Monday, February 28, 2011

Switch: Big problems = Small solution

Book review written by Graduate student Juliana Sánchez Trujillo*

The book Switch: How to change things when change is hard is the latest publication of Chip and Dan Heath, well known for their previous best seller Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

, more than being just a regular self-help book, is a how-to guide that relates to different fields with diverse challenges. The book is intended to drive change at the individual, organizational and societal level. The Heath brothers agree that change often doesn’t happen because it is treated as something separate depending on the context. But the reality is that all kinds of changes share something in common: “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently” (p. 4).

The strategies suggested by the authors, are based on the psychological theory that the brain has two independent systems, or minds, that work at the same time. First, there is emotional side that is instinctive and is led by pain and pleasure. Second, there is the rational mind that deliberates, analyses and provides glimpses of the future. They are both constantly competing for control and unless they get on the same page, change is unlikely to happen. The main reason why change is often so difficult is because our rational perspective is not aligned with our feelings, hence we feel scared to do things differently even when we recognize the need for a transformation.

To make things practical and easy to understand, the Heath brothers use the analogy presented by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science . He compares the emotional side with an elephant and the rational side with the rider. Sitting on top of the elephant, the rider wants to be able to steer the animal in any direction he chooses, but his control is very limited since the rider is smaller than the animal. “Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination” (p. 7). With examples from ordinary people: marriages that are falling apart, teachers that wish their students would behave better, nutritional problems in Vietnam or nurses that try to avoid medical mistakes, the book engages the reader with stories and breaks them down to understand the core of the problems that lie within. It is so powerful, yet so simple that by the end of the book it gives you the empowering feeling that anything is possible if you follow the three simple steps that make the magic work:

- Direct the Rider. Recognize the importance of change and where you are headed.
- Motivate the Elephant. Make emotional connections with the challenge.
- Shape the Path. Transform the environment to assure success.

Switch encourages the reader to move forward and take action in a fast-changing world. It is an important resource for the creativity field since it shows alternative ways to face the Problem Finding stage of the Creative Problem-Solving process. It provides valuable insights on how to strengthen the creative thinking skills of risk taking, sensitivity to the environment, emotional awareness and mindfulness. As I increase my experience in the field, I have noticed how hard it is to put ideas into action. Even if the situation is often clear, and a plan of action has been outlined our feelings stop us from moving forward. This is when we recognize the importance of knowing how to address the emotional and affective sides to make change real. My favorite part of the book is the positive approach they encourage when clarifying a challenge. They advise to focus on the solution rather than on the problem and also to praise those things that are working well. To identify them, they suggest asking the following question:

Imagine that in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens, and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, “Well, something must have happened – the problem is gone!”? (p. 36).

Also, the book put my challenge understanding skills to test when I read the case studies and asked myself the questions about possible approaches and solutions to the problem. This gave me both the background information and the opportunity to practice by assessing my comprehension, which makes this text a good learning resource. However, it is important to know that it is not a step by step guide; it simply provides the big picture of things one has to consider when facing different changes. Nevertheless, the book provides a fresh perspective to embrace change from a different mindset and to understand how to motivate ourselves and others in order to see results. From how to stick to a diet, or wake up as soon as the alarm clock rings to solving issues with sugar daddies in Tanzania. Switch is a book that applies to everyone everywhere. Now, when are you going to start a change that matters?

*Juliana Sánchez Trujillo is a social communicator from Colombia and a full-time student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity. She holds a special interest about the ways to foster creativity in the classroom and the workplace through playfulness’ techniques.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shine On, You Creative Thinker!

Book Review written by Graduate Student Dana Calanan

With a quick pace and even flow, Paul Sloanes' How to Be a Brilliant Thinker: Exercise Your Mind and Find Creative Solutions is a comprehensive blend of interesting facts, mental exercises and foundational thinking in the field of creativity. Topics range from multiple intelligences to improving one’s intra- and interpersonal relationships. There are even questionnaires throughout the book to test one's own skill level within that particular chapter. While introducing creative thinking newcomers to the reasons why creativity is important, Sloane also reminds the avid creativity professional that sometimes skills or the lack thereof can be taken for granted, resulting in wasted opportunities for success. And for a little book (just 208 pages), this one packs a good punch with 32 chapters covering the basics of creative thinking and tips on how to become not only a brilliant thinker, but a well-rounded person as well.

In what seems to be the creativity field’s focal message, Sloane begins the book with the reasons why a need for creative thinking continues to exist. He gives examples showing how using/not using creative thinking may either enhance/hinder applications not only in business, but history as well. Historical events are examined with an eye toward how thinking creatively may have produced significantly different outcomes. Right from the get-go, the author engages the reader to stretch the mind with mental exercises that are proof-positive of the incredible power of change that creative thinking brings to every discipline. He also reminds us that everyone can use some brushing up on skills that are often lost due to laxity over time.

This book encapsulates many of the concepts that professionals in the field of creativity have touched upon previously. Sloane’s mainstream concept is an interesting experience with a fast, easy-to-read style. As a matter of fact, I was completely engaged and finished the book within a couple of days. His swift writing is intelligent, but not so heavy or cerebral in tone that the average person might not understand the principles or be turned off by the material.

There is definitely something for everyone here. Although I am familiar with much of the content, I found the chapters on mathematics and probability quite challenging. I took it as a persuasive nudge to face the facts and build my on my skills and knowledge, rather than run away from my discomfort in dealing with such content. My non-preference for clarification came through loud and clear as I read, and I have vowed to make a stronger effort to remedy this shortcoming. Other key points that I took away were different strategies that will prove to expand my knowledge base, such as new ideation techniques and the inspiration to improve on my communication skills in order to become a more confident presenter and facilitator.

The beginning of the book was more scholarly-based as opposed to the later chapters where the some of the content tended to be no-brainers for those persons who are already apt to use positive thinking and goal setting to succeed. For the creativity scholar or professional, this book may seem a bit elementary. However, it is highly beneficial for those of us who may have reverted back to our comfort zone to be reminded of the many forms of multiple intelligences that we all possess. Although some of Sloane’s writing may seem repetitive, it is done in a way as to more effectively implant and reinforce the thought, as opposed to merely being a way to simply fill the book.

I found How to be a Brilliant Thinker to be a useful addition to my own creative studies library and I recommend it not only to someone not well versed in the subject of creativity, but to my colleagues as well. It is a quick refresher for those of us striving to stretch our minds and a sufficient introductory guide for new creative studies students. In short, this book can prove beneficial to any person seeking to hone creative thinking skills in their personal and professional lives.

Ms. Calanan has a BS in Fashion from SUNY @Buffalo State. She has been a clothier and entrepreneur, having owned both a vintage & consignment clothing boutique. Dana also worked extensively in theatrical costuming and most recently left her career on Broadway to pursue other interests. This has serendipitously led her to the International Center for Studies in Creativity. Dana’s curiosities are vast, but passions lie in aesthetics, parapsychology, self-healing and violence awareness.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Confident Creative, a Book for Adults (That Want to Think Like Kids)

Written by Graduate Student: Khrista Richardson

When Cat Bennett’s book, The Confident Creative: Drawing to Free the Hand and Mind arrived at my door I opened it up and couldn’t help but to look through it immediately. I was excited by the fact that almost every page included some sort of beautiful, colorful image, printed on glossy, high quality paper. Soulful, vibrant pictures dancing on the pages of books are a luxury I had taken for granted as a child, and dearly miss as an adult. Why can’t more books be beautifully adorned with a variety of artworks to explore between the written words? Why do children get to have all of the fun?

As I began to read, I found my first impressions fitting, and was delighted to realize that this book was about more than just the act of drawing. Bennett presents her book, which stems from the genre of self-help, with a resonating, heartfelt introduction that gently reminds the reader how their view of art-making and creativity developed and changed as they aged. She takes note of the pleasure that was experienced while drawing as a child. Bennett then drudges up the fact that many lost that sense of freedom and pride due to high expectations of others, and the desire for quick results. This honest and direct introduction works as a sort of call to arms for readers. Eloquently, Bennett manages to rally the reader to let go of their pre-conceived notions of what it means to be the perfect artist; to take chances and to be the creative person that they are, without judgment or hesitation.

Like a caring and extremely articulate friend, Bennett writes honestly, encouragingly and personally by incorporating her own experiences and ideas into this inspiring book. Much of The Confident Creative is comprised of “how-to” sections, making it both accessible and easy to thumb through for ideas or exercises. As an art educator, I found that most of the drawing exercises Bennett included weren’t as diverse or cutting edge as I’d hoped they would be. Although, they could most definitely be useful to a person just getting into art making, or someone looking for some new ways to come up with creative ideas. Bennett instructs and gives visual examples of the included tasks, such as gesture drawing, in which you quickly sketch the shapes of objects, being sure to always keep your hand moving, and blind contour drawing, an exercise which involves rendering an object without ever looking down at the paper. Bennett also includes more entertaining and novel, higher-order thinking tasks, such as using random word prompts to get you started on a drawing. “Pink skyscraper dream”, or my favorite, “red moose man” are a few of the mentioned phrases. She also suggests drawing from memory, something that children naturally do frequently. The tasks Bennett included, though they may seem silly or childish, are invaluable and will surely help readers relax and concentrate on the process rather than the product.

Throughout the book, Bennett expertly offers advice to help the reader overcome conscious and subconscious thoughts that adversely affect the ability to be creative and to experiment. She even loosely incorporates yogic practices, such as single pointed focus, and links them to the act of drawing. I found this association extremely refreshing and it reminded me that art making can be a relaxing activity, a simple concept I had lost while taking several rigorous art courses during my undergraduate years.

Bennett also based sections of this book on simple notions, such as “Making Friends with Mistakes”, which discusses, to the horror of some readers I’m sure, that embracing and even incorporating your mistakes into your artwork can bring genius ideas and beautiful results. Another section, “The Sneaky Voice of Unreason”, discusses the power of positive thought and the importance of self-confidence. Bennett clearly has a firm understanding of what psychologically affects us both as art makers and as creative people in general. She presents her thoughts clearly and honestly, leaving the reader with the tools and knowledge they need in order to overcome obstacles and to be successful art makers.

In addition to my fondness for the beauty and variety of the artwork within, The Confident Creative will sit on my bookshelf for years to come because of the inspiration and hope it left me with. Bennett reminded me how to enjoy art making again, like I did when I was a child. She gave me tools, ideas, and inspiring words to live by. And she even let me look at pictures while I did it.

Bennett, C. (2010). The confident creative: Drawing to free the hand and mind. Scotland: Findhorn Press.

Khrista Richardson, a current Creative Studies graduate student at Buffalo State College, has a Bachelor's degree in Art Eduaction. Khrista is currently fulfilling a year of service with Western New York Americorps ABLE (Americorps Builds Lives through Education) program, working as a full time tutor at a Buffalo charter school.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review:The Creative Habit

Book Review written by Graduate Student Beth D. Slazak

This book is written for the average reader who is interested in creativity, and encouraging it in their lives. It is written in a very smooth manner, which makes it easy for the lay person to follow. The author draws from her wealth of personal examples to illustrate her points. At the end of each chapter she has a workbook-type section with activities to increase the reader’s creativity “muscle”.

In her first chapter, “I Walk into a White Room”, she discusses the fears and impediments people have when facing a situation that could benefit from creativity. “Some people find this moment – the moment before creativity begins – so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. (p.5)” This is a situation that is universal, an overwhelming, daunting feeling, which paralyzes. This may explain why different problem solving tools resonate so strongly with people. They are actionable steps to lead to a solution. Her solution is to employ routine and habit. She recommends good work ethic. Authors call this the BIC method, short for “Butt in Chair”. The best way to produce quality work is to produce any work, and lots of it. Good stuff can be found in it somewhere. She claims that in order to be creative you have to prepare to be creative by spending the necessary time and effort working. There are no short cuts.

To “Harness Your Memory”, chapter four, is to generate new connections to all the old information that you already know. Her theory is reminiscent of forced connections and lateral thinking, and those are both good creative tools to work with, especially when one is hitting ‘a wall’. She discusses several ‘types’ of memory. Virtual memory, which is the ability to project yourself into feelings and emotions from your past, as in method acting, where “skill gets imprinted through the action (p.66).” Sensual memory, which is related to your senses, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and the emotions experienced when you last activated them. Institutional memory, a belief that there are no new ideas, and we simply need to look back to be creative and edgy, rather than forward. Finally, there is ancient memory, where we tap into our roots going back to the dawn of time. These are all pieces that make up the whole of our memory, and a fortune of ideas for creativity.

“In order to be habitually creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative, but…it is only after you let go …that you can breathe life into your efforts. (p119)” Accidents Will Happen, the title of her seventh chapter shows how necessary it is to allow room for falling on your face. It is sometimes called ‘trial and learn’ or the ‘mistake quotient’, but whatever it is, it is the same basic premises. When stretching for the best ideas, you have to over extend, and that might knock you off balance. Her view of luck is that it is a skill, and one that comes from hard, frequent work, and sometimes you may have to fall down.

Ruts and Grooves are two very different situations. According to Tharp, a rut is not a block. A block is when you are at a standstill, unmoving, and empty. In a rut you may be moving, but you are going nowhere. A rut can come from a bad idea, bad timing, bad luck, or a bad case of doing the same thing over and over again. A groove, on the other hand, is the golden place. It is the mythical place where everything you touch works and works well. It is the time when ides flow, kinks are noticeable, and everything can be solved. It is “the zone” and it is wonderful.

I enjoyed reading this book. She is a woman whom I have admired for most of my life, and I enjoyed seeing her thoughts on what I am studying. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of her personal theory could be connected to Creative Problem Solving or related information. While I believe that she intended this to be a book on creativity for anyone to read, it is strongly aimed at the performance art side of creativity, and if that is not a realm that you enjoy, then there will be points of this book that fly over your head or make you roll your eyes. She relies heavily on her personal experience, rather than any scientific study, so all information is qualitative in nature. If one outside of the performance world were to read this, they would have to be patient with the egotistical nature of that world. I encourage the reading of this book because it was an easy read, has good information, and the activities could be very helpful to promote creativity in most fields, both in and out of the performance world.