Brandon's Notepad

September 6, 2017

Creativity Deconstructed

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Before you can effectively and consistently boost creativity, you must first understand what creativity really is. As I always say, words are important, and the study of words can reveal some truly amazing things. In this case, creativity appears to be a fairly simple etymological study.


The root word of creativity is obviously create, so it is not surprising that most English dictionaries define the word as the ability to create. Personally, I don’t find that definition very satisfying, because when we talk about creativity or when we describe someone as being very creative, we typically have something much greater in mind than the simple ability to make something. Some dictionaries extend this definition to include the ability to think new things. The Oxford dictionary explicitly ties the act of creation in this context to the use of the imagination and notes that the resultant thing or idea is original. The Cambridge definition goes even further to suggest that the ideas produced also possess the property of being unusual. I prefer the word unique over unusual, but the latter does connote that the thing or idea is not only one-of-a-kind, but also out-of-the-ordinary.

One must be careful throwing a word like create around too loosely, however. All too often, people equate it with the word make, as in, “let’s go make some art”. This seldom works in reverse, because you never hear things like, “I’ll create the coffee in the morning”. The word make has other meanings that are also incompatible; for example, phrases like “please create your bed before leaving for school” and “I hope you can create it home in time for dinner” make no sense at all!

The same problem is inherent with the word produce (the verb, not the lettuce). Does an artist produce great works of art in the same way a manufacturing plant produces widgets? Obviously not. In Latin, we can distinguish the verb creo from produco, facio, and fabrico (think produce, manufacture, and fabricate respectively). Things can be made (produced/manufactured/fabricated) according to a design, but the creative act must, by definition, occur before or coincident with the design. This ties in well with the notion of originality: a new creation’s origin is an outcome of the creative act.

I am rather partial to the definition of creativity that I first heard in a Lynda.com training course titled “Creativity Bootcamp”. In that course, author and instructor Stefan Mumaw explains that “creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty.” Relevance is a binary property: a proposed solution either solves a problem or it doesn’t. Novelty (i.e. “newness”) is where originality comes in. Why does Mumaw include these two properties in his definition? Because he wants to emphasize that creativity is not the same thing as artistry. An art (from the Latin ars) is a skill that one learns through practice. So, while a very skilled artist can, say, paint impressive landscapes, there may be little or no creativity in his work, because he is not solving the problem — capturing and expressing the essence of the place — in a new way.

So where does that leave us in terms of understanding the nature of creativity? More importantly, does this understanding bring us any closer to learning how to consistently deliver creative solutions? At a minimum, it helps us define our boundaries. If a problem truly calls for a creative solution, it is either because the problem itself is new or all previous solutions have proven to be ineffective or suboptimal. Also, we can recognize that looking for ideas (e.g. Pinterest) is the antithesis of being creative, and may in fact hinder our own creativity in most cases. Instead, we should focus on analyzing and solving the problem outright, and then researching to see if our “best” solution has already been attempted by someone else. Finally, we can completely dismiss the notion that creativity is inextricably linked to artistic talent. In fact, scientific discovery and invention are predicated on creative thinking. Thus, creativity is not so much about the solution, but about how we, as creative beings, approach the problem.


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August 29, 2017

Creativity: A Study

Filed under: Art,Productivity,Psychology,Self Improvement — Brandon @ 8:50 am
Tags: , ,

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2FL


I consider myself to be a fairly creative person. I grew up in a household that encouraged self-expression and experimentation on many levels, including the arts. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed writing, sketching, painting, and playing music, even at times when I felt like I wasn’t very good at them at all. And like most people, I too have periods in which I lack inspiration and need a little boost to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, finding myself in a creative slump is exactly what prompted me to start studying the nature of creativity.


Below are a set of questions I set out to answer in the course of this study:

  • What is creativity really?
  • Is being creative the same as being artistic?
  • What is a creative process?
  • Can creativity be measured?
  • How do I find inspiration?

As my study progresses, I will post my findings here. If you would like updates on my progress, please follow me on Twitter.


August 1, 2017

How We Decide / Thinking, Fast & Slow

Filed under: Book Reviews,Psychology — Brandon @ 10:57 am

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-2E3


I recently picked up two audiobooks from the library, not realizing that they were highly-complimentary works on the same topic: decision theory. Both dig deep into the psychology of the human mind and explain how different functions of the brain play their respective roles in the decision-making process. I listened to Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide first. I was immediately captivated by Lehrer’s storytelling delivered by narrator David Colacci in the matter-of-fact tone of a national nightly news anchor. Being a layman in this area, I decided the work is, if nothing else, very interesting. Kahneman’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow reinforced and surpassed Lehrer’s, covering more information and in more detail, requiring more time and mental effort to listen to and digest. Patrick Egan’s narration was consistent but didn’t hold my attention as Colacci had. Both authors lean on investigations and experiments in the study of psychology to paint a picture of the human mind for the reader.

One concept covered in depth by both authors is the idea that decisions are made in one of two ways, either by intuition or through cognitive reasoning. Lehrer refers to these modes of decision-making as emotional and rational respectively, whereas Kahneman simply (and admittedly arbitrarily) labels them as System 1 and System 2. Emotional decisions are the ones that just “feel” right, even if rational thought seems to dictate a different position. Similarly, System 1 thinks “fast” and makes decisions based on a set of experience-born heuristics, whereas System 2 thinks “slowly” and is engaged explicitly when a problem requires any measure of conscious thought. This is not to say that the use of one system over the other is strictly dictated by the problem domain, say for example, solving math problems. Kahneman points out that anyone who knows basic arithmetic can visually scan the problem “2+2” and the answer will immediately come to mind thanks to System 1, but being presented with a multiplication problem involving two two-digit numbers requires the application of math rules, which falls squarely in the realm of System 2. Both authors explore the nuances of this segregation of mental duties, though Kahneman is careful to point out that this dichotomy is a convenient way to help classify mental functions but is not indicative of the literal existence of two separate systems or that one part of the brain is solely responsible for this function and another part for that function, etc. While this concept is the focus of Lehrer’s book, it must be noted that Kahneman covers additional topics in his.

Honestly, I am not an expert in psychology and thus not qualified to assess the correctness or completeness of either work, but I found them both very interesting (as a layman), and felt that both authors were successful in introducing the subject matter to a broader audience. I felt quite satisfied after finishing Lehrer’s book, having listened to it first, and I wonder if this would have been the case had I done so in the reverse order. If I had to recommend only one for the casual listener, it would have to be the Lehrer/Colacci book as the presentation is much cleaner and easier to listen to. There is a big caveat with that recommendation, however. In researching the particulars for this review, I discovered that Lehrer’s book, which was published in 2009 was subsequently recalled by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013 due to a substantial number of errors and plagiarized passages. Obviously, the recall did not extend its reach to extant copies available in library collections and the book is still available for sale online. Upon further investigation, I learned that some (if not most) of the lifted passages constituted self-plagiarism, also known as “recycling fraud”; however, there was at least one part of Kahneman’s book that I felt sure (System 1) I had heard before, a feeling I initially dismissed as déjà vu, but that now I realize (System 2) may have been one example of Lehrer’s plagiarism. (I do not have the time or inclination to go back to the audio now to find it, so I will leave that depth of research for someone who does.) Having said that, Thinking, Fast and Slow wasn’t published until 2011, but Kahneman does reference a lot of his own prior work, much of which was performed and published with his good friend and research partner, Amos Tversky. In the synopsis on the back of the CD case for Lehrer’s book is the statement, “Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting edge research by Daniel Kahneman…and others…”. Scientific American published a short opinion on the matter titled How We Decide (To Falsify), a witty little piece about Lehrer’s other problematic book, Imagine, that explains how scientists can (for a variety of reasons) choose to rely on intuition instead of hard facts, and may resort to fabricating data. The article subtly infers that Lehrer chose poorly when fabricating quotes (possibly under the pressure of a deadline) when both his training as a scientist and the subject matter of his second book should have helped him make a better, more professional, and more ethical decision.


August 9, 2016

The Energy Bus

ShortURL: http://wp.me/pb7U7-1Ue


The Energy Bus This is a short review of The Energy Bus, written by Jon Gordon.

The Energy Bus is a fictional story about a man named George whose life seems to be coming apart at the seams. His performance is being scrutinized at work, his wife is disenchanted with him as a husband, and to top it off, he leaves for work one morning only to find that his car has a flat tire. With no spare and no ride, George is forced to take the bus. This is perhaps the best thing to ever happen to him, for on the bus he meets Joy, the bus driver, and her band of merry passengers who present to George a new perspective on life. George undergoes a miraculous transformation and gets his life back on track.

Though a bit longer than the traditional fable, this story was written to teach a series of lessons about personal happiness, effectiveness, and success. Through the character of George, the reader is reminded that he is the driver of his own bus and is in full control of powering and steering the vehicle, as well as being responsible for the passengers he brings on board. The rules of the bus, established by Joy, provide the basis for having a fun and meaningful ride. The bus, of course, is a metaphor for one’s life. The Ten Rules for the Ride of Your Life can easily be found online, and are even provided in printable poster format by the publisher.

I was introduced to this book as part of a corporate seminar led by ethics expert and motivational speaker, Dr. Paul Voss. The seminar focused on lessons from this and about four other books. From the title, I was concerned that the book was steeped in New Age teachings on how to channel psychic energy in the workplace. Dr. Voss reassured us that the book was not about that at all, just about how our attitudes heavily influence our performance within our work community, so I went along with it. While Voss’ interpretation was certainly valid and my fear was more amplified than what the text warranted, the book did make at least one explicit mention of the Law of Attraction, a pinnacle of New Age ideas prevalent in works such as A Course in Miracles. The author didn’t harp on this much at all, so if you discount the New Age concept of energy and want to read in the context of simply having a positive attitude (as Dr. Voss advocated), the story still works.

The book definitely made an impression on my colleagues, some more than others. Rule #6, “No Energy Vampires Allowed” has been particularly popular around the office. In addition to hiring Dr. Voss to discuss the text to us, the company also purchased some promotional materials for the employees, including some postcard-size versions of the poster linked above, and some smaller cards (approx. 2″x3″) that we were invited to hand out to others or to post in our cubicles as reminders of the lessons contained in the book. In all, as a source of workplace motivation, the seminar and the book were quite successful.


October 25, 2014

Remembering Differently

ShortURL: http://goo.gl/JcwKkY


I watched a movie that I saw only once before, many years ago, and though the plot was the same, the scenes looked completely different from what I remember. Is this just a product of faulty memory, a function of time, or something else?


That Night

It was a Friday, the thirteenth of some month of some year now long forgotten. I was staying up late with my grandfather watching a spooky movie on television, parts of which I remember quite vividly. There was an accident, a man’s family killed by a truck in the snow, a haunted house, and a ghost of a boy who was once confined to a wheelchair whose body was dumped in a well. I didn’t catch the name of the film at the time, but I enjoyed it so much that I declared that Friday the 13th was actually a lucky day indeed for my having seen it.

The Sketchy Details

For whatever reason, I failed to consult the television listings in the previous day’s paper, and therefore, lost the easy opportunity to identify the film. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I resolved to find it on video cassette, that I felt the frustration of tracking down an obscure movie based on a few sketchy details. This was well before the days of the Internet, so I couldn’t just ‘Google it’. No, I had to find someone who remembered it well enough to name it based on the description of a few scenes. I eventually gave up, figuring that I would eventually encounter it again, either on television or in the movie rental store.

The Discovery

I wouldn’t say I forgot about the movie, but it wasn’t on the top of mind by any means. I might’ve even searched online for it once or twice, but it wasn’t until sometime in the late Twenty-aughts that I struck gold. I don’t recall now what search criteria led to the discovery, but couldn’t wait another minute to locate a copy. As it happened, a used book store near my parents’ house had a copy, so I asked them to hold it for me and then phoned my mother to ask her if she wouldn’t mind picking it up. A family get-together had been planned for that weekend, so within a few short days, I was the proud owner of a DVD copy of The Changeling starring George C. Scott.

The Surprise

We watched the film. As an adult, I had a much better appreciation for the overall plot, and all of the scenes I remembered from some fifteen or twenty years before were all there. There was only one problem. This was not the film I remembered seeing before. Yes, the scenes were there, but they were not the same! First of all, I could’ve sworn that the movie was filmed in black-and-white (not because it was old, but as a matter of style). The main character wasn’t, in my memory, an old man with grey wispy hair, but a younger, dark-haired man resembling Neil Diamond. The house was smaller and far more modern. For example, the scene where the protagonist throws a ball down a flight of stairs and someone (or something) throws the ball back, it travelled impossibly around a corner and up a well-lit stairwell, not a grand wood staircase in a darkened foyer. It wasn’t just a few scenes either. The entire movie was just wrong.

Possible Explanations

The first thought that popped into my head was that the film I just watched, which was released in 1980, was either an original or a remake. The other, black-and-white version could have been filmed in the ’60s. This would explain the difference in the architecture of the house (stark modern being very in vogue at the time) and any number of other variances. Alternatively, if this were an original, perhaps an adaptation had been produced for television, which would have undoubtedly had a much lower budget. Subsequent Web searches and discussion with horror movie aficionados have revealed absolutely no evidence that either of these explanations are true. All other explanations reside in the realm of my own head. Maybe the film spooked me more than I remember as a child and I did not actually watch, but only listened to it, providing my own mental screenplay. Or, perhaps my memories just simply changed over time, the scenes replaying in my mind without the reenforcement of the film itself to help me remember how it really looked.

New Questions

The thought has crossed my mind that this issue could be psychological, though I have no actual evidence to support this notion. This movie represents is the only occurence of this phenomenon in my own life that I know of, but then, I haven’t made an effort to find any others. Also, I have been unsuccessful in finding any accounts from others who have experienced the sort of same thing. While writing this post, I read through the Wikipedia article on visual memory, but it provided no insight, no revelations. Maybe someday I will have an opportunity to ask a professional if this is an identified condition, and if I do then I will provide an update here.


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