Insights into the creative process: A Q&A with illustrator/writer Mike Lowery

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The lines between author and reader are maybe not as sharply drawn as they used to be. Book 1 of Mike Lowery’s Doodle Adventures is a great example. “You draw the story!” the book’s cover tells us. And so we do…

But what’s the story behind the story?

Just as Lowery asks his young readers to pledge to “finish this book to get our heroes home safe at the end,” I asked him to pledge to freely improvise answering questions about his own creative journeys.

Lowery_oath

Each of the 8 questions I posed to him draw upon the science-based way of thinking about innovative thought and action that we develop in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. You can find the Q & A here.

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. . . .

 

“for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works . . . ”

cultivating creative thinking

A strong review of Innovating Minds — just out in the American Psychological Association’s journal PsycCRITIQUES (February 2016). Written by Professor Liane Gabora, an expert in creativity research, here are a few of her review comments that really popped out for us:

  • “. . . an exciting new framework for thinking about creativity and fueling innovative change in the world.”
  • “Although the basic concept of adaptively moving in abstraction space is not new, the authors do an unprecedented job of exploring its implications for fostering creative thinking and bringing about innovative change.”
  • “. . . the authors do an excellent job of coming up with interesting and potentially effective exercises for altering and playing with the way in which you think about creative problems and tasks.”
  • “. . . because of its readability, I would also recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in how the creative process works or for someone who wants to kickstart his or her own creative juices.”

“A mosaic of creative approaches” — our book recommended in CHOICE.

We just heard from our publisher that our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change was reviewed — and recommended — in the February 2016 issue of Choice, published by the American Library Association.

Professor Bernard Beins of Ithaca College began his review: “In judging whether creative problem solving is inborn or learned, Koutstaal (Univ. of Minnesota) and Binks (a specialist in organizational innovation) come down firmly on the side of learned.” And he concludes: “Ultimately, this book is useful for identifying a mosaic of creative approaches rather than suggesting that there is a single simplistic, but unrealistic, formula.”

We’re pleased that he captured both the key insights and nuances of our book such as the “complex dynamics” involved in creativity, especially with its “simultaneously moving parts.”

A Book Review of Innovating Minds

We thought we’d let you know that Susan K. Perry recently reviewed Innovating Minds on her Psychology Today blog. We think she really “gets it.” She talks about the need for adapting our cognitive control on a moment-to-moment basis to best meet our current creative challenges. And she underscores that our goals need “elbow room.”

Here’s some of what she wrote in her post “5 Fresh Ways to Meet the Challenge of Creativity”:

“Another book about how to be more creative? There’s always room for a good one. . . . This isn’t by any means a simple self-help-ish sort of book, but rather a scientifically sound system for enhancing creativity.”

She then deftly summarizes five key take-away points. Here’s her point number one:

“1. ‘Detail stepping’ is the process by which we move up and down in our levels of abstraction as we develop and expand our unfolding ideas. Avoid the risk of overvaluing abstraction. That is, particulars and concreteness are at least as important as getting the big picture and seeing larger patterns.”

For more, see her blog post here.

Innovating Minds is now available!—A few book updates

Our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change is now available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Oxford University Press, and other booksellers.

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Here’s some advance praise for the book:

“I love this book. It is intellectually satisfying, eminently practical, and beautifully presented. I cannot think of another book that appreciates how much of creativity is due to individual and institutional choice. That choice is to engage in specific, well-founded strategies that increase the chances of success. Instead of succumbing to the belief that creativity is the province of exceptional individuals, the authors deliver scientifically tested strategies we can all use. Even better, they explain why the strategies work. Readers will be able to generate their own creative ways to increase their creativity. It is hard to do better than that.”
DANIEL SCHWARTZ, Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology, Stanford University

“Innovation is central to implementing corporate responsibility, sustainability, and change leadership. Societies and organizations direly need new theories and action to make real progress on persistent wicked problems. The new integrative framework in this stimulating book, incorporating the latest insights and research from fields ranging from neuroscience to empathic design, will be as useful to start-up and multinational businesses as it will be to non-profits and governments searching for creative solutions to ongoing challenges. I could have used it in my own prior leadership activities, and certainly will use it in my current activities and teaching.”
CHIP PITTS, Former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia, Inc. and Former Chair of Amnesty International, USA

A “TALENT” for creativity

Here’s our interpretation of what it means to have a “TALENT” for creativity:

TALENT=

Tenacity (revealed through iterative prototyping, experimenting, resilience)

Absorption (staying in the present, avoiding distraction)

Long-term goals (stretching ourselves, endorsing creativity as an explicit goal—in line with our enduring values)

Emotions (recognizing emotions as providing valuable guiding information, maintaining a balance between eager optimism and cautious skepticism)

Noticing (paying attention to small details and general patterns, heedfully “taking care” in our creative contexts)

Telling (giving and receiving feedback, communicating verbally, visually, gesturally)

Innovating Minds – coming mid-September 2015!

Innovating Minds Cover

We expect our new book, based on the latest information from our publisher, to be published and available by mid-September 2015!

You can preorder the book at, for example, Amazon here.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change will be published by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 9780199316021) and is designed to be valuable for readers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, including practitioners as well as students from such fields as the arts, design, education, engineering, management, and the social sciences.

As we explain in the opening sentences of Innovating Minds:

“This book invites us to discover how we can all become more creative thinkers and doers. A central question at the heart of this book is: How can we more flexibly and responsively bring about positive change in our world and in ourselves?

We will ask you to actively work through ideas as, together, we explore a new way of understanding our own and others’ thinking. The science-based ‘thinking framework’ that we will learn can help each of us—as individuals and as groups, teams, or organizations—to be more creative, innovative, and mentally agile.

A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways in which our thinking really works.”

We’ll post updates as we get closer to the publication date.

Here’s more about the book from our publisher:

A groundbreaking, scientific approach to creative thinking

From entrepreneurs to teachers, engineers to artists, almost everyone stands to benefit from becoming more creative. New ways of thinking, making, and imagining have the potential to bring about revolutionary changes to both our personal lives and society as a whole. And yet, the science behind creativity has largely remained a mystery, with few people aware of the ways we can optimize our own creative and innovative ideas.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity To Inspire Change offers a perspective, grounded in science, that allows us to achieve both individual and collective creative goals. Wilma Koutstaal and Jonathan Binks draw upon extensive research from brain, behavioral, and organizational sciences to present a unique five-part “thinking framework” in which ideas are continually refined and developed. Beyond scientific research, Innovating Minds also describes the everyday creative challenges of people from all walks of life, offering insights from dancers, scientists, designers, and architects.

The book shows that creativity is far from a static process; it is steeped with emotion and motivation, involving the dynamic interactions of our minds, brains, and environments. Accordingly, the book challenges readers to put the material into use through thinking prompts, creativity cross-checks, and other activities.

Vibrant and engaging, Innovating Minds reveals a unique approach to harnessing creative ideas and putting them into action. It offers a fascinating exploration of the science of creativity along with new and valuable resources for becoming more innovative thinkers and doers

Our new book, currently in press

Our book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (Oxford University Press) is coming soon. We’ll keep you posted with progress as it moves forward. For now a brief overview from the introduction to the book:

“A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways our thinking really works. Thinking emerges not just from our brain, or from our mind, or from our environments in isolation, but from an ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, mind, and environment. By gaining a better understanding of our thinking (our own and others, across time) we can optimize our “innovating minds”—minds that continually creatively adapt themselves, flexibly building on what they have learned, helping others to do so, and shaping environments that sustain and spur further innovation.

We will learn about the processes of generating and testing ideas, and how ideas lead to yet other ideas. We will see there is not as sharp a divide as might be supposed between thinking and action, or between creating and innovating, but that these cycle together, each informing the other. Creativity and innovation—changing the ways we and other people think about, listen to, look at, or do things, and helping to solve problems (large or small)—rarely happens in a single step or a single moment.”