Keeping yourself on your toes: staying creative

Although they didn’t create it (for which one cred point has therefore been deducted), The Chartered Institute of Public Relations recently shared 33 Ways To Stay Creative on Facebook. As one or two of you are possibly not on Facebook, here’s a link where you’ll be able to view a copy. As lists go, this one has been about a bit – a way to stay creative in its own right, but I potentially digress. A few digital archeologists have now been on the case, and the original source seems to have been a shorter version – with rather more ‘creative’ use of typography – on the Life on Michigan Avenue Tumblr blog. Maybe less is more?

I might be being grumpy today: it’s not impossible. But doing my own Googling to track down where the idea first took off, I found endless versions where the people posting it were contributing by offering us such shattering insights as “that’s really cool”, or “that’s lovely, I’m gonna blu-tac that in my workspace”. Bless. I appreciate in this age of digitalism, social media and transient, ephemeral communication that cut’n’paste is the new black, dude, but if a list about staying creative generates a lot of people doing a half-arsed Patience Strong/Hallmark greeting card impersonation, isn’t that a little worrying?

Having read a little around research into creativity and innovation, and how it can be encouraged and supported, and having ventured my own creative toes in music, literature and art, I’d be the first to put my hands up and say that true originality is very, very rare. Indeed, as Steven Johnson explored in Where Good Ideas Come From (read our review), many creative ideas spring from the previous work and ingenuity of others. Some are attempts to mimic something else: the wah-wah pedal – that inescapable element of the theme tune to Shaft and nearly all music that gets described as ‘1970s porn soundtrack’ (I plead ignorance there, m’lud: I was too young) – was an attempt to help guitar players sound like trumpet players manipulating their mutes. (No euphemisms were harmed in the authoring of that sentence, btw.)

But there’s a hierarchy of theft – sorry, plagiarism – isn’t there? There’s an awful lot of ‘pick’n’mix’ about nowadays, where the simplicity of sharing, reposting or clicking a ‘Like’ button means the same things circulate endlessly. As everything becomes digital, it becomes easier to copy. Theoretically, it becomes easier to manipulate too, but copy and paste seems more widespread than copy and heavily rework. So is that being creative, or is it posing as being hip, Daddy-o? Isn’t it rather closer to being spotted wearing this season’s ‘must have’ (ahem) t-shirt than to having designed it? I’m thinking that there are two types of bird towards the bottom of this Heirarchy of Theft (which I’m also thinking it looks more original with Capital Letters too – cheap tricks have the same potency as cheap music). The lowest rung is occupied by parrots and lyre birds, who simply repeat what comes through their ears. They’re whistling a happy tune, but they’re not composing.

There’s a layer up from this – perhaps we can call them magpies – who have their metaphorical bird companion’s eye for the shiny, lustrous object, gathering and assembling them into glittering hordes. Fine art’s been here with the whole assemblage thing (which my Fine Art friends will no doubt advise me sagely was played out decades ago), although many of us probably also did something similar at primary school. We called it collage. Simon Reynolds’ thought-provoking book about pop-music and social culture, Retromania, spotted the same thing at play in the organising of ‘events’. The people organising them now style themselves – and what telling words those are – as curators. Sometimes, this process adds insight or throws up interesting juxtapositions or provokes new thoughts about the familiar: the Grayson Perry-curated The Tomb of The Unknown Craftsman exhibition at The British Museum (recently ended) was a good example. But sometimes it’s someone bunging stuff in a room and giving it a title. The quality of the content may be lower, but many of us do something equally ‘creative’ with our spare rooms, garages and sheds.

So how can we stimulate the grey matter to produce vibrant rainbows? Looking at that list, 2, 3, 9, 16 and 30 are useful ideas, but they’re useful for 33 – producing or implementing the creative idea, rather than having it. From my reading of Steven Johnson, some of the ideas here are worth exploring – 11 – 15, 18 and 32 in particular.

Reading a recent interview with Jonah Lehrer (author of the recent Imagine: How Creativity Works) in The Times, I’m left with the impression that the key is in the right hemisphere of our brains, which excel:

[…] at making remote associations, joining disparate thoughts and solving puzzles.”

Just when you feel we might be getting somewhere with this, the article starts exploring things that might help or be associated with stimulating the process. At which point I didn’t need to be terribly creative to imagine the looks on the faces of HR functions and managers. I almost Googled to see if ‘having kittens’ was listed anywhere as an advanced management technique. Here are some examples from the article:

  • Relaxation
  • Hot showers (no mentioning of singing – it seems it’s the shower that does it)
  • Staring at the colour blue
  • Marijuana
  • Drinking (although drinkers might want to observe ideas 2 and 30 carefully)
  • Amphetamines (more useful for Idea 33, but may cause constipation, insomnia and heart problems)(but then so can working too hard)
  • Depression (again, it seems particularly useful for Idea 33)

There is brief discussion – unlikely to be helpful to even the most broad minded workplace – of frontotemporal dementia, which at least argues that creativity does not fade of its own accord, but fades through a lack of fresh stimuli. There’s also an on-going reference to sea slugs that I hope doesn’t catch on in discussion of workplace creativity: being prodded on a regular basis is bad enough, even as a simile, but there are some physical comparisons that most of us would probably find dispiriting. Although given the point about depression, maybe even the sea slug thing has legs …

Two other ideas that are familiar from Johnson’s research are the beneficial effects of travel (literally in Idea 19, but after a fashion in Ideas 11 and 20) and – missing completely from the list – living in a crowded city (although perhaps its implicit in Idea 13). So the ideal creative workplace environment would be to be hired by a multinational that periodically transfers you between major world cities where you sit in blue shower cubicles watching films while getting totally out of your tree? With a waterproof notebook. It sounds kind of fun (although possibly not when repeated ad infinitum), but it does sound like it’s not about to happen.

Stone cold sober, glancing at a colour best called ‘wood veneer’, I’m thankful I have a cup of tea to hand, but I’m wondering if we’re tackling the problem by asking ‘How?’. Might we come up with better ideas if we paid equal attention to two other questions:

  • What? – what exactly do we mean by creativity, and should we rule out problem-solving (which can be simply know-how) and/or cut’n’paste?
  • Why? – this all sits on an assumption that creativity matters, but what’s its role in the bigger picture?

At which point, excuse me but I’m off for a shower. I just need to track down my underwater DVD player and figure out that waterproof ashtray I’ve been working on …

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