Tag Archives: creativity

Creativity in solitude or collaboration?

This is a fundamental question we face in our daily naming work, and, we think, is a central issue for most companies. How do you nurture the most creative environment: creative isolation or collaborating in teams? We have found in our work that a balance or interplay of these two strategies consistently yields the most interesting results. If the balance swings too much toward individual creative isolation, great work may be created but might reach a dead end, or lead to missed opportunities or a disconnect with project goals. On the other hand, if there is too much emphasis on collaboration, ideas may wither, become recycled, or lack the depth that sustained introspective exploration can bring.

Writing in the New York Times last year (The Rise of the New Groupthink), Susan Cain made a passionate case for introverts and the power of solitude in creative endeavors:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Cain goes on to extol the virtues of the often unheralded work performed by creative isolationists by citing the well known example of Apple’s two founding fathers:

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

Cain’s polemic, as might be expected, unleashed a backlash from proponents of collaboration in letters to the Times (The Key to Creativity: Solitude or Teams?), which make some persuasive counter-arguments. Keith Sawyer writes of scientific and educational research into the value of collaboration,

Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity is almost always based in collaboration, conversation and social networks — just the opposite of our mythical image of the isolated genius. And educational research has found that deeper learning results when students participate in thoughtful argumentation and discuss reasons and concepts.

Ed Donovan writes that Cain makes a mistake by conflating true collaboration with “groupthink”:

The collaborative process may benefit from the input of individuals who are creative high achievers, but it’s not dependent on them; what’s required are the actual stakeholders whose concerns are threatened by a conflict or a problem. Collaboration is at a far end of the problem-solving spectrum from mind-numbing, creativity-suppressing groupthink.

And Stephen Bertman refers to earlier civilizations as models of creative collaboration:

The creative balance that Susan Cain seeks between individual and group thinking was sought (and found) almost 25 centuries ago by the ancient Greeks. Treasuring personal introspection, they nurtured the life of the individual human mind that gave birth to the rational quest for truth known as philosophy. But, as the symposiums presided over by Socrates show, the Greeks also recognized the synergistic power of multiple minds working together toward a common goal.

Later, the Library of Alexandria became the world’s first think tank as inventive scientists gathered and inspired one another to produce mechanical marvels as dazzling in their own way as the electronic wonders of today.

In the dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the Greeks found the intellectual engine that powered their civilization — and can power ours, if we choose to use it.

On the other hand, some very influential artists and thinkers have been exemplars of the creative isolation approach, showing that Sawyer’s “mythical image of the isolated genius” is not quite so mythical, as the following four quotes attest:

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

~Rollo May (1909–1994), American existential psychologist.

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

~Franz Kafka (1883–1924), German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

~Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, and one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

~Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.

We have found that creative isolation can lead to some of the best invention, but creative collaboration is necessary to turn invention into action and execution. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs would probably both have had amazing careers as individuals, but Apple could only have been born from the synergistic fusion of their two unique talents and visions. And Tesla may have been the greater genius, but Thomas Edison was more socially adept and able to bring his ideas to a larger audience.

What do you think, and what works best for you company? Use the comments below or in a social media conversation to chime in with your stories of isolation vs. collaboration in a creative environment.

To create is divine, to reproduce is human

“An original is a creation motivated by desire. Any reproduction of an original is motivated be necessity. It is marvelous that we are the only species that creates gratuitous forms. To create is divine, to reproduce is human.”
~Man Ray

Caine’s Arcade and the joy of creative play

Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick: A 9 year old boy – who built an elaborate cardboard arcade inside his dad’s used auto part store – is about to have the best day of his life.

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.”
~Albert Einstein

You’ve probably heard by now the story of Caine Monroy, which began with an exuberantly creative 9 year old boy and his chance encounter with a kindred spirit, blossomed into an act of love, and went viral thanks to the 11-minute video above. Andy Isaacson wrote a great story about the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon in this week’s New Yorker, The Perfect Moment Goes Perfectly Viral, which is a must-read. It tells the whole amazing story, which is almost as much about the 37 year old struggling filmmaker playing in his artistic medium as it is about young Caine playing in his.

I find this story very inspiring, and a wonderful tonic to the glut of bad news we hear about every day. And it got me thinking afresh about the role of inspiration, joy, and creative play in our work here at Zinzin and in our everyday lives.

In our Manifesto (#13) we ask the question, When Was The Last Time You Enjoyed Naming?, and go on to say that the naming process, “should be engaging, thought-provoking, cathartic, stimulating, argumentative, enlightening, and just plain fun. You are creating a name that ideally will function as a very concise poem and catch fire out in the wider world. It’s a rush.” This belief is at the core of who we are at Zinzin, and Caine’s Arcade is a perfect example. We believe that what matters most is the capacity and willingness to perceive poetry and art in the words and life all around us. It’s not about “skills,” it’s about sensibility, and sensitivity. If you have it, you know it can’t be turned off. There is no down time, nor would you ever want there to be.

There is so much rich language  all around us–past, present and future–that it’s simply the funnest thing in the world to play with it, mold it, break it down and rejigger it. This is the art of naming. This is the joy of creation and discovery applied to the real world task of creating brands. We strive to live in an inspired state all the time, because inspiration is joyful, and inspiration is addictive. This is what Caine Monroy embodies for me with every fiber of his being, and this is where all great art–and names–comes from. No wonder he almost always has such a big grin on his face–he’s only nine, but he already knows the secret of happiness. Let’s hope he stays “forever young,” for, as Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think Caine Monroy has a great chance to hold onto that spirit of creative joy, and Mullick’s wonderful little film will always be there to remind him of it.

Let’s do it

Here is an excerpt from a wonderful interview I heard last night on NPR (‘How Creativity Works’: It’s All In Your Imagination) with Jonah Lehrer, author of “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Lehrer and host Robert Siegel discuss the creative process and how great concepts often arrive in unusual packages.

On the creative processes that resulted in Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign: “This is a great story from Dan Wieden at Wieden+Kennedy, the very honored Portland ad firm. … He’d come up with seven videos for the new Nike ad campaign. … He knew these different videos which featured different sports needed a shared slogan. But he just couldn’t think of the slogan. … At some point during the day, somebody must’ve mentioned Norman Mailer to him. And so Norman Mailer was in the back of his head somewhere. It’s near midnight. His deadline’s approaching. He’s really, really frustrated at this point because he can’t come up with this damn slogan. And then suddenly he thinks of Norman Mailer. He remembers Norman Mailer wrote this book called The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore. And he remembers Gary Gilmore’s last words right before he’s executed by a firing squad in Utah. His last words were, ‘Let’s do it.’

“And Dan Wieden thinks to himself, Geez, that’s pretty brave. That’s a pretty brave sentiment to have right before you die — to just get it over with. But he realizes ‘Let’s Do It’ isn’t quite right, so he tweaks one word. And there you get ‘Just Do It.’ … But that’s a perfect example of how, in a sense, that’s an old idea. It was a line in a Norman Mailer book, and he tweaked it ever so slightly. He substituted one word and came up with one of the most influential advertising slogans of the second half of the 20th century.”

Connecting the dots

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
~Steve Jobs

Escape the groupthink brainstorm and go deep

In a  piece in yesterday’s New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink, Susan Cain makes a strong argument against the rising tide of groupthink in our culture. This kind of “collaborative creativity” can readily be seen in the proliferation of group assignments in school, companies with open plan offices with no personal space, and, in the naming business, naming committees with too many members trying to collaboratively create a new brand name.

The problem is, for any kind of creative endeavor, groupthink doesn’t work.

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

In other words, the social aspects of work might be beneficial and necessary to an individual’s overall health, but they are not conducive to creative work and the development of new ideas. And “creative work” is something that should be required of everyone in an organization, not just so-called “creatives.” Here is Apple co-founder and famous introvert Steve Wozniak describing engineers:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

The key for any company or organization is to find the right balance, to recognize that people need uninterrupted “alone time” to do their best work, thought they and others in the organization can benefit from the collective energy of occasional group interaction. Interaction and exchange of ideas, not continuous collaboration, because,

…it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

Privacy also makes us productive, notes Cain. She references a study of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies called the Coding War Games that showed quantitatively that “what distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay, it was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed.” And creative solitude helps learning too, because an individual can work more on the things that challenge them, which is not an option in a group learning situation.

The flip side of deep, focused, solitary work is the corporate brainstorming session. We’ve seen this time and again in the naming industry, where brainstorming sessions are usually conducted by companies in-house, or by their advertising agency. The company or agency will ask a group of its “creatives” to work late one night, fueled by pizza, beer and Red Bull, and work together to brainstorm a new name. As you may have guessed, such a process rarely if ever generates the strongest, most powerful names.

Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity….decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

Simon Sinek has also weighed-in on why the best ideas don’t happen though groupthink, pointing out that brainstorming sessions only activate the conscious mind, not the subconscious mind. He notes that your rational brain can only access about two feet of information around you, while your unconscious brain can access the equivalent of eleven acres of information around you. This treasure trove of unconscious information is where gut decisions and epiphanies come from, and they just can’t come out in the collective groupthink environment of a brainstorming session.

The only way to make brainstorming  productive is to have individuals work alone on the problem at hand before and after the group work, and use the brainstorming session for communication, interaction and amplification of the individual ideas, rather than a mechanism for creating those ideas. There simply is no substitute for the deep thought of individual alone time away from all distractions.

One exception to the general shortcomings of groupthink is electronic collaboration at a distance, or so-called “crowdsourcing,” where individuals working “alone together” have the potential to tap into the best of both worlds. In the rosiest of such scenarios, individuals still have plenty of solitary creative time, which is then combined with focused bursts of remote group collaboration free from the negative dynamics that come with in-person group interaction. Cain notes that, “most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy,” and finding the right balance is crucial for success:

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

Companies should take heed of these findings and incorporate them into how they structure their workflow and work environments. In our own naming work we have always worked this way, as individuals pursuing ideas on our own, punctuated by regular, brief and focused sessions for discussion, argument, and collaboration, both internally and with our clients; then back to our private spaces for more deep thought.

If your company is staffed only with extroverts, it’s time to hire some introverts, pronto, and give them the space they need to go deep. The extroverts will benefit too.

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

Dylan Thomas - 18 Poems

“The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” is a powerful, moody Dylan Thomas poem from his first book of poetry, 18 Poems,  published a month after turning twenty years old. It is about the creative force of nature, creative destruction, disruption, and how we human animals are but another manifestation of “nature,” not separate or apart from it.

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

The green fuse blasts the crooked rose with wintry fever. Through the rocks the mouthing streams stir the quicksand. Beyond the weather’s wind, the lips of time have ticked a heaven round the stars. Beautiful. Make and remake the poem in your mind. Live the poem. Let the words lead you to other words and beyond words.

Here’s Thomas reading the poem:

Thanks to Brian Phipps (@brandstrat) for quoting this poem on Twitter.

Embracing creative friction and uncertainty

Jeremy Dean, in a recent article on his site PsyBlog, Why People Secretly Fear Creative Ideas, notes that creative ideas are often rejected in favor of conformity and uniformity, and why this is so, citing several psychology studies (Mueller et al. 2011; Westby & Dawson, 1995) to back up his case. Dean asks rhetorically,

Does society really value creativity? People say they want more creative people, more creative ideas and solutions, but do they really?

The answer, sadly, is no, but why is that so? The reason, Dean writes, is that fear of uncertainty overrules the desire for creativity:

Across two experiments Mueller and colleagues found that when people felt uncertain they were:

  • more likely to have negative thoughts about creative ideas,
  • and found it more difficult to recognise creative ideas.

This supports the idea that people don’t like creative ideas because they tend to increase uncertainty. The thinking goes like this: we know how to do things we’ve done before, but new things are mysterious. How will we achieve it? Is it practical? What could go wrong? And so on…

People don’t like to feel uncertain; it’s an aversive state that generally we try to escape from. Unfortunately creativity requires uncertainty by definition, because we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.

People deal with the disconnect by saying one thing, “Creativity is good, we want more of it!” but actually rejecting creative ideas for being impractical.

And, the more uncertain people feel, the harder they find it to recognise a truly creative idea. So as a society we end up sticking our heads in the sand and carrying on doing the same old things we’ve been doing all along, just to avoid feeling uncertain.

Instead we should be embracing uncertainty because it’s only when we’re unsure that we can be sure we’re in new territory.

Creativity requires uncertainty by definition, because we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. Dean is spot-on in his assessment, and a primary factor keeping people from embracing uncertainty is fear of failure. Adrian Savage wrote a great article earlier this year for Lifehack.org, How fear of failure destroys success,  where he notes just how vitally important failure’s handmaidens, trial and error, are to achieving ultimate success:

Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet many people are afraid to undertake the trial because they’re too afraid of experiencing the error. They make the mistake of believing that all error is wrong and harmful, when most of it is both helpful and necessary. Error provides the feedback that points the way to success. Only error pushes people to put together a new and better trial, leading through yet more errors and trials until they can ultimately find a viable and creative solution. To meet with an error is not to fail, but to take one more step on the path to final success. No errors means no successes either.

Savage goes on to illustrate various different ways that individuals and corporations allow fear of failure to block creative solutions to problems: a culture of perfection, clinging to past success, being a high achiever, or being unbalanced in any one direction (too over-achieving, too moral, too anything), and that finding a proper balance is the way out of this trap:

Everyone likes to succeed. The problem comes when fear of failure is dominant. When you can no longer accept the inevitability of making mistakes, nor recognize the importance of trial and error in finding the best and most creative solution. The more creative you are, the more errors you are going to make. Get used to it. Deciding to avoid the errors will destroy your creativity too.

Balance counts more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on success.

We hear a lot about being positive. Maybe we also need to recognize that the negative parts of our lives and experience have just as important a role to play in finding success, in work and in life.

Savor these two of Savage’s ideas, they are golden: 1) The more creative you are, the more errors you are going to make. Get used to it. Deciding to avoid the errors will destroy your creativity too. 2) We hear a lot about being positive. Maybe we also need to recognize that the negative parts of our lives and experience have just as important a role to play in finding success, in work and in life. The key is to remain open to new ideas, methods, and experiences.

This applies to all aspects of business, but resonates especially strongly for me in how it relates to the naming process. In our own work here at Zinzin, we live in permanent trial and error mode, because we accept the fact that on every naming project, we will ultimately create hundreds of “failure” names that will lead us to the one great name that defines a successful outcome. Savage’s description of trial-error-reiteration adroitly captures what our line of work entails. You can only find the perfect name by multiple rounds of experiment, play, questioning, red herrings, dead ends, trips down rabbit holes, self-criticism, debate, and chance. Be open to creative ideas in yourself and others, and embrace the trial/error/failure/try again process.

When you get knocked over by failure and fall down on your face, get up and repeat, over and over again. The good news is that once you make this process a habit, it becomes second nature and much easier to tolerate. Eventually you realize that the failures are not speed bumps on the road to success — they are actually catalysts, without which there wouldn’t be any success.