Creativity Lessons from Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review.

Creativity is the most essential skill for navigating an increasingly complex world — or so said 1,500 CEOs across 60 countries in a recent survey by IBM. And yet federally funded research and development — creativity, institutionalized — is down 20% as a share of America's GDP since the late 1980s. Private R&D spending has also tailed off since then, when it brought us breakthrough innovations like laser printing, the Ethernet, the graphical user interface, and the mouse. And that was just from one company's private R&D engine, Xerox's PARC. At the same time, experts fret that our public school system doesn't foster enough creativity in our future workforce. All of which makes it easy to worry that we'll run out of creative leaders producing creative goods. But I think the declinism is overwrought. And that's because some of the best paths to encourage innovation are surprisingly simple.

Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs Tell Us How To Boost Creativity

Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs Tell Us How To Boost Creativity

Yes, as a society, we do need to remake our educational systems to deliver more young people to what Steve Jobs called "the intersection of technology and the humanities" — to bring American students' globally below-average math and science fluency up to snuff and keep them immersed in the arts. But each of us as individuals can also work to optimize our innovative capacities. If innovation is stimulated by identifying under-served markets and then figuring out a service or product to fill the void, then here are a few low-to-no-cost suggestions for reinvigoration.

Reduce stress, but don't relax too much. Stress affects our creativity. A study conducted in 2006 by Christina Ting Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Business School, suggests that the optimal sate for an individual seeking maximum creativity at work is to embrace an in-between emotional state, neither happy-go-luckily complacent nor anxiously stressed out. After asking college students to write about experiences that had made them feel happy, sad, neutral, or ambivalent, she then had them complete something called the Remote Associates Test, a word-association test used to measure creativity. Fong found that those who reported feeling emotionally ambivalent performed significantly better on the creative test — and believes that it was the presence of mixed emotions that increases sensitivity to unusual associations that stimulate unconventional, more creative connections.

By studying people's "Aha!" moments of insight, Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman found that one's brain state before addressing a problem can importantly influence the creativity of one's proposed solution. He discovered that if someone is too focused or too wound up, the scope of their problem-solving is reduced. John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University who partnered with Jung-Beeman in his research, advises people to relax to encourage insight. And one simple way to relax and stimulate your creative juices? Take a walk.

Get out of the office and into unfamiliar environments. Let's imagine you're an executive in charge of overseeing the development of a new product — a television show, a medical device, a beverage, whatever — and you spend your working hours hermetically sealed, going from office to conference room attending meetings, never leaving a car between appointments out of the office. That narrow input will result in a correspondingly narrow output. A piece in The New Yorker exploring the flaws inherent in the groupthink of brainstorming sessions, cited research into the process of free association by psychology professor Charlan Nemeth of the University of California at Berekely. Nemeth has "demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity."

I've often suggested that people walk to work, take public transportation, and in general, wander about to see how real people, consumers, are behaving and spending their time. If you never take the time to fill your creative well, you'll having nothing to contribute. Wandering around — observing, talking to strangers, taking pictures, inhaling the rich diversity of unfamiliar life, may feel unproductive or even wasteful. But innovation needs to be informed and sometimes provoked by the unpredictable hurly-burly of messy, surprising real life. Suntae Kim, Evan Polman and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, researchers from New York Univsersity, have found that students who were allowed to walk freely, rather than along a fixed path, were able to generate 25% more creative uses for various objects.

In a recent essay, Verlyn Klinkenborg connected Charles Dickens's extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. "He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism," he wrote, "calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, 'I should just explode and perish.' Under the pseudonym Boz, Dickens wrote, 'There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though 'the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.'"

Steve Jobs and Charles Dickens were of one mind. In a 1995 Wired piece, Jobs put it this way: "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. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things... A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." Creativity requires both divergent thinking (the generation of lots of fresh ideas) combined with convergent thinking (channeling those ideas into a practical solution). The tension of toggling between right-field thinking and pragmatism leads to the greatest creative insights.

Let your mind wander. It does no good to get out of the office or reduce stress if you don't let your mind do any roaming. Yet a different study led by Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia, suggests that our "default" and "executive" brain functions, "two systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition" might, in fact, be encouraged to work in cooperation by the unique mental state stimulated by day dreaming.

When we're younger, the road to success is all about learning habits of discipline and rigor and focus. And those habits are crucial. But once we can take those habits for granted, we need to build in new disciplines — call it the discipline of being undisciplined — of breaking away and wandering, physically and intellectually, to see new things and connect dots in new ways. Otherwise, we risk becoming reliable but uncreative drones. Remember the fable about the super-prudent ant and the devil-may-care grasshopper? At their best and most innovative, we are not one or the other — but both.

New Healthy Habits: Timing and Persistence Matter by Anne Kreamer


If you are starting the new year with a resolution to get fit, it's worth remembering that patterning new behavior takes time.  A few years ago, at a time in my life when I was feeling particularly burned out, I happened to pick up a book about Qigong (pronounced "chee kung"), a Chinese method for building and balancing "life energy" through ritualized exercise. The "Qi" part of the word represents the vital energy that Taoists believe exists throughout the universe - energy held in perfect balance by the optimal relationship between the opposing forces of yin (soft, feminine, calm) and yang (hard, masculine, energetic). The "Gong" is the part that requires study, practice and training.

At the time I was craving a sense of balance, and the exercises outlined in the Qigong book I bought seemed like something that could help. I also bought some videos so I could see the exercises performed.

One night while I was following the exercises on one video, my younger daughter joined me and halfway through the program, she turned to me and excitedly said, "Mom, my fingers are tingling!"

And while I never had such a visceral response to the exercises, her experience, provoked without any knowledge of what was supposed to happen, proved to my satisfaction that something subtle and real was at work. I tried to develop a consistent practice and succeeded for a while. During that time I felt calmer and more resilient.

But as with so many things that require effort and consistency and time, once my immediate crisis passed I lapsed back into my old patterns and abandoned Qigong.

Recently I happened across something in one of my favorite magazines, Scientific American Mind. In a larger piece about the psychology and neurobiology of happiness was the statement, "Like a drug or a diet, the exercises work only if you stick with them." Right. I'd sort of forgotten that.

The piece also suggested that timing is important when trying to adopt new behaviors. I know that from the number of times I quit smoking before it finally stuck. Timing is everything.  So with fingers crossed and a sense of hopefulness, today I begin anew.

Fly Through 17th Century London by Anne Kreamer

If the holidays make you feel like time traveling, this piece in the Londonist by Matt Brown will satisfy that itch. "A group of students at De Montfort University created this fly-through of 17th century London (skip to 0:50 in the video to get to the juicy stuff).

The model focuses on the area around Pudding Lane and the bakery of Thomas Farriner, where the Great Fire of 1666 started.

Although most of the buildings are conjectural, the students used a realistic street pattern and even included the hanging signs of genuine inns and businesses mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary. More information on the source material and processes can be found on the team’s blog.

The project is an entry in the Off The Map competition, in which students were invited to build 3-D digital models based on maps at the British Library, and using software by Crytek."

The Rudeness Epidemic by Anne Kreamer

This post originally appeared on The Harvard Business Review.

When his three-hour board interview ended with an offer to join the executives for a beer, 35-year-old Martin* figured he’d nailed the job. He had spent the last two months interviewing for a position as director of operations at a sporting goods company. His resume was spot-on — he’d spent five years as a sporting goods sales rep and several years as an operations manager doing “everything from ordering for shops, to speaking with dealers, to sales.” Senior management at the new company knew him, his successful track record, and the companies he’d worked for. Slam dunk, right? Wrong.

Martin had participated in five interviews, between which he managed myriad back-and-forth e-mails and deliverables. At the company’s request, he created and submitted a five-year business plan and a master list of vendors and buyers. He was asked to explain his strategies for expanding distribution and introducing new products to market. At the time, Martin had felt uncomfortable about offering so much proprietary information to a company for whom he did not yet work, but colleagues who’d more recently been in the job market told him, “This is how the interviewing process works these days — you jump through hoops.” Martin decided he wanted the job, and if he had to give up the keys to the car to get it, he was going to hope for the best.

But after months of interviews and assignments, Martin said, “Instead of making me an offer, they told me they had to make a ‘really tough decision’ and ‘decided to move in a different direction’” — that direction was giving the position to the most junior board member, who lacked any hands-on experience. “We hope this won’t affect our relationship,” they told him. And with months of his “life down the drain,” but knowing that he worked in a small community, Martin felt obliged not come off as a sore loser. “But the fact of the matter is, I got taken.” His goal today? “To ruin this company.”

Maybe you’re thinking that Martin just didn’t know how to play his cards right. Or that maybe, in the end, he simply wasn’t the best candidate for the position. But Martin is not alone. His utter frustration over the hiring process is pretty much par for the course these days. This type of behavior is happening more and more often. Ask five acquaintances about recent hiring experiences and I bet you’ll encounter one friend who personally has suffered something similar. Data compiled for The New York Times by Glassdoor found that an average interview process in 2013 lasted 23 days versus an average of 12 days in 2009. And time-consuming assignments and auditions for candidates as chronicled in the stories here, and here, and here, are the new normal.

This problem is the result of several factors:

Fear of decision-making. Back when I was hiring people as an executive at a large business, I’d solicit candidates, look at a batch of resumes, decide who had the requisite skills on paper, and then interview the top three or four. Each interview lasted about 30 minutes. I had my standard set of questions that probed their personalities, attitudes, ambitions, skill set, and prospective fit with the company ethos. If two potential hires seemed close, I’d have a breakfast with each and then make a decision. And I personally wrote everyone who didn’t get the job. This wasn’t rocket science.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the hiring process went off the rails, but I believe it began in the late 90s, when cost cutting became a mania and headcount was slashed to the bone, requiring every employee to do the work of many. With so little margin for error, every hire became a fraught decision, and the fear of making a mistake loomed larger and larger. To protect themselves and validate their choices, managers began to seek more and more “evidence” of their thoroughness in vetting their hires. New hurdles were added until someone interested in a director-level position, such as Martin, is now routinely required to submit the kind of analysis and proposals that were once the province of in-house executives or paid consultants.

A culture of rudeness. Rachel, a 60-year-old former news producer turned freelance marketer, was introduced by a friend to the CEO of “a fast growing ‘deep content’ company with clients like GE and Xerox.” The company seemed like a good fit for Rachel’s portfolio of skills, and employed a large staff of experienced journalists, artists, and web designers. After a brief phone conversation, the CEO wanted to meet with Rachel “ASAP.” During their first in-person conversation, Rachel and he discovered shared viewpoints, and after talking for an hour, the CEO asked Rachel to meet with his editorial VP. But first, the CEO gave Rachel his card. “This is my direct line,” he said, “and I return every call on this line. Call me by the end of the week.” Rachel did as requested. Six weeks later, after several awkward interactions with the CEO’s assistant, he finally took Rachel’s call.

CEO: “Hi Rachel, I’m too busy to talk today.”

Rachel: “I understand —maybe Monday?”

CEO: “Well, I can’t commit to that right now, either. And I need to tell you, it doesn’t inspire me that you’ve been calling so much.”

Rachel: “On the day we met you asked me to call you two days later. That was six weeks ago. I’ve called less than once a week.”

CEO: “Well, every time you call your name doesn’t go to the to top of the list – it moves to the bottom! This doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in you and your work, but it’s not cool to do what you’re doing.”

Rachel: “I understand. I won’t call again. Thank you.”

The colleague who set up the initial contact told Rachel: “There is no bad intent here — like me, he gets 300 emails a day and works 18-hour days across five continents. It’s not personal.”

I wrote a book about emotion in the workplace called It’s Always Personal. And no matter what others say, it nearly always is. People hiring today have precious little time to read, process information, and respond to even urgent issues like staffing. But this comes at great peril to their organizations and to the rude employer. Instead of fostering good will among the prospective hires they interview, enemies like I-live-to-see-this-company-destroyed Martin are made.

My time is more important than your time. An author I know was approached by a publisher to write a book for which the publisher had decided there was a market. The writer was asked to write a proposal, but wasn’t told that he was only one among many other people from whom they’d solicited proposals until midway through the process. That process took “months and months and months,” he says, and “it was always a hurry-up-and-wait situation, where they made me jump through hoop after hoop — every one of them a last-minute-need-it-immediately kind of thing. And then I’d hear nothing for weeks.” When his proposal was finally accepted, they wanted the finished book in six weeks. “It took them about eight months to make a decision to accept the proposal — which, by the way, was their idea in the first place, and which they had approached me about — and then they expected me to just whip the entire book out of thin air in six weeks? What’s wrong with these people?”

This is happening to almost everyone I know looking for any kind of work, even those who have been invited into the process — freelance, contract, full-time. The prospective employer/client needs everything now and then it’s radio silence for days, weeks, months — leaving the prospective supplier/employee in the unenviable position of feeling like they must beg for feedback. During the last decade, it became acceptable behavior to simply not answer e-mails. But that’s the worst kind of ego-sucking, demoralizing power play imaginable. We’re all busy. That’s no excuse for disrespect. And the awful truth? I don’t think the employers have a clue. Fearful of losing their own jobs by making a wrong choice, they’ve lost perspective on what matters.

So what’s lost amid all these changes?

At a time when the buzzwords in corporate America are innovation, disruption, and game-changers — all actions that require recruiting the best talent in the marketplace — organizations, instead, are artificially creating bureaucratic inefficiencies that are inexcusably cumbersome and that result in the creation of legions of antagonists. It’s a waste of human capital, it’s a huge waste of everyone’s productive time, and it damages the reputation of an organization and the individual doing the hiring. Jobs are scarce enough, and the general economic vibe is insecure enough that companies and managers believe that they can be cavalier about how they treat people outside the organization — but in this thinking lies madness. Now that 20th-century-style employer loyalty and benefits are a thing of the past, employees return the disfavor, churning through organizations at a rapid clip. If a typical new hire is only going to stay at a company for two to four years, why sweat the decision so much? Be responsive. Act fast. Trust your gut.

Employers need to streamline the hiring process, calling upon both common sense and basic good manners. Here are six easy actions:

Make the process transparent from the outset for prospective hires

State the timetable for making a decision

Offer updates if the process extends beyond that timeframe

Limit the “tryout” requirements — proposals, plans, original work — and make the deliverables clear at the start of the process

Make the timeframe for submitting any materials reasonable — 3 to 5 business days, never tomorrow

Make certain that everyone who’s being considered for a position is given the courtesy of a definitive response within the stated timeframe. Just as e-mail has compounded our daily load, so too does it liberate us from making those hard calls person to person. Use the tool to your advantage.

The wildly successful actress/producer/director Lena Dunham perhaps said it best in a recent interview: “I’m never going to be the person who lets e-mail and voicemail sit for weeks — I’m going to be the person who responds, even if the answer is no.” How refreshing.

*Names have been changed

One Question for Maira Kalman by Anne Kreamer

Maira Kalman has worked as a designer, author, illustrator and artist for more than thirty years without formal training. Her work is a narrative journal of her life and all its absurdities. She has written and illustrated thirteen children's books, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker Magazine and the creator of an illustrated column for The New Yorker that morphed out of her travels to museums and libraries.

Q: What’s the most significant risk you’ve taken professionally?

Maira: i never think of any project as being risky. i have an idea and then decide to go ahead. later on i realize that i am incredibly anxious that it be something wonderful. knowing that it could be a mess, or a bore. collaborating is also risky i suppose. it is very very hard to be completely honest. brutally honest with another person. of course there has to be love and mutual admiration, (though they are not always apparent), otherwise it won't work so well. if you find a smart person that you can be absolutely honest with and who is absolutely honest with you, hold on to him or her for dear life.

Maira and Max

Maira and Max

Me, My Hair, And I by Anne Kreamer

Thrilled to be among this group.  For anyone who has wrestled with their hair (and who among us hasn't?) buy this book.

“Women show their roots in ‘Me, My Hair, and I.’” — Vanity Fair

“[T]hese twenty-seven essays are beautifully revelatory and deeply personal accounts of each woman's hair”— Bustle

“Benedict has a knack for zeroing in on subjects with far-reaching, often surprising implications and resonance. In her third invitational collection, she has definitely tapped a nerve . . . Women spend enormous amounts of money and time on their hair, agonizing over every decision. Variations on these themes are tackled with candor, wit, insight, and emotion by Benedict’s 27 eloquently entertaining contributors . . . [An] irresistible, pithy, and right-on anthology.” — Booklist

“[A] splendid collection . . . By turns wry, tender, pointed, and laugh-out-loud funny, the selections take us along on the contributors’ tangled, complicated, and thoroughly engaging journeys.”—Publishers Weekly

“This collection is not only unique for the subject matter it addresses. It also provides cultural commentary that is by turns insightful, humorous, and moving. . . Surprisingly engaging reading.” — Kirkus Reviews

“We wear our hair every day, and this collection demonstrates—with great clarity and insight—the complexities of what that means for women of all backgrounds. An important conversation and worthy of note” — Library Journal

“Elizabeth Benedict has gathered such wonderful writers to examine the allure, magic, curse, thrills, seductions, and sorrows of hair. Written with tender sensitivity and wild wit, these essays may start with the external, but they go deep into the lives of the writers, into what appearance means, and into how they see themselves and their place in the world.” — Luanne Rice, author of The Lemon Orchard

“Untangles the many truths about hair, and the lives we lead underneath it.” — Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing up Bébé

“This is the book I wish I’d had when I let my hair go gray and when my husband and I made the pact that if he stopped talking about hockey, I’d stop talking about my hair. Now with these wonderful, affirming and insightful essays, I understand that there’s merely a hair’s breadth between my hair and myself. This brilliant collection that takes us from Samson and Delilah to silver foxes is a terrific read for those of us who obsess about our hair. Or those who live with those of us who do. A collection that’s, dare I say, a cut above the rest.” — Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace

Be Happy, Don't Hurry. by Anne Kreamer

New research highlights the links between busy lives and bliss.  Turns out that the happiest people in the country are more likely to report themselves both as less rushed and with no excess time. John P. Robinson, the Professor of Sociology and Director of the Americans' Use of Time Project as well as Director of the the Internet Scholars Program. Robinson is primarily interested in the study of time and is co-author of several books dealing with the use of time and the quality of life, including Time for Life (with G. Godbey, Penn State Press, 1999), The Rhythm of Everyday Life: How Soviet and American Citizens Use Time (Westview, 1988) and How Americans Use Time (Praeger, 1977). "If someone were to ask you how happy you are, how would you respond?

University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has been studying how people answer that question for nearly 40 years, and he's been looking at that happiness question as it relates to two other questions, both about how people view their time.

The first: 'Would you say that you always feel rushed, only sometimes feel rushed or almost never feel rushed?'

And the second: 'How often do you have time on your hands that you don't know what to do with: most of the time, some of the time, none of the time?'

Putting the happiness question aside for just a second, it's interesting to note that according to Robinson's analysis, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "always feeling rushed" actually went down between 2004 and 2010.

'That was really a surprise to me,' he says. 'Particularly with all this new technology that we have, which is very time-demanding. I know I have a hard time dealing with it; it raises my blood pressure!'

Something else that surprised Robinson is what happens when you bring the happiness question in. According to his research, the people who report being the happiest, about 8 to 12 percent of Americans, "say they almost never feel rushed, and they do not have time on their hands they don't know what to do with," explains Robinson.

Extra time = less happiness

Robinson isn't the only happiness researcher intrigued by this finding. Erik Angner, who teaches philosophy, economics and public policy at George Mason University, says he was surprised to find that people who had a lot of excess time on their hands reported being less happy.

"I would have thought that the relationship would go (go to American University Radio to read and hear more...)

The Season For Ocean Meditation by Anne Kreamer

Watch this NASA film showing surface currents circulating in a high-resolution, 3D model ofthe Earth's oceans. Driven by wind and other forces, currents on the ocean surface cover our planet. Some span hundreds to thousands of miles across vast ocean basins in well-defined flows. Others are confined to particular regions and form slow-moving, circular pools. Seen from space, the circulating waters offer a study in both chaos and order.  Mesmerizing.