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Why Do Writers Write? Where Do Their Ideas Come From?
By Shlomo Maital
 
Amos Oz
   What’s in an Apple?  Six Conversations about Writing and about Love, about Guilt and Other Pleasures.  Amos Oz with Shira Hadad   (Keter – Hebrew, May 2018).

 I write and teach about  creativity.  The key question, where do ideas come from?, has always fascinated me.  This book (so far, only in Hebrew),  answers that question for one especially talented writer, Israel’s greatest novelist Amos Oz.  His editor Shira Hadad, who knows his books better than Amos himself, asked him hard questions and recorded the answers. 
   Amos Oz  is 79.  His work has been published in 45 languages in 47 countries.   He was short listed for the Mann Booker Prize and is purported to be a candidate for a Nobel Prize.   His latest work is Judas (2014).  His book A Tale of Love and Darkness was made into a movie.
Here are a few quotes, that I have translated…:
  Oz recounts that he was an only child, and his parents would bring him to a Jerusalem coffee shop, swearing him to silence, promising him that if he did not bother their conversation with friends, he would get a rare treat, ice cream.  So Oz recounts, he became a ‘spy’,  listening to conversations, and weaving stories based on them.   “My first motivation was to think, what would I feel, if I were they, If I were he, If I were she…  I was an only child, did not have friends…I simply began to ‘spy’ on the people sitting at nearby tables….”
    “[famous Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua] –  I have an issue with him.  He places the moral question, crime and punishment, at the center of his works.  I think about the moral issue in a different way —  I put myself in others’ shoes, for a few hours, or inside their skin… I believe that a curious person is even a better [marriage] partner than  a non-curious one…and even a better driver! (you are always thinking what the other guy will do!).   ..There is also ‘dark curiosity’.  About those who injure others, to see them suffer….”
“Usually I write out of anger.  I get angry about something. And curiosity is not only a necessary condition for intellectual endeavors, it also has moral virtue.”
    Oz recounts that he rises at 4 a.m.,  and even before coffee,  goes out into the dark streets of Jerusalem for a walk.  He returns at 4:45, has coffee, and then begins to write, for 3-4 hours.  Every single day.  Not a miss..  Sometimes he sees lights on in windows, and wonders about those inside…  He writes endless drafts, sometimes 10 or even 15 of them, by hand  …discards the bad ones, picks the best…and tears the rest into tiny pieces and flushes them down the toilet, lest someone discover them. (Kafka, he observes, ordered his executor and friend Max Brod to burn ALL his manuscripts. Brod, luckily, refused.  Oz says, if you want to destroy your work, do it yourself. If you ask someone else to do it, they won’t…). 
  Oz says that he writes about the past.. this is the natural time to write about, not the present, or the future.  “Story” he says, is part of the word “history”.  He does not like to read his own books.. because he always knows he could have done better. 
   One of his earliest books was My Michael (1968).  So Oz has been writing productively for over 50 years, and is still writing, at age 79. 

   How does he know if his work of fiction is ready to publish?   If, he says, his characters argue with him, dispute him, take on their own lives.  If I tell them what to do too easily, he says, it doesn’t work.  I refuse to write a certain scene. My character says, write it!  I say, No!  My character says, don’t tell me what to do!   This is when I know the work is going well, he recounts. 
     Oz is politically left.  So are David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, the other great Israeli writers.
      Why, I wonder, are great authors almost always liberal and left politically?  I guess the answer is simple.  Great writers have incredibly sensitive empathy for other people and for their suffering.  So they feel the suffering of their ‘foes’ and want to reduce or eliminate it. 

     Those on the right seem rather inured to this suffering.  Too bad.  

 

 

 

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 Draw Your Riskometer

By Shlomo Maital

Tina Seelig’s Riskometer

Tina Seelig is a Stanford University professor, who teaches creativity and innovation. In a TED salon talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/tina_seelig_the_little_risks_you_can_take_to_increase_your_luck

   She shows us how to change the way we relate to risk, and to luck. It all starts with leaving our comfort zone – being comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that, in turn, relates to taking risks…taking chances. But first, we need to look deeply into ourselves.

   So to do this, try Seelig’s riskometer. Draw a circle. Place on the circumference, six ‘realms”, or types of risk (financial, intellectual, social, political, emotional, physical.   On the spoke, mark the place where your risk appetite resides…’high’, close to the circumference, ‘low’, close to the center.

   Now – carefully consider, how you can improve your risk appetite, for realms where you are risk averse – and stuck in yourcomfort zone.

     Creativity is risky. It involves taking chances. The more comfortable you are with this, the more willing you will be, to come up with innovative ideas and, most important, to try them.

   By the way, the riskometer diagram above is Tina Seelig’s own. She needs some work on physical and financial risk. Tina – try sky diving. And,   buy a few Tesla shares….

Working Hypothesis That Changed My Life:

Every Problem Has a Solution

By Shlomo Maital

   I have written another book on creativity: Dismantle! How to Deconstruct Your Mind and Build a Personal Creativity Machine. It will be published by Harper Collins (India) in October. Why India? I’ve discovered Indian publishers are superb at editing and printing books and the market price is a fraction of that in the US. Besides, Indian people still do read books.

   Here is the opening prologue of my book. It makes a point that I learned from a former student and co-author Arie Ruttenberg: Creativity is widening the range of choice. You always have a choice. Every problem does have a creative solution. But only if you first believe that – and begin your search. This principle has changed my life. Perhaps it can change yours?

     If you are like me, you tend to skip through non-fiction books rather quickly, searching for the essence and picking the ripe ‘cherries’ from the tree, when most of the ‘fruit’ in the book is not yet ripe or relevant or interesting or non-obvious.

   Here, then, is a quick overview of this book. As you read on, please feel free to cherry-pick.

     But before we begin our journey to re-energized creativity, I’d like to emphasize a key point—literally, the key to unlocking your creative skills.

     Scientific research begins with a hypothesis—a supposition about what the research may reveal. For example, a scientist sought to find the number of neurons (brain cells) in the human brain, starting off with the assumption that the number was 100 billion; that was the commonly believed number. The assumption was false. It turned out that there are 86 billion neurons in the brain.  

     We all make assumptions. Most of the time they are hidden, ill-defined and below the threshold of our awareness.   When we tackle hard problems we often harbour a hidden assumption, such as, ‘there is no solution to this’, and come to the conclusion: Live with it, as is.    

       Humans are wonderfully resilient and are skilled at adapting and adjusting to difficulties and unmet needs. This resilience, or acceptance, is a highly positive quality. But it also can be harmful.

         I urge every reader to embrace a very different hypothesis. I would like my readers to assume that for every challenge, every problem, every unmet need and unsatisfied want, there is a solution—at least one. Every problem has a solution.   It is simply a matter of finding it and implementing it. By assuming there is a solution rather than that there is not one, we have taken a major first step towards effective creativity.

Try it. Tackle hard problems. Think creatively. Dive deep into the essence of the problem. Try wild ideas. You may fail. But the effort is glorious and praiseworthy. And you might just succeed.

p.s. the quote is by Donna Karan, who launched a wonderful creative fashion company. Louis Vuitton recently sold the DKNY brand for $650 million.

Snow Capped Idea Volcanoes:

Creativity of the Elderly

Shlomo Maital

 

     A mind is a terrible thing to waste.   Are we wasting the creative minds of our seniors?   Is the wrong-headed assumption that creativity is entirely the domain of young minds depriving the world of revolutionary ideas? As countries in the West and East alike age, will we marginalize all those senior minds — and waste a precious resource?  

     Consider my own example.   I requested, and received, early retirement from my university employer, in 2001. I was then able to help lead a management institute that worked with many global high-tech companies and startups. I learned how to help them diagnose their core problems and make their organizations consistently innovative. I then wrote down what I learned in a dozen books, that I wrote, co-authored and edited, almost one a year.   I became a snow-capped idea volcano – and completed the Boston Marathon when I was 63.   And today, at 75.5 (the decimal was supplied by an Asian nation, when I applied for a visa) I am working on a collection of short stories titled “What If? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”.

       And best of all, I got to meet and study a very large number of creative individuals, snow-capped like me, whose ideas were validated and activated and created enormous value. I could have opted for a rocking chair, which is what society often prescribes for seniors. Luckily I chose the ‘volcano’ alternative.

       We know a lot about the aging brain. It works a bit slower. It doesn’t remember things that well. But it does have an ephemeral quality called wisdom – the quality of having the magical mixture of knowledge, experience and judgment. I cannot count the number of startup ideas I’ve seen, that embody magical technology, to satisfy a non-existent need. Senior brains avoid that trap.

         Here is just one example, that I wrote about in my innovation blog a year ago:

     John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, writes Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.    

     This is not Goodenough’s first invention. At age 57 he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package; such batteries now exist in nearly all devices at home and at work.  OK – another genius. Nice. But what is unusual about Goodenough?   His age.   He is 94 years old.

   The thing is, we have known for many centuries that senior brains are highly productive and creative. Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps history’s single most creative individual, was making breakthrough discoveries in hydraulics and anatomy when he was 57, in 1509 (in those days, old age!) and when he was 62, a year before his death, he was making plans to drain the Pontine Marshes in Italy.

     Often, the first step toward breakthrough ideas is smashing an iconic sacred-cow assumption. Let’s discard forever the assumption that only fresh young brains are creative. Let’s tell our seniors, we need your ideas, built on your wisdom and your experience. And then, let’s harvest the crop of world-changing ideas erupting from all those snow-capped idea volcanoes.

 

How to Change Your World With Ideas
By Shlomo Maital

Kavala Greece
During the week of May 13-20,  2018,   I will offer a course on “How to Change Your World With Ideas”,  at a lovely spot,  Kavala Greece.   I would be happy if you would join me there.   Check it out at this URL:   unboundprometheus.com
Here is a short description of my proposed course:  How to Change Your World With Ideas
Consider this.  Some 98% of five-year-old children score “genius level” on a standard creativity test.   At age 10, only 32% reach ‘genius’.  At age 15: 10%.  At age 30:  2%.     Creativity-driven Apple has created more wealth (over $1 trillion) in 40 years than oil-based Exxon Mobil has in 90 years.   Why then is  society destroying what may be its main resource – ideas?
I believe most adults perceive that their creative juices have diminished since childhood.  But few of us know why, or how to remedy this.  There is an internal paradox in creativity.  Generating ideas demands that we smash all constraints and employ soaring head-in-the-clouds imagination. Yet unless we have an orderly feet-on-the-ground process for doing so,  we forego the second half of the definition of creativity:  “novel” and “useful”.   Creativity requires ideation, validation,  and actuation.  Each of these three steps employs a different mindset.
This course begins with the proposition that “everyone can” – everyone can generate an endless stream of creative ideas.  The brain is a kind of muscle – it gets stronger with exercise.   In this 5-day course, I will offer participants a variety of components, that together can be assembled into a ‘personal creativity machine’ (PCM) – a highly individualized process that produces a stream of highly creative ideas,  ones that  change your own world and possibly change the whole world.  Like fingerprints, no two PCM’s are identical.
Our 12 hours together will end with each participant constructing his or her PCM – and turning it on, with no ‘off’ button.

Crowd-Sourcing Hard Problems, as Games

By Shlomo Maital

   One of the hardest problems in molecular biology is discovering the exact 3-dimensional structure of complex protein molecules.

     Scientists at University of Washington, Center for Game Science, in collaboration with the Department of Biochemistry, found a unique way to tackle the problem. They crowd-sourced it, by creating a kind of social game in which players collaborate to find protein’s 3D structure – how the protein molecule ‘folds’. The game is called FoldIt. A recent BBC program decribed it.

    Foldit attempts to apply the human brain’s three-dimensional pattern matching and    spatial reasoning abilities to help solve the problem of protein structure prediction. Current puzzles are based on well-understood proteins. By analyzing how humans intuitively approach these puzzles, researchers hope to improve the algorithms used by protein-folding software. Foldit includes a series of tutorials where users manipulate simple protein-like structures and a periodically updated set of puzzles based on real proteins. It shows a graphical representation of each protein which users can manipulate using a set of tools.

      But did anything useful emerge? Indeed it did.

* A 2010 paper in science journal Nature credited Foldit’s 57,000 players with providing useful results that matched or outperformed algorithmically computed solutions.

* In 2011, Foldit players helped decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, a monkey virus which causes human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), a scientific problem that had been unsolved for 15 years. While the puzzle was available for three weeks, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme in only ten days.

* In January 2012, Scientific American reported that Foldit gamers achieved the first crowdsourced redesign of a protein, an enzyme.

    We know young people are bored in school. What if we could teach them math and science through a gaming approach? Challenge them with hard problems, let them work in teams (get those smartphones out of locked cupboards and put them to work) and ignite their creative energy.

   Surely, somewhere, progressive schools are doing this?

 

Why Ideas Resemble Pearls

By Shlomo Maital

       Pearls are one of nature’s many wonders. It occurred to me that ideas are born in ways similar to pearls. How come?

       Pearls form when a microscopic ‘intruder’ or parasite invades an oyster.   (Rarely, a grain of sand…mainly parasites). This irritates the oyster. In defense, it starts to coat the intruder with a form of calcium carbonate. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonate coat the intruder, until it is harmless. Then, perhaps, a pearl fisher is lucky enough to find the resulting pearl. Millions of years of evolution have given oysters a vital tool for survival.

       The process in oysters is not unlike the human immune response – a germ invades our body, and our antibodies (usually T cells) grab the invading antigen and capture and neutralize it.

       So why are ideas like pearls?   Ideas can form when creative people are irritated by something we see or hear. For instance — on the street, I see an elderly person struggling with a cell phone, trying to see and punch numbers on a cell phone meant for fingers fifty years younger.   I am irritated. Why should this happen? Why are the elderly humiliated and ignored?  

       That irritation is like the invader of an oyster. Immediately, the creative brain goes to work, often subconsciously, working on ‘neutralizing’ the irritation by finding a solution… coating it with many ideas that solve the problem. And if you listen carefully, some of those ideas pop into your conscious mind, like lovely pearls waiting to bring happiness to the world…but only if you crack open that oyster, find the ‘pearl’ and ACTIVATE – do something with it.

     This is how memory sticks were invented. The inventor Dov Moran forgot to plug in his laptop and lost his presentation, in 1986. He swore at that moment, through irritation, that never again would this happen. The result: his startup M Systems invented the memory stick. The memory stick was the pearl that Moran formed, around that initial sharp irritation.

     The lesson here? Be passionate. Be empathetic. Care about what goes on around you, and care about people who struggle, suffer, are in pain, or who simply have unmet needs. Feel the injustice! Then let your creative brain eliminate the irritation by finding a solution or solutions.

       Natural pearls are rare and expensive, and adorn women with means. But natural ideas cost nothing and change the world. All that is needed is that initial tiny irritation – a feeling caring person whose irritation at injustice and pain goes away only when a creative solution emerges from it.

 

Dealing with Life’s Challenges

By Shlomo Maital

   Lately, in idle moments and hours [in this space, I always advise finding do-nothing idle time, when your thoughts float free], I’ve been thinking about how I cope with the multiple small and big problems that life always tosses at me.   Despite my having a truly blessed life, it still happens that fairly minor problems prove to be major irritations – and that irritation ruins my mood, and my ability to create.   Not good. Unacceptable.

     So, here is what I came up with, a way to solve the problem of how to solve problems.

     It’s about mindset.   Define your challenges differently.  

     NOT this: a challenge, or problem, is something that makes me unhappy, that I struggle to solve, that makes me irritable and snappy, and more or less spoils my day, as I wonder, why is this happening to me? Damn…

     BUT this:   A challenge or problem is something that I face with restrained joy – because it is one more opportunity for me to show that I am capable, efficacious, competent, and able to solve problems with creativity and persistence. And when I succeed, I feel even more capable. And when I fail?   I applaud myself for making a great effort – and look forward to the next opportunity.

       The definition of creativity that I use, in this space, is:   “widening the range of choices”.   Facing a tough problem?   Widen your range of choices.   There are a great many ways of dealing with really tough dilemmas. Including, just doing nothing, and living with it.   Become a startup entrepreneur each time you face a really tough problem.   Tackle the problem with gusto. And then congratulate yourself – and you will soon be on a roll, becoming a first-rate gold-star Olympic champion efficacious empowered personal problem solver.  

       Example: last September a taxi banged into the side of my car and did some serious damage. My insurance paid for the repair, but the taxi driver (with the help of his insurance company, which was also mine!) sued me in small claims court, claiming I was to blame. And the insurance company ‘kindly’ added me as a defendant!   Big-time annoyance and time-waster.   I decided to treat this as a challenge. Let’s see if I can help justice win one, for once. And learn what it’s like to go to court.

   With the help of a lawyer friend, I crafted a very careful written defense. I came to court and prepared diligently for it. The judge was very thorough and the ‘trial’ took most of the morning. My insurance company sent a representative, who brought photographs … of the wrong vehicle! That almost killed my case at the outset. But in the end the judge ruled in my favor. The taxi driver lost the morning’s fares.

       The ruling included the taxi driver paying me a small sum of ‘expenses’ for the court appearance. I chose to forego it;   this is not about money but about justice.

       So what was a huge annoyance, turned into a challenge to help the justice system, while maintaining my own humanity.  In a way, I shaped a kind of narrative – a way that I tell myself the story about this episode. And instead of it being painful, irritating, and annoying, it became a narrative in which …I did the right thing.   Fight for justice. Retain your compassion.  

       Worth a try?  

What Happens to the Brain During Creativity?

By Shlomo Maital  

John Coltrane

   At the main bus stop, at my university Technion, there is a set of bookshelves, where people drop off unwanted books and others browse and take them. I’ve put a great many books there and they always disappear quickly.  

   One day this week I noticed some rather old copies of Scientific American. I took two of them, to read while on the bus. One of them had a fascinating article by Charles J. Limb, a surgeon who plays saxophone, does cochleal transplants, and loves John Coltrane. (The article was in the May 2011 issue, nearly 6 years ago).

     Using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Limb asked, what happens to the brain when jazz musicians improvise?   Coltrane, legendary tenor sax player, did incredible improvisations.   How? Why?

   Here is what Limb found: “creativity is whole-brain…during improvisation, the lateral prefrontal region of the cortex shuts down (areas involved in conscious self-inhibition, self-monitoring, evaluation of rightness and wrongness of what you are doing). Another area of the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, turns on…this is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative..it has do to with sense of self.”

     Brief summary? Want to create? Turn off all inhibition, judging, evaluating, good or bad.   Turn them off.   Activate your own self, self-awareness, self-expression… express who you are, what you are, tell your story.

     And Coltrane? “He practiced. He was an obsessive—he practiced obsessively. He was after the ability to have an idea he had never had before…be profound, and be able to executive the idea.”

     John Coltrane was creative, had ideas…but he had technique, he mastered his instrument so that he could effortless IMPLEMENT his creative ideas. You need both. Discovery (creativity). And Delivery (practice, practice, mastery mastery!).

       That, according to Limb, is creativity.

How Psychologists Define Innovation

By Shlomo Maital

 innovation-1

 

   “In the physical realm, a behavioral innovation is a new, useful, and potentially transmitted learned behavior, arising from asocial learning (innovation by independent invention) or a combination of asocial and social learning (innovation by modification), that is produced so as to successfully solve a novel problem or an existing problem in a novel manner”. *

     The Latin root of the word “innovation” is “nova”, or novel. This is of course a necessary condition for something to be called an innovation, though novel is definitely moderated by geography — I tell my students that if they introduce an idea proven successful elsewhere, but that does not exist in their town, city, region or country, it is still an innovation.   But child development experts have offered a new dimension to innovation – that of social learning. The definition above appears in a recent article in Child Development. (My wife drew my attention to it). I think it contains a hugely significant point.

       Innovation can be ‘asocial’, or non-social. (Note, this is NOT anti-social!). That is, an individual comes up with a powerful innovation, on their own. A “eureka” moment. But I believe most innovations are a combination of asocial and social learning – once you have an idea, you need to share it, discuss it, test it, build a team… this is a social process.

         Innovations solve problems. This too is an essential part of the definition. An innovation that is brilliant, complex, technical – and solves no problem, or creates no value, is not an innovation.

       A key point emerging from this article:   Global benchmarking.   Countries share social problems. E.g. aging, poverty, inequality, corruption, ….   They tackle problems in different ways. Some are innovative and successful. Some are innovative but fail ultimately.   Countries do not sufficiently learn from one another. For instance: The world faces a huge problem with job creation, as robots emerge to do much of our daily work. How to deal with it? Finland is trying an experiment, in Oulu, a far-north city with a great university.   They are paying a monthly sum to everyone, to encourage them to take risky jobs, with startups, without worrying about the salary.   The world should watch this experiment closely.

     Countries everywhere, and cities, and regions, and towns, should be trying social experiments… tackling tough social problems with creative innovative approaches. Many will fail. Some will work. There should be a global network of such experimenters.   This is evolution put to work in the service of humanity. Yet in my experience, countries try hard to invent their own wheels.. and mainly do it badly.  

       Social learning is not just an individual process, it is also a process in which whole countries can learn from one another. But do they?   Not nearly enough.

* “Eureka!: What Is Innovation, How Does It Develop, and Who Does It?” Kayleigh Carr, Rachel L. Kendal, and Emma G. Flynn, Durham University.   Child Development, Sept.-Oct. 2016

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