Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book Review - Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected

Book review by Sara Smith

Years ago, my sisters and I were traveling around Belgium and ended up in a little town, its name I have long since forgotten. Speaking no Flemish and having no real plans, we followed a sign that looked like it would lead us to a tourism office. Instead, we found ourselves climbing the spiral, stone steps of a dark tower. When we finally reached the top, we carefully opened an old wooden door to reveal a space filled with dozens of huge metal bells ringing out the most hauntingly melodic song I had ever heard. We walked among them in awe, the music vibrating through us. This probably would be a great memory even if we had planned it, but it is so deeply etched into my heart and mind because of one very special factor: surprise. Think of your favorite story to tell from your life. Chances are there is an element of surprise in it.

That’s because, as Surprise authors Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger say, surprise makes you “-er:” happier, angrier, funnier. It intensifies whatever feeling you have. It causes us to be “completely present, wildly curious, expanding our perspectives, and connected with others.” When we are surprised, we feel the most alive.

If that’s not a reason to delve into the science of surprise, I don’t know what is. Tania Luna is the founder of Surprise Industries, a company that creates surprise experiences for individuals and groups, and LeeAnn Renninger has a Ph.D. in psychology, surprise being one of her areas of research. The two met, became fast friends, and the result is Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.

This book is a delightful delve into the world of surprise and unpredictability. A beautiful balance of science and practical tools, this book is a fun package for helping us to improve our lives with creativity. And the authors don’t just tell you about surprise – weaved in throughout the book are surprises they’ve left along the way, from the line-drawn illustrations opening each chapter that house little hidden objects throughout to the subtle examples included in the text that light up your brain just like they tell you surprise does.

The book begins with the science of surprise – what it is and what it does to us. Surprisingly, our reaction to a surprise is predictable. It follows a sequence: “we freeze, try to find an explanation, shift our perspective, and share our experience.” The authors give details on each of these phases including what exactly happens in our brains during this surprise sequence - how the P300 brain wave spikes and directs all of our attentional resources towards the surprise, creating a cognitive burden we must release through sharing. They describe a figurative see-saw with predictability on one end and surprise on the other - too much of the former causing boredom and too much of the latter causing anxiety. We all need a balance of surprise in our lives.

Next the book moves into a carefully crafted argument of the importance of surprise to our lives and why it is increasingly something we need not only to handle, but master. In our rapidly changing and increasingly complicated world, we need to be able to handle the surprising changes - both good and bad - and also create novelty so we don’t fall into stagnation. Handling surprise is all about tolerating ambiguity. People have generally become averse to surprise because it means we aren’t in control; it makes us vulnerable. But, the authors argue, putting yourself in the position of being vulnerable and open to ambiguity and the unexpected, is how we grow. One of the tools they introduce in section two is “Scenario Plan,” in which you diverge on several possible futures for yourself and then devise a plan that is flexible enough to fit any of them. This is a way to find that balance between control and surprise.

In the last two sections of the book the authors provide tools to help you inject more surprise into your life. We can engineer surprise in order to grow, to capture attention, to create something new, and to connect with others. The authors even go so far as to say, “each of us has the capacity and maybe even the responsibility to surprise the world.” Some readers may wish for more concrete, specific examples in the latter half of the book, but, of course, the only way to really engineer surprise is by using one’s creativity. That being said, a few times throughout the book, the authors start an intriguing story as an example, but never reveal the rest so as to not give away their surprise, which falls flat. Nonetheless, in the tools provided in this section, creativity enthusiasts will recognize and enjoy reading about creativity principles like novelty, tolerating ambiguity, tolerating complexity, risk-taking, incubation, iteration, and connection making, but all wrapped up with a pretty surprise bow. For example, one of the tools is to “practice idea mixology” by having diverse experiences and inserting new things into your life so you can make unusual connections.

Surprise is a great introduction to creativity ideas for the novice, and even for those well-versed in the field, it provides the joy of surprise by packaging creativity principles in a novel way as well as sharing some new tools for your back pocket. Reading it allowed me to start noticing surprise everywhere and how people responded to it. The tools they provide are considerations and perspectives that when applied along with your own creativity, can make magic happen.

This book is a fun, light read, even with all the scientific references, and as an added bonus, includes excellent summarizing “cheat sheets” at the end of each chapter, so that with Surprise close at hand, you can make the world a little more surprising. Maybe your favorite story to tell is yet to come - and just a surprise away.

Sara Smith is a writer and educator. Her passions include creativity, community, and learning. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State. Her most recent work, LisTEN: an idea journal, was released this August.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: Wired to Create

Book Review by Tamara Doleman

Has the answer “It Depends”, articulated regularly by the ICSC professors in our creativity classes, ever frustrated you? Have you ever felt confused about what makes a person creative?  Well you are not alone, there are many complexities and contradictions in and within the identified characteristics we believe enable us to be creative. Now thanks to this “hot off the press” book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, a creativity researcher and co-founder of The Creativity Post along with Ms. Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, explore the paradoxical characteristics, traits and habits of mind that enable us to be creative. Declaring we are all “wired to create” the authors frame creativity as a lifestyle and way of engaging in the world. Developed from Gregoire’s viral article, the 18 Things Highly Creative People do Differently (Huffington Post, 2014) ,  the co-authors highlight 10 important habits of mind that support the fundamental thought processes, creativity skills and ways of being that contribute to one’s creative potential.  At the same time, they emphasize the little bundle of contradictions we will encounter and need to accept within ourselves if we are to maximize and harness the power of our unique creative minds.

The book is part historical non-fiction, part narrative, a tad self-help and a smidge neuroscience.  It draws on extensive academic data gathered since the beginning of time on the characteristics of creativity as they relate to the creative person; as understood within the context of Mel Rhodes’ 4P Creativity framework, in which creativity occurs at the intersection between a (P)erson and their characteristics, a (P)rocess and the environmental (P)ress resulting in an  outcome or (P)roduct (Rhodes ,1961). Kaufman and Gregoire’s investigation of these creative “personality” behaviors draws on research gathered from a variety sources and domains across time and place, brought up to 21st century relevancy with the addition of neuroscientific data and support. The authors synthesize a complexity of information in an easy to digest style that paints a truly comprehensive, contemporary, wonderfully messy portrait of the creative psyche.

At the core of the book the authors highlight that to understand our creative mind, it is necessary to embrace messy contradictions.  Our creativity is not dependent on a single characteristic but rather, a system of interacting characteristics that we possess and exhibit in differing degrees and quantities and at different times. Moreover, these characteristics are plastic, seemingly self-organizing and multifaceted. Creativity is not static. It responds, grows, recoils and relates to its experiences.  Like our fingerprints, our creative profiles are unique and original to no one but ourselves.  Each of us is an original improvisation of these essential interacting characteristic ingredients and it is how we use our creative profiles that shape our unique creative expression and output. It is our unique creativity that provides an opportunity for us to express original and adaptive products that are useful, providing us with the opportunity to experience meaning and purpose.

The book is organized along ten chaptered topics that could be read and digested independently from one another: Imaginative Play, Passion, Daydreaming, Solitude, Intuition, Openness to Experience, Mindfulness, Sensitivity, Turning Adversity into Advantage and Thinking Differently. Each topic is explored in depth and the most interesting ones to me presented paradoxes and polarities. For instance, the authors explained how the average creative writer situates in the top 15 percent on all measures of psychopathology yet, at the same time scores very high on all measures of psychological health. In another example, the authors dissect a professional musician’s paradoxical oscillation between introverted and extroverted personality characteristics They shared that he requires introversion and solitude when writing and creating and extraversion and companionship when he performs. Their example brought to mind the like of Prince and Michael Jackson, both incredibly outgoing on stage yet in interviews barely willing to look people in the eye or speak above a whisper. At the eminent creative level, we observe many individuals who appear almost “Jekyll and Hyde” like in nature. These paradoxical qualities are numerous. The creation process itself oscillates between divergence, or what they equate to a nonconformist mindset and convergence, which employs a highly conscientious mindset. To navigate creation most effectively, a person calls on mindfulness to tend to detail but also requires mind-wandering and imagination to feed the visionary and big picture thinker. Through these interesting examples we learn that highly creative people allow themselves to operate within a continuum of personality traits and behaviors. Their behavior is a reactive or proactive expression made in line with the demands of the domain in which they are creating.

Based on the evidence provided by Kaufman and Gregoire, one comes to understand that our level of creativity is linked to the ability we have to switch between thinking modes, characteristics and ways of being, back and forth as each unique situation or challenge requires. Knowing when and how to use opposing mindsets, traits and characteristics in the creation process, impacts the output of our creativity. The highly creative person is not “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, but rather a shape shifter, one who transforms at will.

Useful for educators, therapists, artists, designers, makers, creators and all people who want to know more about how to maximize their creative potential, this book is a welcomed addition to the plethora of creativity books on the shelf. It is certain to distinguish itself from the others by highlighting the neuroscientific processes observed in the brain that accompany creative characteristics and behaviors. For instance, our dopamine levels are at the root of our motivation and desire to get things done. In a world that holds scientific data in high regard, this book legitimizes the subject of creativity by presenting it as a detectable cognitive process. Something is indeed happening in our brains!  Most importantly one is left believing that there is a place for almost every way of being and behavior within the creative process. There is not one way to be a creative person, there is room for many ways of being. The book helps identify where we can uncover our own creative nature and then challenges us to consider the ways each of us can nurture our strengths and deficits in our unique creative personality. The neuroscientific data points to the benefit of fostering the development and expression of contradictory characteristics and mindsets through practice in childhood to set the brain wiring up to toggle between polarities quickly and easily. However, if you are like me, well into the experience of life, you can rest assured you have everything you already need to be creative. Creative people make the best of the wide range of skills and traits they already possess, so identify yours, read the book. 

Tamara Doleman is the current head of visual arts at Ashbury College and is just two courses shy of completing her MSc of Creativity at Buffalo State University. As an artist-teacher-researcher, Tamara is passionate about supporting all the ways to nurture creativity in schools. She is curious about the factors that contribute to deep learning, collaboration, resilience and self-actualization. 
An art-maker, a loving wife and a busy mother of two bouncing boys, Tamara has discovered that her ultimate goal is to live a creative life. As such, her creation process is one of discovery as she strives to create meaningful work from a place of flow, connection to spirit and to the world around her. She strives to support others to find their passion and to make their own magic.

Works Cited:

Gregoire, C.  (2014, March, 4). 18 things highly creative people do differently. Retrieved from

Rhodes, M. (1961). An analysis of creativity. The Phi Delta Kappan 42(7). 305-310.