Thursday, May 10, 2007

Yes, and ... (creative lessons from children)

I would like to share a somewhat fictional story from a recent backyard barbecue.

One of our kids offered a cool (to sedentary, Coors Light sipping adults in attendance: outrageous) suggestion: “Let’s climb the tree fort to find Martians.” (Adults: Martians do not exist, particularly in our backyard.) A playmate chimed in: “Yes, and when we get up there, let’s blast off to Mars.” (Tree forts don’t fly, and bed time’s at 8:00.) “Yes, and I’ll be the pilot, and you can be an astronaut.” (You’re too young to fly a space ship.) “Yes, and we’ll get there in, like, eight seconds.” (Mars is 93 million miles away.) “Yes, and when we land, we’ll build a campfire and make smores.” (Where are you going to find wood and matches, let alone marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers? And, playing with fire is bad! Furthermore, even if Martians did exist, they probably do not like smores.) “Yes, and once we make the smores, we can light the extra marshmallows on fire and fly back to earth.” (Marshmallows cannot fuel a rocket ship, let alone a tree fort). “Yes, and then we’ll have the Martians spend the night in our back yard in the tree fort.” (It’s not safe to sleep in the back yard, you’ll fall out of the tree fort, and Martians do not exist!)

The kids played a free-form game: Yes, and … There were no rules, no preconceptions or norms, and no restrictions. Aside from the obvious cynicism lampooned above, the adults employed logical, normalized thinking: Yeah, but … It’s an exercise exhibited every day in every company. It reminds me of one of Guy Kawasaki's sage truths of innovation: Don't let the bozos grind you down.

What does this – a fictional sliver of the imagination of children – have to do with creativity and innovation? Lots.

Creative people are like kids: They question apparent facts by asking why, how and what. Plato believed – though I do not think it’s as binary as he posited -- experience takes away more than it adds … young people are nearer ideas than old people.

Though he couldn’t make the barbecue (hopefully he’s working on the can’t-get-here-soon-enough iPhone!), Steve Jobs has a less-than-Platonic take: “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect … connect experiences and synthesize new things. The reason people are creative is that they've had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences.”

In Freudian psychoanalysis, much creative behavior is a substitute for and continuation of the play of childhood. Maslow believed self-actualizing creativeness was in many respects like the creativeness of all happy and secure children. It was spontaneous, effortless, innocent, easy, a kind of freedom from stereotypes and cliches. And again it seemed to be made up largely of "innocent" freedom of perception, and "innocent," uninhibited spontaneity and expressiveness.

Maslow further offered that almost any child can perceive more freely, without a priori expectations about what ought to be there, what must be there, or what has always been there. And almost any child can compose a song or a poem or a dance or a painting or a play or a game on the spur of the moment, without planning or previous intent.

But what about the urge to know, the desire (and need) to gain knowledge and experience? Is it difficult to connect and combine (dots) pre-collection? Zenkei Blanche Hartman, a former abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center, shares a perspective about the Beginner’s Mind:

Children begin to lose that innocent quality after a while, and soon they want to be "the one who knows." We all want to be the one who knows. But if we decide we "know" something, we are not open to other possibilities anymore. And that's a shame. We lose something very vital in our life when it's more important to us to be "one who knows" than it is to be awake to what's happening. We get disappointed because we expect one thing, and it doesn't happen quite like that. Or we think something ought to be like this, and it turns out different. Instead of saying, "Oh, isn't that interesting," we say, "Yuck, not what I thought it would be." Pity. The very nature of beginner's mind is not knowing in a certain way, not being an expert. As Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." As an expert, you've already got it figured out, so you don't need to pay attention to what's happening.

It is cool to play and act like a child, to collect and imagineer “dots” (as Jobs put it) – the ante to creative thinking – and then synthesize and connect your dots in new and interesting and valuable ways. That’s creativity.

Post-script (21 Feb 08): Quick, somewhat relevant take from Micth Ditkoff of Idea Champions:
True innovation is about allowing paradox to be our teacher and guide -- and to accept, at least for a little longer than usual, ambiguity, dissonance, and discomfort -- the age-old precursors to breakthrough.


mitcheloc said...

Wow, this one hit pretty close to home with me "Creative people are like kids: They question apparent facts by asking why, how and what."

Just found your awesome blog, keep the posts coming!!

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