Tag Archives: creativity

The Outer Limits of Comfort and the Value of Dissonance

Thinking, Thinking, Thinking...
Thinking, Thinking, Thinking...

Are you ready for a small slice of truth to close out your Thursday evening?  Good.  Me too.

It’s hard to have original ideas when you are surrounded by people who all have the same experiences as you.
Jonathan Harris

And there we have it.  If you are anything like me, you want to be creative and let your mind freely expand to take on new thoughts, ideas and concepts.  Heck, one of my favorite things to do is to find a connection between two seemingly disparate notions.  It can be like a game or puzzle to carefully thread ideas together, to see potential connections which are not readily apparent.  It’s actually quite fun.  I mean, maybe not quite as fun as full-contact mah jongg, but that would also be setting the bar pretty damn high.

But what happens when you seek to expand your thinking when surrounded by people who look like, talk like, sound like and live exactly as you do?  Maybe it’s who you work with every day.  Think about how your department or company probably handles recruiting new members – cultural fit is always a big thing.  Heck, I am HUGE believer that cultural fit may matter more than specific skill sets in many ways.  If someone just doesn’t “get it”, they can possess the intellect of Newton, Spinoza or Descartes and it’s going to be an utter clusterf… umm… it’s going to be super bad.  Yeah, let’s just go with super bad and move right along.

Except how do you come up with something new if everyone is the same?  What causes the deviation from the norm?  The bolt out of the blue?  The zig when everyone zags?  Unless the culture is to seek out the differences (an all-too-rare cultural trait for many groups, I find), there is nothing to inspire the new to be born.  And why would there be?  The group was brought together because of “like-ness” and similarity, not uniqueness and dissonance.

Just a little something for all of us to remember: comfort can be a wonderful thing.  It can bring a greater sense of shared understanding and it’s just a pleasant experience… but ahh… when you need something new, fresh and different?  Comfort does us a disservice.  We match, but we are stale.  We get each other, but don’t stretch each other.

Comfort is not a bad thing and can cause a great deal of harmony.  But when we seek to boldly break into new ground without a map to guide us?  Take on the iconoclast, bear out the awkwardness and let new thoughts come forth.

 

Your Pathetic Little Box

It’s a place each of us knows to one extent or another.  Maybe you have been there your whole life, always struggling to peek out and hoping to find a moment to break free.  Maybe you have broken free, only to return to its dispiriting, but oddly comforting enclosure.  Or maybe you have freed yourself from it and only look back on it as a constant reminder of where you will never stay.

That place?  The place I’m thinking of is that box of expectations people try to place you in and keep you in.  You know the box I mean.  The one where your boss expects you to play the dutiful toadie, when deep-down you know you have ideas that can make a difference.  The box that your parents tucked you into when they told you that girls don’t play tough sports or get sweaty.  The box that your high school English teacher steered you into (maybe with only the best of intentions) to pursue a career in some safe, generic career that you wake up to each day, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “My God… do I really have to go in there today?”

Your all too comfortable, but still pathetic, little box

To one extent or another, most people will spend some amount of time in their lives in that box.  It’s pretty hard not to.  Very few people are completely comfortable with living 100% outside of the expectations of other people – it’s pretty much human nature.  Sure, it may be on small things such as not wearing your Marilyn Manson “Antichrist Superstar” t-shirt to Christmas dinner because, as much as you love the alter-ego of super-nerd Brian Warner, it makes Mom horribly uncomfortable and she just wants to have a nice holiday.  But that is a small concession for the greater good of family unity.

What I’m thinking of are the greater concessions… the ones that nag and claw at your conscience… the ones that, when you give into them, you feel beaten, broken, used or just flat-out fake.  The concessions to the views of others when, even if those expectations come from a good place, you personally know they are not right for you… and you still go along with them.

I hate that box… and as I sit here typing this post and looking back on all of the “you’s” I just used… that could just as easily be replaced with “I” in many of those spots.  I do it – I know I do it… but I don’t like it.

So that’s where my little epiphany came from.  It’s not exactly Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, but this one is mine and I think it might be handy, so take it down a few notches, people.

I am going to find a cardboard box and slap my name on it with a Sharpie and then write all over it.  What will I be writing?  All of the things that other’s seek to impose upon me as their expectations that, truth be told, I either just don’t believe in or just don’t want.  The purpose of this box is twofold: (1) I want to get out in a tangible medium all of those errant expectations and (2) I find I need physical/visual reminders of things I am trying to stay mindful of.  I tend to fall a little too easily into the trap of having a good idea and maybe even writing it down, but not having it in a place of seeing it all the time to keep me on track so it becomes habit.

The 2nd step after getting the box all ready is one that can vary by person, but it’s too display the box in the most prominent place you use when you need a moment to break out of expectations.  For someone aspiring to be a writer instead of an accountant, maybe the box is at home next to the spot where she writes her short stories.  For me, it’s my home gym because I am such a firm believer in transformation of yourself in mind and spirit through pushing your body.  I want to see it to remind me all the time of the things I am looking to work past and leave very much in the dust.  Hell, I may even give that stupid box a swift kick across the room every time I set a PR.

I am doing all this because with each passing year, I have a restlessness that only increases about tolerating that damn box and I want that box nearby so I never, ever forget.  Does this all mean I am somehow getting braver? Hmm.  Not too sure… but I am definitely getting more defiant about who I am and what I want to be and the notion of not being authentic to how I truly see myself is just becoming more and more unacceptable.  I can’t be fake about who I am and I can’t just let it slide when someone is looking to force me into being something I’m not.

So I will create my box and I will set it where I will always see it.  This may work great.  This may be hokey as hell… but then again, anyone else finding this hokey is trying to put me back in that damn box… so I just don’t care anyway.

Group Think and the Creative Leap

I don’t read the newspaper all that much and when I do, it’s usually when I’m traveling since I find it as a nice way to clear my head, pass the time and catch up on a few nuggets of interesting news.  My favorite newspaper is definitely The Wall Street Journal, hands down.  I’m not a finance nerd, but I just find the other reporting across the paper to be truly excellent.

During my travel back from Florida to Connecticut, I bought the Saturday/weekend edition of the Journal on my Kindle and there was a very cool piece entitled “Humans: Why They Triumphed“.  The intro of the essay starts off as follows:

Human evolution presents a puzzle. Nothing seems to explain the sudden takeoff of the last 45,000 years—the conversion of just another rare predatory ape into a planet dominator with rapidly progressing technologies. Once “progress” started to produce new tools, different ways of life and burgeoning populations, it accelerated all over the world, culminating in agriculture, cities, literacy and all the rest. Yet all the ingredients of human success—tool making, big brains, culture, fire, even language—seem to have been in place half a million years before and nothing happened. Tools were made to the same monotonous design for hundreds of thousands of years and the ecological impact of people was minimal. Then suddenly—bang!—culture exploded, starting in Africa. Why then, why there?

The reason was the notion of the “collective brain” through the exchange of culture, ideas, trade, etc. In places where there were increased amount of human interaction (especially across a wider cross-section of people), there was the chance for a greater or even a sudden leap forward for humanity, even after millions of years of little or no progress.

I think this has a very telling from the standpoint of our own personal creativity and how it can flow in our own lives – the exposure to different people, thoughts, ideas and creations. Each of these things can serve as a catalyst to new thoughts for each of us.

PT-AO773_EVOLUT_F_20100521192057.jpg

What I find most interesting is how this can relates to the overall idea of diversity.  Often the discussion of diversity in our modern life talks only in terms of how we need to be exposed to people of varying races, creeds, socio-economic status, religions, etc. but never gets to the true WHY we should do all of that.. Without the why, the effort becomes di

minished because it takes on a presctive air of holier-than-thou guilting into doing what is right… and doing so without questioning. That gets us nowhere and makes us intellectually poorer to boot.

For me, the why comes from creating a fertile ground from which new, electric and creative ideas can sprout. Are all ideas and thoughts equal? Oh, hell no – but they should all have the chance to be vetted. They never have been and never will be, but without the chance for cross-pollination and open discussion in the marketplace of thought, we could very well miss out on some of the best ideas. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the notion of missing out on those potential diamonds of change and intellectual curiosity.

And think about any time you were engaged in a judgment free exchange of ideas. You can practically feel a crackle in the air. It’s intoxicating… but far too rare.

Which is why we need to encourage these moments to happen and cherish them when they do... you know, just like our ancestors 45,000 years ago.  Obviously.

Be Creative! Just Be Sure You Do It OUR Way

As I mentioned previously, I have become a fan of iTunes U and have begun to make use of my drive time to and from work to listen to some of the lectures and podcasts available from a variety of colleges and universities. This morning I honestly laughed out loud listening to a lecture from Robert I. Sutton, a professor at Stanford University.

Why, pray tell, would I find a lecture entitled “Stimulating Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace” just so darn amusing? Perhaps you need to work in a big corporate environment to appreciate it, but I will give it a whirl.
The above link will take you to the iTunes store where you can download the lecture for free. The amusing part starts at 9:36 and concludes around 10:20.  Anyone who has worked in a large corporation can appreciate the little nugget driven home in the lecture: that it’s not exactly ideal to be urged to be creative… but hey, hey, hey! Only be creative according to our rules… you know, ’cause otherwise, you just being seditious. And we don’t need that.
It’s really not surprising that if you work really hard at developing a corporate culture of sustainable, repeatable work to ensure absolutely quality… hey… you can get just that. As Professor Sutton points out in this lecture, that’s not a bad thing. No one wants a lot of crazy variability in how their appliances operate or how planes fly.
It just gets tricky when you need to shut that standard methodical thinking off to be creative. Once the beast is awoken, it doesn’t nap easily.
Speaking of naps, that’s all I’ve got for now. Time to wind down the brain and rest up for tomorrow. Be good, people.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Whenever I see a little kid doing some coloring, I always smile when I see what kind of wild creation they come up with in their coloring books.  It’s often a bunch of crazy colors, none of which match and rarely are they able to stay within the lines.  I know it was like this with my nephews when I would see their bursts of Crayola-inspired artistry.crayons_full

But then when they reach a certain age (and I’m not sure exactly what age that is), I  think I fall into the same pattern of behavior as everyone else… admonishing them (gently mind you) that they need to start coloring inside the lines or they need to pick the “right” colors for their drawings.  It’s like my brain just cannot quite process a drawing by (for example) a 9 year old where they just can’t seem to stay neatly within the black-and-white pictures they are given.  I reason, “The pictures would look better and more life-like if they stay in the lines and pick appropriate colors!  I mean, cows aren’t green, for the love of God.”

Well, a friend/colleague/blog reader, Heidi, sent along a quote to me that really struck me about the above kind of thinking I (and lots and lots of other people) get snagged into:

Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.
– Alan Kneightly

Boom.  Headshot.

What a perfect little snapshot on what creativity should mean to each and every one of us.  I’m not going to go off on some rant about nurturing children or proper parenting techniques because (1) I’m not qualified having no kids of my own and (2) that’s just patronizing.  What I do want to say is that for myself, I really need to think a little more about how I view “coloring outside the lines” generally speaking, especially with my nephews.

Pencil mug from Sam In the end, does it really matter if my nephew, Sam, likes drawing all over the place or using the color red for… well… mostly everything (as is demonstrated by this pencil mug he did for me a few Christmases ago)?  Hardly.  I just wonder about the subtle effect of always forcing people into smaller and smaller boxes, hence smaller and smaller ways of thinking about things.  Would Sam be driven down a path of complete anarchy and chaos if he was never “corrected” to use different colors or try to be neat?  I kind of doubt it, but I do think that if he (or any kid) were to be constantly boxed in, they might not quite be to their creative potential as they should.

And I don’t mean anything about all of us needing to be artists and such, but I believe it to be a fact of modern life that creativity tends to be constantly stifled.  It’s like the old line of corporations wanting people to think outside the box, but then always putting them inside physical boxes (cubes) to do their work.  What is gained in neatly partitioned work spaces and potential floor plan efficiency may very well be lost in new ways of thinking.

My own remedy for my own potential stifling attitude (whether for others or myself) is twofold: (1) This blog.  I cannot even begin to say how liberating it is to do this and to write freely about topics of interest to me.  (2) Read The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron.  I’ve had this book come highly recommended as a great read on unlocking your own inner creativity and letting it breath a little more.  I began reading a sample of it on my Kindle (so handy) and please do not be dissuaded by the title – it’s something anyone can find value in, not just artists.

Maybe I will even color my next chart for work outside the lines… if I could just bend that damn PowerPoint to my will…