Thursday, October 1, 2009

Innovative People.

I enjoyed reading this article from the Harvard Business Review on the five "discovery skills" that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs.

They are (I'm quoting from the article here):
  • associating -- a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas;
  • questioning -- an ability to ask "what if," "why," and "why not" questions that challenge the status quo and open up the bigger picture;
  • ability to closely observe details, particularly the details of people's behavior;
  • ability to experiment -- the people studied are always trying on new experiences and exploring new worlds;
  • ability to network with smart people who have little in common with them, but from whom they can learn.
"You might summarize all of the one word: 'inquisitiveness''s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children...

If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 1/2 years old, they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they're grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them."

Obviously, I'm less interested in this issue for corporate settings and more in terms of the creative act. Does a similar skill-set translate to creative types--artists and writers and poets?

It's an interesting question to me, as I've become less and less satisfied with discussions of left-brain and right-brain cognitive dispositions, or handedness, as indicators (or contraindicators) of creativity. Obviously, this list above catalogs behaviors, rather than cognitive function, so we're tracking effects rather than causes. Nonetheless, coming at the issue from the rear, so to speak, could be helpful.

This past summer, I attended a lecture given by an aesthetics scholar, who wanted to claim that language (which lives on the "rational," left side of the brain) is an ugly hindrance to the unmediated apprehension necessary for right-brained, artistic creation. Problem is, he couldn't explain poetry. He conceded that poets experience unmediated apprehension, just as other types of artists do; yet he couldn't explain how or why they then use language as their medium, particularly as they're not transcribing the experience at some later moment, but writing exactly as they're creating. Hmmmmm...

I did take one of those brain hemispheres quizzes on Facebook. Interestingly, I was *exactly* 50-50, right and left, which I guess is fairly rare. But the real point is, if hemispheric interpretations of creativity don't really work for one medium, why would we assume it works for others?

As for this new research into creative behaviors, I can only say that most artists I know (in any medium) would say that they're naturally inquisitive. Yet I'm not sure all or many fall in line with others of these behaviors; for instance, many artists I know are not all that keen observers of other people. They're fairly inept when it comes to reading social situations or understanding the nuances of a particular culture (Facebook, again, comes to mind). Artists tend to stick to their tribes. Now, the "associating" behavior is right-on-the-money with artists and poets--my mind certainly connects weird stuff together. It's the act of metaphor.

Nonetheless, a lot of artists simply know what they know. Ya know?


  1. I have to go away now and ponder that last paragraph about social ineptitude and tribes. Hmm...

  2. Well, Trace, I'm glad you're part of my tribe! In fact, you're pretty brilliant in terms of social media, too....

  3. Very thoughtful. Me? I'm all about words. Even when I try my hand at collage or some sort of visual medium, I find myself covering everything with words. I don't think I buy that aesthetist's theory. Words are just a writer's clay.

  4. If IQ tests were money, I'd be rich. I'm not rich. Tests mean nothing. In fact, I think the tests and theories are more religion than science or art, and very limiting and possibly harmful.

  5. Speaking from recent experience, the salient characteristic of 6 1/2-year olds is KNOWLEDGE. They know everything, about everything, and will happily - and loudly - tell you all about it.

    Occasionally he will stop and just observe, or even absorb, and when he is tired, or frightened, or unsure, he will inquire. But at the moment his primary task seems to be to eliminate frightening uncertainty from the world with his enormous 6 1/2-year-old brain.

    Not sure which side is involved...

  6. I took a bunch of tests back in college and was told that I have a 50/50 brain, too. But i'm with AH about tests!

  7. You are right!

    asking questions is essential to the creative act.

    but also, intuitivism is essential, don't you think?

  8. J. is inquisitive. He thinks to ask questions that never occur to me. He can ask questions about a subject for hours, and he remembers all the answers. Some people find this intimidating.

    He's a writer. He's also very smart.

    I'm actually pretty good at numbers 3 & 5, but fall short on 1,2 & 4. It used to make me think I wasn't brave enough, and that I might be an impostor artist. But I can be an artist if I want to, regardless of anyone's f**king test. Which I guess makes me brave enough.

  9. Uh oh, too many words. Wheres the pictures? Need pictures

  10. I had bad dreams about swearing on your blog. I'm sorry. Feel free to delete that comment if you want to. I get defiant; I had so many people tell me I couldn't be an artist because I was too conventional, too organized. (Some of those people were me.) Defiant also because I'm not as brave as I want to be.

  11. Petrea, Did you swear? I think the asterisks make it only a pseudo-swear. Or a self-conscious swear. Or a cartoon swear. In any case, certainly not one that counts. Although that would be okay, too.

    PA, I made a bullet list so that the burgeoning words would look less bulky. You know, skimmable. ;-)

    Virginia, Well, it isn't really *me* saying that inquisitiveness is so essential...I'm just the messenger, although I might have to agree with the study. And, yes, I think intuition is likewise essential--it's what I meant (and the aesthetics scholar meant) by the "unmediated apprehension" of creative work.

  12. Petra: Too "organized" to be an artist?

    Who would say that? Most of the best artists I know are horribly unorganized! (this is a good thing for an artist)

    Linda: yes, I think a combination is the best, intuitivism and the constant asking of new questions, pushing yourself to make new discoveries (and not getting stuck in a rut).

  13. and Linda, this is true:

    "many artists I know are not all that keen observers of other people"

    Some are, but many are not. I've grappled with this one for years myself, but I think I now know why.

    Artists really need to create their Private space where they can focus on their art - this is a mental space, absolutely necessary for their survival.

    So of course, they might not always be the friendliest people. I think you can't take it personally.

  14. Okay, this is really smart writing, making me feel a bit thick. Next time I read this before the dinner with wine...