Two Prominent Creativity Researchers, Adam Grant and Rex Jung, on What It Means to be Creative

 

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Image by Pierrick Van Troost. Via: (Unsplash)

 

Rex Jung, a scholar who has spent more than a decade studying the nature of creativity, said in an interview with Krista Tippett that one of the best ways to become creative at our chosen field is by doing a lot of practice or getting a lot of experience in that field. Jung wholeheartedly agrees with the notion of 10,000 hours coined by Malcolm Gladwell. Jung says:

“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. In thinking about Dr. Davidson’s work in neuroplasticity, you need to get some stuff in you head, some raw materials, in order to be with which to be creative.
You practice, practice, practice. That 10,000-hour thing is probably right, not 10 years. But it takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain. And that is the thing. The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently.
So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”

He also touches on the necessity of down time that can spark one’s creative fire:

“That playfulness is a second aspect where you can have down time basically and play with ideas, whether that’s the long walk or the recess or whatever we talked about. This downtime is incredibly important to allow that raw material to come together in novel and useful ways as transient hypofrontality. This persistence is–perseverance is incredibly important because, once you find a good idea, pushing it forward into the world is going to be difficult and a lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative.”

Then Jung goes on to explain that some of the greatest artists in the world achieve mastery because they’re willing to produce a greater volume of work than their peers, which later gave them more variation to shape their work and a higher chance of originality (Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis wrote a paper about this issue of creative productivity among artists)

“We haven’t touched upon this, but research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas. And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good.”
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Image by Kevin Laminto. Via: (Unsplash)

 

When I heard this conversation, I was instantly reminded of a book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant that I had read exactly a year ago. I think if I could gather Rex Jung and Adam Grant to sit down and discuss the notion of 10,000 hours as a way to hone our creative skill, Grant would have disagreed with Jung. In the book, Grant openly debunks the myth that the notion of 10,000 hours is an important ingredient to create creative geniuses. He writes that while aspiring creators must hone their craft through an intense and continuous practice, too much practice won’t propel them to become revolutionary creators.

Of course, this is intriguing because how is too much practice being perceived as useless? To answer this question, Grant focuses his attention on the lives of child prodigies, a group of people that we always consider who will grow up and make a massive dent in the universe. Although child prodigies never seem to lose their talent and ambition, they, according to Grant, rarely go on to change the world.

This is what Grant says (Emphasis is mine):

“Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.
In adulthood, many child prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments psychologist Ellen Winner. ‘Those who do must make a painful transition’ from a child who ‘learns rapidly and effortlessly in an established domain’ to an adult who ‘ultimately remakes a domain.’ “

Grant continues to write that many child prodigies feel too comfortable with their abilities and achievements that they feel reluctant to question and to challenge the ideas that they have been told. This resistance to reflect on what they have learned is the reason why some child prodigies never make the leap to become revolutionary creators.

He says:

“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”

Though Grant finds a “hole” in the theory of 10,000 hours, I still think that, just like what Jung believes about the power of practice, it is one of the most necessary ingredients to become excellent at what we aspire to do. When we invest time and energy to hone our skill, we’re fifty steps further than people who are just passively sitting, doing nothing, and still wishing to be creative. Practice still counts and will always give you a firm foundation to help you to become creative. But, another important point to ponder: once we start to feel comfortable with the skill that we have, it’s time to explore other domains/skills/ideas that we have never explored before. The more we step out of our comfort zone, the richer our life experiences will be. Those life experiences that we slowly accumulate over time can stretch our minds and imaginations wider, and this is the best way to get creative.

Jocelyn K. Glei on Why Context is the Future of Content

 

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Jocelyn K. Glei. Photo Credit: Jonny Marlow. Via: (jkglei.com)

 

The concept of content and context, and how they can shape the way we experience our reality have been circulating on my mind lately. A couple of days ago, I wrote an article about this topic, heavily inspired by the talk that Alan Webber gave at the CreativeMornings.

Webber’s theory is that content needs to be replaced by context because as he says, “Content, today, is a commodity. It’s really, a very low value offer. What do we value? What creates value? What creates value is context.”

Webber is not the only one who thinks that the concept of “content” is meaningless. Jocelyn K Glei, a writer and the host of Podcast “Hurry Slowly”, agrees wholeheartedly with what Webber says about the uselessness of “content,” especially in steering us towards the meaningful and away from the meaningless. Speaking as a writer who writes mainly and always compellingly about creativity, Jocelyn is aware that absorbing more content doesn’t make us more creative, and content only looks for what is viral, not what is important in the grand scheme of things. What we need, she argues, is more context, and context is the future of content.

Speaking with Paul Jun from Own Your Content, a project that calls creatives to express what they mean when they talk about content, Jocelyn explains what she means when she says that context is the future of content.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

Paul Jun: “What does the future of content look to you?”

Jocelyn Glei: “This is the part where I confess that I actively hate the word ‘content.’ Content is a word that was invented by people who want to create boxes that they can sell ads around, and they had to come up with a name for what goes in the box, and that word was ‘content.’

In other words, if you’re using the word ‘content’ that means you really don’t have a vision for what you’re making. Because creating good content requires specificity: it requires a point of view and strong writing and the right package to frame it, to catch someone’s attention, and to inspire trust. This is no easy task.

But to set semantics aside and actually answer your question…The future of content, in my opinion, is all about creating context. We are bombarded with so much information from so many channels every single day, that people crave editorial that can actually help them make sense of everything. We get so much of our ‘content’ in these little bursts now–be it an email, a tweet, a blog post. But it’s always this little bite-sized, isolated bit of information. We rarely understand how it actually fits into our lives.

Given this, I think what’s needed are curators, editors, writers, filmmakers, etc who can really zoom out from that narrow perspective and take the long view. Who can do some of that sense-making for people so that they understand how this political development fits into the long arc of history, or how developing this particular habit will give their life meaning in the long run. The future of content is about creating a rich, well-thought-out context that makes it possible for people to really process and synthesize ideas in depth–not in this surface-y way we’re all accustomed to now.”

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Jocelyn K. Glei. Photo Credit: Jonny Marlow. Via: (jkglei.com)

 

Read the full interview here: Own Your Content.

And if you haven’t subscribed to Jocelyn’s well-curated and compelling weekly newsletter, I beg you to hit the subscribe button and wait for her generous and passionate work to land into your inbox: Jkglei’s newsletter.

Or you can also follow her on Twitter: @jkglei

Alan Webber Loves Context: The Founder of Fast Company on the Value of Context in Our Content Overload World

 

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Image by Edwin Andrade. Via: (Unsplash)

 

If you spend the majority of your waking hours on the internet, there’s a term that you will likely hear: content. Despite its wild popularity, I’m not fond of this term. It makes me uncomfortable because when we are talking about content, we are talking about something that is superficial, doesn’t last very long, and created for only the sake of gaining more viewers instead of enriching the viewers’ minds.

Contents are articles like these: Every College Student During Winter Break, as Told by ‘Elf’ or College Students Love Fast Food So Choose From These 16 Fast Food Restaurants to Decide Your Major. It can also be videos like these: Gold Digger Prank or Psycho Dad Chainsaws Xbox One. They are everywhere, residing on every corner of the Internet.

There’s a quote that I have leaned into from Maria Popova, one of my absolute favorite minds and wisdom curators:

“How we choose to pay attention, and relate to information and each other shapes who we become, shapes our creative destiny and, in turn, shapes our experience of the world and, in my mind, there’s nothing more important than that.”

If we only choose to pay attention to content, how could we expect ourselves to be smarter and even wiser? This is the question we must collectively ponder as an individual, family, community, and even nation.

Then what’s the alternative if content won’t help us to be smarter, wiser? Allan Webber, the founder of Fast Company, says that content should be replaced by context. We don’t need more content. What we need is the maximum amount of context. Through his speech “Why Context is More Important Than Content,” Webber is not only drawing the distinction between content and context, but also he talks that creating context is the responsibility for all of us, regardless of our job titles.

He begins the speech with a stark, and yet often overlooked distinction between content and context:

“Content, today, is a commodity. It’s really, a very low value offer. What do we value? What creates value? What creates value is context. Context asks why. Context seeks to explain what is going on in the world so that we can make sense of it. Context takes this commodity [content] and transforms it into meaning. So think about your own experience either as an employee or as a boss. Think about it in any organization you’ve been a part of. Somebody comes to you or you produce a power point and you put it up and it’s got a lot of data. And the data informs the boss or informs you of a bunch of numbers that you’re supposed to then do something about. That employee who brought you that data is a very low value employee. That is somebody who’s bringing you content but what you’re really paying for is context. So you ask that employee, why should I care about this? What does it mean? What’s the story behind the data? And that’s context. That explains what is important. What you’re willing to pay for as a boss or in the world of magazines are not the facts anymore, is not the data anymore. It’s what it all means, how to interpret it.”

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The First Edition of Fast Company 1995. Via: (FastCompany.com)

 

Webber sees that many newspapers and magazines circulate their ideas superficially. They give us the news that many of us already have. In other words, as he said, “They’re fundamentally in the content business, they’re not in the context business.”

He explains:

“And if you track the demise of many magazines and many newspapers, they’re fundamentally in the content business, they’re not in the context business so they went out of business because people already have “the news.” The news is twenty-four seven. What’s not twenty-four seven is how do I make sense of the news. Why is it happening. What’s your point of view about why it’s happening. Help me understand how I as an individual can organize my mental frame work for the news that’s going on around me. The publications that are either surviving or adapting ask why, explain point of view, and then offer you a conversation with it about how you make sense and give it a feedback.”

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Image by RawPixel. Via: (Unspalsh)

 

I like to think that a content creator is someone who collects the dots (data or information) and presents them as they are without too much transformation. This is what we usually receive from social media and any news organizations that we follow. A content creator makes our world awash with information. Sadly, much of his information is unnecessary. It can only muddle our understanding of the world.

On the other hand, a context creator is someone who takes the work of a content creator to the next level. A context creator doesn’t only collect the dots, but also she cross pollinates from one idea to another idea. Eventually, she will excavate meaning from this new connected idea as a way to help her readers to make sense of a new event. 

A context creator’s work is challenging, hard, but it’s the work of generosity. if the work is done properly, I believe, it will outlive the creator.

Creating context means creating stories, and we, humans, are storytelling creatures. Echoing Elizabeth Svoboda’s concept of the power of story that says, “Stories allow us to travel, time and again, outside the circumscribed spaces of what we believe and what we think possible. It is these journeys–sometimes tenuous, sometimes exhilarating–that inspire and steel us to navigate uncharted territories in real life,” Webber argues:

“Stories are how we learn. Stories are how we express our values. Stories are how we connect to each other. Stories are about people. They’re not about things. Stories are about actions that people take to make a difference. And because stories are how we connect with each other, they’re how we make meaning of our lives. They provide context. They provide connections. They provide community. In the business sense, if you wanna talk about business for a second, they’re [stories] how we create brands. Brands are stories that we tell, brands are promises that we make as business people.”

Webber takes this topic of content and context as something that lie beyond the world of business and magazine. He wholeheartedly believes that creating context is what most leaders must do. He says:

“What we really talking about when we describe context and making meaning isn’t just the work of business or a company or a magazine. What we really talking about is leadership. One of my other rule of thumbs in this book [Rules of Thumbs: How to Stay Productive and Inspired Even in the Most Turbulent Times] is that leadership is not just about making decisions. There’s a part of that that’s true. We expect people in position of responsibility to make decisions. But more important than making decisions is making meaning, is helping everybody make sense out of a complex world.”

After all, making context is also what every citizen must also do.

“As citizens, we are called upon to help each other to separate the signal from the noise to decide what’s really matter to us as a community, as a group of people who are trying to solve problems together and make better decisions together.”

The original video can be accessed here:

Websites that have been consistently producing context over content are: BrainPickings, On Being, Farnam Street, The Tim Ferriss Show, Design Matters, Wait But Why, Long Form, and BBC Food Programme.