Present at the Creation
From the self-help gurus to the hottest new books, it's the buzziest concept out there: take a few simple stepsâ€”paint your room blue, drink more (or less), work under low ceilingsâ€”and you'll become more creative in no time, leading you to the success you've always desired. How much of it is true? We asked a Harvard expert to find out.
The hardest part of drinking beer in the shower, I was starting to realize, is figuring out where to put the bottle while youâ€™re soaping up.
I also wasnâ€™t sure how long I was supposed to stay in the shower, or how many beers I would have to drink before I started feeling the effects. Not of the alcohol, but of the enhanced creativity. It may sound ridiculousâ€”it certainly did to meâ€”but according to popular articles and certain scientific studies, hot showers and cold beers are exactly what you need if you are, like me, in a creative rut.
So how did I wind up in this shower? The whole thing started two months ago, when I decided to try to get my creative groove back. You see, my job is to research forms of creativity and innovation in the workplace, and I teach similar subjects at Harvardâ€”which is how I know that enhanced creativity is the holy grail of our time. No, really, itâ€™s true. For several years, Iâ€™ve been studying diverse forms of innovation at leading creative firmsâ€”such as IDEO, PPR Group (which owns Gucci, Puma, and other brands), Swarovski, Artscience Labs, and J. Walter Thompsonâ€”and turning the insights from that research into experiential lessons for my students, with an emphasis on preparing them for the messy reality of creative production. What Iâ€™m telling you is that I spend my life figuring out how people and organizations deal with the obstacles related to becoming more innovativeâ€”and yet there I was, struggling with how to do it for myself. What Iâ€™d come to understand was that, despite all the buzz out there on the science of creativity and innovation (and thereâ€™s a lot right now), nearly everyone I know, including me, is too overwhelmed with work and too inundated with information to figure out what actually works. For me. For my projects. For my lowly attention span.
Faced with this realization, I came up with an idea: I would turn my life into an experiment to see if I could regain my creativity. I would gather the most intriguing books and magazine articles out there, the ones suggesting specific, research-based tips for boosting personal creativityâ€”things like changing the color of your office, modifying your ceiling height, and, yes, drinking beer in a hot showerâ€”and set about testing their real-world effectiveness. I wanted to figure out how much of whatâ€™s being recommended could actually be helpful, and how much was bunk.
In other words, I would put the creativity industry to the test. There is a creativity industry, by the way. And the stakes are high. In 2010, Newsweek declared a creativity crisis and a Pew Charitable Trust report claimed that the jobs that require creativity and that truly lead to innovationâ€”engineering, design, science, and entrepreneurshipâ€”are increasingly where wealth is being created. The idea is that creativity can lead to innovation, and innovation can drive growth. Little surprise, then, that everyone from President Obama to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to Bill Clinton to the Nobel Prizeâ€“winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to most executives at Fortune 500 companies are telling us the same story these days: Any nation that wants to remain competitive in the global economy must develop and amplify its capacity for creativity and innovation.
So, we were talking about what it was that I was doing drinking a beer in the shower. The truth is, I struggle daily to make creativity a priority in my own life. Despite my earnest efforts to inject more of it into my projects at work and at home, I get swamped with other things. A peek into my average workday reveals serious room for improvement. I wake up, grudgingly, pressing snooze on my phoneâ€¦until I start checking email on it. I sigh but donâ€™t respond to all the new messages (mostly to-do items that other people have generously added to my day). I shuffle in leopard-print Dearfoams slippers from my bedroom over to the kitchen and have the same breakfast I always haveâ€”All-Bran mixed with Kashi GoLean Crunch, six almonds, a sticky handful of dried cranberries, and skim milk. And two gummy vitamins (taken separately). Add coffee. More email. I shower and, like a blender in slow motion, throw clothes all over my room before runningâ€”almost lateâ€”to a meeting. From there itâ€™s pretty much meetings-coffee-email-research-teach-repeat until (late) dinnertime. Where is the creative part?
I decided to find out.
The plan was as follows: I would try to optimize my life for creativity by testing out research-based tips that are supposed to help. I started by scouring the â€śliterature.â€ť I collected a stack of popular science books and magazine articles, grabbed a pad of sticky notes, and marked down each suggestion that caught my eye, along with, when possible, the study from which it originated. One by one, Iâ€™d put each of them to the test, recording everything that happened along the way. In the process, perhaps Iâ€™d even escape the creative doldrums that Iâ€™d somehow fallen into.
The copper top of the bar gleamed up at me. Before me sat a glass of pinot noir and a mug of coffee containing a splash of 2 percent milk. I wasnâ€™t feeling innovative at all. Mostly, I was feeling frustrated. I needed to come up with a project that would allow me to test just how much more innovative I was becoming. The problem was, I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. I couldnâ€™t decide on a project to complete, let alone go about the business of actually completing it. So here I was, at Temple Bar in Porter Square, and I was determined not to leave until I got more creative.
I would not have expected to get such advice from science, but Iâ€™d found several sources that basically recommended amphetamines as the solution to this kind of creativity crisis. Apparently, in the moments when you need to figure out what youâ€™re doing, you should use depressants to think associativelyâ€”that is, to freely explore and connect many ideas, which is considered essential for creativity. But when you need to narrow down your choices or execute an idea, you should use stimulants, to enhance the focused thinking it takes to get stuff done.
Right. I started by trying to come up with an ideaâ€”associative thinking. So I took a sip of the pinot. Nothing happened. I made a note to myself to look up the correct â€śdosage.â€ť I recalled hearing it took â€śhalf a glass,â€ť which is apparently just enough to loosen up but not enough to go â€śoff duty.â€ť I sipped again. And again. This is pretty sweet, I thought. I could get used to this.
I flipped back to my notes, which sprawled across the loose pages of a yellow legal pad. I had actually been brainstorming ideas for the past week, but was still having trouble figuring out what to do. I zeroed in on a page Iâ€™d written earlier that day that listed the reasons I was stuck on this project. Maybe what I really needed was more focus. So I took a sip from the coffee mug. Then I checked Facebook and Gmail, and took another sip of coffee. I pondered whether it would be interesting to record for posterity each time I logged into Facebook or Gmail or some other time-hemorrhaging resource, if only to make the point of how hard it is to just focus.
As I contemplated all of this, what crept into my mind, for some reason, was a renovation project Iâ€™d been planning for my apartment. Ever since I started my experiment, Iâ€™d been overcome with the temptation to ignore it. Iâ€™d sit on my sofa, peering mentally into each corner of each room of my apartment and imagining a perfect space that would, once finishedâ€”finallyâ€”allow me to start getting creative.
Sitting at the bar, I gradually became aware of the fact that the three people next to me were sneaking glances at my pages. With my wine and coffee and legal pad, I must have looked pretty weird to everyone else who was just trying to relax on a Wednesday evening. Among them was a middle-aged woman with cropped blond hair, and two men I couldnâ€™t glance at just then because they were glancing at me, and I didnâ€™t want to â€śmake eyes.â€ť
â€śWhat are you writing so furiously?â€ť the woman finally asked me.
â€śItâ€™s a bit of an experiment,â€ť I replied. The three struggled to hear me as I responded. I tried to shout, or at least it felt like I was shouting, but it was hard to gauge because I was wearing highly effective, flesh-colored Hearos earplugs, and it seemed both inefficient and gross to take them out in front of these strangers for this short conversation.
Iâ€™d begun wearing earplugs after reading Rapt, by Winifred Gallagher, who, after learning how difficult it is for the brain to multitask in a noisy environment, started taking earplugs with her wherever she went so she could create her own portable â€śstimulus shelter.â€ť At first, I couldnâ€™t find any research indicating that the use of earplugs was effective for creative endeavors, but I kept wearing them anywayâ€”which is why I was delighted to eventually come across a study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that found that a moderate level of ambient noise is good for creativity. Okay, that study had more sophisticated ways of moderating ambient noise than earplugs, but the low-tech option seemed to be working, and earplugs felt somehow less rude than headphonesâ€¦as long as I didnâ€™t have to remove them publicly.
Which I didnâ€™t, because the trio gathered their coats and left. I took a sip of coffee, hoping for greater focus. I worried about being there until closing time, and struggled to get on with planning this project.
Much of what we know about innovation and creativity comes from psychologists who have studied factors that can be controlled in a lab, or from organizational specialists writing case studies taken from specific companies or industries. Research in these areas has grown rapidly, vastly improving our understanding of creativity in school and at work in recent decades, but we still have more to learn when it comes to how to apply this research to real life. Despite the fact that scientists have been studying creativity and innovation for decades, the daily lives of most people feel more than ever like an endless stream of tasks and emails and to-do lists and meetings, with little opportunity for creative inspiration.
Many people are in a hurry, like me, to find ways to be more creative, both personally and professionally. And we are certainly not short on books, people, and companies offering advice about how to do this. When I searched Amazon, I found that in the prior 90 days alone, 571 new books had been published with the word creativity in the title, and 718 had the word innovation. More than 500 TED talks devoted in some way to these two topics are available online. And it all adds up to a big business opportunity. According to one estimate published in the Wall Street Journal last year, innovation consultants charge from $300,000 to $1 million per project when they work with Fortune 100 companies.
The innovation industry is hardly new. Back in 1999, The Economist was already comparing innovation to a new religion, arguing that it had become the big idea for governments and companies looking to boost economic performance. And around that time, companies like IDEO and 3M had become famous for their approaches to innovation; pioneering professors like Peter Drucker and Clayton Christensen were being widely heralded for their theories about how firms innovate; and the professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Teresa Amabile had published what would become some of the most-cited theories about the individual and social factors that relate to creativity. All of this work was impressive, as has been whatâ€™s followed in the years after from the best researchers and practitioners in the field.
But these days, the topics of creativity and innovation have become so pervasive that they risk losing meaning. Youâ€™ll find discussions on how to foster them everywhere from universities to veterinary clinics to the family dinner table. Whatâ€™s caught on lately is taking research insights meant for companies and social scientists and stretching them to apply to individuals, often in ways that defy common sense. Nothing embodies this trend more than Jonah Lehrerâ€™s 2012 book Imagine, which incorporated insights from neuroscience to declare that the idea of creative genius is a mythâ€”that far from being inborn, creative skill is actually something that can be taught or even facilitated by doing simple things like rearranging our work or living space. The implication was that if we just implemented a few clever tricks, we could harness our inner Einstein in time for dinner.
Within months of the bookâ€™s release, Lehrer was largely discredited for sloppy journalism, and Imagine was pulled from bookshelves both physical and virtual. However, the studies he cited were sound enough to have been published in leading scientific journals. And the magazine articles published around the time of Imagineâ€™s release, both by Lehrer and by others influenced by his book, are still available, still out there promoting those tips. And Lehrer was hardly alone. His book was part of a bigger trend of published advice, based loosely on science, about how we can all turn ourselves into the next Jobs or Zuckerberg.
The problem is, thereâ€™s considerable scientific disagreement about how to define and measure creativity, much less foster it. Some researchers describe creativity as the process of first exploring possibilities and then converging on a solution. Others believe the process is irrelevant, as long as the outcome is both original and useful. And still others argue that even the outcome is unimportant, since failing is not only an acceptable outcome but a desirable one because, even if we never do produce anything thatâ€™s novel or valuable, we (hopefully) learn from the experience of trying. The point is, itâ€™s hard to know exactly whatâ€™s worth reading, trying, or buying in the quest to get more creative. But that hasnâ€™t stopped a growing industry from telling us how to become more creative, innovative, and successful.
I get it. I crave the same practical tips that everyone else does. But as someone who both teaches and conducts research in this field, Iâ€™m aware of how much we still have to learn about what will actually work to increase creativity in our everyday lives.
I suppose I donâ€™t have to tell you that I left Temple Bar without managing to settle on a project Iâ€™d use to track my creative development. So I decided to go back to the basics. Research says that if you set goals, you are more likely to accomplish them. More specifically, a recent Harvard Business School study suggests that youâ€™re more likely to succeed when you have clear goals, and more likely to continue to make progress in the long run if youâ€™re able to achieve small wins along the way. Set a goal at the start of a project? No kidding. My mom has been telling me this since kindergarten.
But thatâ€™s the thing about life: The most obvious and intuitive solutions are often the most effective. So for my project, I chose a personal goal that had been vexing me for ages, and tried to make it realistic enough that I could achieve regular small wins. My goal would be this: Create a series of 8 to 12 drawings on special paper, and then frame each one individually. They would be conceived of as individual pieces, but when the frames were arranged in a certain way, they would also work together to create a larger picture.
I started fantasizing about the whole series, already framed and artfully displayed on one of two woefully naked walls in my apartment. This felt like progressâ€”until my mind started reeling through examples of prior projects Iâ€™d started without finishing: Photography of peopleâ€™s shoes. A series of paintings of intellectuals whoâ€™d been shafted by the groups that award the Nobel Prizes. A wooden bookcase that looks like interlocking Tetris pieces.
In other words, all Iâ€™d really accomplished was identifying my project. Now I had to actually complete it. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I had been waiting for an office for months before Harvard gave me a space in the attic of Pierce Hall in late 2012. The office became available after we discovered that an old man who no longer worked in our department was just squatting there. As it was the only available option, I took it. Thereâ€™d been something satisfying about reclaiming the space from a squatter, but as I looked around the 12-by-9-foot room, empty but for two worn navy-blue office chairs and a standard-issue black filing cabinet, I realized that it was just another office. My email-coffee-meeting-repeat routine was going to fit in a little too well in here.
So I resolved to overhaul the space, which just so happened to align with another of the popular tips out there for boosting creativityâ€”changing up your workspace. Soon, I was digging for renovation tips. By day, I would glance up and survey my office whenever possible, dreaming about it being more comfortable and beautifulâ€”like Pixarâ€™s or IDEOâ€™s or Googleâ€™s. By night, I pumped hours into office-furniture websites, searching for standing desks, rugs, wall dĂ©cor, CB2 hourglass timers, and so on. I replaced my tired office chairs with bright-red tulip-shaped ones. I had my ordinary bookcase removed, and, over a weekend, painstakingly installed bookshelves made out of books, which made me feel pretty clever.
At first, I was just trying to make the place look cool, like the office that an impressively creative person might work in. But the whole thing had started to turn into one big exercise in procrastination, which is what I blamed for my suddenly lagging creative progress. But then I started finding several studies that suggested thatâ€”and I donâ€™t know how Iâ€™d missed it beforeâ€”the real culprit may have actually been the dimensions of my workspace.
What had never occurred to me was that I should worry less about the decorations and more about the detrimental effects my low and sloping ceiling was having on my creativity. According to research from the University of Minnesota, and also mentioned in Psychology Today, ceiling height affects the way we think. Weâ€™re apparently more creative under high ceilings, and more task-focused under low ones. So if I needed to think big, the theory went, I should move to a space with vaulted ceilings. And if I needed to focus on details, I should move to a room with lower ones.
I knew Iâ€™d have a hard time convincing my department to move me again. I was stuck where I was. Since I couldnâ€™t lift my ceiling, perhaps lowering my chairs would have a similar effect. So I bought four tiny white leather footstools on Overstock that I would use as chairs. That, I figured, would have the practical effect of increasing my ceiling height by a few inches.
I canâ€™t say whether this helped. It just felt awkward. I would have had to shorten the desk, too, and perhaps my legs, to put the room back in proportion. But I loved those stools anyway. Until I discovered that one of the legs wouldnâ€™t screw into the fourth stool properly, and I realized Iâ€™d never find the time to send it back, nor to call Overstock for replacement parts. Two months later, the stool remains in several pieces, propped up in the corner of my office. A note on my to-do list still says, â€śCall Overstock Customer Care.â€ť
Like I said, I canâ€™t say for sure whether the ceiling-height thing actually worked at the office, but given that itâ€™s being recommended out there as an innovation enhancer, I decided to try it out again for my drawing project. I tried working for several hours at home in a room with a high ceiling. I started with NPR blasting for a bit of ambient noise, then tightened my earplugs (by this point, I was even wearing them at home) and started working. Before long, I was checking my email again. I clicked on one and wrestled with it, only to press SEND and find that four others had arrived. I reluctantly answered more of them. I felt the day, the joy, being sucked out of me.
Soon it was time to try working under a lower ceiling.
There is only one room in my apartment with a notably low ceiling, and it was rather dark in there. Never have I seen research that says darkness is good for creative work. But I went in there anyway, got comfortable, and set about getting task-focused. A half hour later, I woke up, having dreamed about cockroaches and being exposed in public.
After that, I worked mainly in the taller room. But by the end of the day I was ready to give up on the ceiling-height tip. I went to get a pastry at a local coffee shop. On the walk back, I tried to recall other ceilings Iâ€™ve worked under. Beneath high ceilings, and low ones, too, Iâ€™ve made (and not made) cool stuff, and been able to (and not been able to) focus. I couldnâ€™t detect any pattern.
This obsession with perfecting my space for creativity was not helping me. Instead, it was displacing the minuscule amount of free time I had for creativity.
Maybe the problem was not my ceiling, I reasoned, but my walls, and, more specifically, their color.
Drawing on a 2009 study done at the University of British Columbia, Jonah Lehrer made a big deal in Imagine about the creative power of blue rooms. Science Daily, NPR, Wired, and others all explored the idea after the book came out. In a review for the New York Times, however, Christopher Chabris pointed out that the original study had not actually been about blue rooms but about blue computer screens. Either way, I was screwed. My walls were white. And my computer screen was multicolored.
In any case, when I first considered this tip, I must confess, I chortled. I mean, if this were really true, then swimming pools with whiteboards and underwater markers might be the next big thing. I felt certain this study must have won an Ig Nobel Prize for improbable science, like that one fMRI study on a dead fishâ€™s thoughts.
The blue-room tip quickly became my favorite nugget to pull out at cocktail parties. It struck me as absurd. But then something surprising happened. About midway through my experiment, I had to go to New York to co-lead a student program with the Harvard Innovation Lab. When I arrived, I discovered that my hotel room was floor-to-ceiling blue. Fancy that. And I swear the color of the room started working on me so quickly that I coined a word for it: bluetiful.
Day one in the blue room was strangely quiet. Peaceful. There was no rush to meet anyone, no hubbub of emails. There was just me, jazz streaming from an old-school radio, the soft blue of the walls, and room service.
The roomâ€™s desk was large and clutter-free. My mind, for perhaps the first time in weeks, also felt clutter-free. I got out the supplies for my drawing projectâ€”including special paper I had purchased in Arizona over the holidaysâ€”and carefully spread them out before me. Four wonderfully focused hours passed, and I began to wonder if maybe there was something to the blue-room phenomenon after all. As it turned out, that morning was one of my most productive in a very long time. I made progress on a Swarovski design case, finished a website for my new class, and nearly completed a website for d4d, an applied-research-and-design group I run that focuses on human behavior and innovation.
Creative as those achievements were, they had to do with work, and four hours in I realized that I had not yet made progress on my drawing project. Probably, I figured, because I still didnâ€™t have the right paper. So I began Googling art-supply stores near Union Square. I found several, meticulously read all the reviews I could find online, and an hour later selected the finest of the nearby options.
I resolved to head out and get the proper paperâ€¦right after I made a few tweaks to the d4d website.
Hours passed. The shop had closed. I would go tomorrow.
When tomorrow arrived, I went to J.Crew to return a sweater, to Radio Shack to ask about fixing my cracked iPhone screen, and to a nail salon for a manicure, so I would look New York enough for the workweek ahead. I donâ€™t remember what filled the rest of the afternoon, but by the time I was ready to go to the art store, it was closed again.
In truth, I never wound up buying the paper, and I never managed to recapture the blissful productivity of that first morning in my hotel room. Thatâ€™s not to say the trip was a disappointment. I did work that was actually even more creative later that week, with colleagues, in a basement conference room with plain gray-white walls roughly indistinguishable from every other windowless hotel conference room in the world. But as the week wore on, my once bluetiful room filled up with papers, pamphlets, receipts, business cards, and Balance Bar wrappers. The jazz station, when I could find it, was so full of static that I no longer found it relaxing.
After I returned to Boston, I was keenly aware that I had still not drawn anything. But that, I realized, was simply because I needed better paper. So I walked to Bob Slate Stationer, in Harvard Square. I asked about handcrafted, cottonlike paper, and got escorted to a section of Italian-made cards.
I contemplated the cards, felt their edges, wondered about sizes and framing. I wondered what the hell I even planned to draw on them, looked at the pens, figured I already had nice enough pens at home, and walked out a half hour later with twenty 4-by-4-inch cards, only to pop over to Papyrus, around the corner, and repeat the process.
It was then that I understood something important: I was becoming obsessed. I kept buying stationeryâ€”over and over, as if the act of purchasing it somehow equated to the act of making art out of it. And that wasnâ€™t the only problem Iâ€™d developed over the course of this project. There were all sorts of ways I kept cheating on my drawing goal: Online shopping for art supplies. Buying and selling used furniture. Researching creativity tips. Researching red flags in relationships. To name just a few.
In that moment, I began to reconsider my recent fixation with improving the physical space in my life. No longer content with renovating just my office, Iâ€™d moved on to redoing my home. Which is how Iâ€™d begun popping into the used-furniture shop around the corner so frequently that the owner, Eddie, and I were on a first-name basis. His shop was jumbled and stacked and crammed. You could hardly walk through to reach his counter in the back without asking him to move something out of the way. It felt a lot like someone had taken a snapshot of what this project had done to my mind and superimposed it on Eddieâ€™s store.
In any case, Iâ€™d become convinced that replacing an ugly dresser would make my apartment nicer, that a nicer apartment would be more inspiring to work in, and that this inspiration would finally help me start drawing. So Eddie and I bargained over a dresser, and I brought it home. But it didnâ€™t get me started drawing. Instead, it spawned a whole new project, yet another distraction from my goal. I soon found myself compelled to buy a trunk, a couch, and a side table, too, which meant I then had to sell the dresser I was replacing, and a side table, to Eddie. And after that I returned to the shop to look for a vanity to match my new dresser. But when Eddie brought it over, he accidentally broke it. He took it back. I tried to haggle for a velvety settee, but only if he would reupholster it in purpleâ€¦.
My friends warned me they were planning an intervention.
Not good. I was obviously going to have to find a way to control these urges. In Psychology Today, Scott Barry Kaufman reported on a 2010 study conducted at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. â€śCreative people,â€ť he wrote, â€śare somehow really good at modulating their neurotransmitters at different points in the creative process.â€ť In other words, they seem to be better than others at adjusting their level of focus to the task at hand. When exploring ideas, they can create periods of loose attention for themselves, and when implementing them, they can create periods of focused attention.
This sounded promising because, at this point, I was clearly unable to adjust my level of focus at all. I was getting obsessive about everything but drawing. The solution, apparently, lay in regulating my dopamine levels. I was willing to entertain the idea that all this ridiculous procrastinating meant something was wrong with my neurotransmitters, but I had no idea how I could fix that, and neither Kaufman nor the original Dutch study were very specific in that regard. So I Googled a few natural methods for moderating dopamine. Most of what I found linked dopamine to pleasurable activities. So I slept in, ate my favorite foods, took hot showers, drank beer, took hot showers while drinking beer (to test the combined effect), hung out with friends, made love, and chalked it all up to researching this article.
Suffice it to say that, as far as Iâ€™m aware, none of these things helped me with my drawings.
It shouldnâ€™t be difficult to start drawing. Why was I failing?
To assess the problem, I made two lists. The first was everything I had tried to do and had managed to finish. The second was everything I had not tried to do but had nonetheless done. The first list was easy, because there was nothing on it.
As I made the second list, something surprising happened. I realized that in struggling to get just one creative thing done (the drawing series), I had actually gotten a staggering number of other creative things done. I had renovated my bedroom and my workspace. I had created three websites. I had created and run this experiment. I had written a case study, and planned several others. I had written a draft of this article. I had made up a few funny words.
Now, these accidental accomplishments may not impress you, but listing them certainly made me feel a little more successful. I had battled for three weeksâ€”and failedâ€”to make even a few drawings, but in that short period I had engaged very productively on a remarkable number of creative side projects.
It was baffling. Was I making progress? Were any of the tips I was trying out actually working? Did it count if, while trying these tricks for one task, I was getting things done in other areas of my life? Did it count if that other stuff was mostly related to my regular job? Did that make the tips possibly more valuable? Or did that second list just include stuff that I would have done anyway?
All that I could reasonably conclude was that despite what books like Imagine suggest, creativity is messy.
The most uncomfortable part of this experiment to date had been the discovery that the struggle was not really about creativity at all. Iâ€™d had plenty of creative ideas. The struggle was actually about self-discipline, about being able to focus amid many distractions. Of the tips Iâ€™d tried, setting clear and achievable goals was by far the most helpful, because it provided a metric against which I could track my progress. It reminded me to work at clearing distractions and managing my time, and if I couldnâ€™t do either, to reckon with the possibility that, given my existing commitments, my goal had never been remotely realistic in the first place.
Four weeks into the experiment, it happened. Holy Whoaballs! I wrote at the time. Iâ€™m drawing!
The night before had been a Thursday, and Boston was bracing for up to 3 feet of snow. Harvard had told everybody to stay home the next day.
My whole mission by this time had become a parody of itself. I was stuck. Iâ€™m a bit embarrassed to express it this way, but I was starting to feel like what I really needed was less a boost from scientific research and more a â€śtalking toâ€ť from Tim Gunn, of the reality show Project Runway. I do a series of design workshops for my students styled after the show, and I love how Gunn barks at the designers as theyâ€™re crumbling under the pressure of their looming deadlines, telling them to â€śMake it work!â€ť Iâ€™d been wishing I could call Tim up for some coaching. I needed someone who would hold me accountable to my stated goals, check in on me, tell me, â€śYou can do it,â€ť listen to me and give feedback, and then impatiently tell me to just make it work.
So with the blizzard bearing down, I called my mother.
I told her how nothing was working in my crazy project. And then, without the help of any studies, she delivered the following straightforward tips: Donâ€™t worry about finding the perfect paper. Use what you have. Just get started. Donâ€™t beat yourself up. Seek supportive people. Just focus on making a little progress every day. Her advice had nothing to do with ceiling height, room color, or doing drugs. It was a voice, like Tim Gunnâ€™s, of common sense. And it got me thinking about the fact that, in all my years as a researcher, the only things that seem to have affected my creative work were: the people I was working with; whether I knew anything about what I was working on; whether I was being realistic about my other time commitments; and how committed I was to the project. Again, a lot of what felt like common sense.
On Friday morning, the snow started off gently. As it picked up, the traffic outside my window dwindled, and eventually ceased altogether. Email tailed off, too. Around midday, I stopped bothering to check it. All of Massachusetts slowed down. And all of that slowing down created an unprecedented quiet. The snow muffled everything.
For the first time in weeks, I forgot to put in my earplugs while trying to be creative. I began the morning with NPR blaring constant updates at me about storm-related crises. When I was ready to concentrate, I turned it off. For several hours, I focused intently on organizing, tidying, bill-paying, and general distraction-clearing. Gradually, I restored my world to a state of calm.
And then, in the stillness of the storm, I put on some music, sat down, and drew.
Trying to be more creative? “Get into the Groove” with these nine tips for making your creative project a success.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/03/26/creativity-tips-experiment-innovation/