Three others hang out with me when I’m painting in our garden. Lester and Mary were around here last year. This year they’ve brought along an oversized teenaged layabout with an annoying voice. Jack is often on his own, but Lester and Mary, who may be married, spend a lot of time strutting about, discussing, among other things, Jack. The parents are a bit co-dependent, but they like each other and seem smugly contented with their day-to-day routine. Lester, Mary and Jack are crows.
Their imminent arrival is often preceded by a loud smack on our patio. Lester and Mary will be dropping beach clams onto our hard tiles and breaking them nicely open, often near to Jack, who has been standing around, grumbling. This act of creativity seems wasted on Jack, as he takes forever to walk over and check out his take-out. No matter what the folks do for Jack, he’s a complainer.
Several years ago, Teresa Amabile, researcher and professor at the Harvard Business School, completed a study which led to “The Six Myths of Creativity.” In it she tore apart six popular ideas: “Creativity only comes from creative types.” “Money is the main creative motivator,” “Time pressure fuels creativity,” “Fear forces breakthroughs,” “Competition beats collaboration,” and “A streamlined organization is a creative organization.”
Amabile opts for more immediate and joyful creative motivators. In the business of money, for example, she found that reward didn’t count as much as most people think. It seems folks get creatively engaged when they have a sense of playful progress. “People are most creative when they care about their work and they’re stretching their skills,” she says. And it happens over a period of time — one day to the next in a cooperative environment can produce more creativity than the hot expectation of a bonus.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Lester and Mary do the clam-drop just because they know how. Maybe they were similarly lethargic when their folks were giving clam-drop demos. But somehow they figured it out, and they got to like doing it. I wonder if it warms their hearts to be among the more advanced, tool-using animals? I wonder, considering Jack’s indifference, if the production of dinner comes as a byproduct of fun?
PS: “One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity.” (Teresa Amabile)
Esoterica: Those of us who think we create best when under pressure or when meeting deadlines should think again. Amabile found that “time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period, people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.” You can read management guru Bill Breen’s famous interview with Teresa Amabile here. A note of caution — none of the subjects of Amabile’s now classic research were crows.
Savasana and ‘effortless effort’
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Seems true, incubation, cessation, rest periods are needed for transformation to occur, as in creation. In yoga we are warned not to eliminate savasana, the corpse pose, where no effort is needed and we assimilate the fruits of the practice. With ease and balance grace arises. With steady practice we achieve through a kind of effortless effort. Yoga is a great foundation for healthy habits in the studio. Both are good for developing alertness that is needed when clams are falling from the sky too.
Creativity is two thoughts colliding
by Peter John Reid, Chatsworth, ON, Canada
In my experience, creativity comes forth under all conditions, alone or together, relaxed or under duress, interested and disinterested. I believe wide interests help feed creative thought but I think the only true criteria are two thoughts colliding. Some may get more, others less; the luck is that happening at the right time. I actually imagined the wheel but I was a tad late.
P.S. Who was the mother of invention?
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The value of inspiration
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
“The laziest people in the world are the most inventive” is a tongue-in-cheek expression I sometimes use in a self-deprecating way in response to a remark like, “Great idea!” referring to an innovative solution I’ve come up with. The obvious truth contained in the remark refers to the innovations industry and businesses are seeking and sometimes reward employees for: the creative shortcut (Time is money). Along with her in-depth study of creativity, I think Theresa Amabile might have done well to include a study of “inspiration,” which relates to but does not, it seems to me, equate with “creativity.” Although not removed from creativity, it is, I believe, the concept painters more easily associate with their own processes.
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Making it too easy for the kids
by Suzette Fram, Mapel Ridge, BC, Canada
Having raised 2 children and now being blessed with several grandchildren, the thought came to my mind when reading about the clam-drop: Are we making things too easy for our kids? Are we robbing them of the value of figuring things out for themselves and are they learning the lesson that you have to work hard to get what you want, and not wait for it to be handed to you?
The foundation of productivity
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
According to Amabile, creativity needs the right environment and most people are naturally creative. What Amabile doesn’t factor into her equation is that creativity without hard work is a lot like ‘dead equity.’ The truly creative perform under a variety of environments, some of which can hardly be called ‘nurturing,’ and to imply monetary reward isn’t a factor is plain-out ludicrous. Money may not be the engine that drives people to create art initially, but it drives them to become more productive and efficient. Many people have creative ability — but they lack the effort or the commitment to do anything with it. It takes hard work. An expectation of the ‘perfect’ environment or situation is a lot like waiting around hoping you’ll be discovered by Hollywood. It’s not likely to happen.
While no one wants to work with someone figuratively ‘holding a gun’ to their head, the feel-good playfulness about which Amabile writes may have something to do in part with the reason that in the U.S. we hardly produce anything anymore. People just want to have fun and an easy time. Well, not all work is fun — even work you love. Those of us who seriously engage in art know it is challenging, but also sometimes infuriating and sometimes terribly disappointing. It takes years to “get good.” It is the journey of a lifetime, as your bi-weekly letters repeatedly remind us. Some skills molder if not frequently used and refreshed. There’s an old maxim that says the things that are the most worthwhile are the most difficult to accomplish. Amabile does not seem to address this at all — and I believe it is the foundation of productivity.
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by Jill Musser, Longmont, CO, USA
Last June, while painting in the barn, two days in a row, two juvenile meadowlarks came in through the big, open door, perched on the same place on the same beam both days, chirped a lot, watched me and watched their mother flying around outside looking for them in a very agitated way. They finally, after half an hour, went back out to join her. Yes, the very same act, for two days. I think birds may like repetitive behavior, as in your description of Lester, Mary and Jack. This may have little to do with creativity, but it was a fun experience with these happy creatures — while painting! Maybe I warmed their hearts, they warmed mine — fun and nature does enhance the creative mood!
Gulls do it
by Barbara, WA, USA
I sorely miss our comical, boisterous sea gulls on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where I grew up and spent most of my life. It’s an island eighteen miles long and only one mile wide. Our house was just a block away from the Atlantic Ocean to the East and one block away from the Manahawkin Bay to the West. I miss those scavengers every August. Clam season for those buggers. They would pick up one of those razor clams off the water’s edge on the ocean beach and fly over our 2-story flat-top roof, and splat. The poor clam didn’t know what hit him. Talk about a headache! That gull, by no means a dummy, knew just how high up in the sky to go, so the shell would open up from impact. It would make a ‘thud,’ and quite annoying, on our roof.
It wouldn’t take long before several more joined their buddies. Crafty little devils, but clever enough with their cuteness. This would go on for days. Every day and for a couple of hours once they started.
It only happened to our house! We were the ones with the flat-top roof. Neighbors across the street would be entertained. Their roof had a pitch to it. The seagulls knew exactly which roof! That ruckus would go on until their bellies got full. The dog would bark, of course, but that turned into a false alarm — there wasn’t anyone at the front door.
The first time it happened to us, we all got out of the house. But we heard the squawking Gulls overhead, in their feeding frenzy, long before we got out far enough to look up to determine what all that commotion was about. Once we knew, it was just a noisy nuisance. You couldn’t read, watch television, carry on a conversation or sleep. So when that certain time of day came, we would just take our pooch for a nice long walk on the beach for a couple of hours.
There was not one thing you could do about it, either. They had us over a barrel, bigtime! They even sounded like they were laughing!
My grandpop would get the extension ladder out every spring and sweep off the roof. All the clamshells would land in the driveway. Then the kids got to fill up grocery sacks. Fun times.
by Marian Kemp, Powell River, BC, Canada
I’m puzzled. What is the connection with these 3 crows and the 6 ideas about creativity? While I’m a good listener, very intelligent and empathetic (chuckle!!!), I confess to being a bit literal-minded. I like all “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed, and the flow/logic of a theme to be rather linear, I guess you could say. So, I’m still puzzled. Your theme is very interesting, and I’ll look at it again, but I’d be interested in your response.
(RG note) Thanks, Marian. Like water dripping on my head, I kept hearing the smack, smack of the falling clams as I was painting and I thought, “This must mean something.” Maybe I’m not very smart but I started to think how marvelously creative were the birds, and how the roots of creativity were still a mystery and the subject of dispute. Then I thought about Teresa Amabile’s now famous, research-based findings on the origins of creativity, and I thought many of our readers would have probably not heard of her ideas, so I thought I might drop the six myths she discovered on people’s heads, and I asked the crows if I could do this, and they all squawked in unison and I thought that meant it would be okay.
oil painting 9 x 12 inches
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Enjoy the past comments below for Lester, Mary and Jack…