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Creating a Life
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I was asked to write a chapter for a book on creativity in my life. Here is what I wrote.
What is a creative life? What makes one person seek challenge and difficulty and another stability and comfort? What drives those of us who follow the 'road less travelled'? This is a story of one grain of sand, a life of seeking and finding and further exploration.
I was comforted recently by a BBC television programme that highlighted how many leaders have disturbed childhoods and subsequently spend their adult years remaining separate, living life a little apart from others. As a child, I occupied that space. I lived on the edge of groups, neither wanting to be the centre of attention nor wanting to submit my independence to the will of the group or its leaders. In playing this role with the adaptiveness of youth, I found a useful space in which I could be an outsider-insider, challenging thoughts and actions in a way that others could not. Not quite the Shakespearian fool, but I certainly had sympathies.
To be fair, though, life was not that difficult. In a middle-class rural upbringing with fun-loving parents, imaginary play and games of wit were the order of many days. My father was remarkably tolerant of my hacking at bits of wood and making of crazy machines. Whilst not trying to teach me much, he allowed my imagination to run riot in his toolshed. A liberal upbringing with social tensions at school launched the rocket and I am still spiralling around the sky.
Living in a national park in Wales was good for me, and I spent many weekend days up in the mountains with my dog. Sometimes alone, I would sit on the highest peak and watch the miles of the world turning around me. Sometimes with friends we would play in the heather or dam the streams in the hidden valleys. An upbringing close to nature, I think, gives you a certain outlook on life. I still look for beauty everywhere, and of course find what I behold. I look out across the world and wonder. I take what is and try not to judge. One summer's day, I escaped a family argument, fled to the mountains and sat up a tree, thinking. I carved my name there and swore that I would always be tolerant of different views.
A teenage wakeup call from early-adult doldrums came in the shape of a summer job in a local factory where I discovered true boredom. Bing-bong, clink-clonk. After weeks of stultifyingly repetitive button-pushing and lever-pulling, I swore I would pull my thumb out and keep it out. I hated boredom then and hate it still.
There are three basic needs we all have (as described in the book I wrote with Dr. Graham Rawlinson - but more about that later). First, we have a need for a sense of control. I gained this both by maintaining a certain independence and also by working hard at my studies. If I could understand the world, then surely I could control it. I still read serially (I cannot remember not doing so) but along the way I realized the futility of a da Vincian effort to know everything. Somewhere along the line, pure knowledge has to give way to thought and exploration. So now I just try to do both.
The second need is for a sense of identity. Who am I, we ask. The ego, the id, the super-ego? From Freud to Maslow to modern neuroscience, we seek a feeling for a sense of self. Many people find it through who they know and how they are known. But social acceptance often comes at the price of conformance to social norms and obedience to social leaders. My friendships are with individual people from all walks of life, who accept me for who I am and let me be a little different. I am not a kook by any stretch, and as I write this on a train I am wearing the suit that my job demands. I do not need to show off to know myself. Well, not so much these days, anyway. I define myself through my family, my writing and my deeds. Being creative and being able to be creative is a part of that me. When I dream up (which I consider to be) a great idea, then I feel good. My sense of self is boosted. I am adding to the sum of the universe. When I write something and somebody on the other side of the world writes back to tell me how they were affected, then I feel as a bigger person.
The third need is for stimulation. Nature has given us curiosity to pull us forward and boredom to stop us sitting on our thumbs. My career has been one long search for stimulation. I have had many different jobs and have been lucky to work with many stimulating and thoughtful people. From the original electronics R&D, I became a teacher, a software programmer, a quality consultant, a marketer, an HR consultant, a team leader, an M&A programme manager, a business consultant, and am now working to improve the examinations systems in UK schools. In my 50s, I am also working on my fourth postgraduate qualification.
Why such a tortuous career? Taking Edgar Schein's 'Career Anchors' test, I found I have two key drivers: challenge and expertise. This effectively means that I am driven to become expert in any field that I enter, then get bored and seek a new challenge. When I move on, I don't feel particularly expert nor do I feel a jack-of-all-trades. I take pride in being recognized as competent, but I do not aspire to the pedestal of gurudom. I am particularly addicted to the 'aha's of learning, and when the light bulbs start to run out, I move on. This is not a bad strategy for creativity, as many innovations have come from people who bring a different way of thinking to an old discipline, often through lateral career moves.
A neat trick that effective leaders manage is to turn their early conflicts into a constructive tension that they use to pull themselves and others forward to new and (hopefully) better futures. There have been many tensions in my life, many of them self-generated, which I have used to goad myself down different avenues. The job changes above are typical. I also do it at the detail level, for example when driving I will constantly experiment with short-cuts (much to the frustration of my children) and am still working on improving my driving styles.
Another way I have managed tensions is through Tai Chi, which I practiced and absorbed for many years. Although perhaps the most effective martial art, it teaches you to sense the world around you and feel for alignment with people and situations. Hypersensitivity and projection are useful in many creative situations, and if you can put yourself into such bizarre places as tyres and oceans, you can solve problems as diverse as roadholding and racing yachts.
Along the way I found I could write, at least in a moderately acceptable fashion. After many years of believing that 'I can't write' I took the plunge and wrote a book on software programming style, which was reasonably successful. Other books on problem-solving and quality followed, and the most recent is 'How to Invent (Almost) Anything', written with Dr. Graham Rawlinson. In this book, we offer a range of creative toolkits and ways of thinking that range from structured and scientific to tinkering with the psychobabble of deep needs and beliefs. At the end, we bring them together into the 'TAO Process', which creates interconnected parallel streams of thinking that can lead to remarkably diverse and effective ideas and actions.
Teaching has also been a repetitive theme, from early school teaching to coaching and coaxing adults to get their brains in gear. There is no substitute for the light of an 'aha' in people's eyes (apart, perhaps, from getting that aha myself). In particular, teaching creativity and business improvement methods across the HP world helped me to understand the breadth of possibilities we can achieve, as well as the blind ignorance that high intelligence can bring. I would deliberately hold classes in non-business surroundings and use every method of stimulation I could, from games and videos to walks and meditation. I was learning as much as the people I was teaching and was equally surprised at what worked (and what did not). It was also a delight to see the amazement of people getting out of their box and finding that all but the most retentively anal can create with the best.
People you meet along the way can provide unexpected prods and ahas. I have had many teachers, most of whom would not recognize the role, as the essence came from what I gained perhaps more than the actual intent to teach. At school, I fell under the sway of a benign class philosopher who was reading and discussing Hesse and Kant at 16 and seemed hell-bent on curving the mind of anyone who would listen. My father-in-law's idea of fun was to make a controversial statement at the dinner table and then disagree with whatever you said, just to see what you would say next. In a software job, I worked with a no-holds-barred games designer whose specifications bore a close resemblance to cotton wool and who would not take 'impossible' for an answer. During many years in HP I was constantly thrown the latest in business thinking by corporate idealists. In later years, more than one consulting client demanded to be challenged rather than mollycoddled. My current boss likes bringing thinking and action together and has a favourite phrase: 'just do it'. And my children, at 15 and 22 still ask 'why' (and 'why not'), partly, I hope, because I have always encouraged them to do so.
I have also learned creative thinking from a number of schools of thought. Alex Osborn's original book, 'Applied Imagination', though first published in 1953 is still fresh and pertinent. Osborn was the Boston advertising executive who wrote a small book in 1943 called 'How to Think Up' in which he coined the term 'brainstorming'. Synectics puts right many of the limitations of brainstorming, and I met my co-author, Graham, who was teaching on a Synectics seminar I attended. I read Edward de Bono's 'Lateral Thinking' whilst still at school in the 1960s, and was perhaps the first place I found the notion of creative thinking as something you could learn. I went on Buzan's mind-mapping course in the 1970s (a useful method that slept during the 1980s only to reappear in the re-creative 1990s). And Graham introduced me to the marvels of TRIZ and TRIZ thinking, which is a step beyond the books and basic methods.
In my dotage, I will not lie down. I seek to pass on a love of exploration to my children (and hope I can do the same for my grandchildren, if and when they appear one day). I close my eyes when I hear my son blunting my tools in the garage and am genuinely amazed at the contraptions he produces. I am writing a book on design with my daughter and am relishing her enthusiasm and drive. I am delighted that my wife, an accomplished English teacher and relentless wearer of odd clothing, has put pen to paper and is writing novels.
I am also pushing on personal writing fronts. After suffering the author's frustration at publishers, I am writing high-content websites (now I'm in control!) and hoping for massive audiences (oh, the identity boost!) who occasionally click on not-too-intrusive ads (experimenting again) that give me some reasonable income. Do feel free to explore these. You can find a site on persuasion and change at changingminds.org. And, perhaps most pertinent to this writing, creatingminds.org is my creativity site where I am building what I intend will become the world's biggest site of creative tools, quotes and articles. Enjoy.