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The Secrets of Creativity: Seeing

The bacteria H. pylori are responsible for some stomach ulcers. For decades, doctors had been able to see the bacteria in the stomach. While it was on photographs and in literature since 1875, the doctors didn’t see it. Because they were certain that bacteria couldn’t survive in the stomach, they ignored it. It didn’t exist as bacteria for them. In 1940, a doctor found the bacteria, but his supervisor told him he was wrong and ordered him to stop his work.

One doctor in 1967 labeled the bacteria as “spirillum,” published it in a respected scientific journal where thousands of other doctors could see it, and no one examined it further. It wasn’t until 1979 that Robin Warren declared it to be a bacterium and called it H. pylori. That’s when doctors went back through the literature and photograph showing something that no one thought could be bacteria. A cause of stomach ulcers had been in plain sight for over a century – only hidden by a false belief that nothing could live in the inhospitable climate of the stomach (Kevin Ashton, “How to Fly a Horse,” 2015).

Count the number of passes the team in white jerseys makes in this video.

Did you count them? Did you watch the whole video?

Did you see the dancing gorilla? When people are told to count the passes (and haven’t seen this video before), they entirely miss the gorilla who walks through the middle of the basketball players. People talking on their cell phone while walking down the street will miss a unicycling clown that passes in front of them because their attention is on the phone conversation. The brain prioritizes the phone call over everything that doesn’t seem threatening or that doesn’t make sense. If you want to be more creative, you have to see what others miss.

Human beings have so much input coming through their five senses that they have to ignore a lot of things. Otherwise, we would all be mad/crazy. (Maybe that’s what happening with cell phones…) The brain prioritizes what it thinks is important and eliminates everything else. You might think that driving a car and avoiding collisions is the most important thing, but your brain will prioritize the phone call and the conversation because driving is routine. Moreover, the brain doesn’t know how to process the impending collision while also dealing with the conversation on the phone.

Seeing is one of the most important skills you can develop, and that means getting rid of the distractions and beliefs that keep you from seeing what’s right in front of you and millions of other people.

When you something new or something old in a different way, you spark your creative abilities. In “Big Hero 6,” Hiro’s brother tells him to shake things up as he turns Hiro upside down and shakes him.

Sherlock Holmes ability to deduce where someone was from and why they had arrived came from his ability to remember facts and see details. Those details were often esoteric, but the skill is akin to addressing someone at a convention by his or her name. When that person asks “Do we know each other?” The answer is “I read your name tag.” Everyone has the name tags on, but many people forget the name tags are there.

Of course, seeing is only part of the battle. Once you see something, you’re going to have to make others see it. Most people will ignore the new information, especially if they know better. Others will intentionally make you see something false so that they can justify their worldview rather than face up to the reality of it. But when you know something the way that Robin Warren knew there were bacteria in the stomach, you need to set up an experiment and find someone to verify your results. In creativity, sometimes that means finishing something you started and finding out you were wrong. And sometimes, it means turning the world on its ear because you were right.

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The ABCs of Creativity: New

The textbook definition of creativity involves making something new that has value. “Something” can be defined to include new ways of doing things or thinking, but it is the new that’s important. Depending on the situation, creativity can include things that are new to the person doing them (personal creativity) or to the world at large.

A New Way of Seeing

Human beings have to sort through a lot of information every second of the day. This leads to focusing on some things and ignoring other things altogether. You probably have already seen this video. If not, count the number of passes the team in white makes.

Did you see the gorilla? Selective attention is what helps us sort through the stimuli. It allows us to ignore both the very common place and the very out of place.

According to Kevin Ashton’s “How to Fly a Horse” (p. 97), one study showed that 75 percent of people walking and talking on their cell phones did not see a unicycling clown that had been put in their path. Their brains decided that the clown was someone else’s problem and not pertinent to the phone conversation. This is called inattentional blindness, and one reason you should never drive and use your cell phone. Your brain prioritizes the phone conversation over the information you are seeing, or not seeing as the case may be, on the road in front of you.

The problem for creativity is that it takes the combination of two or more pieces of information in a new way to be creative. If we’re ignoring information that doesn’t fit in with what we think should be there or our world view, or we’re adding information that isn’t there because we think it should be there, we can’t be creative.

For more on creativity, order “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Get “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Want More Creativity? Figure out Where You Can Save Time and Decision Making Energy

clear glass with red sand grainer

According to Csikszentmihalyi in “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” Albert Einstein wore the same sweater and pants every day, so he didn’t have to decide what to where, he could focus his attention on the more important things he was thinking about. Choosing what clothes to wear may seem like a trivial thing to worry about, but every decision takes energy and time, and little moments add up to large chunks of time when put together (p. 351).

Charles Dickens rejected a friend’s invitation on the basis of time. He had so much to accomplish and so little time to do it in, so while it may seem only an afternoon or a lunch to his friend, it could be an entire day lost thinking about how the whole encounter would go. His art wouldn’t allow him to use his time in dalliances because time is the most precious commodity, we possess (Kevin Ashton, “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” p. 71-72).

Fidel Castro said he didn’t shave because shaving took up to 10 days a year from him. The amount of time he saved by not shaving every day was precious enough for him to sport a long beard.

Finding ways to save time that can be put to better use is one of the projects that every creative person should take. Hiring a housekeeper can help free time for more creative activities. The same could be said of hiring a gardener. Moving closer to the day job, cleaning the home less often if you can’t afford a housekeeper, and learning to say “No” to obligations you don’t need or want are other suggestions.

Tell us in the comments what your favorite ways are to save time.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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‘How To Fly a Horse’ Debunks Creativity Myths

Kevin Ashton’s “How to Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery” delves into and debunks the myths of creativity. By using existing scientific research and deftly chosen examples comb from history, Ashton creates an exciting and surprising read for anyone who has ever doubted their own creative abilities. The creative beliefs challenged by Ashton include:

The Creative Leap

Creative thinking is just thinking. There’s no leap, it’s just that creative people take more steps to get to a solution. Less creative people stop when they have something they think works, even if it’s not the best, or even a very good solution.

People and Organizations Want Creativity

People and organizations say they want creativity, but creativity is seldom rewarded. Ignaz Semmelweis lost his job and his life when he challenged the medical field to wash its hands, even though he could show that washing hands saved the lives of women and children during childbirth. The others who came before him to suggest the same thing were ignored or ridiculed.

Robert Galambos lost his job at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for suggesting the Glia cells in the brain were important, and idea commonly accepted now. Galambos was a famous neuroscientist, who with Donald Griffin, proved bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark and had worked at the institute with his boss, David Rioch for 10 years. None of that mattered; he and his new idea were kicked to the curb.

The Eureka! Moment

The actual “Eureka!” moment that the story comes from is based on a falsehood. The displacement of water would be too small for Archimedes to determine whether gold had been combined with another metal to make the king’s crown. (Its buoyancy is what matters.) Sitting in the tub would probably not have mattered. Even if it did, the story says that Archimedes got into the tub while thinking about the problem. He hadn’t relaxed; he was actively pursuing a solution. The “Eureka!” didn’t come like a bolt of lightning; it came from a series of thoughts.

The Incubation Period

Tied to the “Eureka!” moment, incubation is also something that scientists haven’t been able to see in research the phenomenon. It’s a commonly accepted step in the process of creativity, but it may not be real. While incubation hasn’t been disproved, it has fallen out of favor. Some scientists are changing the name to “implicit cognition.”

Ashton address other issues like brainstorming, the role of rejection, what credit for an idea has to do with anything and why people get credit, and how people fear new ideas. Not only is Ashton’s books one of the best I’ve read on the subject, but it also uses clear stories told in an entertaining way and offers up lessons, hope and encouragement for people who want to be more creative. If you want to be more creative, get “How to Fly a Horse.”

For more on creativity, follow my blog. Purchase “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Exterior and trouble accepting new ideas

Disneyland's Haunted Mansion

In a story about Ignaz Semmelweis, the survival rate of children and their mothers, and handwashing included in his book “How to Fly a Horse,” Kevin Ashton points out that even in a “field as empirical and scientific as medicine… Creation is seldom welcome” (74 – 76). People need creativity and change, and they resist it at the same time. It’s part of the dichotomy of being human.

When Walt Disney wanted his imagineers to envision and create a haunted house for his theme park, they all came up with the same idea: a decrepit, run-down building that had ghosts. Walt didn’t like it. He didn’t want a run-down building ruining his pristine park.

According to Sam Gennawey’s “The Disneyland Story,” Ken Anderson, the original lead on the Haunted Mansion as we now know it, wanted to hide the run-down mansion behind trees native to Louisiana. Walt didn’t go for it.

Harriet Burns built three models for Walt to choose from. The imagineers put the pristine building behind the other two decrepit versions. Walt chose the beautiful building every time. He wanted guests to feel welcome in his park; that meant everything had to be clean and in good repair, even the haunted mansion.

Walt was working with some of the most creative people in the planet. Imagineers knew Walt, had experienced his success and demeanor first hand. Even when he told them, “We’ll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside” (Surrell, Jason, “The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic,” p. 13), they insisted on trying to convince him that a haunted house needed to look a certain way.

“Everyone expects a residence for ghosts to be run-down. But Walt was always looking for the unexpected,” (Genneway, p. 180) said Claude Coats.

When those who consider themselves creative and create for a living have trouble accepting new ideas and ways of doing things, everyone else has even greater problems to accept the changes that come with innovations. It’s okay. We just need to realize that creativity is just as necessary for the advancement of humanity as being wary of the change that it brings is. As soon as we can embrace our seemingly opposed sides, we can see they are working together to make us more successful, as long as we don’t let one win over the other all the time.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.” For more on the Disney Company, preorder “Penguinate! The Disney Company” officially releasing on April 14, 2019.

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A Hard Row to Hoe: Cautionary Tales in Creativity

eiffel tower during daytime

Ignaz Semmelweis could be seen as a cautionary tale for creatives. In 1846, he advocated for washing hands before delivering babies, and Vienna General saw an increase in mother and new born survival rates in the clinic where he worked. However, because he didn’t know why handwashing worked, he was derided by the medical and scientific community. He lost his job and his life because the establishment didn’t accept what he saw as common sense. “My way saves lives; of course, everyone should adopt it, even if we don’t know why.”

He was dealing with saving people’s lives and the scientific community. Rather than someone jumping in to test Semmelweis’ theories and find out why it worked or if it was a fluke, Semmelweis’ doctors and colleagues continuously found fault with his idea, even when they didn’t do any experimentation of their own. Not only did Semmelweis end up losing his life, but thousands of women and children died because he couldn’t defend his hypothesis and no one else wanted to check it out to see what the hospital was doing differently. Semmelweis isn’t the only cautionary tale that creatives should think about.

According to Kevin Ashton in “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Gaston Hervieu tested his parachute in 1909 by throwing a 160-pound dummy off the Eiffel Tower. The dummy floated down to safety. Franz Reichelt was not impressed. Reichelt was working on his own parachute and called Hervieu’s test a sham because he used a dummy. In 1912, Reichelt showed up at the Eiffel Tower, press in tow; he was ready to show off his own parachute, which he was going to test on himself.

Hervieu showed up at the Eiffel Tower to stop Reichelt. Hervieu said the parachute wouldn’t work for technical reasons. Reichelt went up the Eiffel Tower anyway. Experts at the Aero-Club de France had previously told Reichelt his parachute wouldn’t work. Previous experiments that Reichelt did with his parachute had ended in failure; he had broken his leg in one failed attempt to deploy the parachute. Reichelt didn’t listen to his rejectors, which are common when any new idea is presented, and he didn’t learn from his failures. He stuck with the same design and jumped from the Eiffel Tower to plummet to his death.

While Semmelweis would have been well-served if he could’ve ignored the slings and arrows of the ignorant medical community experts of his time and continued with his crusade to persuade them as to the efficacy of handwashing, Reichelt would’ve been better off listening to the critics of his invention and heeding his own failed experiments. Failure and rejection aren’t necessarily bad if we can learn the right lessons from them.

In these cases, one lesson would be to persist in the face of rejection, but learn from it. If Semmelweis had been able to get past his belief that common sense would prevail and started conducting experiments, he may have discovered the germ theory of illness before Pasteur. Another lesson would be to pay attention to your failures. If Reichelt had accepted the reality of failures, he may have been able to make a parachute that would’ve been better than Hervieu’s. Instead, both creators’ deaths can be linked to their innovations.

Being creative isn’t easy. You will be ridiculed. You will be rejected. You just need to keep going and change with every lesson that is dealt to you.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Becoming More Creative for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Handwashing, Change and the New

mother and child washing hands

According to Kevin Ashton’s “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor at Vienna General in 1846, and the medical community was mired in 2,000-year-old the belief that the body’s health was based on a balance of four fluids: Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Vienna General had two maternity clinics. In one, women gave birth with the help of midwives, and both mother and child survived at normal rates for the time. In the other, women gave birth with the help of doctors, and women and children died in droves from puerperal fever. The maternity mortality rate was so high, women were better off giving birth in the street.

The doctors would often go from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies. Semmelweis thought the fever might be transferred from the corpses to the women. He convinced the other doctors to wash their hands, and the deaths in the clinic dropped from 18 percent to two percent, the same percentage as in the clinic with the midwives. In some months, the death rate was zero percent during the two years that Semmelweis was practicing at Vienna General.

In spite of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence and the approximately 500 women, and who knows how many children, whose lives Semmelweis saved through handwashing, his views were rejected. His detractors questioned his scientific method; Semmelweis didn’t run any experiments. They said he didn’t put forth a clear theory; he didn’t know what was responsible for the transfer of disease, he suggested it was some sort of organic material. One American doctor claimed that “A gentleman’s hands are clean” (p. 73) and couldn’t carry disease.

Semmelweis expected common sense to prevail, but at the cost of thousands of women’s and children’s lives, the medical establishment refused to implement handwashing as a standard procedure. The change that Semmelweis proposed challenged the underlying beliefs of the establishment, and those beliefs were too sacred to challenge by a demonstrably better way to do things.

Semmelweis ended up losing job, “being lured to an asylum” and beaten. He died two weeks later, and Vienna General’s doctors stopped washing their hands. Mother and child mortality rates rose by 600 percent.

Semmelweis’ handwashing challenged ingrained and incorrect ideas about the body and health. It challenged ingrained ideas of identity. It challenged the status quo. Semmelweis wasn’t the only one who challenged the establishment, but his story is illustrative of what can happen when people put forth an idea that disturbs the everyday workings of an industry, government or other established organization.

If you still don’t think it’s difficult to change people and culture, many men today don’t wash their hands after using the toilet or urinal in public places where peer pressure should be in effect. They spread disease because they don’t believe germs affect them (and some don’t believe germs are real).

New ideas aren’t readily accepted by anyone, including creators themselves. People always say they want change, but they choose what’s familiar. If you put forth a new idea, be prepared to fight for it and for yourself. Creativity needs fortitude, strength and a healthy dose of wisdom.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Improving Creativity for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.

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Is Brainstorming a Good Thing?

woman looking at sticky notes

In “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Kevin Ashton questions the validity of brainstorming for creativity. His main objection stems from the fact that brainstorming doesn’t have a way to turn ideas into reality. For Ashton, having ideas is not being creative; the ideas must be realized in order for creativity to result.

Ashton is not the only creativity author to poke this particular hole in brainstorming. Edward de Bono also believes that brainstorming is inefficient and a bad way to come up with ideas. Having more ideas doesn’t mean having better ideas, and businesses need better ideas.

Another failure of brainstorming is the exclusion of people who are shy. Even with instructions involving no judgement and participating, those who are afraid of failure, making mistakes, public speaking, or being laughed at, may hold their ideas back. Instead, Ashton says the research suggests that people working alone come up with as many ideas as people working together, and the ideas will be better. Groups tend to fixate on one idea as the brainstorming goes on.

Brainstorming was originally used in advertising to come up with ideas. What makes it work is how you use it and what you do when done. Brainstorming sessions have their place in creativity, but it needs someone to guide the ideas from the whiteboard to reality. If you’re using it in a business, the person implementing must have the power to do so.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Improving Creativity for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Archimedes, Creativity and the Power of Ordinary Thought Process

baby inside white bathtub with water

In “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Kevin Ashton attempts to debunk the “Eureka” moment that has become synonymous with creation. Ashton goes back to the original “Eureka” moment when Archimedes immersed himself into a bath tub while trying to figure out a way to learn if the gold crown the king had received had been cut with silver or was pure. Archimedes’ displacement of water gave him the idea of how to measure a gold or silver object. The solution struck him with such force that he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets naked shouting “EUREKA!” When he put the king’s crown in the water, it displaced more water than gold of the same weight, which meant the king had been cheated.

Ashton says the problem with this story is that the proposed method doesn’t work. Galileo disproved it, and Ashton speculates that Archimedes would’ve surely know that it didn’t work. Buoyancy is the key not displacement. Still, the apocryphal story is told and retold to show the “Aha!” moment of creation.

Ashton’s problem with this is that it puts creativity in the hands of a few, and it’s not supported by scientific experiments. The “Aha!” moment isn’t even supported by this story. Archimedes went into the bath thinking about the problem. He was actively engaged in thinking about the problem. Ashton points to several studies that show creative thinking is no different than regular thinking. People get to creative solutions step-by-step, one step at a time.

In the retelling, it might seem like an intuitive leap, but when people are asked to describe their thought process, they generally follow the same pattern of going through possible solutions:

  • State the problem.
  • Suggest a solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t it work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Ad infinitum

The more creative solutions come with more steps. Some people stop as soon as they have a solution that’s good enough. Others keep going to find better solutions. As Ashton says, the one who makes the most steps wins, but creativity is the result of ordinary thought processes.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Using Creativity for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”