What keeps us going creatively when the going gets tough? The motivational value of both long-term and short-term goals

Taking our goals in stride . . . Source: Yftaheco via Wikimedia Commons

 

Many of our important projects and goals require extended effort – effort stretched out over long periods of time, from months, to years, or even decades.  What keeps us going on these projects, pursuing our long-term goals, even when, in the short-term, the road ahead seems riddled with bumps and potholes, steep hills to climb, or unanticipated setbacks? you are embarking on an ambitious new creative project – say you want to launch your first solo artist exhibit of paintings or sculptures, or your first interactive video+sound installation, or to publish a substantial written work such as a novel, or an extended theoretical or historical analysis.  Should you set yourself highly specific and concrete attainable goals for each day, or for each week?

But we have many aspirations and hopes – should you be able to tell yourself just why this project is the one you should be taking on right now?  Should you ask yourself what it means for you, or why you’re taking on this big project rather than another one?

There is no single easy answer to these questions.  Most of our goals do not exist on their own, in isolation from other goals, and we can think of our goals in several different ways, each of which can help us with different aspects of our thinking and motivation.  Still, there are some pointers and guidance that research has uncovered.

Let’s look at two common ways of thinking about our goals, and the benefits and possible drawbacks of each. We’ll draw first on the insights from a team of three researchers at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, and then on findings from recent work by researchers working in Canada, at the University of Waterloo.

Goals as hierarchies, or trees

One way we can think about our goals is as trees or structured hierarchies of interconnected aims, with some goals being highly overarching or “superordinate” and others being more narrow, specific, or subordinate “stepping stones” (routes) to other goals.  Superordinate goals often capture the meaning or importance of what we are doing, that is, why we seek to do what we do.  They are often closely linked to our values, or our very broadest aims that span many different contexts or circumstances across our lives and steer our attention, feelings, and choices.  Subordinate goals often delineate the specific methods we need to take to reach a given goal, that is, how we can achieve the desired aim.

So, if we reflect on why we want to launch a new large creative project, we may bring to mind our deep-seated beliefs about why we think creativity is an important or core value for us, such as that we believe we should try to help ourselves and others experience – and make – surprising and beneficial forms of newness in the world.

Some of the ways that bringing to mind our superordinate goals can shape and benefit our thinking and motivation, are pictured below.

Hierarchical goal processes. Source: drawn from Hochli, Brugger, & Messner (2018, Figure 2)

Thinking about our values and our sense of who we are, could strengthen our sense of the meaning and the importance of what we are doing.  Bringing our superordinate goals to mind could also foster a steadying sense of patience – no great creative work of art or science or culture was accomplished without forgoing some shorter-term rewards that loomed alluringly large and attractive in the moment.  It also may encourage us to stay resilient and flexible because we realize that any one concrete shortcoming, any one specific setback, is only that – one among many situations and circumstances.

These may be some of the cognitive and motivational processes that lead to the often-observed beneficial buffering effects of the social-psychological intervention, called “values affirmation” or “self affirmation.”  In values affirmation, individuals under chronic stress or stereotype threat are asked to think about and write about their core values.

Values affirmation has been found to counteract the harmful effects of negative stereotypes on cognitive performance measures, academic outcomes, and health behaviors.  Especially relevant here, values affirmation has also been found to bolster verbal insight problem solving and also boosts nonverbal insight problem solving and abstract relational reasoning.  Several interrelated mechanisms have been proposed to undergird these benefits, including increased resilience, constructively orienting to errors, and regulating negative emotions while staying attuned to big-picture goals.

But does thinking about our goals as hierarchies, ranked by how important they are to us, capture everything we need?  What might it leave out or lead us to overlook?

Goals as networks, or interconnected maps

The importance of a goal is not the only characteristic of our goals that we may want to consider. Exclusively taking a strictly hierarchical picture of our goals, based on their importance, may make it difficult to see other significant interrelations between them.  For this reason, it may also be valuable to think of our goals as forming a network, or an interconnected map.  In this network, goals that are closely related to one another would appear next to each other, and goals that are important to us would have more connections than other goals.

 

Schematic network model of goals. Source: Wilma Koutstaal

Take the goal of doing well as a student.  Some of a student’s goals will relate to the courses and coursework she has, when each assignment is due, how complex the assignments are, and how much uncertainty she has about the time and effort required to complete them.  Other goals of the student will focus on her relationships with family, peers, or roommates and activities she engages in with them.  In addition, the student may have goals related to leisure, volunteer work, sports activities, or other extracurriculars; and also her daily living arrangements relating to shopping, cooking, cleaning, sleeping, etc.

Thinking of your varied and various goals in this way, and placing them next-to-next in an association-based networked map, may call your attention to subtle or nonobvious interconnections that you hadn’t noticed before.  Indeed, researchers have suggested that this way of picturing our goals may be especially beneficial for sparking what they call “integrative” creative thinking.  This form of thinking draws heavily on associative processes, and may be a form of creativity that involves especially frequent and repeated shifts between divergent and convergent creative processes.

To test this goal-network idea in relation to integrative creative thinking, the researchers asked 191 undergraduate students to complete a paper-and-pencil booklet visualizing their goals for university success.  The students were randomly assigned to sketch out their goals for succeeding at university in one of three ways:

(1) using a hierarchical map – with a clear ordering structure, where the higher-order goals are superior to, and encompass, the lower-order ones, and where lower-order goals may be the means to achieve higher-order goals

(2) using an interconnected network – with goals that are closely related to one another forming clusters, and goals that are more important having more connections

(3) using a series of steps – with goals organized along a timeline, such that achieving a goal at a later point in time depends on achieving goals at earlier points in time.

To test the students’ “integrative” creativity, they were challenged with a creative story re-writing task.  In the story re-writing task, students first read a short summary of the fairytale about Snow White, and then were asked “using their wildest imagination” to rewrite the story – developing an entirely new version of the story.  Four raters, blind to the participant’s condition, rated the creativity of the stories.

As they had hypothesized, the goal-network approach gave the greatest boost to creativity.  The goal-network group showed the highest amount of integrative creativity on the story re-writing task.  Other analyses suggested that this boost did not seem to come about because of differences in the number of goals generated for the different goal-mapping groups or other factors.

What should we make of all this?  Some questions to think about…

We must not draw strong conclusions about creative processes from any one empirical study or any one theoretical perspective on the nature of goals.  Still, there are reasons to think that there are benefits to both thinking of our goals in terms of our values and a hierarchy of their importance, as well as in terms of how our many goals interrelate with each other.

Putting together these recent exploratory forays into how we can and do think about our goals, seems to give rise to many new questions:

  • How often are we aware of the ways in which we are picturing our goals? If we find ourselves “creatively stuck” (or otherwise stuck in our thinking) can we intentionally prompt ourselves to try adopting a different model of our goals to propel ourselves forward both cognitively and motivationally?
  • What type of goal model do you most often assume when thinking about your aims and aspirations?How do your different ways of picturing your goals shape or channel your creative processes?
  • How might you change the structure, or content, of how you think about your goals to more strongly foster your patience and persistence when the road ahead looks steep, or steeped in uncertainty?
  • If you were asked to draw three different network maps of your goals, each showing different interrelations, or different vantage points on your goals, what goals would appear as important in each of the different networks?
  • Are there any goals that are no longer “really yours” – that have become disjoined from other goals, or replaced, or merged into new aims?
  • What are your “F.I.R.S.T” goals — For the long-term, Individualized, Recurring,Superordinate, and Thematic?

 

References

Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–371.

Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M. P., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PLoS ONE, 8, Article e62593, 1–7.

Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2018). How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: A theoretical perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1879, 1–14.

Kung, F. Y. H., & Scholer, A. A. (2018). A network model of goals boosts convergent creativity performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1910, 1–12.

Wen, M-C., Butler, L. T., & Koutstaal, W. (2013). Improving insight and non-insight problem solving with brief interventions. British Journal of Psychology, 104, 97–118.

 

How’s your robot feeling today?

Two poses of the robot Nao.

 

Soon social and assistive robots will become ever more a part of our lives. They could be in our homes, our hospitals, and our schools, helping us with childcare, elderly care, in rehabilitation from injury or disease, and as social and assistive aids in all sorts of capacities.

But how much do we know about the psychology of our interactions with robots? What should any one social or assistive robot look like? How should it move and react to us –– and to what sorts of information? Should it appear to show “emotions” and be responsive to our own emotions? How much like a person should an assistive robot be? How innovative can we be in designing robots to be responsive assistants and sure supports including in times of stress or in tension-fraught situations?

Let’s take a look at two different recent research studies that explore how we understand and respond to expressions of emotion in robots. . . .

—> See: How do we Read Emotions in Robots: Of social robots, innovation spaces, and creatively finding things out.

Getting your creative pacing right

Mountain bikers descending a ridge in the steep hills of the English Lake District. Source: Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.

Mountain bikers descending a ridge in the steep hills of the English Lake District.
Source: Mick Garratt via Wikimedia Commons.

 

What pacing best allows your creative process the space and freedom it needs?

What is the pace of your creative projects?  When starting a new project, do you dive in right from the start, intensively working on it?  Is there a steep climb in your efforts followed by a lull, during which you direct your efforts elsewhere?  Then is it back uphill again as the next project milestone approaches?  Or do you take a slow-but-steady approach, regularly working on the project until it’s done and the deadline arrives?

What might be some of the benefits of an intense start, followed by a lull, when working on a creative project?

For more see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201612/deadlines-and-the-pacing-creative-projects

New ways to think about how to turn limitations into helpful guides and goads

All of us have deadlines and limitations on how much money, time, and other resources we have for our creative projects.

We can see these constraints as irksome or anxiety provoking, and this they sometimes are! But is this our only option?

In the words of musician Joe Henry: “You don’t have endless resources and endless time. I don’t see that as an obstruction. Instead, I see it as something else that’s guiding us.”

Sometimes what we see as blocking our way can be just what we need to creatively guide us forward. . .

For how constraints can be both guides and goads, see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: Corner Flags, Constraints, and Creativity.

Our constraints can be seen as "corner flags." Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

Our constraints can be seen as “corner flags.” Image source: Idlir Fida via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

“Let’s find our own thing”

cafe

A recent interview with the award-winning chef and restaurateur Alex Roberts was rich in wisdom on the creative process. The long-time owner of Twin Cities-based Restaurant Alma and Brasa and the forthcoming Café Alma spoke with the Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson.

Here we interweave some of Alex Roberts’s thoughts (in bold italics) with a few of our own (in regular text).

“I’m trying to create a new definition of what a cafe is.”

A café is a category of possible things, and like all categories somewhat pliable. Categories aren’t completely rigid, so that’s our invitation to play with them and give them new slants of meaning. And the categories we use to think about objects, places, and events can go through cycles of re-envisioning and revisiting, based on meldings of other — real and imagined — times and places.

“. . . that’s one of my disciplines, to choose the thought that’s more about the possibility.”

Even though there’s nearly always a more conventional or negative interpretation available to us, we’re not compelled to choose that interpretation. We can choose to give optimism a place to grow and thrive.

“The relevancy and resiliency combination are maybe the biggest challenge for restaurants.”

How do restaurants stay relevant — across the entire day and throughout the year? And how do they, at the same time, maintain their resilience across setbacks, recessions, shifting demographics, or fluctuating trends? Staying both relevant and resilient is a large part of an organization’s so-called absorptive capacity.

Whether large or small, organizations need to be receptive to changes and emerging new knowledge and capabilities around them in order to stay relevant. By constantly learning, an organization stays resilient, bouncing back better from setbacks, and turning what would otherwise be liabilities into assets.

“To be honest, the constraints around the [small kitchen] space have forced us to be creative and collaborative to make it work.”

Constraints and creativity go hand in hand. Indeed, one group of neuroscientists recently defined creativity as “novel generation fitted to the constraints of a particular task.”

“The good stuff in life comes from between the lines. It’s about enjoying the process and not just the end result. That’s what we try to foster here, otherwise you’re always living in the future, and not in the moment.”

So wise! We can always ask “so what?” but very often much of the true meaning of our projects and endeavors is in the concrete doing and making itself.

“I was looking for inspiration, but I realized that I was losing this thread that was running through me. That is, my own vision. For better, or worse. So I started sitting down with a blank piece of paper — or an old menu, since they reflect our past — and try to create from there.”

What’s being described here is, in part, what the pioneering dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.” Others call it searching or scouting. Whichever term you prefer, it’s important to experiment to uncover those methods of search that best work for you — more often leading you to high caliber ideas.

Turning to an old printed menu or two from the restaurant, is also, in part, what we in Innovating Minds call “wise repeating.” The best ideas are not always completely new but can be variations on, or contain traces of, your own earlier tried and true ideas.

“I’m trying not to be so inward that I’m stuck in my own world, but you want to have this authentic process. Let’s find our own thing.”

Yes, yes, “let’s find our own thing” and our own “authentic process(es)” for getting there. . . .

 

Can we train ourselves to be more mentally flexible?

There is not one single master key for sustaining mental agility. Source: Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons

There is not one single master key for sustaining mental agility. Source: Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons

 

What keeps us mentally agile? Can we train ourselves to be more mentally flexible?

There is continued debate on whether more narrowly focused forms of “brain training” on specific tasks are actually beneficial. Often the training simply enhances performance on the trained-on task itself, with little effect carrying over to unrelated tasks. And some claims for the benefits of narrowly focused brain training are exaggerated and misleading. However, it’s not all pessimistic.

There is growing hope, based on a wide range of theoretical and empirical findings in humans (e.g., Karr et al., 2014) and other animals (e.g., Kempermann, 2012)) that creatively combining different types of cognitive training can work — especially if the training includes novelty and variety.

Creativity packets

Consider what seems to be a relatively simple and straightforward task. You are given a few dozen multi-colored pipe cleaners, and asked to use them to create a small vase filled with flowers. . . .

For more see Wilma’s Psychology Today blog post: “Being Creative about Staying Creative.”

Salt and sharing

Situated on the Lower Manhattan waterfront, near Hudson River Park, the new Spring Street Salt Shed can hold up to 5,000 tons of de-icing road salt.

But it’s no ordinary “shed.”

Taking inspiration from the crystalline form of salt itself, the 69-foot tall building evokes other analogies. As David W. Dunlap of The New York Times describes it: “Folded, creased, dimpled and chamfered, its windowless, enigmatic facade is like a monumental work of origami.”

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

A macro shot of salt crystals taken in the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Source: w?odi via Wikimedia

And it doesn’t stand alone.

Partnered with a five-story, 425,000-square-foot New York City Department of Sanitation garage, also designed by Dattner Architects with WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the two buildings share more than proximity.

The buildings share a palpable sense of responsibility for their role in their neighborhoods. Let us count (some of) the ways:

  • the garage has a sound-blocking curtain wall for noise reduction
  • to stay in tune with surrounding buildings, the garage’s height was kept low, retaining the character of the neighborhood
  • topped with a “green roof” the LEED-certified garage offers, along with energy and environmental benefits, visual pleasure for those who overlook it from nearby buildings
  • along the street, the Salt Shed’s walls gently taper in, providing ample pedestrian space
  • inside, too, there’s consideration for multiple stakeholders as the garage includes a gym for employees and a central staircase invites them to opt to take the stairs rather than energy-intensive elevators (it’s part of the NYC Active Design program)
  • from a broader perspective, the integration of important utility buildings throughout the city reduces undue burdens on any one area, while also minimizing vehicle miles, with corresponding improvements in air quality

Similarly, how could your next creative project synergistically incorporate the values of “sharing” across a range of dimensions and constraints: aesthetics, sustainability, health and well-being, efficiency, collective responsibility and “neighborliness”? . . .

“Goal tuning” at Apple, Inc.

How do Apple’s major products relate to one another in a logical and practical way? And how does Apple seek to ensure compelling functions for each of their devices, large and small?

In a recent interview Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, spelled out a deceptively simple logic for how Apple’s products all work together—almost like a set of inter-nested Russian dolls:

“The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook.”

Following the logic through, the function of the iMac desktop computer must then be to surpass the roles of its smaller siblings: “Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities,” said Schiller.

How might we think of this approach in terms of what we, in Innovating Minds, call goal tuning?

The Five Interrelated Components of Goal Tuning

The Five Interrelated Components of Goal Tuning

 

Clearly, it’s an example of goal synergy—purposefully pursuing multiple goals as interconnected. The addition of new players such as the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro are instances of “goal making/goal finding” and “goal updating” as the new products emerged, in part, from concrete insights gained from using the other devices. Their approach also helps with knowing which future and long-term goals should be endorsed (and articulated).

—> For additional background

Steven Levy, “The Inside Story of Apple’s New iMacs,” Backchannel

“Ever-Renewing Goals and Keeping Our Aims in View,” in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change, pages 212—231

Agile music-making

We may have encountered the term “embodied cognition” in recent research showing the surprising interrelations of our minds and brains with our bodies—but here’s a twist.

How might the tuxedo and formal apparel of a violinist in a symphony orchestra detract from their freedom of movement, active expression, and basic physical comfort?

Although creating an experience of ethereal beauty, performing classical music can be sweaty work. In the words of one concert violinist after playing Berlioz’s epically passionate Symphonie Fantastique: “We were sweating through our undershirts, through our tuxedo shirts. My bow tie was completely soaked.”

agile_music_making

Must this be in the 21st century?

By evening a concert violinist, by day an entrepreneurial Dallas businessman, Kevin Yu after his morning run found himself wondering why couldn’t formal concert garb be more like athletic wear?

That was the start of an idea whose time had surely come. Yu soon began prototyping new forms of tuxedo shirts made of fabric that was accommodating, moisture-wicking, and flexible just like his running gear. Although he tried to keep his prototypes under wraps—word soon spread and orders and requests poured in.

As Yu’s friend a Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster mused: “You kind of wonder why it didn’t exist in the marketplace to begin with . . . A lot of us just took it for granted: that that’s the way it had to be because that’s the way it always was.”

What else in our worlds might be just like this. . . .

 

—> For more background and the quotations cited above see:

Michael Cooper, Taking the starch out of concert attire, The New York Times, August 18, 2015.

Learning to vary: An overlooked avenue to mental flexibility and innovation

It’s easy to repeat. But, we can also ask ourselves to not repeat––and reward ourselves for deliberately varying. Although little recognized, rewarding variability is a powerful shaper of creativity and innovation.

As we will see in Part 4 of our book Innovating Minds:

“Deliberately varying our actions helps to bring different sets of thoughts and procedures close together in time and space within our individual and group idea landscapes. This, in turn, allows us to combine and reconfigure aspects of ideas and ways of doing things to make novel combinations. . . . It is not always an entirely new approach that is needed. Sometimes “repeating with a difference” frees us to see new options.”

Whether shy or bold, lab animals that were rewarded for interacting in different ways with new objects later explored more widely. Trained dolphins, too, that were rewarded for varying showed newly emerging novel behaviors that had never before been seen in dolphins.

In our own creative endeavors we can also prompt ourselves to do things differently within constraints. Some questions we can ask:

How can we better learn to (appropriately) “reinforce variability” in ourselves, and in others?

How might we structure our physical, symbolic, and technological environments to better support “useful” experimentation and variation?

Do we too strongly emphasize minor variability in what we already know and do well, with mostly “known” but smaller rewards (sometimes called “exploitation”)? Do our attempts at minor variations come at the cost of more far-afield, novel, and bold exploration that is more risky and uncertain––but also potentially yields much larger rewards and creative breakthroughs?

What might be some of the cognitive processes that underlie the demonstrated benefits of reinforcing variability? That is: What’s being learned when variability is reinforced? What cognitive and perceptual processes (besides motivational ones) might contribute to the observed effects?

 

–>To further explore routes to greater creative/productive variability in behavior see:

Wilma Koutstaal (2012) The Agile Mind [Learning to vary versus learning to repeat, in chapter 5]  (New York, NY: Oxford University Press) pp. 220-233.

Patricia Stokes (2001). Variability, constraints, and creativity: Shedding light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist, 56 pp. 355-359.

Alison Weiss & Allen Neuringer (2012). Reinforced variability enhances object exploration in shy and bold rats. Physiology & Behavior, 107 pp. 451–457.