How to Be Right

We’ve all been wrong.

I grew up thinking you cooked vegetables on the stove top. Then I was introduced to roasting them in the oven with a little olive oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper. It was a revelation!

I used to think I was the only one who knew how to raise kids. Then I saw many other wonderful parents using very different approaches. Who knew there were lots of kinds of secret sauce!

Knowing how often we’ve all been wrong, you’d think we’d be less reluctant to change our minds. Why do we then so often dig in our heals, discounting contrary evidence?

Adam Grant in Think Again suggests one reason can be our frame of mind. When we are locked into a cycle of pride, conviction, and confirmation bias, we are likely to learn little and grow little.

Grant believes that we will be better off if we think more like scientists (but he’s willing to reconsider!). They actually get excited when they find out they are wrong because this means they may have discovered something new. By realizing they were wrong, scientists in the 20th century alone have discovered vitamins, cosmic rays, insulin, atomic nuclei, the polio vaccine, quasars, and much more.*

How did they do that? The best scientists cultivate attitudes of confident humility, doubt, and curiosity. (Interestingly, these are the same qualities that can help us persuade others more effectively—in Part Two of Grant’s book discussed here previously.)

Another barrier to creative rethinking can be a false dichotomy, like my parenting example above. We are better off assuming there are many possible answers to a question we could be explore–not just two. A simple answer can be more comforting, but a complex, nuanced idea (while perhaps harder to deal with) may be more accurate and more helpful.

For teachers and managers, Grant also explores in two separate chapters how students can be taught to constructively rethink information they receive, and how businesses can break out of comfortable but stale processes.

Am I always right? No. Are you? No again. So why not rethink?

*”Chronology of twentieth-century science,”

The Future of Writing

“The art of prophecy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.”*

That is no less true in the world of writing and publishing than in politics or business. What will be the hot topics of the next year or decade? Few predicted two years ago that we’d see a huge resurgence of such backlist books as  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722!) by Daniel Defoe.

Should we try to be current or should we aim to be evergreen? When trying to figure out what to write next, it can be a difficult question. In general, I think we should avoid the current or trendy unless that new fad happens to hit our sweet spot—something we already have some experience with, interest in, or knowledge of.

A corollary is that we probably shouldn’t worry whether our interests are in favor or not with the reading public. We should write about what interests us. You can’t fake enthusiasm. Your passion will capture readers.

Roger Burlingame wrote in 1946: “A few years ago there were resurrections of the Brontës, Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, whose novels of manners presumably belong to an area on which the door had definitely shut… So it is never safe to say that a book or a genre is dead or fatally dated.”** And the Jane Austen revival seems to have had remarkable staying power even to this day.

If something out of date or passé interests you, don’t worry about it. Write what you care about. Write with excellence. And see what happens.

*This phrase or variations of it have been identified as a Chinese or Danish proverb, and also attributed to Mark Twain, Samuel Goldwyn, Nostradamus, and others. But it likely originated with physicist Niels Bohr.

**Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University PRess, 1946, 1996), p. 328.

Originality Is Overrated

I long to be creative and fresh, offering new ideas and new ways of saying things that are arresting and stimulating. When I see a painting that is startling in the new perspective it offers, when I watch a movie that exudes inventiveness, when I read a book that is original and captivating—I am invigorated, and yearn to do the same.

Yet if I go just a bit deeper into these creative efforts, I invariably find that they begin with something decidedly unoriginal. They begin with “something borrowed.” Shrek is one of my favorite films. It offers a fun, revisionist twist on many fairy tales . . . but there it is! The movie borrows fairy tales and gives them a new take (ogre as hero).

Whole genres even borrow from prior genres. Don’t many sci fi books and movies owe a great debt of gratitude to the old Western? What is different is combining two genres into one.

The past (Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen, Achebe) offers inspiration for the future. So we should immerse ourselves in the past, mine the past, and consider how the past might serve us by giving it a twist or by mingling pieces which have not been connected before.

But there is another advantage. The past can give our writing a heft, a substance, a weight that we can’t generate on our own. If I can effectively employ Tolstoy’s motifs, themes, images, or language, my work automatically begins to rise.

Don’t worry about stealing. Everyone does it. All the greats themselves borrowed from others. Michaelangelo borrowed from the Romans. Milton borrowed from Dante. George Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa. Kurosawa borrowed from John Ford.*

It’s impossible not to borrow. Yet we don’t want shallow imitatations; rather our aim is to build anew on the old.

*See Andrew T. Le Peau, Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017), pp. 13-16.

Screenshot: Lucasfilm, The Mandalorean

The Myth of the Creative Personality

Is there such a thing as a creative personality?

Yes and no. But mostly no.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the most respected and influential academic researchers in the field of creativity, pioneering the concept of Flow, the hyperfocused state of elite artists, scientists, athletes and others in which they lose themselves in optimal efforts.

Another of his books (Creativity) is based on interviews with a hundred of the most exceptionally creative people across a variety of fields. I suppose the point is to find out what the rest of us ordinary human beings can learn from these superheroes. But the impression I walk away with is that there is no point in mere mortals like you and me even trying. We either have it or we don’t.

That is an unfortunate message, because basically I think it is balderdash.

Yes, there probably are some inherently hypercreative people. And good for them. But the rest of us can still grow and expand our creative gifts, even if we aren’t blessed with a so-called creative personality.

For example, the work ethic (and its cousin, perseverance) are totally underrated when it comes to creativity. We can all grow in discipline, in stick-to-it-tiveness. We can all grow in Grit. Creativity does not just happen in moments of flow but over a period of weeks and even years as scientists pursue a problem and artists hone their craft.

As I’ve said in Write Better, one key to creativity is to expose ourselves to as many different experiences and ideas as possible because the essence of creativity is combining two or more previously existing things or concepts. The more we have in our mental grab bag, the more likely we are to come up with a unique combination. Again, it’s something ordinary people can do and grow in—not just the elite.

DNA, birth order, culture and much else have a major impact on how creative we might be. But don’t you believe that they tell the whole story.

photo credit: mohamed Hassan from Pixabay (hero); Günther Aichhofer, Pixabay (ants)

Where Good Ideas Come From

Parents, sales reps, truck drivers, pastors, teachers, and nurses are always looking for good ideas. So are writers—ideas for blogs, for plot lines, for characters, for humor, for titles, for openings, for closings. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, happily enough, offers (wait for it) good ideas on how to find good ideas.

One common notion he hopes to correct is that ideas mostly come when sitting alone under a tree waiting for an apple to fall on our head. He shows by anecdote and with historical data that more ideas come in collaboration than in isolation.

Generating ideas is a social activity. By this he doesn’t mean the traditional brainstorming session. Rather creativity comes by being connected to multiple people with varied interests in diverse settings. If our interest is biology, we should not just go deeper into botany but dabble in architecture, web design, the arts, and economics which will give us new perspectives for our biological studies.

In chapter 11 of Write Better I likewise emphasize the importance of expanding our range of interests, experiences, and social connections to enhance creativity. Johnson doubles down on this last dimension. More ideas come in the coffee shop with friends or in the hallway with colleagues than when we are alone, staring at a screen. Thus studies have shown that, on average, large cities are three times more creative than small towns (pp. 10-11).

Johnson also considers two ways ideas arise. One is in the “Eureka moment” that I focus on in Write Better. The second is “the slow hunch” pattern of idea generation. That is, we muse over a puzzling observation for a period of months or even years before a solution emerges in bits and pieces, rather than all at once. In either case, interacting with many different perspectives, subjects, and people is central to the solution.

Looking for good ideas? Read widely, not just in one area. Explore a variety of experiences. And mix it up with friends, colleagues, and other writers. Find people with different interests to see what is exciting them.

Where do your good ideas come from?

Photo credits: Qimono, Pixabay (light bulbs); Pexels, Pixabay (turtle)

The Unexpected Ways of Originals

Adam Grant made a huge mistake.

Grant had the opportunity to invest on the ground floor of a revolutionary e-commerce enterprise. As he talked to the entrepreneurs, he discovered they had no experience in e-commerce, they were hedging their bets by not quitting their day jobs, and their decision-making process seemed interminable. He turned them down. The result? The new company was a massive success.

How could he have been so wrong? That drove him to write his book, Originals. The result? A wealth of research, wisdom, and ideas about how original thinkers work, the counterintuitive strategies they sometimes employ, and unexpected factors that contributed to their success.

And how do original thinkers work? From Beethoven to Edison to Picasso they outproduced their peers. Each is famous for several works of genius. What is little known is the thousands of works they generated that are forgotten. Producing so much in quantity increased their odds that a few would be landmark creations.

And, second, what counterintuitive strategies do they use? Scientists are twelve times more likely to win a Nobel price if they write poetry, plays, novels or other works, than if they don’t. And twenty-two times more likely if they perform as an amateur actor, dancer or magician. Originals are not mono-focused but wide ranging.

Originals tend not to be risky in all areas of life but only in some. They don’t let impulse or intuition carry them away. They pursue their dream while continually reviewing options, downsides, and problems, as well as strategically procrastinating to make sure they’ve thought things through carefully.

Counterintuitively, successful originals also take on rolls as moderate radicals who are willing to compromise and form unlikely partnerships, rather than extreme radicals who only espouse the purity of their cause (as I previously wrote about here). They also turn anxiety into positive energy while keeping calm in the face of opposition or hostility.

Third, what unlikely factors can contribute to originality? Birth order. Being an only child or being deep in the pack of a large family can make originality more likely. Birth order is no guarantee, however. And regardless of where we fall in a family, we can all increase our creativity and impact by using some of the strategies noted throughout.

The author’s definition of an original as someone who is different or inventive is not much more than a tautology. He would have been better off to concretely define creativity as combining two things or ideas which hadn’t been joined before or by combining them in a new way.

Those who have read Daniel Kahneman, Susan Cain, and Chip and Dan Heath will also find some ideas familiar. The book is, nonetheless, a pleasure to read with its combination of engaging stories, solid research, and usable, memorable principles.

From what makes a great base stealer to how to parent for moral development to why you should get rid of the suggestion box to how to write great headlines to creating change as a minority, the book is wide ranging and can keep you, like the author, from making some big mistakes.

photo credits: Pixabay Flybynight (Edison); Pixabay Keithjj (baseball)

The Messiness of Creativity

At the beginning of Wired to Create, Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire dismiss the four-steps of creativity that Graham Wallas proposed a hundred years ago. Such a notion is just too simplistic, they say. I was interested in this because I make use of Wallas’s ideas in Write Better. And the authors have a point. Creativity is messy and doesn’t always follow a straight line, which Wallas’s scheme can imply.

I found it interesting, however, that at various points in their book Kaufman and Gregoire comment positively on each of the stages Wallas identifies, though they don’t reference him.

Regarding the messiness of creativity, Wallas says something very similar. When we come across a problem, we have to investigate it from all directions. Our research and reflection must be wide ranging. We never know ahead of time what data, experience, or experiment may prove useful. This is similar to the dozens of sketches over a period of weeks that Picasso prepared before he painted his masterpiece Guernica, a story told in Wired to Create. Wallas calls this first stage preparation.

The authors also consider the quintessential “aha” moment of inspiration—the most common notion people have about creativity. That is Wallas’s third stage (illumination). Such epiphanies, they note, are often preceded by a period when we are relaxed, daydreaming, or distracted, such as when we are on a walk or in the shower. The authors give French mathematician Poincaré as an example–just as Wallas does in describing his second stage (incubation).

Creativity is not just a moment, however. The authors say it can take weeks, months or years to work out an idea. Creativity requires perseverance and follow through to see if the idea can become reality. That’s Wallas’s fourth stage (verification).

Kaufman and Gregoire and certainly correct that there is much more to creativity than Wallas’s four dimensions. They highlight the important roles of play, solitude, mindfulness, and sensitivity, among others. Creativity is a complex, multidimensional process that cannot be completely encapsulated in four linear steps. But the four steps are still part of the process.

photo credit: qimono Pixabay

Why Some Innovations Succeed and Others Don’t

Coming up with a great idea can be hard enough. Getting the idea adopted can be even harder. Why do some innovations change the world and others go nowhere?

The reasons are many. In Originals Adam Grant highlights one factor in the story of the American suffrage movement.

Lucy Stone launched the women’s rights movement in 1851, inspiring thousands to join the cause for women’s right to vote, work, receive an education, and own property. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among her early followers. But after years of leading together, in 1869 Anthony and Stanton split from Stone, nearly causing the collapse of the movement. What happened?

Anthony and Stanton were purists. They opposed the Fifteenth Amendment giving African Americans the right to vote because if women couldn’t vote, no other minorities should either. Stone instead built bridges to those favoring the amendment.

Stone also sought allies in an unexpected corner, in the family-values organization of the day—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was conservative, largely made up of religious middle- and upper-class women who were unlikely to see Stone and her movement as upholding traditional values. Yet Stone forged an alliance by suggesting that the WTCU would have a hard time changing liquor laws if women couldn’t vote. The more radical-sounding “women’s right to vote” was reframed more moderately as a “home protection ballot.”

Anthony and Stanton were scandalized. But their differences didn’t stop there. “Stone was committed to campaigning at the state level; Anthony and Stanton wanted a federal constitutional amendment. Stone involved men in her organization; Anthony and Stanton favored an exclusively female membership. Stone sought to inspire change through speaking and meetings; Anthony and Stanton were more confrontational, with Anthony voting illegally and encouraging other women to follow suit.” (121)

The extreme radicalism of some scared away the potential sympathy of many. Though Stanton sought reconciliation in 1872, by then Stone was too wary of her unpredictable sisters in the cause. It took passing the torch to a new generation of moderate radicals before women won the right to vote in 1920.

Change the world? Yes. With creative coalitions, with tempered radicalism, by reframing the new as something old. A hundred years ago, women showed us how it’s done.

Photos: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Stone); Library of Congress, (Stanton seated, Anthony standing).