Creativity Fills In The Blanks

We were participating in a scavenger hunt for a local 3rd grade class today. The kids were given clues associated with museums, galleries and public art around the downtown area. In addition to an architectural feature of our building, I was asked to reference the ghosts that linger in our 103 year old venue.

As you might imagine, the kids asked a lot of questions about the ghosts.

As they were leaving, they started reporting that the curtains moving by themselves and seeing a figure looming in the projection booth. I asked them what they thought was going on and they started relating all sorts of stories.  One kid forgot her water bottle so I turned the lights back on for her and was chatting with a teacher when she came scurrying nervously out clutching the water bottle.

It isn’t a surprise that people will fill in the blanks with information that isn’t available. Unfortunately, this fact has fueled a lot of conspiracy theories. On the other hand, there may be something to be said for the traditional practice of implying terrible things happened off-stage, both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

There are worries that younger people today won’t be ready for the jobs of tomorrow because they lack the trait of creative thinking.  The blame may be placed on the easy availability of content on the internet, video games, streaming, etc. But it is pretty clear that kids in 3rd grade haven’t lost the capacity to generate creative answers.

Perhaps part of the solution is to ask them to expound upon their ideas and showing that someone is paying attention rather than encouraging them to occupy themselves with phones and other devices.

Symphonies Telling Stories Of Local Relevance

A link to a great story came across my feed today about a Hawaii Symphony Orchestra’s production that was really focused on resonating with the interests of the community they serve.  Last month, they performed an original work, Symphony of the Hawai’i Forests for school children. (Instagram video here.)

The program featured new music performed by the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra (HSO) accompanied by new animations based on kaʻao (legends) that were created for this project that tell stories about how we can connect and care for our forests of Hawaiʻi.

Teachers were provided with online educational resources by the Mālama Learning Center about the forests of Hawaiʻi to prepare their students for the topics that would be covered during the symphony. Meanwhile, classes were encouraged to learn a hula about the water cycle so that they could then perform together en mass at the concert.

This was a significant undertaking that required collaboration with many partners, including state and federal forestry services, as well as those developing the animation, dance, and educational content. Programs like this will likely go a long way in showing students how a symphony orchestra can be relevant to their lives.

Following some other links, it appears they offer programming for adults along the same lines so it isn’t the case that kids intrigued by their symphony experience growing up only have the core classical canon as an option when they get older. In 2019, HSO presented an original concert paying tribute to the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s successful circumnavigation of the globe in 2017 using traditional navigation techniques on the voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa. (I wrote about the 40+ year effort to achieve that back in 2017) That too was a huge production involving over a thousand people between the singers, musicians, dancers, visual artists, etc. Again it emphasized the value of local stories to the community.


Efforts To Reduce Burn Out Are Better With Company

There is a fairly extensive article on the Time magazine site about using creative practice to address burnout.  The piece by Jamie Ducharme was titled “I Tried to Cure My Work Burnout. Here’s What Happened.” As readers know, I dislike the prescriptive use of the arts as a cure for physical/mental/social ills so I feared the worse.

Ducharme’s article covers the efforts of the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine’s Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab (CORAL) to do research on relieving people’s burnout. At this time they are generally focusing on healthcare workers in their research.

I was happy to see that the researchers didn’t see themselves as curing burnout as much as building resilience in participants.

But the data suggest one leads to the other: for almost 150 health care providers who joined the study from September 2020 to July 2021, the approach led to small but significant decreases in anxiety, depression, and burnout, according to a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Medicine. If the framework proves effective for people in a wider swath of health care jobs, Moss says CORAL’s approach could feasibly be adopted by burned-out workers in any industry.

What I really appreciated was the finding that it was the social activity, rather than the creative practice alone that lead to the reduction of burnout. This bolsters messaging arts and cultural organizations use regarding sharing experiences with others in a face to face environment. To some extent, the research supports providing more interactive experiences versus passively watching a show or viewing visual art without comment or discussion.

But when I asked Moss and his team if the CORAL curriculum could be distilled into something I, or any individual, could do on my own, I was met with a resounding no. The program’s magic, its facilitators said, is in bringing people together to feel the solidarity and community so often lacking in modern life. People can draw or dance or write or sing on their own, but it likely won’t have the same transformative effect without a human connection.

That’s what Dr. Colin West, who researches physician well-being at the Mayo Clinic, found in 2021, when he published a study on what happened when physicians met up for group discussions over meals. Their burnout symptoms improved, but it wasn’t necessarily the food that made the difference—it was support. “We have so many shared experiences and so many stressors that are in common, and yet physicians will often feel like, Well, I can’t talk to anybody about this,” West says. Bringing people together to share their experiences can help.

Sometimes You Are More Creative Without The Brainstorming Session

Nina Simon may have left museum administration and being an agent of change behind to write books, but she still manages to live and think right on the cusp of things. Today, I receive an article from her substack site where she reflects back on the process of creative collaboration when she was working at a museum versus her interactions with her editor as an author.

She likens the process of working as an author as baton passing. She will send materials to her editor and after some time, the editor sends the materials back with great questions and comments. When she was working in a museum, she was often in a room with many others brainstorming all sorts of ideas in real time.

Reflecting back, she wonders if she may have misused the brainstorming sessions. Was she using them to present ideas or solve problems that she hadn’t properly developed or worked through? Was she similarly demanding answers and ideas from others without providing them sufficient time to contemplate good solutions? She also wondered if used the sessions to insert herself into other people’s projects and exert control over them.

I thought this was great and something to really ponder, but fate doubled down and the second item on my social media feed came from Dan Pink who linked to a Harvard Business Review article that not only said asynchronous work can bolster creativity, but that some of Nina’s instincts were correct.

Studies show that women and people from marginalized communities are given fewer opportunities to speak and are criticized more harshly when they do in a range of synchronous work settings. Consequently, synchronous teams may inhibit women and marginalized people’s expression of new or risky ideas, ultimately making teams less equal and their output less creative

In a study conducted with Baul folk musicians in India, a style that lends itself to both synchronous and asynchronous practice, researchers found that synchronous collaboration could lead to people feeling stifled whereas asynchronous practice could result in greater creativity, despite and probably due to, mistakes practitioners made.

Initial interviews revealed that women singers performing synchronously with men felt constantly “corrected by [their] seniors” and sensed that their fellow musicians “did not stand by [them].” They did not report being offered the “encouragement” and “positive reinforcement” that their men counterparts described receiving from their colleagues.


We found that women’s performances were rated 17% higher when they recorded asynchronously, and that this effect was driven by the degree of creativity in their singing, based on ratings by experts in Baul folk music. (The experts assigned overall ratings to every track as well as timestamped all creative choices made by the singer.)

This creative freedom when singing alone was further captured in interviews with the experimental subjects. After recording asynchronously, one woman said, “I was completely free. I could sing as I wished. I missed some notes at a place, but then I caught on with it later on. I had complete independence and it felt like I was flying like a bird.” Men’s performances were not significantly different in the two conditions, and thus asynchronicity seems to help women without hurting men.

The coincidence of these two pieces on the same subject coming to my attention today provides a lot to consider.