How Creativity is Becoming an Academic Discipline

A fascinating New York Times piece on how some schools are leveraging the obscure field of creativity into teaching it in academia:

Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.

“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.

“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”

Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

Very good point in this last paragraph:

The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”

Also see the related slide show here; this one is my favorite:

vitamin_fork_and_spoon

The Photography of Adam Magyar

In a long piece titled “Einstein’s Camera,” Joshua Hammer profiles the photography of Adam Magyar:

In a growing body of photographic and video art done over the past decade, Magyar bends conventional representations of time and space, stretching milliseconds into minutes, freezing moments with a resolution that the naked eye could never have perceived. His art evokes such variegated sources as Albert Einstein, Zen Buddhism, even the 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone.The images—sleek silver subway cars, solemn commuters lost in private worlds—are beautiful and elegant, but also produce feelings of disquiet. “These moments I capture are meaningless, there is no story in them, and if you can catch the core, the essence of being, you capture probably everything,” Magyar says in one of the many cryptic comments about his work that reflect both their hypnotic appeal and their elusiveness. There is a sense of stepping into a different dimension, of inhabiting a space between stillness and movement, a time-warp world where the rules of physics don’t apply.

Magyar’s work represents a fruitful cross-fertilization of technology and art, two disciplines—one objective and mathematical, the other entirely subjective—that weren’t always regarded as harmonious or compatible. Yet the two are intertwined, and breakthroughs in technology have often made new forms of art possible. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian technicians heated desert sand, limestone, potash, and copper carbonate in kilns to make a synthetic pigment known as “Egyptian blue,” which contributed to the highly realistic yet stylized portraiture of the Second and Third Dynasties.

adam_magyar_train

Fascinating profile. Definitely worth clicking over to see Adam’s photography, especially the Stainless photography and video features.

How To Be Less Boring

“You Are Boring” is an excellent post by Scott Simpson on why/how you’re boring, and what to do about it. In short, tell better stories, listen more acutely, and expand your circles as much as you possibly can.

The people who were interesting told good stories. They were also inquisitive: willing to work to expand their social and intellectual range. Most important, interesting people were also the best listeners. They knew when to ask questions. This was the set of people whose shows I would subscribe to, whose writing I would seek out, and whose friendship I would crave. In other words, those people were the opposite of boring.

Here are the three things they taught me.

Listen, then ask a question

I call it Amtrak Smoking Car Syndrome (because I am old, used to smoke, thought that trains were the best way to get around the country, and don’t really understand what a syndrome is). I’d be down in the smoking car, listening to two people have a conversation that went like this:

Stranger #1: Thing about my life.
Stranger #2: Thing about my life that is somewhat related to what you just said.
Stranger #1: Thing about my life that is somewhat related to what you just said.
Stranger #2: Thing about my life…

Next stop: Boringsville, Population: 2. There’s no better way to be seen as a blowhard than to constantly blow, hard. Instead, give a conversation some air. Really listen. Ask questions; the person you’re speaking with will respect your inquisitiveness and become more interested in the exchange. “Asking questions makes people feel valued,” said former Virgin America VP Porter Gale, “and they transfer that value over to liking you more.”

Watch an old episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett is an engaged listener, very much part of the conversation, but he also allows his partner to talk as well. He’s not afraid to ask questions that reveal his ignorance, but it’s also clear he’s no dummy.

I love this paragraph:

Online, put this technique to use by pausing before you post. Why are you adding that link to Facebook? Will it be valuable to the many people who will see it? Or are you just flashing a Prius-shaped gang sign to your pals? If it’s the latter, keep it to yourself.

Read the entire essay here.

I’m wrestling with the Big Bore on a daily basis.

On Coffee and Creativity

I’ve been drinking one to two cups of coffee in the mornings over the last few months. But as Maria Konnikova explains, I shouldn’t expect the caffeine to boost my creativity:

When we drink a caffeinated beverage, the caffeine quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier—an interface of sorts between the brain and the body’s circulatory system, designed to protect the central nervous system from chemicals in the blood that might harm it—and proceeds to block the activity of a substance called adenosine. Normally, a central function of adenosine is to inhibit the release of various chemicals into the brain, lowering energy levels and promoting sleep, among other regulatory bodily functions. When it’s blocked, we’re less likely to fall asleep on our desks or feel our focus drifting. According to a recent review of some hundred studies, caffeine has a number of distinct benefits. Chief among them are that it boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.

But all of that comes at a cost. Science is only beginning to unravel the full complexity behind different forms of creative accomplishment; creativity is notoriously difficult to study in a laboratory setting, and the choice of one approach over another limits the way that creativity can be measured. Still, we do know that much of what we associate with creativity—whether writing a sonnet or a mathematical proof—has to do with the ability to link ideas, entities, and concepts in novel ways. This ability depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind.

Bummer!

Algorithms Invading Our Lives

From this Wall Street Journal piece, we learn about the proliferation of algorithms. I am not convinced about algorithms picking out creative works (music hits and potential blockbuster movies), but I found this bit interesting:

Algorithms also have invaded areas of our lives that might seem too personal for mere automation. We are all familiar with the words “this call may be recorded for quality or training purposes.” Though that message may sometimes mean just what it says, it often means that an algorithm has been invited in for a listen.

Using only the words you say in a three-minute conversation, more than five million eavesdropping algorithms, created by a company called Mattersight, determine your personality type, what you want and how you might be most easily and quickly satisfied by the customer-service agent. The electronic psychological analysis divides people into six sorts of personalities. Steve Jobs, for instance, was a “reactions-based” person, someone who responds strongly to things: “I hate that!”

The next time you call, the algorithms, recognizing your phone number, will route you to an agent with a personality similar to your own, which results in calls that are half as long and reach happy resolutions 92% of the time, compared with 47% otherwise, according to an assessment of 1,500 customer service calls at Vodafone, the European telecom company.

What have algorithms done for you lately?

Wes Anderson on Vision and Creativity

Wes Anderson, director of such films as The Royal TenenbaumsThe Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouThe Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, shares his vision and creative process in this Wall Street Journal excerpt.

On changing life plans as he was growing up:

I didn’t grow up wanting to make movies; what I really wanted to be was an architect. I had this drafting table with all these little instruments I would arrange carefully around the edges. I used to draw everything. When I was in fifth grade, I started to make Super 8 movies, and I liked that very much. I also got interested in George Lucas at about that time, and then, by seventh grade, I became obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock. But I still wanted to be an architect. Sometimes I thought I might also like to be a writer. I didn’t settle on film until I was in college.

There were two reasons I became a filmmaker instead of, say, a novelist. I have always been interested in the visual composition of things. It’s part of why I liked to draw so much. But I also love to put on a show. In fact, I enjoyed that long before I even thought about making movies. I’m not essentially a camera guy; I don’t take very good still photographs and I never have. But I do feel comfortable with the other aspects of filmmaking.

On handling criticism:

People respond strongly to my work, one way or another. I care about critics in the sense that if you have a good review, it’s nice to hear about it, and if you have a bad review, it’s quite nice not to hear about it. When I am making a movie, I try to put all of that out of my mind and think just about the world I am creating. When people criticize my work, they often seem to say either that my worldview is too specific or, “Who needs your world?” Those are not criticisms that resonate with me, because what fictional world do you actually need?

On sticking with small budgets for films (my favorite portion of the interview):

I have been asked why I don’t make a big-budget movie or what’s considered a Hollywood movie. I don’t feel particularly compelled to do that sort of thing. The more economical you can be, the more fun you are going to have. I find it all slows down when it gets really big. The process can be so much more light on its feet and inspiring when you are nimble.

On the collaborative process:

The collaborative process doesn’t end for me with writing. If anything, it intensifies when we are on the set. Even if I know exactly what I want when I am filming, I need people to help me figure out how to get that across. Sometimes knowing what you want doesn’t mean you know how to make it happen or how to communicate it to an audience. There are any number of people whom I rely on to different degrees—the cinematographer Bob Yeoman; Roman, in the past; Jeremy Dawson, who produces, is very involved. And of course my editor, Andy Weisblum, is a key person for me. A good part of what I want them all to do is to prevent me from making mistakes.

I am not the biggest fan of Anderson’s works, but I did enjoy reading the interview.

How to Become Creative

In the Saturday essay in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer writes about the creative process. He argues that creativity is not something that is passed in the genes; it is something that requires practice. We can work to become more creative.

This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Of course, both moment-of-insight problems and nose-to-the-grindstone problems assume that we have the answers to the creative problems we’re trying to solve somewhere in our heads. They’re both just a matter of getting those answers out. Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.

Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists. Under Mr. Jobs’s leadership, for instance, Apple didn’t invent MP3 players or tablet computers—the company just made them better, adding design features that were new to the product category.

And it isn’t just Apple. The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs’s theory. The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.

Don’t miss the bottom of the post which provides ten ways to become more creative, which I summarize below. A lot of these have been tested in an artificial setting (think undergraduates in a lab), so take these with a grain of salt:

1. Surround yourself with the color blue.

2. Do creative things when you’re groggy.

3. Daydream more.

4. Think like a child — imagine what you would do as a five year old.

5. Laugh more.

6. Imagine that you are far away.

7. Keep it generic.  When the verbs are extremely specific, people think in narrow terms. In contrast, the use of more generic verbs—say, “moving” instead of “driving” can help us solve creative problems.

8. Don’t work in a cubicle!

9. See the world. Travel.

10. Move from a small city to a metropolis.