Creativity is getting A LOT of play lately. I have written on the subject at least six or seven times since the new year, including a discussion about the IBM study that found corporate executives value creativity over pretty much everything else. Thomas Cott features a cross section the subject in his You’ve Cott Mail today. There is the Creativity Post site which devotes itself pretty much entirely to the subject.
You’d almost think no one was aware of creativity until Richard Florida discovered it in 2005 launching a mad scramble to mine it.
Of course, it existed long before that..and we have proof! Maria Popova posted a videos of a talk John Cleese gave on Brain Pickings this weekend. At first I thought he just gave the talking in the last month, so timely did it sound. But he looked a lot younger than he did when I saw him a couple months ago. But you know, despite sounding so recent, he gave the talk in 1991.
Those of you who recognize Cleese’s name from Monty Python probably have no doubts about his credentials to talk about creativity. You may not know that Cleese also has a series of really good management videos, which come to think of it, I believe I first saw around 1991. He was the first to introduce me to the idea that good leadership means creating an environment which can effectively function in your absence, rather than requiring you to make every decision.
One of the things that Cleese says in the creativity video, which is borne out by research and recent writings on the subject, is that creativity is something you have to work at. He mentions that there was another member of the Monty Python troupe he felt had far more creative talent than he, but who would give up on an idea very quickly compared to Cleese because, in his view, there was a lot of discomfort associated with spending time working with a weak idea to make it stronger and more original.
Apparently research shows that people who are deemed more “creative” do spend more time playing with a problem trying to find a solution. These people learn to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty rather than reaching for the easiest solution in order to gain the satisfaction of completion.
The need to be decisive runs counter to the process of creativity because creativity requires weighing many options. Earlier in the video Cleese talks about how it is easy to do small things that are urgent rather than taking the time to do big things which aren’t so urgent, like giving yourself the time and space to be creative. In the same manner, it is difficult in today’s work environment to escape the sense that you should be doing something (be it internal or external) long enough to stimulate creativity.
It has been suggested on Americans for the Arts Artsblog’s Private Sector Salons that the arts community has a lot to offer the private sector in terms of training in creativity.
My concern is that the arts community doesn’t really know how and why they are creative. There are things that we do that elicit creative thoughts like improvisation games, walks in the woods, etc., but we may not realize is that it isn’t the activities per se that make as creative as much as that they represent the carving out of time, space and environment separate from our daily lives in which we can be creative.
Teaching people to do improv games or telling them they should take long walks in the woods isn’t going to make them creative if they aren’t allowing their minds to leave their desks. If they don’t have the courage to embrace uncertainty, be wrong and appear indecisive, participation in playful activities won’t help. If arts groups are going to help private sector businesses become more creative, they need to be clear that the exercises they are teaching them are just tools to help them attain a creative mindset.
The activities are meaningless of themselves and interchangeable with many others that you may find convenient and enjoyable. Some are certainly more conducive to group interactions toward creativity than others, some may better suit the corporate culture, but no one activity is necessarily the key to magical creative synchronicity. You can be creative sitting at your desk if you have the discipline and courage to allow yourself to be.
The most interesting thing Cleese talks about is the importance of humor to solving problems. He notes that people may not feel humor is appropriate when addressing serious problems, but that it absolutely is. That is why I found it interesting. I would be afraid to interject humor into a serious discussion. Serious should not be confused with solemn he says. You can talk about serious matters of the day while laughing and it wouldn’t make the problems any less serious. Cleese seems to say that the use of humor can help mentally insulate you from the problem enough to arrive at creative solutions.