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Do You Have Hidden Reserves of Creativity?

The human mind

Not long ago I was part of a panel discussion on creativity at Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts along with psychologist Steve Kelner and writers Andy Duncan (“Beluthahatchie”), Toni L. P. Kelner (Who Killed the Pinup Queen?), Matthew Kressel (who is also publisher of the magazine Sybil’s Garage), Jennifer Pelland (“Captive Girl”), and Joe Haldeman (The Forever War). In the course of that discussion, which it appears will be available online in audio format some time down the road (I’ll post when it happens), two realizations came to me that hadn’t really had the chance to settle in before: first, we use creativity in many more activities than I would have thought, and second, creativity has a lot more uses than I had imagined.

Creativity we don’t realize we’re using
In Steve Kelner’s 2005 book Motivate Your Writing! he talks about a set of misconceptions that he calls The Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity–things like The Muse (the idea that creativity is reserved for special people, who have to wait on inspiration), Similarity (the idea that our creative process has to resemble somebody else’s creative process), and so on. In the course of debunking these myths, he points out that we use creativity in a lot more circumstances than we imagine–for example, in finding a new route to work.

I honestly don’t think I would have come up with that activity as an example of creativity, but he’s certainly right. As a rough working definition of creativity, we could say it’s trying an approach other than the ones that are obvious or that other people have pointed out. For example, if a kid in elementary school writes a story from the point of view of a sock, that kid will be branded “creative” before you can say “men’s garters.” If, on the other hand, that kid has grown up and now works in insurance, and if that grown-up discovers that a slightly longer route to work avoids the most dangerous intersection along the way and passes by stores where she would regularly be able to pick up things she needs, no one is likely to brand her creative–but she’s using her intelligence, coming up with new ideas, and even ignoring the obvious conclusion that she should always take the fastest route. This is clearly creativity in action.

Creativity can express itself in any number of ways that we might not immediately recognize, for example: a novel way to organize correspondence, an unusual routine that gets the kids to bed without arguments, or a series of themed study parties that keep a group of college students on task. If you don’t consider yourself a creative person, ask yourself if you always do things the way you’ve been shown or that’s most obvious. Do you ever innovate instead … even if it’s only in the most mundane things?

Making more use of creativity
That second realization for me was that creativity could be used in many more situations than I would have imagined, and that immediately comes in handy to me. For example, take the Deadly Myth that affects me the most of the Seven, something I might not have thought about if Dr. Kelner hadn’t put that question to us (his fellow panelists) directly: spontaneity. Kelner describes this myth as making us think “that great creativity comes from full-blown, complete inspiration rather than through rewriting, tinkering, or refinement.”

If you happen to believe this one, consider the example of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which started out as something not far beyond a collection of loosely-related stories, but which Lee and her editor edited and re-edited laboriously to finally arrive at the novel we know and (in many cases) love.

In any case, my spontaneity hangup wasn’t so much that I believed that rewriting couldn’t sometimes transform a good or even a bad work into a great work, but that I didn’t think of the act of editing or rewriting as creative. My general attitude has been “I wrote it–now the editing part is just a bunch of grunt work.”

This is really a misguided idea about editing, considering how much subtlety, detail, life, surprise, and freshness can be worked into a story or novel even after a first draft is complete. I hadn’t been thinking of editing as a creative task, and so I tended to equate it with drudgery. Realizing now that it’s an inherently creative activity, I’m much more eager to go ahead with the editing and rewriting my partly-finished works need before they can be sent out. This simple shift in perspective changes editing from something I reluctantly force myself to do into something I’m eager to do. There’s real value in that.

Whether or not your hangups about creativity (if you have any) match mine, I’m willing to bet that if you look, you’ll find hidden examples of creativity in your life, not to mention unexpected ways you can bring creativity to bear to make your life better.

Image by jef safi

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Should We Maximize Our Strengths or Minimize Our Weaknesses?

Strategies and goals

If you were to carefully interview 1.7 million workers to figure out how people became successful, what do you think you would learn? This is exactly what the Gallup group (best known for their polls) did over 25 years. What they came up with from this massive research effort was a catalog of personal strengths and a rich understanding of how successful people use those strengths.

Strengths psychology
The Gallup research is part of a relatively recent branch of psychology known as “Strengths Psychology.” For many years, psychology as a field has been primarily directed toward identifying and fixing problems–phobias, anxieties, fixations, and so on. Strengths psychology (and other varieties of what has come to be called “positive psychology”) is much less interested in people for whom things are going wrong than in people for whom things are going right. The Gallup group identified 34 personal strengths amounting to general strategies for getting things done that can be successful in many situations. Some examples are mentoring others, competitiveness, and putting things in context of what has happened before. In the Gallup book Now, Discover Your Strengths and the follow-up Strengthsfinder 2.0, they offer a test for determining a person’s greatest strengths, concentrating on an individual’s top 5. The idea is that everyone has a small set of strategies that work best for them, strategies they adopted early in life and have used for many things since then. Knowing what strengths we have–and what strengths we don’t have–gives us an opportunity to choose tools we already know how to use to get things done.

A related strengths system called “Strengths and Virtues” offers 24 strengths that have much in common in some ways with the Gallup system. I hope to be able to talk about this system in more depth soon.

Increase strengths or fix weaknesses?
Significantly, Gallup’s investigation into individual success resoundingly supports the idea that really successful people are ones who make the most of the strengths they have instead of trying to compensate for weaknesses. There’s a limitation to this, which is that if any weakness is actively dragging a person down (for instance, if a person is so non-competitive that they are scared away from trying to succeed whenever they see someone else trying to do the same thing), it’s important to work on those until they are no longer creating serious problems. But apart from that, the recommended approach is that it’s completely unnecessary to try to do everything well, that some things are better delegated or left alone or done in a different way.

For example, let’s say you’re put in a situation where you’re expected to schmooze with a lot of people at a networking function–but you don’t like schmoozing and aren’t good at it. If you have strengths instead in areas like communication or coming up with novel ideas, you might find other ways to connect, for instance by coming up with an interesting freebie that advertises your business and that you can give out at the function, or by giving a talk rather than circulating.

In the end, each of us has specific strengths and resources to bring to bear. By looking at our tasks and challenges in the light of our strengths, we can steer more of our efforts into the areas where we’re most effective.

Photo by stttijn

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