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Commencement Addresses

Cultivate Creativity

  • Date: 05/05/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • In 12 weeks, the world will again enjoy that quadrennial spectacle, the Summer Olympics Games. New celebrities will emerge, and one athlete will leave London with the title “world’s greatest athlete.” He will be the winner of the decathlon, two grueling days of 10 events that determines who possesses the optimum combination of speed, strength and agility.[1]

    Decathlon athletes require maximum performance from their entire bodies, and so must train and develop all of their major and minor muscles sets. Likewise, we must constantly strengthen and refine every aspect of our intellectual faculties to compete and succeed in our professional careers. In particular, we must nurture and strengthen our creativite capabilities.

    Allow me to dispel two popular myths about creativity.

    The first is that creativity is an essential quality only for artists and entertainers. I assure you that in nearly every field of endeavor – from science to business to politics to scholarship – the world lavishes rewards on the ingenious and the clever. Those less creative find little to celebrate. A lesson here is that if you dream big and little dreams, you will enjoy big and little successess, whereas if you only dream small, you’ll have only small sucesses.

    The other myth is that some people are inherently creative while others are not. The reality is that all of us have creative potential that can be increased and improved.[2] True, some people seem to have a natural affinity for creativity, just as some individuals have an inborn love of exercise. Whether you are talking about the mind or the body, dedicated efforts to enhance performance will result in better outcomes.

    So, to send you forth fit and ready for real life, I offer for your edification five tips for boosting your creativity.

    1. Goof off. That’s right, take a siesta, play a video game, go to a karaoke bar and horrify your friends. The important thing is to simply…relax. In his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” author Jonah Lehrer explains that there is a very good reason why some of the world’s most innovative companies have ping pong tables in their lobbies; why Thomas Edison took frequent naps; and why Archimedes shouted his famous “Eureka” not at his workbench, but while relaxing in the bathtub. Relaxation allows the spotlight of attention to turn inward, and to “eavesdrop on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere.”[3] As Einstein once remarked, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”[4]

    2. Work hard. Lehrer provides numerous examples of creations that evolved incrementally, rather than through bursts of inspiration. Very often, the answer that we seek is just beyond our reach, and nothing but sustained effort will attain it. Einstein also said that “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”[5] Lehrer notes that the German philospher Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that while creators enjoy boasting of their great epiphanies, their everyday realities are far less romantic. “All great artists and thinkers are great workers,” he said.[6] So how do you discern when to keep plugging away and when to goof off? Each situation requires its own approach, but Thomas Edison provided a general rule of thumb when he said,  “Genius is one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”[7]
    3. Leave Your Comfort Zone. Many of you have majored in the sciences, so let me recommend a website to you: InnoCentive. This is a crowdsourcing site, where difficult questions are posted with a monetary award attached.[8] Anyone can work on any problem. InnoCentive has an impressive success rate, which supports Lehrer’s contention that “few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise.”[9] In 2007 a professor at the Harvard Business School analyzed the hundreds of challenges on the site. He discovered that 30% were solved within six months.

    4. Avoid complacency. Lehrer tells the story of legendary graphic designer, Milton Glaser. In the mid-1970s, Glaser was commissioned to come up with a new ad campaign for New York City. He created a cursive script message that met with the approval of everyone involved in the project. Everyone but Glaser. He was not satisfied and kept stewing over it. One day in a cab, he struck upon the simple, iconic message of three letters and a symbol: “I (Heart) N-Y.” That logo, Lehrer says, is one of the most copied graphic art items in the world, and it only occurred because for Milton Glaser, “good enough” wasn’t.

    5. Stay young. At this point in your lives, creativity burns at its most brilliant. Lehrer notes that the “(inexperience) of youth comes with creative advantages.”[10] Chief among them is that, if you don’t know something is impossible, you may just find a solution. Lehrer recounts the tale of a young composer named Bruce Adolphe who wrote his first cello piece and submitted it to a Julliard instructor. “It can’t be done,” said the instructor, who pointed out that a chord featured in the piece was physically impossible to play on a cello. However, Adolphe had given the composition to 15-year-old musician named Yo-Yo Mah, who played it in its entirety. Later, Adolphe told him what the instructor had said and asked him to play the piece for him. When Mah came to the chord in question, Adolphe shouted “Stop.” They both looked at Mah’s contorted left hand on the fingerboard. “You’re right,” Mah said. “you really can’t play that.”[11]

    If you leave here today with nothing else, let it be with the assurance that you now possess many, if not all, of the tools necessary to be creative and inquisitive throughout your career. And all that I have shared with you can best be summed up in the words of the great German poet Goethe . . .

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:  that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.[12]

    “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now.”[13]

    [2] Lehrer, Jonah. “How to Be Creative,” The Wall Street Journal. March 9, 2012 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203370604577265632205015846.html?KEYWORDS=Jonah+Lehrer

    [3] Lehrer, Jonah. Ibid

    [4] Lehrer, Ibid

    [5] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins109782.html

    [6] Lehrer, Ibid

    [7] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/thomas_a_edison.html

    [8] http://www.innocentive.com/

    [9] Lehrer, Ibid

    [10] Lehrer, Jonah. Ibid

    [11] Lehrer, Jonah. Ibid

    [13] Goodreads website, Ibid

  • Topic Category: Creativity
  • Tags: creativity
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