The Problem with Challenges

The great stimulant to creativity is pressing problems. The problem is that in today’s business world people are living in denial. (Sadly most people think that denial is a river in Egypt, as Zig Ziglar said). They are in denial that problems exists. ‘Problem’, is a dirty word. So you can’t say to your boss, ‘I have a problem’, you have to say, ‘I have a challenge’. The problem is, though, that you don’t have a challenge, you have a problem.

Climbing Mount Everest is a challenge; you don’t have to do it. You can rise to the challenge or let it go. So if you had a challenge you don’t actually need to tell your boss, you could just let it go. But if your challenge is really a problem then you can’t let it go. A problem is different. A problem needs a solution and like a mathematical problem, there is always a solution.

Softening words in this way doesn’t help. People may think it’s positive thinking but it’s not. It’s denial. Positive thinking is about seeing the world as it really is and acting accordingly. Real positive thinking does not deny that there are weeds in your garden. If the weeds are a challenge then you could simply decide that you don’t really want to face them. If the weeds are a problem then you have to decide what the solution is.

Positive thinking lets you survey the reality of the weeds and plan the best way of pulling them up without dwelling on the fact.

‘Problem’ is not a dirty word. It is a proud and honourable word. Face your problems with pride, confidently, expectantly, with the attitude that there exists a logical, practical solution just waiting to be found. The most creative people have a relaxed attitude of confident expectancy that causes their minds to function in original and imaginative ways. Face up to the problem and focus on finding the solution.

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But is it Art?

So many people use the concept of creativity interchangeably with art. But creativity is not art. Art is one of the uses of creativity. When asked to make a list of highly creative works, people might list the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Milton’s Paradise Lost. These are all recognised works of art but only a small subset of human creativity. Inventions, solving social problems to form civilisation, engaging in business and finance and the exploration of the natural world all require and utilise creativity.

Here’s my definition of creativity:

perception + decision + action = creativity.

It’s about taking action on an idea that has been formed from observation and decision. So invention, problem solving, scientific discovery and art all fit in the subset of creativity. But what is this thing called art, especially in a modern world where the likes of Damien Hirst present half a cow in formaldehyde.

One dictionary definition of art states it is the product of human creative skill appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotive power. Well that takes care of paintings, music and books. But what about dead cows? Is Hirst being extra creative by bending the boundaries of what’s acceptable? If the dead cow is lying in a field or hanging up in an abattoir it certainly isn’t a work of art. But if a human makes a choice, a decision to do something particular with it and then actually follows through and acts on it, then it can claim to be art. So art has to have human intervention.

The action required to make something art is the act of putting it in a ‘frame’ of some description. In effect by pointing it out as art it becomes art. A buttercup can’t be art when it’s in a field, or even when it’s picked. But if it’s pressed and displayed, it’s had the injection of human interaction then perhaps it can become art. A sunset cannot be art, no mater how beautiful or awe inspiring. A photograph or painting of it can.

My Apple Mac computer is an aesthetically pleasing thing. Is it a work of art? I would say no, it is not. Neither is a Range Rover. However they are both wonderful pieces of design. But place either one of them in an art gallery (as they both have been) and they become works of art in that moment.

Design is applied art. Both the Mac and the Range Rover have function as well as aesthetic properties. They have both form and function. Good design is described as something where the form follows the function. That’s why people regard the iPod as good design. It is small, it has a screen and a click-wheel interface; it is simple. There are no features on its form that are extraneous to its designed function; it has no ‘go faster stripes’. Its casing is not aerodynamically streamlined like some of its competitors because its function is not to fly through the air but to be held in the hand and put in the pocket. Its form follows that function.

Art, on the other hand, has no function, or if it has, the function is removed once it becomes the art; the Range Rover is a luxury 4×4 off road vehicle which becomes an exhibit, a sculpture, when placed behind the guide ropes in the gallery.

So by our definition here, art requires human intervention. This means that computers cannot create art and neither can chimps or elephants. If they do produce a painting or piece of music it is not art until the point that a human puts it on a pedestal or in a frame and defines it as such. A dog might think that it has forged a wonderful helical sculpture from its own scented abdominal putty on the pavement but it is actually a pile of poo.

Can a computer or an animal really be creative? I would argue that, for now, a computer cannot. The current processors in all our modern computers work by carrying out a single process one at a time and processing them in a sequential, logical order. This is how the left hemisphere of the human brain works. A computer can only run a program that it has been given. A program can even have a random factor entered into it, but it is still a program, written by a human. It is still the human being creative. It’s a bit like loading a paintbrush with paint and shaking it at a canvas which gives an interesting stipple effect. No-one would think it was the brush that created the painting. It was the combination of the laws of the behaviour of liquids and gravity set in motion by the hand of the artist.

There are a few documented examples of apes fashioning simple tools, or learning to wash their food where one individual finds a better way of doing something and the rest adopt it. There is no proof however that any animal has ever created a work of art, that is a creation that has no function, only form. There are many beautiful animal creations but they all have a clear functional purpose.

There is an argument that mankind’s ‘art’, that is pure form, is actually a recent phenomenon. Ancient art from cave paintings, inscriptions in Egypt though to Renaissance paintings all had a function, to either capture history or to inspire religious or spiritual feelings. Perhaps human art began as a communion with the gods, with the ancestors or with the future. Perhaps only in the modern, materialistic age has art become cut off from the sacred.

But there will always be the sacred in all art and in all creative endeavor. By creating we mimic the work of the great Creator, adding something new to the universe, lifting ourselves up from instinct and survival to become, potentially god-like and eternal.

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Oh No, Not the Paper-Clip

How many non-uses of a paper-clip can you think of? Most people find this quite hard which shows they are not fluid at activating the right side of their brain. This is a lateral thinking task because you have to get off the track of thinking of actual uses of a paper-clip. This tests how random you can be.

The task is actually quite easy since there are actually very, very few uses of a paper-clip; to clip paper together and to eject stuck CDs from computers. Almost anything else will do, except people find it so, so difficult! You can’t fly to the moon on a paper-clip. You can’t marry a paper-clip. You can’t use a paper-clip to teach snails quantum physics. One of the reasons people freeze up and can’t think of anything, especially in groups, is that someone has said something clever, witty or particlularly good so now they have to compete with that. No. When generating ideas you do not compete with anyone. The point is not to outdo one another or try to be funny or clever. The point is to come up with ideas.

You cannot use a paper-clip to solve world povety…. hang on, perhaps you can. If we do this…. and this… and suddenly a brave new idea has been found that changes the world. And all because ‘judgement’ such as ‘that won’t work, that’s stupid’ has been turned off. Try it yourself.

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Think the Right Way

Some people think they’re a left brainer, “I’m a left brainer,” they say, “I deal with computers, I deal with numbers. I get things organised, I turn up on time. I’m always smart. I’ve always got a pen. I’m a left brainer. I’m not an art-farty right brainer, wasting everybody’s time.”

Some people think that creativity is purely a right brain activity. Some think they’re right brain people and say “Well I’m an artist, I don’t have to turn up on time, I’m not interested, I like being in a mess, I do what I like because I’m an artist and I don’t have to wear a suit. Just don’t ask me to add anything up.”

Well they’re both wrong because we use both hemispheres of our brain all the time. If you really did use just your left brain you would be autistic. If you use just your right brain you would be in a mental hospital. What is really going on is that one hemisphere directs thinking for a particular task (not for a particular individual). The left brain dominates logical thinking, the concept of time, names for things and processes in a linear way. The right brain dominates language and meaning, opertaing in a holistic way. But the two always work together – and must do for you to function.

It’s important that we understand the specialisms of the hemispheres so that we know when it’s appropriate to use left-brain or right-brain directed thinking for a particular task. Let’s have a more detailed look:

Left Brain = Linear, Logical and Sequential
Right Brain = Holistic, Intuitive and Random

The left-brain does things in straight lines (linear) with no deviation. It processes in a logical fashion. It does one thing after another (sequential), one thing at a time. This is exactly how a computer works. The left brain is perfect for knowledge based tasks and since we’ve just come through the Industrial and Information ages, left-brain thinking has, quite rightly, dominated business in the west for a century and a half.

The right-brain looks at the big picture (holistic). This is why a large proportion of successful entrepreurs are creative right-brain directed thinkers. You need to be able to think holistically and see the big picture to have a business plan. The right-brain makes unusual links between disparate ideas (intuition). It carries out processes in a non-sequential order. There may be a pattern, but it won’t be A to B to C. In fact the right brain is a pattern generating and pattern recognising machine.

The left-brain is interested in utility, the right-brain in significance. So the left-brain is ‘function’, the right brain is ‘form’. In business this has a wider implication. When anyone is taught how to sell they are told something very important: sell the benefits, not the features. Few people are interested in how ABS brakes work on a car or even what ABS stands for. They don’t care if they have got ABS brakes or not. But when you tell them that ABS brakes stop your brakes from locking and going into a skid, that ABS brakes will save their life in an emergency stop, that’s a benefit. You sell the benefit and leave the technical description of the features to the appendix at the back of the brochure. A benefit is really ‘so what does that mean?’.

This shows that it’s the right brain that we appeal to when selling, in most people. People want meaning and significance in their lives, in the products they buy and in the services they use. Does your offering appeal to this need or are you trapped in left-brain directed thinking all the time and wonder why your service doesn’t connect with people or that you can’t think of new ideas?

Many business tasks need to be directed by right-brain thinking in the new Conceptual Age: marketing, sales, brainstorming, product development, human resources, lean productivity and customer service to name but a few.

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Creating Brain Waves

When the brain is most creative it is able to form new associations between disparate ideas. When you alter your attitude, what you do with your body and what you choose to focus on, you’re actually altering the frequency of your brain waves. There are several characteristic electroencephalogram waveforms, or electromagnetic oscillations, associated with various sleep and wakefulness states:

A gamma wave is a pattern of brain waves associated with perception and consciousness. Gamma waves are produced when masses of neurons emit electrical signals at the rate of between 26 and 70 times a second (‘times a second’ is frequency, measured in hertz or Hz). Research has shown gamma waves are continuously present during the process of awakening and during active rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Beta waves occur above 12 Hz. Beta states are the states associated with normal waking consciousness, mostly active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration.
Alpha waves are in the range of 8-12 Hz and signify periods of relaxation, with eyes closed but still awake.

Theta waves operate between 4 and 8 Hz and are found during some sleep states, in states of quiet focus like meditation and memory tasks. They reflect the on-line state of the brain in readiness to process information.

A delta wave is a large, slow (2 Hz or less) brain wave and is usually associated with deep sleep.

So to summarise:
Gamma = perception, conciousness and dream sleep
Beta = concentration, wakefulness
Alpha = relaxation
Theta = meditation and creative thinking
Delta = deep sleep

EEG Biofeedback Training is a learning strategy that enables people to alter their brain waves by getting a feedback of their present state. Some psychologists have set up biofeedback specifically to enable patients to enter the much rarer theta brain wave state to utilise creative thinking. They do it by monitoring the brain using electrodes. The patient sits relaxed and wears headphones. If the machine registers alpha waves it plays the relaxing sound of a babbling brook. If it registers theta waves the sound changes to crashing waves which enhances the meditative state. The system forces the patient to relax further and enter theta wave thought.

What is happening in theta wave state is that the brain has slowed down. This slower thinking allows connections to be made between more distant connections in the brain that normal gamma and beta wave thought hasn’t got time to access. This really means that it allows the time for distant, perhaps long out of use memory to be brought to conscious attention allowing older unconnected images to be recontexualised with newer thoughts. This is the creative process.

How can you access your theta wave brain state? Is there something you can do or someplace you can go? In your creative state you will find the solutions to your problems, you’ll be able to think of new ideas and better was of doing things. Can you find time during a busy day to meditate? Can you really afford not to?

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