Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Creation of Creativity

Have you heard of the name Matt Groening? Do you know him? Maybe you don't recognize the name, but I assure you: you've seen and enjoyed his work! He is an interesting individual when it comes the topic of creativity. His unparalleled achievements have changed the world of entertainment. And the story of how he came to accomplish that is a marvelous one.

"I understood the series of stages I was supposed to go through- you go to high school, you go to college, you get a credential, and then you go out and get a good job." Said Groening in his interview with the creativity guru Dr. Ken Robinson. "I knew it wasn't gonna work for me. I knew I was gonna be drawing cartoons forever."

Groening said that he and his friends, when were kids, shared a passion for drawings. "But gradually they peeled off and they got more serious." But for Groening, it was all about drawing. And in persuade of that passion, he traveled to Los Angles, and after several shots, he located a job with Fox Broadcasting Company and started a little animation show that developed with time. That show is famously known as the Simpsons.

Why did I tell the story of this artist? Because, in a sense, Groening defines creativity. His works over two decades have been transformed into movies, comics books, toy figures and translated to languages all over the world.
But to tell the story of Matt Groening this way is misleading. I deliberately hid essential parts of his story. Why? Because I needed to reintroduce the concept of creativity in different lights before we read the rest of Groening story so we can appreciate the small elements that led to his success and to point them out, so we don't take them for granted, and we lose their value.

So what's creativity?
To most people's understanding, creativity is an innate talent, a "born with" gift, that lucky individuals inherit them in their genes and excel in their carriers by capitalizing on those gifts. I'm assuming this is how most of us define and view this enigmatic notion of creativity. You either have it or you don't.

I believe that's just not true. Allow me to confer my argument. I consider this notion of creativity is despondent for two reasons: the first one, it gives us an excuse not to venture new things. We say: Oh well, I wasn't born with it, but my friend was, so he can utilize it. Lucky bastard!
The other risk is, it leaves us frustrated, because we think we can't and we're limited. And we start throwing statements like: she has it and I don't. It's not fair, God didn't create us equal.

Luckily, that's not true. And those are not some optimistic words I'm throwing around. It's a fact. And both historical and psychological accounts support my argument.

If we were to study a wide verity of creative innovators we will find an almost consistent pattern common among them. Whether we are discussing the realms of music, communications and technology, movies, novels… What are those commonalities?
First element of creativity: Copying! This contradicts our understanding of creativity, doesn't it? We tend to think of creativity as a divine inspiration. We usually associate it with terms like "a light bulb went on in my head" or "it stork me suddenly." But those the consequences of conventional wisdom. I believe the case is quite the opposite.
"It happens (meaning creativity) by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials." Says Kirby Ferguson.
If we study a wide range of popular creative innovations, like communication tools, cars, movies, stand up comedies… we will discover a pattern of copying and innovating.Those "innovators" tend to derive their work from existing materials.

But everyone can copy, right? So why isn't everyone creative? Well, It's about the touches we add to them, the wider knowledge we collect in various fields and artistically mix them, and about customizing the touches to our environment, it's about the needs we copy for. In an exponentially developing era, we constantly thrive for innovation to keep up. Those who copy blindly are bound to fail.

Most creative innovators are operating under the famous statement of Pablo Picasso "a good artist creates, great artist steals."

A quick example of modern creative innovation is Twitter. A sub-blog that allows to type in 140 characters, thus share what you're doing with the world. But in its original creation, Twitter is a mimic of cell phones SMS, "daylong brainstorming session" held by board members of the podcasting company Odeo. And eventually, this system evolved to foster over 200 million users around the world. All it needs is a keen observing eye, and the determination to believe you can make an impact, and the world will comply to your desires. 
And why Twitter limits us to only 140 characters? I believe it's a tradition the founders kept, which is adopted from the fact that for some telecommunication companies, exceeding 140 characters qualifies as a new text message.

Copying is an inevitable mean for creativity. At least in this case.
So what's the other element of creativity?
Simply: hard work! Practice! As Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently put it: "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good." 

And we can observe the importance of this "taken for granted" notion when we study the works of great achievers like Tiger Woods, Mozart, Steve Jobs, and countless others. They all share a common factor known as deliberate practice, a term coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Deliberate practice is working methodically and patiently on what we are passionate about. And with time we aggregate enough knowledge and techniques that allow us to master that craft, sociologists like to call it “accumulative advantage."
Creativity is not talent, nor giftedness. Just pure passion, wide accumulated knowledge, patience and loads of hard work.

The story of Matt Groening success is a beautiful illustration of how both elements of creativity work in rhythm: copying and hard work. As a kid in school Groening was attracted to drawing. In high school, during art class, he used to produce close to 30 paintings per class.
"There was the thrill of making something that didn't exist before." Groening says. As he got bored with meaningless drawings, he shifted his attention to another direction. "I started concentrating on stories and jokes. I thought that was more entertaining."
Groening was blessed with parents and teachers who were cartoonists; I'd assume he had someone to copy from and innovate materials out of. He had friends with mutual interest, they used to gather and draw comics for hours. And as they grew older, their ambitious curved up, and started making movies. "I made a decision that I was going to live by my wits." Groening stated.

And when he moved to Los Angeles, he drew comics for the L.A Weekly, where he begun making a name for himself, and eventually ended up working for Fox Broadcasting Company, where he created the Simpsons.
After all these strokes of luck, opportunities and hard work, is there a wonder about Groening success? A man who believed and followed his dream? I guess not.

By now I hope we can understand the origins of creativity and talent. And the fact that if we can employ them, we will be happy in abundance. There is a creative genius in all of us, we just need to keep looking. Creativity, in a nutshell, is the outcome of curiosity, hard work, and a growing thrust for knowledge.    

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Myth of Smart and Stupid

Not a long ago, I was in Jeddah. My love for this city must come from its diversified background. No one judges you or intervenes. You are free.

I was walking down the Cornish with a friend whom I consider one of the smartest people I've had the fortune to know. We shared a lot, our passion for reading, our passion for fitness, our passion for change and we both grew up in Saudi Arabia. within the first few minutes a conversation with him, you can tell he's a very passionate ,strong hearted, person.

We're discussing a topic which I forgot now, but I clearly remember how it led me to bring the topic of Noam Chomsky, who's a prominent Jewish professor at MIT. I didn't expect my friend to know who Noam Chomsky is, but I was shocked when my friend asked me about the meaning of the three letters: MIT! otherwise known as Massachusetts Institute of Technology!
At first glance I thought he was joking. But he actually didn't hear about one of the top engineering schools in the world.

I know my friend isn't stupid, but the question that aroused was:
Why a man with such intelligence and deep intellect doesn't know about MIT?
Am I exaggerating? Was I too judgmental? Yes, I was. If this incident had occurred with a total stranger, I would have judged him to be stupid! So, what was my friend?
Before we answer that, let's study more cases.
I recall having a discussion with a Saudi housewife in which she told me that she heard of a cartoon called "Hiroshima and Nagasaki" and she was very excited to watch them.
At the same time, what makes high GPA Saudi female college graduate unaware of car driving techniques, while you can cross the bridge to Al Bahrain where you can find high school female graduates driving their cars in full control.
Another situation that puzzled me. a Saudi mother showed me a video of her 7 years old daughter, named Tala, astonishingly performing a song she had written and played on an electronic guitar. Not only that, the song was inEnglish. But that wasn't the stunning part. A while ago, I taught a group of 12 to 17 years old orphans a poorly executed English course, what surprised me was the fact they couldn't spell the English alphabet.
Were the orphans stupid? Was Tala a super smart person? Do Saudi female college graduates have a slow learning curve? The girl who told me that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were good cartoons came from a privileged family.
My friend who didn't hear of MIT is a very bright young doctorate researcher, who spent the largest share of his life in the UK.
I think you're starting to see to where I'm heading with this. No? ok, allow me to dig deeper.
There's a worldwide , well known, test called the IQ test or the Intelligence Quotient test. Without going into details, this test measures the individual's intelligence and compares it to a standardized scale. For a normal human being who goes to college and graduates, his or her IQ is located between 90 to 109. For a person who's below 90, he or she is mentally challenged. On the other hand, a person with an IQ higher than 109, that person is superior.

Back to the cases I discussed. I know those people, their IQs are not superior, but at the same time they don't have challenged mentalities. They have an average IQ, their minds functioned perfectly normal if not extraordinarily at times.
So what do we conclude from the above? Individuals IQs aren't the problem. Be patient, we're zooming in on the problem. I'm just eliminating the normal excuses.
As you've seen, I went from a young doctorate researcher, to  an average housewife, to super college girls who can't drive cars,  to a talented 7 years old girl and a smart orphan teenager. A wide range of normal thinking individuals that
represent clusters of our community.

So what is the reason that made them unaware of well known facts?

I think we can see the picture now: it's the circumstances and the experience and the knowledge they have accumulated in their lives.

The doctorate researcher spent his life in UK, he got soaked so much in that life style. He just didn't happen to stumble upon the mentioning of an American university called MIT. Us Saudis, on the other hand, we tend to have a certain fascination for the American culture, but British don't! It's as simple as that.
The housewife who didn't know the horrifying truth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, well, she didn't finish high school. She got married off too early. She was blessed with a little angel baby in the first year of her marriage. She became a devoted wonderful housewife. Something not uncommon is the Saudi culture.
Why Saudi female college graduates can't drive while Bahraini high school female graduates can master it easily? The answer couldn't be easier. We live in society that bans such doing and uses religion as an excuse. So Saudi girls aren't slow learners, they just weren't given the chance to practice that. And when they attempted to earn it, they were sadly rejected.
Let's revisit Tala, the super talented girl who ,at the age of 7, wrote and mastered an English song. Opposed to a 16 years orphan couldn't list the English alphabet. Unfortunately, this one is a bit complicated and depressing.
When the mother showed me the video, I took a glimpse to her eyes, they were filled with pride. She was so proud of her little daughter because she invested well in her. How did she do that?
The mother had showed me a list of books her daughter reads. And another list of activities Tala performs on weekly basis, inside and outside the school. The mother herself was an honor college graduate. She knows that education is the best weapon she can equip her daughter with, and she did it fantasticly. Tala is a true leader. I once watched her in a volunteering occasion as she read a story to a group of kids at her age, and in some cases, the kids were older. It's only natural that we can expect the best future for this young lady.

I guess now we can understand why the orphan kid couldn't spell the English alphabet. At the age of 16, he lacked a role model, the true value of morals, or a proper education. The government provides them only with materialistic needs with no concern to their emotional needs. They did a good job spoiling the morals and values of those unfortunate kids.
I remember when I first visited them for an English lesson, they were very interested in me more than the course itself. They wanted someone to look up to. Not that I'm saying I'm suitable role model, but they viewed me that way.
They need guidanceMoral lessons. Someone who can teach them the value of intellect, respect, and honesty.
It's true, they do have fancy plasma screens and they ware Nike shoes. But what of good is that if their IQ keeps declining due to the lack of healthy mental nurturing?
So let me go back to topic:The Myth of Smart and Stupid.
Most people relate those two terms with one's IQ. The truth is it's completely untrue. IQ measure one's intelligence, something that comes in the genes, and we've little control over that. We can improve upon it by healthy mental practices. IQ is objective. You can pinpoint it on a scale.
Smartness and stupidity are not objective, they are subjective. They are opinions that differ from one individual to another. What some might view as smart, we might consider it stupid and maybe wrong. why? Because we expected them to know! It's not fair.
The accumulative knowledge and experience we have, the society, family and friends we surrounded ourselves with are the basis of how most of us form opinions about life. We became too judgmental. If something doesn't fit our point of view, it becomes wrong.
We have seen how people chances were taken away from them, sometimes it was out of their control like the orphans and Saudi female college graduates. And  sometime it happens due cultural heritage like the Saudi housewives who chose devote for their husbands. Please don't think I'm criticizing them, I'm just discussing real life cases.
Do I have an Ultimate Solution? I would hope so! I think being open-minded here counts for a lot. Don't close your options to your surroundings. If you come across a comment that might seemed stupid to you, don't jump to conclusions. Try to ask that individual why he or she put it that way. No one likes to be called stupid!
Another solution is being curious, inquisitive, imaginative, and try develop your own sense of art and literature. When you see a kid using your note as a coloring pad, don't punish them, rather, embrace them. Buy them more coloring pads. Don't make them fear their intelligence. Nurture it. Help the kid find their areas of creativity and passion. And improve upon it. This could be the greatest gift one could give to kids.
Finally I would like to recommend that we should all thrive for intellect. We shouldn't accept matters at face value, we need to test them, examine them and question them. We shouldn't become slave to our cultural legacy and inherited principles. We need to create our own standards, definitions and values.
I hope my words make sense to you. If not, please argue them! question me! over-smart me!
I welcome that with an open heart!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Problem with Mind Reading: Why we don't perceive new ideas easily?

Have you ever saw a close friend, and you immediately deduced that there was something bothering him? Or in an early morning breakfast, you decided to avoid physical contact with your wife, because you sensed she's not in the mood?

I'm sure most of us have encountered such situations. Some call it intuition, the ability to sense the intangible, a gut feeling. But it's not! It's far stranger than that!

It's mind reading!

It's the ability to interpret one's mental state. How? Countless signs: facial expression, body language, voice tune, eye movements, etc...

It actually requires skills for us to mind read; we need to extract ourselves from our state of mind and consider the others'. But we do it so often that we take it for granted. And in some other cases, "Excessive egocentrism or inaccurate expectations can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and social conflict, but these biases also suggest useful strategies for improving mind reading in everyday life." As described by Nicholas Eple, Professor of Behavioral Science from the university of Chicago.

What the upper paragraphs described is a philosophical theory known as: Problems of the Other Mind. Allow me to present a classical example: suppose you're a 5 years old kid, and you enjoy certain type of food, say chocolate! But soon you find out that your 40 years old aunt dislikes chocolate! And it flabbergasts you! You expect everyone to like what you like, and enjoy what you enjoy. Being at that age, it's difficult to grasp the concept of diabetes. But as we grow up, we grow out of those limitations. We realize the world differences and we adopt to them. Scientific accounts indicate that by the age of 5, this problem of mind reading declines and fades away. And we understand the world better.

But suppose we did pass the age of 5, and we still face this issue. This mind reading blindness. How does that happen? Three possible cases come to my mind.

First case: Blindness; this case, is elaborately described by Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, in which he discusses how people lose their sense of the visual world and stop experiencing mental imagery altogether. I think this case is straight forward and self explanatory. Blind people will have to count on other cues to read the minds of their counterparts, like voices.

Second case: Autism; when a person suffers from a disorder of neural development which limits ,if not impairs, their social interactions. A person with that conditions lose their ability to read and understand the other minds.

Third case: out of the three cases, this one saddens me the most, before I delve in to it, I'd rather use a different approach. I'll use a proverb, an example, then I'm going to discuss the psychological aspect of the issue.

Plato said: "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." I hope the following example elaborates more:
At King Abdulaziz time, 1948 in Saudi Arabia , the radio was banned! This metal box that came from the west was considered a mockery of Allah. Religious figures dismissed it. Their fear of introducing a new concept that came from the west mind blinded them. But King Abdulaziz, in a very diplomatic approach,  legalized the use of Radio in some areas of the kingdom and banned it in others to absorb the fanaticism of religious figures.

Why did religious figures oppose the use of Radio? They considered it a tool of the devil! Voices coming out of boxes wasn't a common idea back then. Furthermore, it came from the west. And it scared them. Their minds suffered blindness, not to reading people, but to understand the benefits of that talkative box.

In essence, "The Other Minds Problem" stems out from the fact we can't fathom the logic of other party's point of view. Sometimes, we refuse to put forth effort to understand the other party, we build blocks to avoid that bridge. Whether it's human beings, talking boxes like radio and television, or riding the bicycle (Yes! It was banned 70 years ago!) When an adult with a normal mind suffers from mind blindness to accept ideas, it's an indication that that person is still in a 5 years mentality, autistic mentality. Or they suffer from blindness, not in sight, but in insights. I think we dismiss new, or sometimes radical, ideas because we shut our minds. It's the equivalent of not maturing enough to understand that other people have different backgrounds, nationalities, educations, cultures, and even geographical areas. Just like the kid who couldn't understand why his aunt couldn't eat chocolate.

Some years ago, the late Nobel prize-winning Dr. Albert Schweitzer was asked by a reporter, "Doctor, what’s wrong with men today?” The great doctor was silent a moment, and then he said, "Men simply don’t think!"

When we're not 5, autistic, or blind, and we fanatically refuse new ideas, it's because we're scared. It frightens us. It's against what we grew up with. We live in a comfort zone, we cling to the conventional wisdom! Concepts we inherited from our parents and culture. And it's not easy to come out of them, but it's not healthy to adhere to them. We build virtual blocks with others, we don't evolve, we don't enjoy the luxury of human interaction.

Lets view the mental hazards stated by economist John K. Galbraith who coined and popularized the phrase "conventional wisdom" in his book The Affluent Society:
"We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem."

"So the conventional wisdom in Galbraith's view must be simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting, though not necessary true." Says Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics
For a man to think, and perceive new ideas and concepts, a man needs to liberate himself from old conceptions, and conventional wisdoms. I can only quote here the American president Abraham Lincoln from December 1, 1862 when he stood before the congress and shared those words of wisdom:
"The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."