Category: Articles and Techniques

What You Can Learn About Creative Thinking from Vincent Van Gogh and the Wright Brothers

VANGOGH4.

What would you think of someone who said, “I would like to have a cat provided it barked”?

The common desire to achieve or create great things provided it’s something that can be easily willed or wished is precisely equivalent. The principles of behavior that lead to great accomplishments are no less rigid than the biological principles that determine the characteristics of cats. Consider, for example, the life of Vincent Willem van Gogh.

He is generally considered to be one of history’s greatest artists and had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. His artistic accomplishments are not an accident, not a result of some easily magic trick or secret, but a consequence of his nature to work persistently on his art every day. He revered “the doing” in art. He wrote about his hard work many times to his brother Theo. In a letter he sent Theo in 1885 he stated that one can only improve by working on your art, and many people are more remarkably clever and talented than him, but what use is it if they do not work at it.

He did not begin painting until his late twenties, completing many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In the first years of his career, van Gogh displayed no natural talent. David Sweetman’s biography “Van Gogh: His Life and His Art” gives a detailed description of his intention to be an artist and his insatiable capacity for hard work to become one. He turned himself into an artist by acting like an artist and going through the motions by turning out mostly bad innumerable rough sketches, day and night. In Van Gogh’s own words he said, “In spite of everything I shall rise again and take up my pencil and draw and draw.”

He received mild encouragement from his cousin, Anton Mauve, who supplied him with his first set of watercolors. Mauve was a successful artist and gave Vincent some basic instructions in painting. Their relationship was short-lived, however, as Vincent was incapable of receiving criticism of his art from Mauve. Mauve even went to Vincent’s father and told him it would be better for Vincent to stop attempting to be an artist and find another occupation that better suited his talent. It was then that Vincent unveiled what art critics label as his first “masterpiece,” The Potato Eaters.

VANGOGH3

He turned himself into an artist by acting like an artist and going through the motions by turning out mostly bad innumerable rough sketches, day and night.

Lesson #1 Stop waiting and Take Action

The lesson about creative thinking I learned from Van Gogh is action. Just do it. Stop waiting and start working toward what you want. What we think, or what we know, or what we believe something is, in the end, of no consequence. The only consequence is what we actually do. In Van Gogh’s own words “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, “You can’t do a thing.” The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all by getting to work and painting.”

It was very difficult at times, but he believed nobody can do as he wishes in the beginning when you start but everything will be all right in the end. Each day he made every effort to improve because he knew making beautiful paintings meant painstaking work, disappointment and perseverance. In the end, Van Gogh produced 2000 works of art between 1880 and 1890 (1100 paintings and 900 sketches). That’s 4 works of art a week for a decade, and he didn’t start making art until his mid twenties.

LESSON #2 Commit and Go through the motions

Van Gogh taught me to commit myself to a desire and go through the motions of working toward accomplishing it. His advice was if you do nothing, you are nothing. You must keep working and keep working come what may. Even when your final goal is not clear, the goal will become clearer and will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough drawing turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it and through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of your fleeting and passing thoughts on it as you work.

Think of the first airplane. On December 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government-funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? It was because Langley did the mental work and hired other people to build and execute his intellectual design for him.

vangogh5

Lesson #3 Do your own work.

The Wright brothers did their own work. When they were working and producing creative ideas and products they were replenishing neurotransmitters which are linked to genes that are being turned on and turned off in response to what the brain is doing, which in turn is responding to challenges. When they constantly worked on their idea and learned through trial and error, they were energizing their brains by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. The more times they act, the longer they worked the more active their brains became and the more creative they became.

Their creative brains made them aware of the range of many potentials for each adjustment they built into their design. Their personal observations of the many alternative potentials led them to constantly change and modify their ideas that created the airplane.

When they constantly worked on their idea and learned through trial and error, they were energizing their brains by increasing the number of contacts between neurons. I like to metaphorically compare working toward a desired goal such the goals of Van Gogh and the Wright brothers to weight lifting.  If you want to build muscles you lift weights. If the weight is heavy enough it’s going to damage the muscles. That damage creates a chemical cascade and reaches into the nuclei of your muscle cells, and turns on genes that make proteins and build up muscle fibers. Those genes are only turned on in response to some environmental challenge. That’s why you’ve got to keep lifting heavier and heavier weights. The phrase, “No pain no gain,” is literally true in this case. Interaction with the environment turns on certain genes which otherwise wouldn’t be turned on; in fact, they will be turned off if certain challenges aren’t being faced.

Lesson #4 Don’t wait for perfect moments

Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles and less than perfect conditions. So what. Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident and more and more successful. We are what we repeatedly do.

Start Now

To get a feel for how powerful the simple act of just starting something creative and working on it is, try the following thought experiment.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Take out a sheet of paper and at least ten items, money, credit cards, keys, coins, etc. Your task is to create an assemblage that metaphorically represents you.

Here are the guidelines:

  1. In your mind, imagine an assemblage that metaphorically represents you. Do not think about the materials you have in hand. Instead think about the shape you would like your assemblage to have. What are the rhythms you want? The texture? Where would you want it to be active? Passive? Where do things overlap and where are they isolated? Think in general and overall pictures, and leave out the details. Do not think about great art; just think about who you are and what how you can represent yourself metaphorically.
  2. Now form a more specific idea of the final assemblage. As you look at the paper, imagine the specific assemblage you want to create. Make sure you’ve formed this image before you move to the next step.
  3. Place the items on the paper. Since the composing stage is already done, it’s time to bring your creation into physical existence. How closely did it come to your conception? Become a critic for the assemblage. Look at it for its own sake, independent of the fact that you have created it. Take the items off and go through the same procedures. Make the assemblage again.
  4. By conceptualizing and using materials you had on hand, you created an artistic assemblage from nothing.
  5. If you performed this exercise every day with different objects for five to ten straight days you will find yourself becoming an artist who specializes in rearranging unrelated objects into art. It is the activity that turns on the synaptic transmissions in your brain that turn on the genes that are linked to what you are doing, which is responding to an environmental challenge (i.e., the making of an assemblage).

………………..

Michael Michalko author of THINKERTOYS, CRACKING CREATIVITY, THINKPAK, and CREATIVE THINKERING www.creativethinking.net

Michelangelo’s Mindset

attitude

Our attitudes influence our behavior, and this is true. Michelangelo believed he was the greatest artist in the world and could create masterpieces using any medium. His rivals persuaded Junius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, because they knew Michelangelo had rarely used color and had never painted in fresco. They were sure he would turn down the commission due to his inexperience. They planned to use his refusal as proof of his lack of talent. If he did accept it, they were convinced the result would be clownish and planned to use the result to point out his inadequacies to the art world.

Michelangelo accepted the commission. Because he had the attitude of a great artist his behavior followed. Going through the motions and practicing with colors and painting in fresco, endlessly, he became an expert in the technique.  He executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read save with his head turned backwards for months. By acting upon his belief that he could create anything, he created the masterpiece that established him as the artist of the age.

And it’s also true that our behavior influences our attitudes. Tibetan monks say their prayers by whirling their prayer wheels on which their prayers are inscribed. The whirling wheels spin the prayers into divine space. Sometimes, a monk will keep a dozen or so prayer wheels rotating like some juggling act in which whirling plates are balanced on top of long thin sticks.

Many novice monks are not all that emotionally or spiritually involved at first. It may be that the novice is thinking about his family, his doubts about a religious vocation or something else while he is going through the motions of spinning his prayer wheel. When the novice adopts the pose of a monk and makes it obvious to themselves and others by playing a role, their brain will soon follow the role they are playing. It is not enough for the novice to have the intention of becoming a monk: the novice must act like a monk and rotate the prayer wheels. If one has the intention of becoming a monk and goes through the motions of acting like a monk, one will become a monk.

The great surrealist artist Salvador Dali was described by his fellow students at the Madrid art academy as “morbidly” shy according to his biographer Ian Gibson. He had a great fear of blushing and his shame about being ashamed drove him into solitude. It was his uncle who gave him the sage advice to become an actor in his relations with the people around him. He instructed him to pretend he was an extrovert and to act like an extrovert with everyone including your closest companions. Dali did just that to disguise his mortification. Every day he went through the motions of being an extrovert and, eventually, he became celebrated as the most extroverted, fearless, uninhibited and gregarious personalities of his time. He became what he pretended to be.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes was once noticed begging from a statue. His friends were puzzled and alarmed at this behavior. Asked the reason for this pointless behavior, Diogenes replied, I am practicing the art of being rejected.  By pretending to be rejected continually by the statue, Diogenes was beginning to understand the mind of a beggar. Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions we create and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate.

If you want to become an artist and go through the motions of being an artist by painting a picture every day, you will become an artist. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you will create the attitude of an artist and you will become more of an artist than someone who has never tried.

The Secret of Mona Lisa’s Smile

Think, for a moment, about social occasions–visits, dates, dinners out with friends, gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Even when you’re unhappy or depressed, these occasions force us to act as if we were happy. Observing other’s faces, postures, and voices, we unconsciously mimic their reactions. We synchronize our movements, posture, and tone of voice with theirs. Then my mimicking happy people, we become happy. You begin to behave like the people who surround you, and that behavior influences your attitude.

mona lisa smileLeonardo da Vinci also observed that it’s no mystery why it is fun to be around happy people and depressing to be around depressed people. He also observed the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. He attributed that to the solitariness of the artist and their joyless environment.

According to Giorgio Vasari (1568) that while painting the Mona Lisa Leonardo employed singers, musicians and jesters to chase away his melancholy as he painted. The musicians and jesters forced him laugh and be joyful. This behavior created the attitude of joy and pleasure as he painted. As a result, he painted a smile so pleasing that it seems divine and as alive as the original.

 Even Facial Expressions Can Change Your Emotions 

CIA researchers have long been interested in developing techniques to help them study facial expressions of suspects. Two of the researchers began simulating facial expressions of anger and distress all day, each day for weeks. One of them admitted feeling terrible after a session of making those faces. Then the other realized that he felt poorly, too, so they began to keep track. They began monitoring their body during facial movements. Their findings were remarkable. They discovered that a facial expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the nervous system.

In one exercise they raised their inner eyebrows, raised their cheeks, and lowered the corner of their lips and held this facial expression for a few minutes. They were stunned to discover that this simple facial expression generated feelings of sadness and anguish within them. The researchers then decided to monitor the heart rate and body temperatures of two groups of people. One group was asked to remember and relive the most sorrowful experience in their life. The other group in another room was simply asked to produce a series of facial expressions expressing sadness. Remarkably, the second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first.

The CIA researchers in a further experiment had one group of subjects listen to recordings of top comedians and look at a series of cartoons while holding a pen pressed between their lips – an action that makes it impossible to smile. Another group held a pen between their teeth which had the opposite effect and made them smile.

The people with the pen between their teeth rated the comedians and cartoons much funnier than the other group. What’s more, neither group of subjects knew they were making expressions of emotion. Amazingly, an expression you do not even know you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel. Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in.

Try the following thought experiment:

Lower your eyebrows.

Raise your upper eyelid.

Narrow the eyelids.

Press your lips together.

Hold this expression and you will generate anger. Your heartbeat will go up ten or twelve beats. Your hands will get hot, and you will feel very unpleasant.

The next time you’re feeling depressed and want to feel happy and positive, try this. Put a pen between your teeth in far enough so that it’s stretching the edges of your mouth back without feeling uncomfortable. This will force a smile. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will amaze yourself at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions.

Michael Michalko

http://www.creativethinking.net

…………………………………………………..

People with fixed mindsets think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed. Discover what mindset you have. See:

http://creativethinking.net/new-q-factor/#sthash.zpdavVyz.dpbs

When You Need New Ideas Take a Thought Walk

walk

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher, did his best thinking on trips he made alone and on foot, which he called thought walks. Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brilliant German author, took a walk whenever he wanted to think and come up with new ideas. It was during his long hikes in the mountains of Berchtesgaden that Sigmund Freud worked out his imposing structure of the unconscious, preconscious and conscious that has bound the twentieth-century psyche ever since. In fact, he told his good friend, Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin doctor, that his book The Interpretation of Dreams was designed to have the effect of one of his hikes through a concealed pass in a dark forest until it opens out on a view of the plain. Taking a walk stimulated and refreshed their thinking.

Whenever you’re deeply involved with a problem, take a thought walk. You will find walking around your neighborhood, a shopping mall, a park, the woods, industrial complex and so on to be highly stimulating. Look for interesting objects, situations, or events that are interesting or that can be metaphorically compared with whatever project you happen to be working on. For example, suppose your problem is how to improve communications in your company. You take a walk and notice potholes in the road. How are “potholes” like your corporate communication problem? For one thing, if potholes are not repaired, they get bigger and more dangerous. Usually road crews are assigned to repair the potholes. Similarly, unless something is done to improve corporate communications, it’s likely to deteriorate even further. An idea with a similar relation to “road crews” is to assign someone in the organization to fill the role of “communications coach.” The role would entail educating, encouraging, and supporting communication skills in all employees. And just as road crews are rotated, you can rotate the assignment every six months.

A thought walk is one of my favorite techniques to stimulate creativity. A while back while aimlessly walking around my neighborhood, I noticed a U.S. Postal truck delivering mail. The road was in poor shape and had many large potholes that the truck had to avoid. The postal truck and poor condition of the road inspired an idea.

The postal service has thousands of trucks that travel on fixed routes and transport mail to every nook and corner of the country. Fitting the trucks with smart sensors, the trucks can collect important data on weather, communications, infrastructure and several other systems that determine the development and safety of the country.

The data gathered by these truck-mounted sensors would establish a baseline map of ordinary conditions, making it significantly easier to spot a problem or anomaly. Such a system could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks; it could also assess road quality, catalog potholes and provide early warning of unsafe road conditions like black ice.

A system like this could also detect gaps in cell-tower coverage, weak radio and television signals and sources of radio frequency interference. This data could help provide uninterrupted communication services and promote more efficient use of broadcasting. I have a colleague working with the post office now to develop and implement this idea. This is a valuable resource that can make the postal service profitable.

Sometimes I will walk aimlessly and simply list objects or experiences that I find interesting.  When I return, I draw a picture of the object or experience and list all of its characteristics. Then I list all the associations I can think of between each characteristic and a problem. I ask questions such as:

  • How is this like my problem?
  • What if my problem were a…?
  • What are the similarities?
  • This….is like the solution to my problem because…?
  • How is …like an idea that might solve my problem?
  • What metaphors can I make between….and my problem?

This kind of thought walking is incredibly productive. A designer friend of mine and another designer were thought walking together in New York City.  They were discussing new product ideas when they stopped by the site for Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower in New York City. The spire of the building is planned to be 1,776 feet high – 1776 was the year when the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted. They were intrigued by the idea of using invisible information to generate visible forms that have meaning.

When they returned to their office, they mulled over possible ideas of using invisible information to create visible forms. Leafing through catalogs they came across ads for sweaters with computer generated space invader designs. Combining the sweater with the freedom tower inspired their idea. They came up with what they call voice knitting where an audio input (a song or a voice) is computer translated into a simple visual form to give a sweater or other piece of clothing its own unique style and vocal fingerprint of the owner.

Thought walks give you different aspects to focus on and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on. An engineer was contracted to find ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. He was blocked. He took a break and went for a walk. He visited a store that had several different varieties of honey for sale in a variety of different containers. The store advertised the honey with a cutout of a large bear holding a jar of honey. He bought a jar and returned to his office.

At his desk, while simultaneously thinking of honey and his power line problem together, he came up with a humorous absurd solution to his problem. The solution was to put a honey pot on top of each power pole. This would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would Avibrate@ off the wires. This silly idea got him to thinking about the principle of “vibration,” which inspired the solution. The solution the power company implemented was to bring in helicopters to hover over the iced power lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.

(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)

How Objective Are Your Observations?

 

meteorAt one time, ancient astronomers believed that the heavens were eternal and made of ether. This theory made it impossible for them to observe meteors as burning stones from outer space. Although the ancients witnessed meteor showers and found some on the ground, they couldn’t recognize them as meteors from outer space. They sought out and observed only those things that confirmed their theory about the heavens.

We are like the ancient astronomers and actively seek out only that information that confirms our beliefs and theories about ourselves and the world. Religious people see evidence of God’s handiwork everywhere; whereas, atheists see evidence that there is no God everywhere. Conservatives see the evils of liberalism everywhere and liberals see the evils of conservatism everywhere. People who believe they are creative see evidence of their creativity everywhere, and people who do not believe they are creative see evidence that confirms this everywhere. Whatever does not conform to our theories makes us feel uncomfortable and confused.

Here is a link to an exercise that tests your powers of observation. See how you do!

Your Theory Determines What You Deserve