Creativity vs. Quants

The New York Times

By Timothy Eagen

March 21, 2014

Here’s how John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man,” as he recalled it in an interview that ran just before he was murdered in 1980: After working five hours trying to craft a song, he had nothing to show for it. “Then, ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

Here’s how Steve Jobs came up with the groundbreaking font selection when Apple designed the Mac: He had taken a class in the lost art of calligraphy and found it “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Ten years later, it paid off when Apple ushered in a typeface renaissance.

And here’s how Oscar Wilde defined his profession: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

We’ve bottled lust. We’ve refined political analysis so that nearly every election can be accurately forecast. And we’ve compressed the sum of education for an average American 17-year-old into the bloodless numbers of standardized test scores. What still eludes the captors of knowledge is creativity, even though colleges are trying to teach it, corporations are trying to own it, and Apple has a “creativity app.”

But perhaps because creativity remains so unquantifiable, it’s still getting shortchanged by educators, new journalistic ventures, Hollywood and the company that aspires to be the earth’s largest retailer, Amazon.com.

An original work, an aha! product or a fresh insight is rarely the result of precise calculation at one end producing genius at the other. You need messiness and magic, serendipity and insanity. Creativity comes from time off, and time out. There is no recipe for “Nowhere Man,” other than showing up, and then, maybe lying down.

The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.

In relaunching his data-driven FiveThirtyEight website this week, Nate Silver took a swipe at old-school commentators. He recalled the famously off prediction of Peggy Noonan, who criticized people “too busy looking at data on paper” to pick up on the “vibrations” of a Mitt Romney victory in 2012. “It’s time for us to start making the news nerdier,” Silver wrote in his manifesto.

Data journalism has certainly done much to clean up the guesswork in a profession still struggling to find its way in the digital age. On election eve, it’s far better to look at the aggregate of all scientific polls than to listen to a pundit’s hunch. But numbers, as Silver himself acknowledged, are not everything in the information game. Satire, journalism’s underappreciated sibling, belongs to the creative realm. And there are no quants on the planet who could write Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” or a decent episode of “The Daily Show.”

Nor could they produce an original film. Sure, they’ve tried. Most of Hollywood’s big budget, so-called tent-pole openings are the net result of exhaustive crunching of the elements of a hit. A robot can write a screenplay — about robots fighting one another! — that is just as effective at the box office as the fart-joke formula of an Adam Sandler movie. Before a major release, audiences are tested and polled, and producers fix and calibrate.

In the end, it’s just product, matching audience preferences. So it was encouraging to see a big-name Hollywood director, Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind the upcoming epic “Noah,” show some defiance against the numbers men. “Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla,” he said in The New Yorker. “I’m the rocky road guy.”

Book publishers, cowering in the shadow of Amazon.com, deserved their kick to the head when the online company forced them to drag their archaic business practices into the 21st century. But they can take heart that Amazon, trying to crowd source and metrically mold its way into producing its own “content,” has stumbled. Amazon works by gathering data on millions of readers and then giving the same thing back to them. The oldest tale of publishing, or filmmaking for that matter, is the orphaned, oddball story that became a smash. Everyone rejected it because, well, it wasn’t like anything else.

At Amazon, the quants rule. Daydreaming, pie-in-the-sky time and giving people room to fail — the vital ingredients of creativity — are costly, the first things to go at a data-driven company. As a business model, Amazon is a huge success. As a regular generator of culture-altering material, it’s a bit player. Why? It has marginalized messiness.

Learning to Think Outside the Box Creativity Becomes an Academic Discipline

The New York Times

By LAURA PAPPANOFEB. 5, 2014

Launch media viewer
Students in creative studies at Buffalo State College posted key points to being a creative thinker. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

IT BOTHERS MATTHEW LAHUE and it surely bothers you: enter a public restroom and the stall lock is broken. Fortunately, Mr. Lahue has a solution. It’s called the Bathroom Bodyguard. Standing before his Buffalo State College classmates and professor, Cyndi Burnett, Mr. Lahue displayed a device he concocted from a large washer, metal ring, wall hook, rubber bands and Lincoln Log. Slide the ring in the crack and twist. The door stays shut. Plus, the device fits in a jacket pocket.

The world may be full of problems, but students presenting projects for Introduction to Creative Studies have uncovered a bunch you probably haven’t thought of. Elie Fortune, a freshman, revealed his Sneaks ’n Geeks app to identify the brand of killer sneakers you spot on the street. Jason Cathcart, a senior, sported a bulky martial arts uniform with sparring pads he had sewn in. No more forgetting them at home.

“I don’t expect them to be the next Steve Jobs or invent the flying car,” Dr. Burnett says. “But I do want them to be more effective and resourceful problem solvers.” Her hope, she says, is that her course has made them more creative.

Launch media viewer
Cyndi Burnett teaches Introduction to Creative Studies at Buffalo State College. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.

“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.

“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”

Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity.

Launch media viewer
Annoyed by restroom doors that are always broken? Matthew Lahue, a junior, designed the Bathroom Bodyguard.
Jim Lahue

Creative studies is popping up on course lists and as a credential. Buffalo State, part of the State University of New York, plans a Ph.D. and already offers a master’s degree and undergraduate minor. Saybrook University in San Francisco has a master’s and certificate, and added a specialization to its psychology Ph.D. in 2011. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a three-year-old online master’s. St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., has added a minor. And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.

Suddenly, says Russell G. Carpenter, program coordinator for a new minor in applied creative thinking at Eastern Kentucky University, “there is a larger conversation happening on campus: ‘Where does creativity fit into the E.K.U. student experience?’ ” Dr. Carpenter says 40 students from a broad array of fields, including nursing and justice and safety, have enrolled in the minor — a number he expects to double as more sections are added to introductory classes. Justice and safety? Students want tools to help them solve public safety problems and deal with community issues, Dr. Carpenter explains, and a credential to take to market.

The credential’s worth is apparent to Mr. Lahue, a communication major who believes that a minor in the field carries a message. “It says: ‘This person is not a drone. They can use this skill set and apply themselves in other parts of the job.’ ”

On-demand inventiveness is not as outrageous as it sounds. Sure, some people are naturally more imaginative than others. What’s igniting campuses, though, is the conviction that everyone is creative, and can learn to be more so.

Just about every pedagogical toolbox taps similar strategies, employing divergent thinking (generating multiple ideas) and convergent thinking (finding what works).The real genius, of course, is in the how.

Launch media viewer
Edwin Perez’s FaceSaver keeps your phone from falling. Cyndi Burnett

Dr. Puccio developed an approach that he and partners market as FourSight and sell to schools, businesses and individuals. The method, which is used in Buffalo State classrooms, has four steps: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. People tend to gravitate to particular steps, suggesting their primary thinking style. Clarifying — asking the right question — is critical because people often misstate or misperceive a problem. “If you don’t have the right frame for the situation, it’s difficult to come up with a breakthrough,” Dr. Puccio says. Ideating is brainstorming and calls for getting rid of your inner naysayer to let your imagination fly. Developing is building out a solution, and maybe finding that it doesn’t work and having to start over. Implementing calls for convincing others that your idea has value.

Jack V. Matson, an environmental engineer and a lead instructor of “Creativity, Innovation and Change,” a MOOC that drew 120,000 in September, teaches a freshman seminar course at Penn State that he calls “Failure 101.” That’s because, he says, “the frequency and intensity of failures is an implicit principle of the course. Getting into a creative mind-set involves a lot of trial and error.”

His favorite assignments? Construct a résumé based on things that didn’t work out and find the meaning and influence these have had on your choices. Or build the tallest structure you can with 20 Popsicle sticks. The secret to the assignment is to destroy the sticks and reimagine their use. “As soon as someone in the class starts breaking the sticks,” he says, “it changes everything.”

Dr. Matson also asks students to “find some cultural norms to break,” like doing cartwheels while entering the library. The point: “Examine what in the culture is preventing you from creating something new or different. And what is it like to look like a fool because a lot of things won’t work out and you will look foolish? So how do you handle that?”

It’s a lesson that has been basic to the ventures of Brad Keywell, a Groupon founder and a student of Dr. Matson’s at the University of Michigan. “I am an absolute evangelist about the value of failure as part of creativity,” says Mr. Keywell, noting that Groupon took off after the failure of ThePoint.com, where people were to organize for collective action but instead organized discount group purchases. Dr. Matson taught him not just to be willing to fail but that failure is a critical avenue to a successful end. Because academics run from failure, Mr. Keywell says, universities are “way too often shapers of formulaic minds,” and encourage students to repeat and internalize fail-safe ideas.

Launch media viewer
Chanil Mejia and Yasmine Payton present their big idea, a campus chill spot, in Introduction to Creative Studies. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, is another believer in taking bold risks, which she calls a competitive necessity. Her center added an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in creativity and innovation this year. “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” she says. When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated. She cites an undergraduate class that teams engineering and art students to, say, reimagine the use of public spaces. Basic creativity tools used at the Torrance Center include thinking by analogy, looking for and making patterns, playing, literally, to encourage ideas, and learning to abstract problems to their essence.

In Dr. Burnett’s Introduction to Creative Studies survey course, students explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people and strategies to enhance their own creativity.These include rephrasing problems as questions, learning not to instinctively shoot down a new idea (first find three positives), and categorizing problems as needing a solution that requires either action, planning or invention. A key objective is to get students to look around with fresh eyes and be curious. The inventive process, she says, starts with “How might you…”

Dr. Burnett is an energetic instructor with a sense of humor — she tested Mr. Cathcart’s martial arts padding with kung fu whacks. Near the end of last semester, she dumped Post-it pads (the department uses 400 a semester) onto a classroom desk with instructions: On pale yellow ones, jot down what you learned; on rainbow colored pads, share how you will use this learning. She then sent students off in groups with orders that were a litany of brainstorming basics: “Defer judgment! Strive for quantity! Wild and unusual! Build on others’ ideas!”

As students scribbled and stuck, the takeaways were more than academic. “I will be optimistic,” read one. “I will look at tasks differently,” said another. And, “I can generate more ideas.”

Asked to elaborate, students talked about confidence and adaptability. “A lot of people can’t deal with things they don’t know and they panic. I can deal with that more now,” said Rony Parmar, a computer information systems major with Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones circling his neck.

Mr. Cathcart added that, given tasks, “you think of other ways of solving the problem.” For example, he streamlined the check-in and reshelving of DVDs at the library branch where he works.

The view of creativity as a practical skill that can be learned and applied in daily life is a 180-degree flip from the thinking that it requires a little magic: Throw yourself into a challenge, step back — pause — wait for brilliance to spout.

The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”

Laura Pappano is writer in residence at Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College and author of several books, including “Inside School Turnarounds.”

Far From My Tree

November 24, 2013
By SUE ROBINS

My eldest son is 20 years old, lives in a house crammed with seven scrabbly roommates, works part time in a restaurant kitchen, doesn’t drive, is a vegetarian, and has homemade tattoos etched into his thighs.

He’s firmly a musician – a drummer in a loud punk band, and he loves nothing more than to tour across North America, playing gigs in sketchy houses in Oakland, Calif., and south Chicago.

He appears to have only one pair of pants – dirty, black cutoff jeans, and his shirts are also of the ripped-off-arms variety. I’m not sure who has been ripping up all his clothes. Maybe there’s a wild dog living in his house.

I’m both proud of and horrified for my boy. His jaw is squarely set, and he’s acutely committed to what he wants to do. And that is to tour with his band in their black-panel van, crisscrossing borders, dodging death in dubious neighborhoods, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and eating vegetarian burritos.

As my children traveled through their teenage years, I emphasized to them: Find your passion and follow it. What I really meant was: Find your passion, but do it in the way I did it. That is, go to college first, get a liberal arts degree, meander through your 20s, and then supplement your undergraduate degree with graduate studies. All while wearing clean, intact clothing.

But what if, as Andrew Solomon so eloquently addresses in his masterpiece, “Far From the Tree,” your child ends up so very different from you? I read “Far From the Tree” because it speaks of children with disabilities (and my youngest son has Down syndrome), but I gained a deeper knowledge of all children who stray from their parents. If we face reality squarely, and give our children the space to be who they want to be, every single child should be different from his parents, and should be allowed and even encouraged to fall far from our trees.

My oldest boy does not show up to family events in his collared shirt and pressed pants. In fact, he rarely shows up at all. He doesn’t respond to calls from grandparents, although he will send thank you texts for birthday gifts, so he still has a sliver of decorum. He’s proudly anti-establishment, and my current lifestyle with my husband (and his stepfather) – living in the suburbs and driving a BMW – clearly disgusts him.

I watch my friends’ children embarking on their second year of college, most of them still living at home with their parents. They are clean-cut, unfailingly polite, sit quietly at dinner parties and patiently dole out answers to questions from adults. Inevitably, someone asks me, “What’s your son doing?” and then I feel a strange mix of pride and apology. “He’s living his life,” I say. “But what graduate program? What path is he taking?” “He’s not in a program,” I say. “He’s working and playing in a band.” They take a deep gulp of wine and look down at their expensive shoes.

I read a biography of Dave Grohl, the former drummer for Nirvana. In it, Mr. Grohl’s mother – a teacher herself – agreed to let him drop out of high school so he could tour with his band. She said that he was good at a lot of things, but school was not one of them. Clearly Mr. Grohl’s path did not include the traditional, go-to-college-get-a-job trajectory.

My son is teaching me that there isn’t just one way to live life. Yes, I wish he would go to college so he doesn’t live below the poverty line and reside in a house of squalor.

But that’s what I want for him. That’s not what he wants for himself. He is not the male version of me. He’s a musician, and the creative life means a guaranteed amount of struggle and heartache. Every time we meet for lunch, I tell him that I love him, and that I’m proud of him.

Even if my boy’s path never rises out of moshing in the basements of America, that’s got to be O.K., too. There are no conditions placed on unconditional love.