The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest minds of past centuries. –Rene Descartes
When you get married, you have to choose the best [spouse] you can find that will have you. The rest of life is the same damn way. – Charlie Munger
The more I live, the more I realize how little I know. I wish for my life to be a journey of constant learning that I’ll put into overdrive when I leave my full-time job. Show me someone who thinks they have learned enough and I’ll show you an ignorant person.
One of the best ways to acquire wisdom is to surround yourself with wise people. Seek them out. They don’t have to be your neighbor or even be alive. Books do the job just fine.
My neighbor HB is an interesting guy. I mentioned him when I asked about creativity a couple weeks ago. He comes up with all kinds of neat ideas which has caused me to question and reconsider of my remodeling projects.
He also has a casket business, has written a children’s book and studies entomophagy. I wanted to learn more about HB’s thoughts on creativity, so I asked him if he would be interested in writing a guest post. I’m thrilled that he agreed. Take it away HB!
Creativity, Caskets and Fried Green Grasshoppers
“That’s funny,” said Dr. Fleming, as he looked at his petri dishes and discovered that mold had contaminated one of them. Interestingly, the mold seemed to have destroyed the Staphylococcus bacteria that had been growing in the petri dish. And you know the rest of the story: penicillin was born, gonorrhea sufferers rejoiced, and eventually antibiotic use became profligate.
In a development equally important to humankind, I was speaking with some friends at our neighbor Laura’s house, the drinks were flowing, and I suddenly had an epiphany: “I just had a great idea. We could make urinal cakes that look like somebody has taken a bite out of them.” “What the hell are urinal cakes,” my wife asked. “They’re those little scented pucks they put in urinals that make them smell like perfumed pee,” I explained. “You should try going into the men’s bathroom sometime.” We laughed heartily and then Laura posited “Or how about urinal cakes that look like cookies?” Some brilliant ideas were hashed out, and I dutifully made note of them in my little black idea book.
Another idea for the little black book occurred in 2003 when I was trying to figure out what to do with the old wood pallets somebody had used as a walkway at our house. How could one recycle old, slightly decaying wood? Why not put it in the ground, in the form of a casket. That idea sat in my book for five years before the mountain pine beetle epidemic revived it (and the pallets sat on the curb with a free sign for a few weeks – much to my wife’s chagrin – before someone took them). Mountain pine beetles were devastating lodgepole pines in the Rocky Mountains, leaving a bluish tinge in the wood grain, which made for dead trees, but beautiful wood… after a rough prototype casket (that’s now used as a Halloween prop), we began cranking out beetle-kill caskets and shipping them around the country.
Many years ago I was doing research on grasshoppers in the shortgrass prairie. My cousin was helping me in the field and we decided it would be a good idea to eat the subject of our study. We determined that it’s better to bite down on the little critters than swallow them alive. “Eat more insects, solve world hunger” went into the book. A few years later I teamed up with my brother Isaac (who also has a background in biology) to write a paper on entomophagy (as insect eating is called), and it was published in the Ecology of Food and Nutrition journal. It turns out that, yes, entomophagy could and should play a larger role in combatting hunger.
Last year Isaac and I flew to Scotland with a good friend and filmed a movie. I had originally envisioned renting a castle in Scotland with a group of friends and making an album, after I saw a movie in which some aging British rockers did that (the caveat being that we lack any semblance of musical talent). Another movie convinced me to shift to making a movie instead. Ours is in post-production
Around the time of the Scotland trip I sold a condo on craigslist and I was hoping to do a 1031 exchange to defer my capital gains. I searched high and low and was fortunate enough to find an 1890 house in our neighborhood at the last minute. It needed a lot of work, but it also had a lot of potential. Eight months later, and after numerous changes in direction, it’s finished (-ish) and is bringing in rental income.
I’m a somewhat manic individual. I have lots of ideas (not necessarily good ones – see “bitten urinal cake” above). I take my inspiration from pretty much everything, but there are a few realms from which I derive more ideas: magazine and newspaper articles, conversations with friends, dreams, research for ongoing projects, books, movies, art, nature. From the last three especially, I sometimes experience a feeling of elevation, a kind of awe that makes one want to make the world a better place.
Too much of the wrong kind of stress and busy-ness curtail my creativity (although certain kinds of lower-level stress can increase it). I’m project-driven, and I often spread myself thin by taking on too many projects (so of course I said yes when Mr. 1500 asked me to write a post on creativity). My wife shivers with a bit of dread every time I announce a new idea or project. One way for me to harness the potential energy of ideas is to write them in my little black book. The vast majority of those ideas will remain potential energy, but if the pull is strong enough, I work to turn that potential energy into kinetic energy. I don’t finish all my projects, but to avoid slipping into dilettantism, I try to bring most of them to fruition (sometimes changing the scope of the project (or sacrificing a little quality) along the way).
The above examples point to some of the ingredients for creativity. Fleming utilized one of my favorite: Accident. I’ve come up with new ideas so often due to accident that I coined a new idiom: Fucking Up Is the Mother of Invention. The creativity comes in realizing that a fuck up can actually be an opportunity. It involves Vision, as well as Intelligence and Knowledge. Vision is the ability to see potential energy in something (or someone). In Fleming’s case, he could envision potential uses for his fuck up, but he was also relying on his biological and pharmacological knowledge, which wouldn’t have been so vast without a certain amount of intelligence.
Curiosity, Openness to New Ideas, and Self-Improvement provide opportunities for creativity. If we see that we don’t know everything, and in fact often know the wrong thing, we leave ourselves open to a better understanding of the world. By realizing that much of what we see is merely the shadows on the cave wall, we may begin to see that there is a world outside the cave. Humility opens us to the universe of ideas that we have yet to understand.
Creativity may also involve some Risk-Taking and Divergent Thinking, which kind of go hand in hand. We take some risks when we don’t follow a recipe: the result could taste like shit (example, recently hatched bee pupae sautéed in butter), but then again, there’s only one way to find out. Think about the first guy to try a morel mushroom: “Hmm, looks disgusting, but I’m hungry so I’ll give it a rip. Mmm, delicious!” Then there’s the guy that first tried Amanita ocreata, the angel of death mushroom – he took a risk and it didn’t pay off too well. Nonetheless, these risk-takers have led to a body of knowledge that we draw from when making new decisions. I don’t think creativity usually involves going with a totally new recipe – rather, it’s often just making tweaks to the recipe that’s already there, building on past knowledge. So we take risks, but we do at least a cursory risk assessment first. We think outside the box, but not outside the laws of physics (you can’t make a wind-powered car that generates all its power from a windmill on top of the car (unless you always plan to travel downhill)).
Creativity’s great, but a definitional component of it is that you actually create something (even if it’s not tangible). So I think that actuation is also part of being creative. To bring an idea to fruition, you need some Skill, Innovation, and Perseverance. Note that I said some skill; you shouldn’t let a lack of skill deter you from trying something new. Admittedly, I suffer from the jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none combo, but sometimes what I lack in skill, I make up for in innovation: turning accidents into opportunities. When I made concrete walls in the bathroom of the house renovation, they cracked because I suck at concrete, but I was able to persevere by using other skills to make up for my masonry shortcomings (and by declaring that less-than-perfect outcomes result in more “character” – that house has a lot of character). All skill and no innovation make you a master craftsperson (nothing wrong with that).* All innovation and no skill leave you with a pile of crap. And all the skill and innovation in the world leave you with nothing if you don’t persevere (dilettantism).
For me, Collaboration, both in the idea phase and the actuation phase, is helpful for creativity, although not essential. I like to bounce my ideas off of other people, and I often work with other people to get projects done.
In doing research for this post, I took an online creativity test (at a site creatively titled testmycreativity.com) and I scored only slightly higher than typical. This site has eight components of creativity, some of which overlap with the above ingredients: Abstraction, Connection, Perspective, Curiosity, Boldness, Paradox, Complexity, and Persistence. I’m not sure how accurate the test is at measuring one’s creativity (too simplistic?), but I think the components they list capture a lot of what makes one creative.
Of course, creativity is a nebulous animal. I’m not sure it’s even one creature – maybe it’s a chimera that incorporates several concepts. So the above ingredients are undoubtedly not the whole recipe, or perhaps one or two of the above ingredients are enough to make a dish in some cases.
In any case, I think most of the variables (or ingredients, or components) that feed what we call creativity are largely genetically determined. If one is born with genes that produce strong expressions of the above variables, one is likely to be highly creative. That said, genes simply set upper and lower limits for these variables, a continuum in which environment has the final say. We are plastic enough that we can move ourselves along that continuum, within the confines of our genetic boundaries. I’m not really sure how to do this, but I imagine that you can feed your sense of curiosity by trying to see the potential energy in things, take a few more risks by trying new things, and of course write down your ideas in a little black book.
On a societal scale, we could do a lot more to foster creativity. Parents could spend more time exploring and playing with their kids (full disclosure: my kids are watching a crappy show on TV as I type this). The school system could spend more time with creative, hands-on learning versus rote learning for test after test. My wife attended a Catholic high school, where critical thinking skills were apparently sacrilege – she discovered that one could actually question authority in college. Not to name names or anything, but in the current insane clown posse that is the presidential race, it’d be nice to see a little more critical thinking.
There’s a lot to be said for a society with more critical thinking and creativity, but on an individual level, I think there’s some value in having people all along the creative continuum. Highly creative people can bring a lot of value to society in terms of technological, scientific, and artistic innovation. But I wonder if highly creative people are less likely to provide some of the knowledge and insight that less-creative people do, who may be more focused and driven in a given field. Not that creative types can’t also be focused and driven, but they’re probably less inclined to, say, spend thirty years studying the mating habits of pygmy grasshoppers.**
My wife is not overtly creative. When she sees a dilapidated 100-year-old house, she doesn’t envision a beautiful home in which to raise our kids. She’s not generally a risk taker. She doesn’t keep a little black book. But she is creative in her own way and, I think, creates a lot of value for society. She’s a literacy teacher in the public school system. Within the constraints of that system (which happen to be less tight in the world of literacy coaching), her goal is to help struggling readers. She is given a set of goals, and it’s up to her to create a plan that will help her kids. There’s a lot of knowledge, skill, intelligence, risk taking, innovation, and many other creativity ingredients that go into this plan, and her kids often make vast improvements. So, while we can move ourselves somewhat along the creativity continuum, maybe the best thing to do is find the creative medium that suits us best.
Thanks HB for the post today!
*In two earlier iterations of this post, I included some Bob Ross analogies. I really wanted to get him in here. I imagine him coming home to his wife after filming a show and saying, “If I have to paint one more happy little fucking tree, I’m going to kill myself.” Many moons ago, while hiking with a friend in a Bob Ross painting, Mount Rainier National Park, my friend, a brilliant cartoonist (a craftsmen and an artist), argued that Bob Ross was an artist, whereas I held out that he was just an extremely talented craftsman. Eventually I capitulated – Bob Ross did have some innovative qualities after all, rest his gentle soul.
**My college adviser noticed I had collected a new species of fly during my shortgrass research expeditions. When I asked him what it would entail for me to describe this new species, he said I could spend the next thirty years studying that particular family of flies, and then I would be enough of an expert to begin keying out and naming new species. That project will remain potential energy in my little black book.
Join the 10s who have signed up already!
Subscribing will improve your life in incredible ways*.
*Only if your life is pretty bad to begin with.