Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees

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As an avid gadget glutton, an app junkie, and a man with a systemic inflammatory condition that might have crippled him if not for modern medicine, it’s safe to say I have a healthy dose of love and admiration for the achievements of science. My words are being beamed to you in glorious HTML because science has soundly routed superstition as a way of understanding how things work.

Science or, to be more precise, the scientific method, have brought material benefits to the human species that are unmatched by any other development in the history of our species. If you are alive today, it is almost invariably the case that you would not be if not for something brought to you by the application of methodical, rational, evidence-based thinking.

But what a lot of us fail to notice as we appreciate science is that the non-scientific elements of culture have been just as important in their own way. The debate about whether arts or sciences are more important is one of the many stupid arguments that we like to occupy ourselves with when the obvious answer is that one without the other would be unthinkable.

Or in the words of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Sadly, we do find ourselves having to defend the importance and value of the arts

Unless you happen to be talking to some climate change-denying, evolution-doubting, MySpace-using Luddite, you will rarely have to defend the importance and value of science. Sadly, we do find ourselves having to defend the importance and value of the arts. And by arts here, I mean all pursuits that are not science.

Let’s take a moment to consider how utterly poverty stricken life would be without historians, graphic designers, chefs, hair stylists, comedians, novelists, museum curators, mixologists and the rest. These people who don’t wave data in our faces to justify their existence with some faux appeal to scientific legitimacy.

And that is in stark contrast to other often deeply useful professions who do, in fact, try to dress up like science in the hopes we won’t notice. I’m looking at you, the education system, recruitment consultants, Human Resources technocrats, stock market traders, talent management consultants, management in general. The list goes on.

I see you people with your mystery metrics and your supposedly solid but solidly sloppy questionnaires and surveys promising to analyse in some testable, repeatable fashion an irreducibly complex object.

You’re trying to look scientific because you think that’s what you need to do

I see you. I see your bullshit. And you know what, I feel sorry for you (OK, not the stock market traders, nobody likes you) because most of you don’t even smell the shit you’re shovelling. You’re trying to look scientific because you think that’s what you need to do. You’re denying the authentic art of your work in order to play dress-up as some sort of parody of science. And many of you who do realise it’s bullshit feel trapped and unable to call it out.

You don’t need to do this. You don’t need to pretend. What you do isn’t a science and it doesn’t have to be. But this column isn’t about you. It was going to be but then events overtook me.

You see, I believe that if you want to get creative then you have to get comfortable with the idea that you’re no longer dealing in the safe and secure world of demonstrable evidence, reproducible results, and meaningful metrics – the stuff we commonly associate with science. You’re in the land of complexity and uncertainty, where your gut can tell you more than your reason can and where a system built to deal only with the predictable is worse than useless.

It is now more important than ever to embrace our humanity

In this land transformed by science, it is now more important than ever to embrace our humanity. And just last week, Dave Birss, my colleague and the chap who runs this site told you all to think like robots. [Always happy for a bit of dissent and debate – Ed.]

If you’ve read my work here so far it should be abundantly clear to you that I am not the sort of man who’s afraid to ruffle feathers, so what sort of self-respecting smart arse and trouble maker would I be if I left this unchallenged? Just because I know, like and respect Dave – and because he gets to decide if this gets published or not – should I meekly nod along?

Honestly I would neither respect nor recognise myself if I did.

So here goes.

I think Dave’s piece is wrong in two ways

I think Dave’s piece, which you can find here, is wrong in two ways. Firstly he incorrectly argues that humans are naturally averse to new ideas.

“Ideas that are fresh and original will naturally make people feel uncomfortable.”

Untrue. [Not quite as happy as I thought I’d be about dissent and debate – Ed.]

When you’re talking about psychology you have to be bloody careful using words like “natural” because whether you like or dislike a particular thing, whether it is exciting or scary, intriguing or off-putting, is going to come down greatly to both your environmental conditioning and your current attitude.

Ergo, those who feel uncomfortable around fresh and original ideas have learned to feel that way and chosen to respond as such.

Those who feel uncomfortable around fresh and original ideas have learned to feel that way

That feeling in your gut is just a sensation and it is there as a guide to your attention, not to tell you what to do.

Dave even goes so far as to allude to this in his piece, the idea that you search for justification for your physiological response and then decide how you feel. This is called the Two Factor Theory. How do you know that the feeling in your stomach is excitement and not fear? You look around you. Do you see something that you have learned to fear? Then you’re probably afraid. Best run away!

If you don’t like fresh, original ideas then that’s not because you’re human. It’s because you’ve developed a negative relationship with creativity.

Based on this error, Dave concludes that you should “Judge good ideas like a robot.”

If this were a movie it would be Bad Boys 2 because shit just got real

If this were a movie it would be Bad Boys 2 because shit just got real. Please, I beg you, do not follow this advice. [Oh, hold on a minute – Ed.]

Dave does place this in the context of a brief and having specific objectives to judge an idea against but when looking at how an idea matches a brief we are still left to make calls based on insight, intuition, taste and feel; human traits. You could try to judge a creative idea like a robot but that would only lead you to the next version of whatever came before. When dealing with the truly new a robot is just a tin can with a face.

Robots are great at doing what they are told to do (fun fact, the word “robot” means slave) but they are stupid, inflexible and rigid. They are the embodiment of the very thing that has destroyed creativity in the workplace.

Not that businesses really do judge creative ideas like robots would but that we have convinced ourselves that it is desirable and even possible to do so. I’ve seen many businesses that seem to believe that the best way to be a professional is to pretend to be robots and it is crushing to watch what this does to the humans who work there.

And where has all this pretending to be like robots got us? Business processes that ask for long statistical evidence-based justifications for ideas that you can’t even properly put into words. Projects that are dropped because we cannot show with past examples that they would work (hint: new ideas don’t come with historical presidents). Truly unique thinkers who are loaded with unreasonable requirements for evidence before they can even be heard, forcing them either to bury their creative abilities or leave.

We have built a world where businesses have a relationship with creativity much like one has a relationship with a former spouse after a messy divorce; mediated by expensive lawyers, encumbered with strict rules, and littered with ill-advised drunken hookups.

You’re not a robot and that’s a good thing. You’re a human and you have super powers you are hardly aware of.

“I’ve seen an agent punch through a concrete wall; men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air; yet, their strength, and their speed, are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong, or as fast, as you can be.”
– Morpheus, The Matrix

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We don’t need robots to appreciate creativity for us. That’s what humans are for. To become a great judge of creative ideas you need to do the exact opposite of what Dave has advised: instead of pretending to be a robot, get better at being a human.

Get in touch with your feelings and use them. Understand what fear really means and follow it to see what it’s teaching you. Get better at noticing curiosity and excitement alongside that fear. Pump up your empathy and imagination. Ask better questions, not only of the information at hand but of your emotional responses.

Instead of pretending to be a robot, get better at being a human

In short: have a stronger relationship with creativity!

Does that mean we throw rationality under the bus? Of course not. Public transport is bad enough as it is. Besides, you do need to exercise reason as part of being a creative human. But it is the interplay between reason and emotion, between what we can explain and what we cannot, that makes humans the amazing creatures we are. We’ve spent so long designing our working lives around what machines are good at that we have begun to forget that humans are pretty special too.

The computers may be coming for our jobs. A day may come when a machine will defeat a human at a creative task as soundly as they now regularly batter us at Chess but… to end with the words of the immortal Tolkien…

“…it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight!”

[I’m glad this article is over. I’ll just be over there, crying in the corner. – Ed.]

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Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees As an avid gadget glutton, an app junkie, and a man with a systemic inflammatory condition that might have crippled him if not for modern medicine, it's safe to say I have a healthy dose of love and admiration for the achievements...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.