Stumbling on Creativity
CHAD MORRIS, Ph.D., Director
A few weeks ago I read a stimulating article in The New York Times titled “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.” The article reported that many innovative discoveries are stumbled upon by individuals who are willing to follow emerging paths and loose connections. Throughout history, failures in one area have often led to insight in another. The author further noted that epiphany results from collecting “strings” of information until a pattern emerges.
When I finished the article, I asked myself, “How can I manifest more serendipity in my life?” I want to enhance my intellectual curiosity by paying attention to these opportunities. And how do I do it in the face of an avalanche of “strings” through the Internet, other media, research, etc.?
The times I feel these “strings” of serendipity, I know it is qualitatively different than online procrastination, following links of fleeting interest. Serendipity reflects priming. As the saying goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I have benefitted the most by serendipity when I diligently consider a topic or concern, come to an impasse, and put the issue away for later consideration. On some level, whether conscious or not, I am still working the issue, and when I trip on an opportunity for clarity through serendipity, it is easier to recognize it as such. It is not so much winning the lottery as understanding that my winning numbers were always present, and now I have the capacity to see and utilize them.
So creating serendipity is something I plan to incorporate into my mindfulness practice. It is my personal intention to create a space to see new patterns and opportunities while wading through my tasks of daily life.
CINDY WANG MORRIS, Psy.D., Clinical Director
I eagerly plunge my spoon into my bowl. My excitement is particularly keen. I have anxiously awaited this moment for many weeks. With a quick movement of my hand, I stir my first good batch of yogurt into a smooth consistency. My spoon filled, I hold it up in front of me. The yogurt is thick and creamy. I open my mouth and slide it in, savoring its luminescent flavor— freshly made yogurt with organic milk from pasture-grazed cow—with just a hint of tartness. It’s heavenly.
As you read this, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just yogurt.” Well, while it may be just yogurt, it’s a food that I consume every day for breakfast, so it’s really important to me. And I recently made a shocking discovery. After rereading the nutritional label of my no-longer-favorite brand of yogurt, I learned the sugar content jumped from and 28 grams of sugar to 34 grams. 34 grams! Is that really necessary? While I already knew I was eating my dessert for breakfast, I just couldn’t believe the manufacturer increased the sugar content even more. For those of you who may not know, 34 grams of sugar on a nutritional label translates into over 8 teaspoons in just one serving. Shocking, I know.
It’s well known by all who know me that I love making things I could easily buy. Lotion, kombucha, almond butter, mustard, you name it. While I enjoy the products I successfully concoct on the first try, it’s the challenging ones like this yogurt that are the most satisfying. I started out by buying what I thought was a foolproof culture. After several failed attempts and many adjustments, I just gave it up. Even after doing my research and consulting with experts, I couldn’t figure out why my yogurt became a mess of curds and whey. Or was thin and runny. Or was just not that great tasting.
Then I was inspired by my first taste of yogurt in France. I was hooked and desperate for more. A dear friend who knew of my dilemma gave me two books, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. Armed with these two resources and a yogurt made with a French culture, I tried yet again. And then it happened—magic!
Through an ordinary experience such as yogurt making, I was offered an opportunity supported by inspiration and serendipity to learn, practice, and grow my skills in the kitchen. And savor the flavors of my creation.
CHRISTINE GARVER-APGAR, Ph.D., Research Associate
My husband and I purchased a piano for our family this holiday season. Not one of us has any musical ability whatsoever (at least, not that we know of). This absence in our collective, intellectual repertoire has become increasingly noticeable as we spend more time with families for whom making music is an integral part of life. I was nervous about enrolling my daughters into piano lessons. Although I am determined to give them the opportunity of a musical education, I dread the idea of adding one more task to an already hectic evening schedule of homework and chores. Could my husband and I make the commitment to oversee piano practice on top of other pressing demands? Would our (almost) 5-year-old be too young and squirmy during lessons? Would our 10-year-old resent having to concentrate through homework AND piano practice? After two piano lessons, my girls are trying to settle into a routine of daily piano practice. It is every bit as time consuming as I thought it might be, and we have already had a few frustrated moments. But so far, we have had heard surprisingly few complaints about practicing. Instead, we hear music.
My girls relish the almost instant gratification they receive after relatively short bursts of effort. Unlike almost every other subject my children learn in school, my husband and I have no preconceived notions of how piano is (or should be) taught. We feel like tabula rasa, blank slates, when it comes to music. Oddly, our ignorance allows us to approach each lesson, each song, and each exercise with completely open minds. We have no expectations, and so we put our trust entirely with the instructor we have chosen. We are, all of us, focused only on the practice, concentrating on one note at a time without regard for what lesson may be coming next or how we are progressing.
When playing the piano, striking the right note happens only after striking many, many wrong ones. Mistakes are the norm rather than the exception, and the freedom to fail (and fail often) is both liberating and a necessary part of the learning process. When my children grow frustrated with their efforts to succeed in other contexts, I will try to remind them of how easily they accepted these truths in the context of piano practice.
Working It Out
JAMIE PFAHL, B.A., Community Liaison
Working at the University has many great perks, but one of my favorites is the tuition benefit. Of course, actually taking advantage of it isn’t easy. Managing the paperwork, applications, deadlines, sometimes ridiculous fees, finding a class that doesn’t conflict with your work schedule, and actually getting into a class as a non-degree student is no small feat. Then there’s the issue of time. Last semester, I managed to take 5 credits of challenging science courses. And I’m not sure exactly how I survived. Working full-time plus nearly 3 hours of commuting daily can be exhausting enough without adding homework, quizzes, and stressful exams. By the end of the semester, I was swearing off any thought of repeating that experience. I wanted my nights and weekends back! But, like any self-respecting glutton for punishment, after I had some time to relax over the holidays, I found myself checking the course schedule “just in case” any interesting evening classes were posted for the Spring.
I should have known better, since my academic interests can be neatly summarized as “just about everything.” After much consideration, I decided a once-weekly class in Medical Humanities sounded both interesting and manageable. When a week passed and I found myself still hesitating to register, I began to consider my motivations. Sure, I was excited about the topic, but this class wouldn’t count toward a degree. It would cost me a few hundred dollars in fees and books, not to mention the extra commute time. The only reasons I have for taking a class instead of just reading books on my own is because I have a tuition waiver – a “use-it-or-lose-it” benefit – and because I feel like I should be using it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s next for me – what direction I want to take my career and my life. Picking a direction has given me a lot of angst. I’ve been trying to dip my toes into different subjects in hopes of discovering something that truly ignites my interest and passion more than anything else. People keep telling me such a thing exists, but I don’t think I’ll ever find it if I keep doing what I “should.” In order to be truly fulfilled, I need to do things because they really bring me joy, not because I feel pressured to. Needless to say, I decided not to register for any classes. I realized registering for a class would bring me more stress than insight. Instead of hypothesizing about what might make future-me happy, I want to do things that make me happy now—running, dancing, connecting with people, and exploring. I think I can let go of that angst and pressure to do something if I focus more on the journey of self-discovery than trying to figure out
the destination. Life is, after all, lived moment to moment.
SARA MUMBY, B.A., Program Administrator
Remember when you were in school and you couldn’t wait for winter break? Your semester came to an end, and you were allowed 2-3 weeks of carefree, relentless freedom. There were no looming deadlines. No conversations with yourself about what you should be doing with your time. You were allowed to plan activities without thought for being a responsible student (whether you were one or not, I guarantee you still thought about being one!). For me, these days were spent sleeping in, reading fantasy novels for hours, planning activities with my friends, and staying up late watching TV Land. It feels so blissful writing about it.
But that’s not how it is anymore. My classes came to an end early December. And I waited expectantly for that rush of euphoria from the freedom I just attained. I could read for pleasure. I could catch up on the new season of Homeland. I’d have time for crafts and cooking. Most importantly, I would get a break from not scheduling myself around school work and beating myself up over not taking more time to read that other text – a break from that voice in my head that tells me that I’m wasting precious time.
It never came though. Instead, I beat myself up over being lazy and watching too much Homeland. I found myself wishing that I had the excuse of school to spend a few hours in a coffee shop highlighting passages from my course texts, scouring the internet for academics who agreed with me (and bashing those that didn’t), writing stream of consciousness thoughts and organizing them into something more or less coherent. But I didn’t have the excuse of school or a pending deadline. So I ignored that part of me that wanted to work hard, challenge myself, and think critically. I, in essence, forced myself to try and relive the adolescent bliss I remembered. But I discovered (as I’m sure many people before me have!) that you can’t go back. The past can’t be remade. We have to keep moving forward. Sometimes, you shouldn’t ignore that nagging voice in your head. It’s just telling you what you already know.
SUSAN YOUNG, Ph.D., Research Director
This Christmas, I finally caved and bought each of my daughters a laptop. Though they have been begging for them for more than a year, my decision was mostly motivated by my irritation with sharing my own technology during weekends or road trips. Just as I feared, my girls have had their noses glued to those screens just about every spare moment since the holidays. This shouldn’t surprise me. Unlike most contemporary households, ours is devoid of an Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo console (though we do have a Wii somewhere, gathering dust). So their experience of playing Minecraft or Animal Jam (a favorite) on their OWN computers is like crack cocaine (or at least warm, double-fudge brownies).
After setting limits, complaining, and dismissing their “need” for more screen time, I stepped back and decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. I made myself sit down and let them show me what they had been up to. What I saw was unexpectedly impressive. Not only did their games require creativity, strategy, and patience, but they also seemed to be teaching the art of negotiation. Who knew that you could host social events or barter for furnishings and bling (for your wildlife den) with your virtual friends? And, I never would have thought to put a dance floor and disco ball in my shower!
I still nag my girls about choosing screen time over actual socializing or recreating, but I am pleased that they have made reasonable choices about how to spend their computer time. Now, I’d like to wrap this up so I can get back to my iPad – I’ve got a half-finished round of evil Sudoku whispering to me.
JIM PAVLIK, M.A., Program & Policy Analyst
As you get older, thinking begins to concretize. We become accustomed to the notion that “we’ve seen it all before.” Old problem solving tricks are tweaked for application to novel situations. Then they are tweaked and tweaked and tweaked some more. At some point, if we are not careful, we are doing the intellectual equivalent of banging a screw into place with a hammer. Our ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently becomes easier to surpass by younger coworkers with new eyes.
Let me use an example from research psychology. In a now (somewhat) famous study, a psychologist showed blurred images of everyday object to test subjects. The initial images were blurred to different degrees. The pictures were slowly brought into focus. The psychologists measured how long it took observers to correctly identify the subject of the blurred image. What they found was that, the blurrier the initial image, the clearer the image would have to get before the observers could correctly identify it. What they concluded was that at some point, the observers decided the image was something, the wrong thing. For example, a picture of a fire hydrant may have been incorrectly identified as one of those awesome and now defunct red phone booths from London. Having made that determination, as the image becomes clearer, the observer keeps trying to see the original (incorrect) image.
In a recent blog post on the website The Incidental Economist, pediatrician and columnist Aaron Carroll seemed befuddled that when he was playing against his children in different versions of the game Mario Kart, his performance varied by version. He continued to dominate his kids in the earliest versions of the game, despite the fact that his kids have now clocked in more practice hours recently than he can devote to it. But in more recent versions of the game, his children are the champions no matter how many hours of practice he now devotes.
But video games, like images, managing meetings, navigating new computer programs or any other thing, are subject to this bias of preconceived notions. Like the observers of the blurry images, Carroll is most likely trying to apply cognitive heuristics developed for the earlier versions of Mario Kart to similar, but different, problems proposed by the newer versions. Not being weighed down by the training of the prior versions allows his kids to beat him at the more recent versions. And, in fact, their first exposure to more recent versions hampers their ability to outperform their father in the earlier version.
What’s the big takeaway here? There is a standard saying in Zen Buddhism that to learn new things, we must first empty our minds of what we have learned before. This may be impossible, but it is nevertheless a worthwhile goal. One way to do this is to always be teaching ourselves new ways to solve problems. Another way is to solve problems in groups and seriously and respectfully consider every alternative approach. Trying to see how someone else would solve the same problem is more important than if it’s the better approach—especially in cases where “better” is really more a matter of preference than efficiency.
Study cited: Jerome S. Bruner and Mary C. Potter, “Interference in Visual Recognition,” Science, Vol. 144 (1964), pp. 424-25.
The mission of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Program is to improve quality of life by facilitating evidence-based health behavior change for communities, organizations, and individuals.
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