An interesting realization came to me recently: I’ve never achieved a creative insight in a routine setting.
It’s a sobering thought. Think of all the time we spend in routine settings, engaged in routine activities. Consider the typical business meeting, for example. How often have you experienced a creative insight – from others or from yourself – during one of those meetings?
While traveling, however, I’ve experienced many fresh perspectives and generated quite a few new ideas. The more unique the travel destination, such as the glacier shown above, the more likely it’s been that I’ve arrived at important realizations.
The interesting thing is that I never go into those travel experiences expecting or needing creative outcomes. Rather, they seem to come naturally.
Why is it that we can find creativity on a simple walk through the neighborhood, but not in a business meeting where it might be most needed? Why is it that I find the trading floors among financial firms to be among the least creative settings I’ve encountered – so much so that traders and portfolio managers routinely concern themselves with “positioning”: the degree to which trade ideas are widely subscribed?
If creativity were simply an inborn trait or an acquired set of skills, setting should not matter so greatly in the generation of new ideas. When we look at business settings that are successful in cultivating creativity, such as those described by Ed Catmull of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, we find that they feature vigorous debate, laughter, and participation; research trips; and active experiments. Even during meetings, participants actively move around the room, draw on boards, and try things out. In short, they are actively engaged, emotionally and physically. They are doing and feeling new things, and that helps them generate new ideas.
Just like a trip to a glacier: creativity seems to be a function of fresh experiencing.
A provocative line of psychology research from James Averill, Ph.D. of the University of Massachusetts supports this notion. He has researched what he calls “emotional creativity”: the capacity to experience the world in novel, authentic, and effective ways. Creativity, he maintains, is not limited to the domain of ideas; it is expressed equally in our responses to people, places, and events.
Consider the artist who travels to a beautiful area of the world and experiences a vista with a sense of awe. The combination of clouds, sky, and mountains evoke for the artist an otherworldly sense that becomes the inspiration for a painting. In such an instance, the creative work is facilitated by an emotional creativity: the ability to experience the world distinctively.
Emotional creativity is hardly limited to artists. I recently met with a portfolio manager who was visibly excited about the opportunities in financial markets. I expressed surprise, as most market participants perceived few opportunities at that time. The manager exclaimed that this was precisely why he was excited:
In his experience, the consensus of the herd was never correct and now there was a market consensus – not about a trade but about an absence of trading opportunity! Perhaps not coincidentally, this occurred days before the Brexit vote and considerable dislocations in markets. He perceived the same lack of conviction as other money managers. What differed was his emotional response to the situation.
Averill makes the interesting point that emotional creativity may lie at the heart of spirituality, the ability to experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways. If we think about how we generate spiritual experiences, whether through the disciplines of meditation or yoga or through religious worship and practice, we can see that a common ingredient is a shifting of our focus and state of awareness.
If we wish to engage the world spiritually, we invariably exit our daily routines and cultivate distinctive states of consciousness. This is not so far from what happens in the creative business practices described by Catmull: we become more physically and emotionally engaged.
The implications are profound for the business world and for our personal lives. Much of what we do is structured to get things done efficiently by turning activities into habits and routines. Yet it is in the mode of habit and routine that we are least likely to be distinctively engaged with the world emotionally and physically.
Quite literally, our modes of physical and emotional engagement with the world are too dialed-down to generate the fresh perspectives that will enable us to adapt to changing markets and changing business landscapes.
We become better creative thinkers when we become more emotionally creative, and we become more emotionally creative when we actively engage the world in fresh ways. Whether in our careers or our relationships, new doing can catalyze new viewing.
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