Protect your boredom

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The title of this post comes from Jonah Lehrer, author of the recently published book on creativity, Imagine. I just heard him taking part in Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC R4. (Which you can listen to here in the UK.)

One of the interviewees mentioned that air travel was a favourite time to think creatively, as there were none of the usual distractions of land-based routine, plenty of blue sky and nothing much to do but daydream. Lehrer commented that not being able to access your email and phone messages was a distinct aid to creative thinking. When we are bored, he argued, instead of compulsively checking for new emails, we can allow our minds to wander freely. These ‘voids’ can be extremely valuable for letting new thoughts get through.

“Protect your boredom” he said. It sounds like good advice.

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Introverts and creativity

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I came across this TED talk by author Susan Cain. I find her messages about our current pre-occupation with working together in groups interesting.

In my experience, companies tend to believe that the most creative ideas will emerge from group activities such as ‘brainstorming’ and team meetings. As an introvert, I have always known that my best ideas come to me when I am quiet and alone. Conversations and meetings beforehand will definitely have been an influence, but the creative spark happens alone in my case.

How about you? And if you are a leader, how are you catering for the needs of the more introverted people in your company? Do they have opportunities to create too, or do their quieter voices get drowned out by the more extroverted types?

Generosity

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Two ideas collided in my brain this morning. One is an idea from the wonderfully named Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit which I am enjoying hugely. Tharp is a choreographer. She creates dances. But what she has learnt about creativity transfers to all fields, from business to baking cakes. She writes about the importance of being generous to others:

Be generous. I don’t use that word lightly. Generosity is luck going in the opposite direction, away from you. If you’re generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky. This is important. It’s like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.

When I read these words, I thought of a generous, random act of kindness which had been brought to my attention by The Daughter. It’s an elaborate piece of improvisation that is hell-bent on making one small boy particularly lucky that day.

Creative navigation

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I’m re-reading a book by Betty Edwards: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Dr Edwards is an art professor. Her PhD research investigated the psychology of perception, drawing (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the Nobel prize-winning work into the so-called ‘split brain’ by Roger Sperry, begun in the late 1960s. In brief, Edwards teaches her students to draw by switching into ‘R mode’ (non-verbal) instead of ‘L mode’ (usually the more dominant, language-based hemisphere of the brain).

Edwards quotes Paredes and Hepburn (1976) to illustrate the two broad ways of perceiving the world. These researchers cite the example given by anthropologist, Thomas Gladwin, which contrasts the approach taken by European and native Trukese sailors to navigating between the small islands dotted in the huge Pacific Ocean.

Before setting sail, the European begins with a plan that can be written in terms of directions, degrees of longitude and latitude, estimated time of arrival at separate points on the journey. Once the plan is conceived and completed, the sailor has only to carry out each step consecutively, one after another, to be assured of arriving on time at the planned destination. The sailor uses all available tools, such as a compass, a sextant, a map etc, and if asked, can describe exactly how he got where he was going.

In contrast, the native Trukese sailor starts his voyage by imaging the position of his destination relative to the position of other islands. As he sails along, he constantly adjusts his direction according to his awareness of his position thus far. His decisions are improvised continually by checking relative positions of landmarks, sun, wind direction, etc. He navigates with reference to where he started, where he is going, and the space between his destination and the point where he is at the moment. If asked how he navigates so well without instruments or a written plan, he cannot possibly put it into words. This is not because the Trukese are unaccustomed to describing things in words, but rather because the process is too complex and fluid to put into words.

The European style worked just fine, as long as nothing unexpected happened (like a sudden storm or killer whales fancying a snack). However, for most people, and certainly most organisations now, life just doesn’t work that way. The ‘left-brained’ logical approach has its place. But people tend to forget to use their whole brains in navigating challenges.

It seemed to me that the right-brained approach of the Trukese sailors is a great metaphor for creative problem-solving. It also provides a very neat description of leadership, and a great way for me to explain my approach to coaching. Oh yes, and it also helps you draw.

Creativity by the bucket-load

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Yesterday evening, I presented to the North West’s Association for Coaching group on ‘creativity in coaching’. What an energising session it turned out to be: the two hours of material I’d prepared had to be squashed considerably as everyone was happy to participate in all the exercises and wanted to discuss their experiences at length.

In introducing herself to the group, one coach mentioned that she was currently ‘being branded’. To try to capture her brand identity, the designer had posed an intriguing question: “If you were a country, which country would you be?” I liked the way that this unusual question makes the brain search for an answer. Hers was New Zealand. What would yours be?

Perhaps it’s a design trait to ask such questions. My daughter is studying graphic design, and was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in a series of workshops with an eminent designer for big-name brands. His first (and unexpected) question to the group was ‘How would you depict yourself in a self-portrait as a graphic designer (without drawing yourself or mentioning your name)?’ Her response was to draw a child’s large, bright orange bucket and spade. Her reason?

“It represented how I feel as a designer at this moment, shovelling choice bits of what I’m learning into a mix to try and create a stand alone structure, or piece of work, whilst highlighting the importance of trial and error.”

 

What would your self-portrait be?

Left brain, right brain

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Heard a really fascinating interview by Andrew Marr  with psychologist Iain McGilchrist on BBC’s Start the Week this morning. McGilchrist has written a book (The Divided Brain) on the roles of the different hemispheres of our brains.

The left brain/right brain metaphor has become a bit of a cliche, and McGilchrist is at pains to point out that the whole brain is involved in absolutely everything we do. Continue reading