Sunday, December 9, 2012

On The Subject of Creativity.

Today, I want to start a discussion about creativity.

But... Rather than open with a long tangent about how amazing Twitter and YouTube are - in that they not only provided a home for this brilliant and important discussion, but enabled me to randomly stumble on it through Brain Picker this morning - I want to dive right in and suggest that you just take a bit and watch John Cleese talk about creativity in 1991:

Then watch this related talk he gave in 2009:

Now that you've all watched that wonderful video (you did, right?), you'll notice that Cleese separates human thinking into two distinct "modes": Open, and Closed.

In the open, or more creative mode, people are thinking playfully and creatively - that is, we're exploring all of the different types of ideas that may come out of our minds without too much consideration for practicality, factual accuracy or whether or not they're logically sound. In the closed mode, we are thinking practically and rationally and critically. Some people might describe this as "right" vs. "left" brained thinking.

As a mental model for how people operate, there's probably a lot to what Cleese is saying here.

The talk itself is ultimately about how to increase people's creativity, and while he - I think rightly - offers no easy answers, he does provide 5 fairly significant conditions under which creativity becomes a lot more likely. Maria Popova of Brain Picker conveniently condensed them for me already, so I'll just quote her:
  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)
Given those conditions, it's a lot easier to become creative and generate good ideas than without those conditions. He repeatedly comes back to this idea of building a "Creative Oasis" where you can create a unique space away from the pressures and distractions in other parts of your life in order for you to become creative.

In the 2009 video, he devotes more time to discussing the need for boundaries and the importance of not being interrupted while in this Oasis.

On a personal note, the reason I often find myself staying late at my office, working on the weekends and I believe the reason I tend to do my best work between the hours of 11pm and 2am much of the time, is precisely because the rest of the people in my world (including my co-workers) go home or go to bed, and leave me free from other human distractions.

Oddly, by the way, I find that non-human distractions aren't that big of a problem. I can have music or movies on in the background and easily tune them out for most of my work (except when writing), but the minute real people are in the room, I can't focus on being creative in the same way. It turns out, it's really important to be able to shut yourself in that Oasis if you want to get into a good creative rhythm. I also find that once I'm in that mode, I really don't want to stop until I've exhausted my ideas.

And that brings me to two additional key quotes from Cleese's original lecture (again, thanking Maria Popova for her transcriptions):
"We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness."
"To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode."
Again, I see an immense amount of important truth in these statements.

Getting into the open mode is difficult... But it's also entirely at odds with the closed mode. They cannot really co-exist simultaneously, or at the very least, they clash... and of course this makes sense if you consider what the different modes of thinking are doing. One is a free-flowing "brainstorm" of largely disconnected ideas, shapes, colors, or words with which a person's creative mind can hopefully build brand new connections. Meanwhile, the other is an analytical process which absolutely requires you to put boundaries on your thinking and assess reality as it is.

What's more, a recent study used MRI scans on people solving different types of problems and discovered that when people's brains are engaged in what could be considered "empathetic" types of thinking, the parts of their brains which are used in reasoning and rational thinking were deactivated.

Neuroscience seems to be demonstrating that it may be impossible to be both rational and empathetic simultaneously.

And I think this sheds a lot of light on to why many artists are simultaneously so great at understanding and engaging people in universally human terms and so bad at understanding science, math, economics, and even philosophy. The skills needed to become an incredibly great artist and creator seem to be almost entirely at odds with the skills needed to become a great intellectual and thinker.

I suspect this provides some useful clues as to not only why the artist community tends towards promoting bad - but emotionally resonant - ideas about various academic disciplines, but also why it's so hard for economists, engineers and other people whose job it is to think rationally about the world and who more thoroughly the boundaries of reality, to be very creative about how they present their ideas to others.

What an interesting paradox, though, isn't it?

It's the creative person - the person who can most easily access their "open mode" in Cleese's terms - who can be most effective at telling stories and moving other people emotionally, but it's also the person who spends the most time in their open mode who has the most difficulty engaging the world logically.

It really gets at the heart of the challenges for people like me - who kind of exist in the two extremes of these different modes of thought - in conveying good ideas to others as creatively as possible. It's always been a problem, actually... The more you have to tell the truth, not embellish the stories you're telling and stick to "the facts" or the logical ideas, the less creative you can be. Creativity and intellectual honesty wind up often being at odds as well.

See: "Kony 2012", "The Story of Stuff" or Robert Reich's "The Truth About The Economy" as a few major examples of this.

At any rate, there is one thing I might quibble with John Cleese on in this - and that's that there should be no judgment of good or bad ideas when being creative. if you're working in a team trying to brainstorm, I do think that criticism can be a good thing - provided that the people doing the criticizing are people you respect and trust and whose critiques are useful.


I don't think that blasting bad ideas is a good thing in a room filled with people who offer no ideas of their own - then it's just negativity, and I do think it's better (as Cleese suggests) to build on good ideas rather than shut down "bad" ones. But I know from my own experience that I'm at my best and most creative when I have people to challenge and bounce ideas off of.

Healthy, constructive competition and challenge can absolutely aid the creative process.

The creative process isn't ever going to be identical for every person - and getting in the right headspace to generate really creative ideas and make the best decisions you can happens a little differently for everyone. But it does seem to require some time and separation from the practical or rational concerns of the rest of the world.

So for me, the serious question remains: How does one find more artists who are at the extremes of their creative "open" modes and their rational "closed" modes? Is it possible to cultivate great artists who are also brilliant and rational thinkers?

I hope so.

1 comment:

Bob Cat said...

It's taken me a couple days to find the time to watch the videos. Thanks very much, Sean for posting. Very interesting ideas, which I will "sleep on." And you also provide a very helpful little summary. I am sure you are probably aware of the split brain research and the Left Brain/Right Brain division. I suspect that the "right brain" mode which is involved in music and art is also more open ended and creative.

I find the idea that I need to have space and time set apart very suggestive and I am going to try it out. It explains why I have found it helpful when I was trying to do art to take a class, because it assigned to me a place and time devoted to art and nothing else. Many art classes also play music to turn off the logical, analytical mind and move into the right brain. There is a famous book, "Drawing With the Right Side of the Brain." Distractions such as FB are a distraction from creating this creative space.