Cultivating Creativity when Times are Tough—Part I

In last week’s post, I talked about the importance of nurturing an ‘innovative mindset’, especially when times are tough and the pressures to hunker down are overwhelming. And yet, from my own personal experience, I know that this is anything but easy.  On the average college campus, there are any number of barriers at play that keep faculty and staff locked into habitual ways of thinking and acting.

So, how do we break through the structural fixedness that keeps us tethered to our comfort zones and blocks us from seeing things in new ways? Here are some suggestions for cultivating creative habits of mind that have worked for me and for colleagues who are similarly challenged by the demands of the role:

1. Make creative thinking a habit

Many of us believe that creativity is something you either have or don’t. And yet, the research suggests that creative thinking is no different than any other behavior that we might want to change or develop. Thomas Edison’s creative thinking habits provide a great example of how creativity can be cultivated by anyone in nearly any industry. As illustrated by his notebooks, which span six decades, the keys to becoming a habitual creative thinker include: generate as many ideas as possible, discipline yourself to ask “why” and “why not,” keep an idea journal, and adapt an exploratory frame of mind.

Just as with other common habits that form because of repetition and intention, creativity can become one’s default mode. The key is to make a commitment to work at it, to challenge yourself, and to implement daily practices that will be habit-forming over time. For example, I now keep a small notepad in my purse so that I can record ideas immediately whenever and wherever they come. A friend keeps an idea notebook on her desk and has disciplined herself to take five minutes at the end of each day to jot down all ideas—good and bad—that emerged throughout that day.

2. Nurture curiosity

Award-winning producer of such movie and television hits as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, 24, Empire, and Frost/Nixon, Brian Grazer attributes his success in the film industry to the power of curiosity and says it’s something he has worked at his entire life. In his book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, he shares his belief that every conversation is an opportunity for generating game- changing ideas. He has disciplined himself to ask leading questions and to be alert to possibilities that might otherwise fly right by. Like Edison, Grazer has learned to remain open-minded and detached from personal opinions and assumptions, to be present, and to expect to be surprised.

Some of our best new program ideas at Bay Path have resulted from Grazer-esque curiosity conversations.  Several years ago, during an end of year celebration, I learned from one of our criminal justice and legal studies double majors about her plans to enroll in a cybersecurity master’s program at a university in the region. I asked several leading questions about her decision to pursue this career pathway and eventually concluded that there was something to this. The result of this conversation? Bay Path University is now one of the leading universities in the country in the education of cybersecurity professionals at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

3. Formalize opportunities for idea creation

One of my colleagues at another institution has a standing agenda item for her weekly deans’ meeting labeled “crazy ideas.” Each week, someone is assigned to share an outlandish idea with her team, with the only rule being: “There is no bad idea.” Invariably, the ensuing discussions lead to breakthrough thinking, and more than a few new programs have been generated because of someone’s crazy idea. Alternatively, you might ask someone to restate a problem from different perspectives or turn an issue upside down to consider an implausible scenario.

The point here is that new ideas typically don’t just emerge on their own. The higher ed environment is one where it’s always easier to consider why something cannot be done versus considering what it might take to do something differently. There are many tools (see here for example) that can be used to spark creative thinking and generate new ideas in group settings so that your entire group forms the habit of creative thinking. The key is to formalize the use of these tools so that creative thinking becomes an important and expected part of your ongoing meetings.

4. Connect the dots

I used to believe that creativity was all about coming up with original ideas, but what I have since learned is that the best new ideas typically come because of connections that someone has made between existing ideas. What this means is that any one of us can learn how to connect the dots.

When asked for his definition of creativity, Steve Jobs offered similar thoughts: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” A fellow provost at a neighboring institution keeps a large white board in her office to capture ideas that are generated at her monthly council meetings. She structures time each month for team members to review the sticky notes and see what connections or patterns they can find. According to this very wise provost, “some of their best ideas have been right in front of them on the board but invisible until someone connected the dots between two or three sticky notes.”

5. Get out of the office

For most of us, very few if any new ideas are generated while sitting at our desks processing paperwork. When asked how he came up with the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein said, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.” Those who exercise regularly can attest to the way our thinking changes when we are in the aerobic state of flow. Ideas emerge as if by magic, and the filters that sometimes keep good ideas out are relaxed. A friend of mine likes to hold walking meetings and claims that the outcome of these meetings is invariably more positive and productive than meetings held in his office. Given that an increasing body of research confirms that exercise can in fact increase creativity, I think my friend is on to something.

Develop the habit of getting out of your office at least once a day. Schedule in time each day that gives you opportunity for those curiosity conversations with students or others on campus. A faculty member I know who was struggling to get her latest writing project going began spending time each week at our local Starbucks. She now credits that time spent soaking up the smell of coffee and the conversations all around her as the impetus she needed to get her creative juices going.

Check back next week for more ideas about how to cultivate creativity when times are tough.

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