The Creativity Lie For Which You Will Fight To the Death (The Deadline Lie)

This one is sort of a corollary or subset of Lie #4. Except strangely, it works the other way around.

CREATIVITY LIE #5: The Deadline Lie
I’m way more creative under the pressure of a deadline.

No, you’re not. My apologies, really, to mess up this one for you. Especially because it’s the source of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, in which Calvin professes this lie so perfectly. I just hope Bill Watterson won’t sue me for including this here.

I used to be completely convinced too, and it’s such a great procrastination excuse. Same as I was convinced I was way more creative under the influence of – well anyway, that was a great excuse too.

Did I say this clearly enough yet? You are not more creative at the last minute. It may seem like you are, but that’s a cognitive distortion brought on by no sleep, too much caffeine, hyperfocus, or some other direct effect of your all-nighter.

My objection here is not the reflex objection of Rastas who prefer to call deadlines “lifelines” because they don’t like the idea that being late makes the project dead, in a similar manner to the way they “overstand” things. My objection is straightforward. While there is nothing wrong with a deadline in itself, working furiously TO deadline simply does not enhance creativity; in fact it crushes it.

Deadlines are essential to productivity, obviously. But productivity is not creativity. You can crank out work without it being innovative. The merger of the two – creative productivity – is always the result of putting in time.

And look, I’m not talking about the kind of “deadlines” like the one where Edison said his team had to crank out “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” This was a schedule, not a deadline. It was a promise, a target, not a hard out. To make this clear he even managed to add “or so,” two simple words that belie the idea of an unswerving finish line.

The clearest benefit a deadline gives us is the abilty to focus. Prioritizing the task at hand is much easier when there’s barely enough time to get it done. It becomes chemically eaiser to shut out trivial rival activities like chatting on Facebook, doing crossword puzzles, or tidying up the sock drawer.

And that’s the whole problem. At the simplest level we can say there are three distinct steps to the creative process: input, processing, and output. We take information in, we think about it and innovate, and we express the result. Or as I’ve called it in the below diagram: Perception, Conception, and Representation.

And again to oversimplify, there are again three distinct steps to the “Conception” part of creativity. In the first – “Analyze” above – we ponder the problem deeply. In the third – “Select” above – we judge and decide. These are the parts that FEEL like thinking. It’s these two parts that intense focus can actually help. The second part, though, “Ideation”, is the point where we generate a deep insight, the leap of logic or flash of insight that gives us a truly creative result.

All evidence suggests that this insight is best made by interrupting focus, not by focussing. Some proven techniques for causing this insight are watching comedy videos, getting a little bit drunk, or meditating. Please note I said a LITTLE bit drunk ok?

This is the part where Einstein played the violin, Feynman jotted notes at strip clubs, and countless creative notables (Asimov, Beethoven, Freud, Faulkner, Kafka, Descartes, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Darwin, Dickens, and yep, Einstein again) went for long daily walks.

In all cases, what these altered states have in common is a distraction from focus. This is when flashes of insight happens – the closest thing to what we might call the core of creativity, which occur not when the mind is focussed but when it’s closest to sleep. Again, this is why many artists, perhaps most famously Dali, intentionally put themselves into hypnagogic states when beginning work sessions, or why many others prefer to work as soon as they wake up, before the hard-smashing real world barges in with its need to be focussed on.

Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that people who daydream more score higher on tests of creativity. And his research is only one among several studies that show that daydreaming is a critical part of our thinking process. In fact, we may spend up to half our waking lives in daydreams that are primarily focused toward solving real-world problems that have nothing to do with what we are busy with at the moment. A daydreaming state is the critical key to innovative thinking, and deadline time is not daydreaming time. As Einstein himself said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Another problem with deadlines of course is that our first idea is not always our best. A great example is the famous design for the “I LOVE NEW YORK” tourist slogan by Milton Glaser. His first submission (not of course his first design internally), a cursive full-expression of the phrase, was loved by everyone and immediately approved. But Glaser didn’t quite love this I Love version, not 100%. He continued to think about it for weeks after the job was supposedly done. Then one day he was in a taxi stuck in midtown traffic when he saw the version we all know today, and sketched it quickly on a scrap. 

This logo is now one of the most iconic in history.  And it was way after the deadline.

And then there’s the epic saga of 3M’s invention of Post It notes, which meandered for years from a seemingly useless weak glue to become those tiny scraps that now fill corporate towers and distant landfills. Had the team been tasked with solving the weak glue problem on a firm deadline, we might all still be writing notes in the margins with pencils, and I would have had to pick a different image to top this post.

There are, on the other hand, well-known examples of creative work done on deadline that claim to be driven by just that deadline. Stefan Sagmeister likes to try to complete one of his album designs for musicians within the space of a single LP, CD, or whatever we call it now. And there was the One Project a Day Challenge by Belgian graphic designer Valeri Potchekailov in which she literally completed a full project every day for a year. So maybe it’s just graphic designers who thrive on deadlines. (That’s a joke – as anyone who’s desperately needed their logo finished quickly surely knows).

The reality of course is that deadlines do help us get the job done, and in professional and team environments, they are essential. But deadlines are far more useful for all the other parts of the creativity process, than the actual moment of innovation that make history.

It seems the best way to deal with a deadline for a creative task is to break it up into smaller deadlines that allow us to focus as we research, ponder, draft, and offer forth our output, but still gives us enough time in between to allow for those deeply desired and proudly achieved unconscious leaps of genius.

The Hardest Creativity Lie to Believe (The Abundance Lie)

Everyone loves Abundance. It’s the buzzword these days, at least since Rhonda Byrne shared The Secret and the likes of Deepak Chopra (rhymes with Oprah, on whose show Bynre’s book made it’s big American impact) began pointing out things like that “Expressing your talents to fulfill needs creates unlimited wealth and abundance.”

There’s nothing wrong with abundance of course. Or is there? We all want abunance in our lives. And no one can claim a scarcity MINDSET is a positive thing. Yet a deep misunderstanding of the shock zone between abundance thinking and living in reality has cultivated a contemporary strengthening of another Creativity Lie.

CREATIVITY LIE #4: The Abundance Lie
If only I had more resources, then I’d be more creative.

Of all the Creativity Lies I address in this series, the Abundance Lie is perhaps the one that has gained the most traction in recent years, due in no small part to the popularity of Chopra and other abundance advocates.

Over the past twenty years or so, thinkers like Mihaly Czikcsentmihaly and Steven Kotler have aggressively researched and pursued the concept of engineering Flow. Kotler’s Flow Consciousness Institute (https://www.flowconsciousnessinstitute.com/about-us/)

focusses on developing the practice of generating Abundance as a set of techniques and values. And that’s great. I mean, we all want to get into flow right? We all want to be prolific, cranking out Edison’s 1000 plus patents, or Yoshiro Nakamatsu’s more than 3000, or Steven King’s century of books, or Brian Eno’s uncountable musical output.

But there is a reason I save Flow for my Advanced Creativity Workshops. It’s easy for people to misunderstand Abundance. As a mindset, it’s great. Edison’s favored approach was for his team to generate as many ideas as possible, figuring they were more likely to get a good result if they had more to choose from. If something didn’t work, Edison just tried the next thing, famously stating that he didn’t ever fail, he simply discovered thousands of incorrect designs for the light bulb. An abundance mindset, though, is not what I’m getting at.

The Lie here is the one that’s at play when we worry that our full-time job is getting in the way of our creativity, or that we can’t be creative within that job because our boss makes us focus on too many hours of nonsense. It’s the Lie that we tell ourselves because our department is radically underfunded, or we don’t have the money to buy Facebook ads to market ourselves enough. It’s the Lie that states if we only had more time, or more money, or more whatever resources, we would be able to be more creative.

 

 And yet increasingly evidence shows that the opposite is true, that scarcity is a better source of creativity. In a study published last year by Oxford University Press, Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu set out to determine how creativity varies under conditions of scarcity. They placed undergrads at the University of Illinois into three condition groups — abundance, scarcity and a control group of what we could call “sufficiency.” Mehta and Meng then conducted six separate experiments, ranging from the effect of just writing about scarcity then building toys from Krinkles blocks, to full-on riddle-style puzzles like this one (you can read more about the details of the test here):

The participants were shown a picture containing several products on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks, all of which were next to a wall. Participants’ task was to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall by using only the objects on the table, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor.

In all six experiments, the participants proved more creative when forced to make the best of a tight situation, or to come up with alternative uses for objects that weren’t designed for that. The study also found that abundance inhibited creativity more than “sufficiency” did. Subjects in the control group, with less resources than the abundant” group, still scored better than the Abundant group.

Just over ten years ago, an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review (“In Praise of Resource Constraints”) addressed the issue: “Limitless material resources are not only unavailable most of the time, they may actually be a hindrance. And remaining lean and mean can often be a blessing.”

In a follow-up article in the same publication the same authors added: “In times when you may not be able to afford the tool or service that was designed for the purpose you have in mind, look into other assets that you already have at hand. Engage in (playful) bricolage — tinkering with and reusing whatever assets are available. Remember, as a child, using mere wooden sticks as perfectly good dolls or soldiers?”

The realization that scarcity can be a key driver of creativity goes back much further than any of the above. In the period just after World War I, the Bauhaus, in a Germany that was in the ongoing crisis that led to Hitler, decided to focus on efficiency over all else. Josef Albers said it plainly: “We are poor, not rich. We cannot afford to waste material or time.”

Today there are at least a couple of cutting-edge organizations who are so focused on scarcity as a benefit that it is in their name. The  Scarcity  and  Creativity  Studio  in Oslo is  a  design  and  build  studio that seeks out challenging contexts   in   which   local   conditions   and   creativity   are   employed   to   make   the   most   of   scarce   resources. And the website of Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment (SCIBE) is stuffed with papers analyzing the impact of scarcity on creative work. “SCIBE explores the relationship between scarcity and creativity in the context of the built environment by investigating how conditions of scarcity might affect the creativity of the different actors.” The bulk of Scibe’s work spans four major European cities (London, Oslo, Reykjavik, and Vienna), finding new paradigms to approach conditions of scarce resources with a creative slant.

None of this is very surprising when you think about it. The history of creativity is littered with stories of innovators in all fields who were forced to produce under tough conditions. Any decent entrepreneur can tell you very clearly that their best business ideas usually come from scarcity. The best question when setting out to create a new venture is usually something like: “What is the market missing? What’s an uncrowded category? What isn’t a category at all? Yet.

It’s empirically obvious really. Can’t you, yourself, when you’re honest about it,  recall examples from your own life where being forced into a tight spot caused you to get super creative? Probably more times than you think. Make a list!

I mean, there’s never enough resources. When I was in my early twenties, I quit everything to live in Prague and write. I had literally twenty-four hours a day available to me. And yet I am a far more successful creative professional today, with much higher demands on my time and finances. Plenty of artists have quit their day jobs hoping to make their art better, and discovered that all the time in the world doesn’t make their creativity richer.

Writer Colin Robinson has an interesting take on this topic. He temporarily lost the use of one of his hands in an accident. Dealing with this problem made him a much better writer, according to him. Looking back, he offers: “It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of when you force it to come up with a solution. When you remove resources, time, or options, you can see things with a new level of creativity and problem-solving ability. Whether you’re out of ideas, overworked, or stuck on a decision, see if creating scarcity can help you fight through the frustration and perhaps even take you to the next level.”

Or as in the old joke about the man at retirement who decides to take up his passion, piano, but doesn’t embrace practicing. “What’s the point?” he whines to his teacher. “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I’m any good at this?” A form of age scarcity right? “Not exactly,” the teacher says. “But definitely younger than you’ll be if you don’t practice.”

In other words, like with every lie that impedes your creativity, it’s all just another excuse. The bottom line is simple: get OFF your bottom and get into action.

The Most Popular Creativity Lie (The Originality Lie)

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

This quote is popularly attributed to the clearly “great” artist Pablo Picasso, although Picasso’s statement may have been wholly invented by Steve Jobs, who, in that case, stole Picasso’s entire spirit just to market his computers.

Either way, it was stolen in the first place from poet TS Eliot, who provably published this in 1920: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Eliot himself may have stolen the quote from composer Igor Stravinsky, who supposedly said a very similar thing even earlier about musicians.

Now, the point isn’t that this meta-game of stealing a quote about stealing actually matters. Who actually said it is not the point. The point is:

Creativity Lie #3: The Originality Lie
Creativity demands Originality.

In this case I don’t have to marshall much of an argument. “Great” artists beyond just the three mentioned above have made it very clear. As far as documented statements refuting Lie #3 go, if the above semi-apocrypha aren’t enough, how’s this thorough expose from David Bowie, from his interview with Cameron Crowe:

Crowe:  Do you consider yourself an original thinker?

Bowie: More like a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from. I do think that my plagiarism is effective… The more I get ripped off, the more flattered I get. But I’ve caused a lot of discontent, because I’ve expressed my admiration for other artists by saying, ‘Yes, I’ll use that,’ or, ‘Yes, I took this from him and this from her.’ Mick Jagger, for example, is scared to walk into the same room as me even thinking any new idea. He knows I’ll snatch it.

In fact the entire eon of post-modern thought of which Bowie was involved with the roots is an era in which the basic Paris-in-the-20s team concept that great art is theft has become, rather than a dirty secret, often the clear point of the work, its driving ethos. The most popular and publically accepted example perhaps being the now mainstream remix ripoffs of hip hop. What top hip hop artist today hasn’t openly, proudly stolen from her forbears or even contemporaries? And why is it we so grudgingly resist and resent, in all other fields of endeavor, what we so happily embrace these days in music?

The quotes really do go on and on.

Graphic novel writer Steven Grant: “Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts.”

Playwright and entrepreneur Wilson Mizner: “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

Illustrator Gary Panter: “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!”

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (who I still am in awe of the opportunity I had in my younger years to see him play live, thank God, thank you God, and who cares who he stole from, really): “You can’t steal a gift. Bird [Charlie Parker] gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”

Pre-beat collage novelist William S Burroughs: “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”

I don’t even know why I’m bothering to list all these quotes when Austin Kleon already made himself famous with his best-selling book Steal Like an Artist which already made the case for what The Atlantic calls “combinatorial creativity and the role of remix in the idea economy.” In fact, I’ve taken most of these quotes straight from Kleon’s book (saving you time and money perhaps).

The post-modern drive to openly reference other works that began in earnest in the days of Warhol perhaps reached its peak in the absolutely meta and comical work of Bansky that heads this post. (Or was it even Banksy who created it?)

The battle still rages today in the form of accusations of cultural appropriation, which could be phrased as a statement that even if originality doesn’t exist, creative theft must not cross lines of race, gender, sexual identity, class or other personalized identity issues. And I will leave any further discussion of that volatile topic for another post – or maybe never. The point is …

Well, the point is so clear it hardly seems worth making. Whether you are an inventor, an entrepreneur or a fine artist, if you are sitting around kicking yourself for not coming up with anything new, you are completely missing the bus, and your concept of Creativity is as effective for your chances at innovative success as using a stone wheel or spending most of your time guarding your fire so it doesn’t get blown out.

The point is well summed up by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and hammered home by further portions of the same quotes we’ve already touched on, from Bowie and Eliot.

Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”

Eliot’s famous quote continues: “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”

And Bowie has this to add: “Why does an artist create, anyway? The way I see it, if you’re an inventor, you invent something that you hope people can use. I want art to be just as practical. Art can be a political reference, a sexual force, any force that you want, but it should be usable. What the hell do artists want? Museum pieces?”

Adding that all up, we’re left with this lesson. Stop bleeding from the brain trying to be original, it’s a hopeless task. Nobody is going to applaud you for it, because you will never do it.

Instead, draw from everything you’ve ever experienced, including other people’s creations, to produce results that are authentic, unique, coherent, and useful. Interestingly, this is very close to Wikipedia’s basic definition of “Creativity” in the first place. And we all know that Wikipedia is the closest thing to the truth.

And if you think that’s a Lie, let’s check in with bloody MONTAIGNE, who preceded ALL these people by four or five hundred years! He was around during the Renaissance, at the BIRTH of the lie of creative originality. His own statement shows us that the lie had quickly taken root. Here’s what he had to contribute way back then, refuting his own desire to be original:

“I have here only made a nosegay of foreign flowers, having furnished nothing of my own but the thread to tie them. Certainly I have so far yielded to public opinion, that those borrowed ornaments accompany me; but I do not mean that they shall cover me and hide me; that is quite contrary to my design, who desire to make a show of nothing but what is my own, and what is my own by nature; and had I taken my own advice, I had at all hazards spoken purely alone, I more and more load myself every day, beyond my purpose and first method, upon the account of idleness and the humour of the age.  If it misbecome me, as I believe it does, ‘tis no matter; it may be of use to some others.”

Hands down, I side with Montaigne, and Wikipedia. What thinkest you?

The Most Damaging Creativity Lie (The Artistry Lie)

In the previous blog, I labelled the Genetics Lie of Creativity the most “important” lie about creativity, putting it at #1.

And yet now I am saying there is a more damaging one. Yep!

CREATIVITY LIE #2: The Artistry Lie
“Creativity is Artistry.”

The Genetics Lie is the grandma of all the lies about Creativity, because as long as you believe that your Creativity is limited by your birthright, there’s no point doing anything about it at all. Even if you already consider yourself quite creative, if you can’t fundamentally improve your Creativity, it would be a waste of time and energy to try.

Yet the lie that creativity is somehow the same thing as artisticness can do even more damage to “artists” and “non-artists” alike. It doesn’t stop you in your tracks completely, but what it does do is keep non-artists convinced that they’ll never really need to be that creative, and artists convinced that they already automatically are. On both ends, innovation is smothered and lobotomized like McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest, with the same poignancy of sadness at the end of the narrative.

There is a general agreement out there among many that being creative is the same thing as being artistic. Simply put it is not. Creativity is a skill, and artisticness is a skill. They are two separate and totally distinct skills. You can be a terrific and totally uncreative painter. You can also be highly creative and stink at painting – like me in fact, and maybe like you. The two skills are completely unrelated, separate abilities, like running and javelin throwing. Yes, a decathlete happens to excel at both sports. But there are a whole lot of runners who would impale themselves on a javelin if they dared to even hold it, and not every javelin thrower is Usain Bolt.

Working on your skill as a painter, or a writer, or a post-modern multi-media innovator or whatever, is no more and no less than that: honing your craft. Malcolm Gladwell’s by-now well-known model that it takes about 10 years of steady work in any field to master it (10,000 hours with no more than 5 hours per day contributing toward that) is directed at the craft and nothing outside of it. So an artist putting in that time becomes master of their discipline, but it does not automatically mean they are now more creative than “non-artists.”

Yes, it is true that artists in training face creative challenges on a daily basis that also build their creative “muscles” (I’m still not sure how I feel about THAT metaphor but let’s go with it). Yet they also do many things, especially in the early years, like sketching live nudes or reading other people’s stories, that contribute to their mastery of their specific craft without touching on creativity much if at all.

Einstein famously said “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” Now that’s a bit of a misstatement, as Einstein certainly was not exactly mediocre in physics and mathematics abilities. Perhaps he defined the word “talent” to mean some exceptional INBORN skill, as related to Lie #1.

The important takeaway of Einstein’s quote is the distinction he makes between his skillset in science and the choice – for it is nothing but a choice – to be curious, and hence to drive toward creative. For curiosity is inarguably a core source of Creativity.  Curious people seek to find new ways of doing things, and of operating outside of what’s obvious.

Creativity in essence is the ability to find innovative solutions to a problem. It does not matter whether that problem lies in art, in business, in personal relationships, or anywhere else. It seems so obvious and yet this Lie hangs out there messing up everyone’s minds. And it’s been doing so for centuries, probably ever since the common concept of “Creativity” as some kind of magic trick gained popularity during the Renaissance.

Abraham Maslow propogated the Artistry Lie in his Hierarchy of Needs by stating that only the peak of his pyramid, Self-Actualization, was a comfortable place for creative endeavors. Productive creative work, he postulated, can’t be done until the lower needs – pretty much everything else in life – have been met.

In fact, Maslow’s model seems to disprove itself. There are people who use Creativity to solve their problems at every level of the pyramid, finding innovative ways to survive, get out of poverty, find belonging, and so on.

What Maslow may have meant is that ARTISTIC activities only belong at the top of the pyramid, which maybe makes more sense, though it too is clearly not accurate. You don’t have to reach farther than Vincent van Gogh to find a striking example of an artist who spent most of his life failing at every level of the Hierarchy, yet still cranked out creative artistic work unerringly.

Maslow did have one great quote that showed he may not even have agreed with himself: “A first-rate soup is better than a second-rate painting.” In other words, creativity does, even in Maslow’s thinking, apply everywhere, even to making soup. So why did he explicitly state it only belongs to the realm of Self-Actualization? Do starving people not value good soup too?

Apparently Maslow, like so many powerful philosophers, buried himself deep in the box of thinking that artists are the truest creatives. And that’s why I call this Lie hugely damaging. Suddenly 90% of the pyramid is excluded from Creativity when in fact the lower downs might need it more than anyone.

Like the Genetics Lie, the Artistry Lie convinces you to avoid developing your creativity skills. As the list of benefits of Creativity shows, this will only dampen your work success, your happiness, and even your mental and physical health.

Next time: Creativity Lie #3.

The Most Important Creativity Lie (The Genetics Lie) Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, we looked at the most pervasive and damaging lie about Creativity:

CREATIVITY LIE #1: The Genetics Lie
Creativity is Inborn. Aka: I’m Just Not That Creative

To help refute this common belief that “some people are just born more creative than others,” I cited the famous study by George Land showing the radical tendency toward creative downturns as children grow up. This has been, by the way, later supported by equally famous studies by Teresa Amabile and others (that we’ll look into in future posts) that show clearly that Creativity is a trait we unlearn as we get older – a point supported by comments from many famous creative figures throughout history.

Yet there is further evidence for the devil’s advocate position. A recent study in PLoS ONE found that a particular cluster of genes related to brain plasticity directly correlated with musical creativity. In other words, people who more naturally break and form new connections between cells within the brain were more naturally musical. These people had duplicate DNA strands that affected the processing of serotonin. This seems to bring greater likelihood to genetics as a factor in Beaty’s results. A later study from the Medical University of Vienna seems to strengthen this evidence, finding that higher seretonin levels also increases brain connectivity. So are people who naturally have higher seretonin levels more creative?

Yet there are serious problems with using these studies to conclude there’s a creativity gene.

First of all, musical ability is not the same as creativity. There are many very non-musical people who are extremely creative. And I don’t know anyone who would refute the idea that some people are more naturally musical than others. Creativity is an overall capability, while musicality is a very specific skill. I can’t draw to save my life, and other people I know seem to just have a knack for it without any training. It does not mean they are more naturally creative than  me.

And then just to really confuse things, there is this study from Cornell University that found that creative people tend to have a smaller corpus collosum, thus REDUCING brain connectivity. That study states that this separation of the two brain halves leads to “the incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity” and that it is the momentary inhibition of this hemispheric independence that accounts for the illumination that is part of the innovative stage of creativity.”

So which is it? Do creative people have MORE connected brains, allowing them to switch between divergent and convergent thinking more rapidly? Or do they have LESS connected brains, allowing them to incubate ideas in isolation before bringing them together?

Then there is one of the world’s largest population-based studies on individuals with mental illness, conducted by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm over the past forty years. As part of that, they have discovered that less severe mental illnesses such as bipolar seem to enhance creativity. This does seem to align with empirical experience. Many famous creatives were and are diagnosed bipolar. I’m diagnosed bipolar myself. The study also investigated the siblings of participants with psychiatric disorders but who did not have the same disorder and found that they did share an increased creative ability.

And again – hold your horses. Isn’t it possible that twins tend to be more creative because they were raised a certain way? And more importantly – is MORE seretonin an indicator of higher creativity, as in the Vienna study? Or is LESS seretonin the thing, as bipolar people exhibit?

Why does it even matter if creativity is genetic? The bottom line is, if creativity is a matter of nurture, not nature, then any limits on your creativity are limits you put there yourself over the course of your life. And thus, you can remove them. Your creativity, in short, is not bound by some natural affinity you just don’t have. It’s a convenient lie that lets people off the hook for not being creative enough.

Where the scientific evidence remains so conflicted I, like many experts, am confident sticking with the insight of people who live extremely creative lives, and/or who study creativity as their passion and focus.

Almost universally, such thinkers are very clear that there is no clear source for an inherited tendency for creativity. Rather, that creativity is a result of circumstance, and choice.

Michael Michalko, author of numerous books on creativity (http://creativethinking.net) puts it very well. “The only difference between people who are creative and people who are not is a simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative, are not.”

The lesson is straightforward. Stop saying you just aren’t creative, or creative enough. Get off your ass and start working on your creativity the same way you would study for exams or go to the gym.

Why? For the same reason that I call this Lie the MOST important lie to conquer. And why exactly is it most important? Well, we’ll look at that further in the next installment of this series, when we pick apart Creativity Lie #2.

Over my upcoming blogs, I will look at the top 5 most impactful lies on creativity. The ones that most limit you in becoming more creative, and thus more successful in all aspects of your life.

The Most Important Creativity Lie (The Genetics Lie) Part 1

Yes there is one. And it’s this.

CREATIVITY LIE #1: The Genetics Lie
Creativity is Inborn. Aka: I’m Just Not That Creative

Here’s what I, and most Creativity experts, have to say about this one:

ARE WE CLEAR?You are not just naturally more or less creative than him, or her, or anyone else. Of all the myths experts love busting about creativity, this is the one most in vogue at the moment, and makes the biggest difference in your creativity.

Simply put, there is little convincing evidence of a creativity gene, or even of a collection of genes that add up to creativity. Many studies have been done that have failed to show any birth advantage at all. This includes studies of fraternal and identical twins designed to clearly measure the impact of nature and nurture, that found zero impact of genetics on the results.

Sure, some people are more creative than others. Some people are perpetual innovators, and others live life the same way for years on end. It’s hard to argue that, say, Edison, was not more creative than most others living in New Jersey at the time. But all data points to the understanding that Edison’s 1000 plus patents were not his birthright. He famously said that his genius was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” and science, so far, has proven him right.

In the age-old nature vs nurture argument, creativity comes down hard on the nurture side. Genetics seem to have only one clear impact on creativity: we are all born with it. Watching small children do creative tasks, it’s hard to pick out one who shines above the others. One three-year-old may be more intelligent, more perserverant, or more focussed than another – but not more creative.

Over time, though, intelligence, perserverance, and focus all play into a learning of greater creative skill, or perhaps it is better classified as a more resolute refusal to unlearn it. Because another thing that evidence seems to clearly show is that creativity is not gained as we grow up, but lost. Picasso said that all children are artists, with the trick being to remain an artist once we grow up. A seminal study by George Land showed this with frightening clarity in 1968, the year of my birth.

Tracking the same children as they got older he found their scores on creativity testing radically declined, and shockingly fast. While the initial test on 5 year olds ranked 98% of them creative at “genius level”, by the time they turned 10, only 30% of them reached this ranking. Five years later, at age 15, the total plummeted to 12%. And by the time they were adults, only 2% could be considered “creative geniuses”. Nothing changed about their genetics. All that changed was, they grew up.

Land’s interpretation of this was that modern education forces us to simultaneously run our convergent and divergent thinking patterns, that is, the imaginative and critical faculties. This way of operating crushes our creativity so badly that we end up with the results above, outcomes so shocking and depressing that they formed the basis for Land’s Ted talk in 2016 – nearly 50 years after the study.  The key to solving that, of course, is to separate these two ways of approaching things, just as children do. But that’s the subject for another article.

This was not some fly-by-night study. Land used the same creativity test he had created for NASA to help them select innovative engineers and scientists.

Well ok, not quite. Roger Beaty, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience at Harvard, completed a study just last year that showed convincingly that highly creative people have a different brain structure than less creative people. Creative people’s brains, it seems, have a dense and intricate neural network spanning three specific brain systems: the default, salience and executive networks.

The default network is active when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as brainstorming, daydreaming or imagining. The executive control network is used for focus, such as evaluating if ideas will actually work. The salience network is a switching mechanism between these two. For in most people, the default and executive networks do not work at the same time. Beaty’s study showed that creative people are better able to run the systems simultaneously. In other words, it has something to do with the strength of the salience network. And in fact, highly creative people ARE able to maintain an ongoing balance between inventing and judging, the paradox that stops most people in their tracks. So Beaty’s research does reinforce the notion that some adults are more creative than others. Creative minds are wired differently than “uncreative” ones.

What Beaty’s research doesn’t do is provide any evidence at all of genetics at play. Nothing in his research made the claim that creative superiority was inborn. To do so they would have to study the actual growth of the neural networks from early childhood.

There is, however, some more convincing evidence of genetics playing a part in creativity. Momentarily convincing that is.

Read Part 2 for more on this.

Rotten Lemons

I’m staring out the window at the lemon tree full of shining beautiful bright yellow orbs. I’ve been hanging out at this health retreat and staring at that darn tree and doing nothing about it for almost two weeks, long past the time I was supposed to leave.

OK not doing nothing. Every single day, I have been scolding myself for not picking some lemons and squeezing them into a lovely juice.

Things have gone awry lately in my life which is what got me stuck at this window in the first place. The lemons have become aligned with my failures. Unused and failed potential just like me. Again and again as the days have skittered past and my life along with them, I thought well hell Carpe Fructum, at least.

Yet…nothing. Every day those lemons became markers of a deeper and deeper failure. My daughter’s grandparents have a beautiful lemon tree in their yard, and this tree here reminded me of that tree – two lemon trees from which I have not reaped any tangible benefits. Life was giving me lemons and I was not making lemonade, I was just lamenting the lemons I didn’t make lemonade with previously, and lumping these ones in with them.

Yesterday I got fed up. I took action. I got a ladder, climbed up, and grabbed a dozen of the best looking lemons I could see. Lemon trees can be pretty thorny. But I got them.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. I still dispute this when we are talking about actual books (ex: romance paperbacks). But with these lemons it was indisputably true. On the tree, in the bowl, man they looked good. We took them straight inside, cut them open, and they were brown and shriveled and smelly and dead and rotten.

Every single one of them.

We stared at the 24 lemon halves a good ten minutes in disbelief. Not even a single half-lemon was OK to eat or juice.

So I learned a few things.

First, when life gives you lemons, you can’t always make lemonade and you must not blame yourself for this. Plus you also need water and sweetener to make decent lemonade, and people always leave that out too.

Second, come to think of it, I actually don’t understand this stupid Dale Carnegie quote, cause he’s the one attributed as its originator. I really like lemons. I’ll eat them raw, just as is. Why is it bad to get lemons? The problem here is, life DIDN’T give me lemons! Life teased me with its lemons! Life KEPT its lemons from me! Fuck you life! Where’s my lemons!?

Third, things are not always what they seem. At least I didn’t have to live inside the silly platitude. Life gave me lemons, and then what. Life gave me lemons, but not really. It was all a trick. When life gives you ROTTEN lemons, then what do you do? How about this?

Or as Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterston said simply, “When life gives you lemons, chuck it right back.” And a quick Google check finds this other, apparently Christian, solution – compost them. But I don’t actually live here, and though it’s a health spa of sorts, there’s no compost heap I know of.

Fourth, I hate platitudes. But I already knew that.

Today I stare out the window and see the lemons differently. No longer do I see a chastisement for what I didn’t do. I see instead that all the regret was my mind’s silly trick. Those same rotted lemons no longer taunt me. Now they show me hope, tolerance, acceptance, and willingness. They give clarity to the human condition. I sat here for two weeks, lambasting myself for not picking and squeezing lemons that, in reality, were useless as anything but the ornaments they were already being! I had done nothing wrong. And the lemons hadn’t either.

It was an inspired bit of upside-down laissez-faire Buddhist appreciation, letting the lemons be exactly what they were destined to be. And me with them.

The lemons weren’t sinful any more than the apple that tempted Eve. The sin was picking them. Making them mine alone. Cutting them open to see their realities. Except where picking the apple doomed millennia of people to suffer, picking the lemons liberated me.

Thank God I was too lazy to pick them all. Eventually of course they will all fall from the tree. But that’s their problem. And then my host says this to me:

“Hey Michael, did you know that rotten lemons can be used in recovering gold bits from waste?”

So there you go. If life gives you rotten lemons, use them for enlightenment, and alchemy. Or do what this woman is doing.

The point is, when life gives you lemons, there are a whole lot of cool things you can do. Even nothing at all.

The Millionaire Truth

“Hi, my name is Anthony Brown, and I this year, I became a millionaire.”

Ah the joy of unwanted, repetitive advertising pop-ups that impair your efforts to actually do worthwhile, needed work over and over and over again….

Have you met Anthony Brown (virtually)? Dont you get such great joy and pleasure of visits from Anthony and his purportedly Millionaire pals almost every time that you try to click on anything?

Let’s say you want to watch, say, videos of cats. When you click on cats you get a list of options on Google but when you try to click on one – instead of that site, a new window opens and here comes Anthony and friends, one after the next, each one of them declaring that they too have just become a millionaire…and you can too…

I have, far too often, had the experience of thinking I’ve slipped through the trap when suddenly I hear Anthony’s voice start playing in the background and I become frantic trying to find where he popped up exactly and turn him off so as not to waste both Internet and my own mental bandwidth – and then I have to still listen while my computer asks me am i SURE I want to leave this page….

Even worse when the page you am actually on is itself blocked by a pop-up static page advertising. MacKeeper is a champion at this, a software designed, supposedly, to prevent security breaches and viruses but seems to be a virus in its own right, demanding that you download it yet again even when it is already installed on your laptop.

Even my efforts to block these ads are foiled by these ads. Looking up on Google “how to stop pop-up ads” – when I click on an article from wiki how, an ad from MacKeeper blocks my full window, and in the background I hear it again…. “Hi, my name is Anthony Brown…”

Then I find Ad Blocker, and I click on the link for it. And here he comes again… “Anthony Brown….”

Anthony’s website is called Millionaire Truth – a very good name because surely he is telling the true method for how to become a millionaire yourself. It’s easy, anyone can do it, and it costs absolutely nothing. I always thought becoming a millionaire most definitely involved spending, earning, and investing time and money so I guess it’s great that Anthony keeps hammering the reality into my head, time and time again. Clearly I am not getting the message.

Pop-ups have been the most hated web experience since at least 2004 – 11 years ago – according to a survey done at that time by Nielsen Norman Group. Last year one of the inventors of the pop-up ad apologized in a public essay (“The Internet’s Original Sin”), pleading that all intentions were good but they ended up creating a monster. This all well and good, but the monster was out of the box, the genie out of the bottle, fifteen years earlier.

The sad thing for me is it seems my Ad Blocker software doesn’t work properly. It blocks the ads that are supposed to appear in the margins of sites like You Tube. But those don’t really bother me. It’s the ones that block my screen and prevent my clicks from going through, or open new windows and start playing videos… and those are NOT STOPPING!!

Here’s the irony. In preparing to write this post, I finally seem to have gotten the Ad Blocker right. And now, no sign of Anthony Brown. So the details I wanted to get extra, things I may have ignored in the contstant rush to turn the darn thing off, I cannot get, and references to Anthony Brown, Millionaire Truth on Google – actually link to what they are supposed to and the only references I can find is of other people writing about how sick they are of Anthony Brown, usually offering, “Great Anthony, Good for you,” things of that nature.

So I have won for the moment. Suddenly I kind of miss Anthony Brown.

But it won’t be for long. We know how these things work. As with Apple getting around the latest jailbreak versions, the powers that advertise will improve their ability to get past the ad blockers, and soon they will reappear to make my browsing experience miserable again.

Advertising will not be blocked for long. The virus will overcome the innoculation on its next cycle. The Millionare Truth will not be stopped.

The Trash Animals of Yola

Yola, Nigeria is best known these days as the holding point of major Boko Haram penetration during the big push southward of last year. It is also now the long-term home of many refugees from points farther north in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states, who fled their homes and are still too scared or broke to go back, or whose homes were destroyed in the insurgency.

But what is more remarkable about Yola is the profusion of trash animals.

Trash animals?

Yes, trash animals.

If you look up “trash animals” on Google the first clear reference (without punctuation between the two words), is Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. This is a collection of essays published by Minnesota University Press, described as follows. “From pigeons to prairie dogs, reflections on reviled animals and their place in contemporary life. Each essay focuses on a so-called trash species—gulls, coyotes, carp, and magpies, among others—examining the biology and behavior of each in contrast to the assumptions widely held about them.”

The other major reference to is to the Portuguese street artist Boradlo II, who this year has made a name for himself in Lisbon by littering the city with animals made of rubbish. Using aluminum cans, old tires, scrap wood, broken appliances, and so forth, he creates colorful animals at otherwise boring city corners, and in the process relieves the landfills of some of the garbage that would otherwise still be there.

Yola’s trash animals are neither so scholarly nor so beautiful – although in a sense they share traits of both the Minnesota and Portuguese usages.

They are quite literally animals who eat trash, and most of the time, burning trash.

Yola is not the cleanest of cities. Municipal services broke down somewhere along the line, and both the paved and dirt roads riddled with potholes are lined in many places with everyone’s garbage. This is not littering, cast off bits and bobs that lazy people left behind – no. This is impromptu landfill, without the fill. Where we have garbage day once a week, the citizens of Yola do too. Except, instead of leaving it out in bins to be picked up by city workers, they just literally take their garbage and dump it on the side of the road. Then they burn it. That doesn’t seem to get rid of it though, and the byways of Yola, especially on the outskirts, are defined by firm, wide lines of burning plastic, paper, food remains, and even fecal matter.

Standing in the middle of this burning trash, and eating it, stand a wide variety of animals. Perhaps it could be expected to find trash pigs – but here, trash pigs are a relatively rare sight, which we only saw in the slum neighborhood on the other side of the bridge over the Benue River, near Gotel.

Much more common are the trash goats – ok, not so unusual to see goats eating garbage (but this garbage is on fire!). But also trash dogs, trash horses, and even trash roosters and trash chickens and a couple of trash ducks. That’s right – trash ducks, standing in the middle of fire, eating burning plastic. One trash duck had a plastic ring (not burning) trapping its beak shut as it ran around, and all that seemed to trouble it was that this interfered with its snacking.

My colleague William became so impressed by this sight, he embarked on a series of photos of trash animals, some of which I include here.

One important thing to note is that the word “trash” MUST precede the name of the animal. It is not correct to say “trash horses, goats, and pigs.” It must be trash horses, trash goats, and trash pigs. These are mutations, the beginning of new species. Nigeria is not noted for its wildlife, but here, in the midst of one of the poorest urban spaces in the country, evolution is happening.

The really frightening part about this is that people eat some of these animals. The goats, the pigs, and the chickens end up on people’s tables, so not only are the Yolans inhaling burning plastic on a daily basis, but they are also eating the tasty flesh of animals who survive on it.

No wonder they were so sturdy to repel Boko Haram’s attacks. There is, after all, nothing hardier than a man who has eaten the meat of a trash goat.

I Love Abuja

In the aftermath of the Nigerian-Biafra War, the Nigerian government sought to locate its capital in a location not predominated by any one ethnic group. The site of Abuja was chosen for the Fedeal Capital Territory as it was centrally located and had few existing residents. Today, it is Africa’s only purpose-built capital city.

– Wikitravel

I heart Abuja. Remember that old New York campaign? Where the word “love” was replaced by a heart? I heart New York? Well, like that. Many people may find it strange or bewildering – I HEART Abuja. Let me explain.

I heart every square metre of Abuja’s empty dustbowl landscape, every strange shopfront that disguises surprises within, every cool bar and restaurant hidden behind piles of electronic shops and quirky optometrists.

Most people prefer Lagos with its booming culture and vibrant business life. But not me. Abuja is decisively the second city of Nigeria, with far less going on than Lagos. In a sense, it was designed that way, and that is why I like it.

I love the Millenium Tower. Smack in the middle of the city centre, next to the famed National Mosque, it’s at least five years behind schedule with no end in sight.

I love the lack of traffic. Abuja is probably Nigeria’s only major city in which traffic is a non-entity. You can actually get from one side of the city to the other side in less than 30 minutes, worst case an hour – and better yet, a taxi to do it costs no more than 10 dollars. Whereas in Lagos sometimes to go from one side to the other of Victoria Island takes hours with a price ten times higher. Uber is relatively useless in this city, because the savings are not possible.

I love the endless rows of totally clean building, not damage by smog or neglect, no messy graffiti, buildings that look like they could be in any major city in the developed world. (On the outside that is. Inside, so many are quite gaudy and betray Nigeria’s predilection for staircases that are too wide and steep, and enormous furniture that dominates rooms).

I love that Abuja was designed from scratch mainly by American and Japanese architects. And that it is in fact so international. The Millenium Tower is an Italian design, and it seems that at least 10% of the city’s population are expats – but from almost every country in the world, none dominating.

I love the fact that like a small handful of others (Brasilia Johannesburg), Abuja is one of the very few major cities not built on a naturally occurring body of water.

Abuja is artificial in every way but one, and I love that. The one way – the people, who are very friendly and very international in their outlook. It is not a Nigerian city, it is an international city, shockingly in the middle of a country that is very inwardly focused most of the time.

I love most of all the fact that the city has no clear identity and seems to be forging it slowly right in front of me.

I have always lived, my whole adult life, in societies in transition. First Prague, then New York during the period of 9/11, then South Africa just before 10 years of democracy hit. So my stint in Abuja is immediately fascinating to me – this is not a society in transition per se, it is an actual city in transition. You can watch it grow before your eyes. A city that stands for all matter, because it, like an atom, is mostly empty space.

I have to remind myself over and again that Abuja was born after me.

Forty years ago Abuja was just an idea.

Thirty years ago, though building had started, it was not yet really functional.

Twenty years ago it still did not even appear on many maps.

The entire city has come together in less than twenty years. Surely we have to forgive it its challenges then?

Today, Abuja has more cranes per square kilometer surely than other city besides Dubai. I really love those cranes.