termed “gifted,” we may all make of our lives creative expressions of our values and our passions. We may even become gifted through our own efforts.

Be Creative Now! — The Problem with Using Insight Problems as Measures of Creativity

September 19, 2009

You know those brain teaser questions that you see in popular magazines or newspapers under the heading, “Are You Creative?” These include the ever-popular nine dot problem, the word problems with surprising solutions, and mathematical problems like ones you hear Will Shortz offer up on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR. They may be fun, but when posed as tests of creativity, these little games have always irritated me, somehow, and just yesterday I figured out why.

I was reading an article by Probst, Steward, Gruys, and Tierney about how job insecurity can have adverse effects on creativity, yet increase productivity to a degree. It is an interesting article and I don’t doubt their results, but I do have a problem with how they measured the creativity of their participants.

They did two studies testing their hypothesis that, first, in a lab setting, participants who were threatened with losing their jobs would score lower on a creativity test than those who were not threatened. Second,in another study conducted in the workplace, a survey asked participants to respond to questions about how they felt about the security of their jobs, and then a creativity test (among other measures) was completed.

In the first study they used Duncker’s old insight problem about the candle, matches, and the thumbtacks. Coincidentally, I had recently heard Daniel Pink talk about that one at Chautauqua, and it bothered me then, as well. But I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time.

In the second study they used the RAT for measuring the creativity of the participants. Both of these measures are old and well-established metrics for identifying creative behavior or creative potential. But now I know why I always have felt somehow unsatisfied at the prospect of measuring creativity in this way.

Whenever I’m confronted with the 9 dot problem, for example, I have to really strain to remember the right answer. I’ve seen it so many times that I find it really boring, but in spite of this, I always forget how to solve it. I like doing RAT type problems more, since I am more verbal than figural, but still it is annoying if I miss getting that right answer.

Do you notice anything in the previous paragraph that flies in the face what we know about creative behavior? Right! Finding the “right” answer! This is a convergent task that pretends to measure creative ability. We all know that creativity is about considering multiple options, many of which might work together in a great combination of pointers that will let us solve a problem. It isn’t about being able to do well on Puzzler questions.

In the real world, we are not put in a room and told to solve a tricky problem as fast as possible, and by the way the timer is running. Even in jobs like being an emergency room doc, or a pilot in a dangerous environment, where performance requires quick thinking and the stakes are high, people are in a context where they have accumulated much domain skill that allows them to quickly access the many options that they have and select the one or ones that they will use. They can do this in an unpremeditated, almost intuitive way, but they are at some level scanning their options and selecting among them.

The obvious creativity of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot that landed his plane in the Hudson River made a quick decision to avoid crashing into a populated area, involved his using an uncannily rapid scan of his behavioral repertoire and choosing the best alternative. He deserves much credit, and he is undoubtedly a highly creative person. I’m not sure, though, that that means he can quickly solve the 9 dot problem or the candle and tacks problem (unless he had seen them before and cared enough to remember them.) It seems a trick, somehow, to ask people to do that.

If we want to see how people are creative, we should ask them to show us what they have done. We could consider a portfolio of writing or art or design. We could ask them to bring in something cool that they’ve made, and ask them to tell us about it. We could ask them to show us some of the ads they’ve created, or the patents that they’re most proud of. Not to count them up, but to be witness to the products of their creativity. With creativity, the proof is in the pudding. Not in inventories of accomplishments or personal achievements or in solving on-the-spot parlor tricks.

Daniel Pink on Motivation

August 10, 2009

Monday’s amphitheater lecture by Daniel Pink was well attended and much appreciated by the crowd. He’s lectured here before and does a good job of bringing academic studies to the attention of a general and business audience. His information was not new, from the point of view of research, but he was correct when he stated that “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

The implications of the research have not been often applied to business and educational settings, and those organizations and educational settings that do have an understanding about what contributes to an environment that fosters creativity are often considered at the creative edge: Atlassian, Google, 3M, and Wikipedia, for example.

If you didn’t hear his lecture, or if you want to review its content, read this excellent summary of his speech presented earlier this summer in Oxford, England, at the TEDGlobal 2009 conference.

His basic point was that attempts to encourage creative work by monetary rewards tend to extinguish the creative behavior. People are more likely to behave creatively when they work with a degree of autonomy, have developed mastery of their subject matter, and have the kind of engagement and commitment that he sums up with the term “purpose.”

At Chautauqua, he attempted to replicate the 1945 Duncker candle problem as a type of parlor trick by bringing three audience members to the stage and providing them with the materials to solve the problem (with the other 3000 attendees looking on). Within a few seconds, the first participant from the audience solved the insight problem. Apparently the volunteer was gifted with the ability for creative insight, or she had been exposed to the solution to the problem. It has, after all, been around since ’45, and has been discussed in numerous psychology texts.

It was an entertaining lecture that brought together some important ideas for improving business practice and education.