Process vs results in creative work

In the 1960s, a creative performance researcher named George Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year-olds. Ninety-eight percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Dr. Land re-tested each subject at five year increments. When the same children were 10 years old, only 30% scored in the highly creative range. This number dropped to 12% by age 15 and just 2% by age 25. As the children grew into adults they effectively had the creativity trained out of them. In the words of Dr. Land, “non-creative behavior is learned.”
Similar trends have been discovered by other researchers. For example, one study of 272,599 students found that although IQ scores have risen since 1990, creative thinking scores have decreased.
This is not to say that creativity is 100% learned. Genetics do play a role. According to psychology professor Barbara Kerr, “approximately 22% of the variance [in creativity] is due to the influence of genes.” This discovery was made by studying the differences in creative thinking between sets of twins.
All of this to say, claiming that “I’m just not the creative type” is a pretty weak excuse for avoiding creative thinking.

From James Clear.

If you've been following all the recent popular thinking about parenting, the recommendations that follow for improving your creativity won't be a surprise. As embodied in Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (how perfect is it that a book on grit is written by an author named Paul Tough, who sounds like a hard boiled detective), the vogue in self-help is sustained effort over innate talent, repeated practice over any one result.

If the path to creative breakthroughs is a probabilistic one, than an approach of sustained effort is more likely to yield success, and one's understanding that outcomes are not necessarily deterministic should render failure less psychologically crippling. A good combination for people, and entrepreneurs especially, is a small short-term memory, so you can move on from your mistakes, and an ample long-term one, so you can learn from them.

I learned the hard way as an undergrad the danger of waiting for inspiration when it came to my creative writing classes, or even just any form of writing which might be regarded as “creative” work. That's just a recipe for having a deadline scare you across the finish line in a frenzied late night of work, and it's hard to generate great work under such stress or fatigue, even if it's a great motivator.

I've come to see the simple act of writing here on my blog as a form of meditation. At some point it became a habit, one I've felt a true guilt for neglecting these past few months while I try to ramp up at a new job, and while it can seem like a maddening and arbitrary task I hold myself to, if even for just 15 minutes a day, the process bears long-term fruit. Writing forces me to clarify my thinking, and getting my thoughts out of my head and into a written piece frees CPU cycles in my head. The inspiration comes in the perspiration, as writers say, even if there usually isn't much sweat involved.

The secondary effects of writing have increased in this age, too. Readers have easier ways of finding and responding to my work, and that interaction has been not only intellectually rewarding but socially and professionally, too.

Just hard enough

Jason Calacanis once asked Peter Thiel why Paypal produced so many great founders. What was it about Paypal? I loved Peter’s answer — Most people’s experiences with startups fall into one of two categories. Many work for startups that fail and learn that startups are impossible so they never try. Others work for startups like Google or Facebook and learn that startups are easy so they quit when it gets hard. Paypal was “just hard enough”. Early Paypal employees learned that startups are really hard, but it is still possible to succeed.

I don't know if that's true, but it sounds great. (source)

Why greatness cannot be planned

After months of dissecting research papers, interviewing experts, stumbling down “dabbit holes” (as we call them here at FiveThirtyEight1) and not writing a single draft, my editor gave me a non-negotiable deadline, and I spiraled into a well of despair. I had a desk cluttered with scientific papers, a hard drive stuffed with gigabytes of research and three chalkboards covered in illegible notes, yet still no tangible form for my obsession. Only in the final hours, with the deadline closing in, did something resembling a story emerge. The first draft that I puked out was no masterpiece, but it was finally something. All those scribbles and stacks of paper were necessary steps, but only in retrospect can I see where they were pointing me.
When I told this story to University of Central Florida computer scientist Kenneth Stanley, he nodded in recognition. I met Stanley, a mild-mannered artificial intelligence researcher, without intending to. We were at the Santa Fe Institute, where he was spending a sabbatical and I was in residence as a journalism fellow. Stanley had stumbled upon an algorithmic principle that pointed the way to creativity in science, art, culture and life, a principle he outlines in a new book, “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.” He told me that a computer algorithm he’d created suggested that my chaotic, unstructured writing process was the ideal way to produce creative work.

Interesting. I need to pick up that book. Stanley built an algorithm that allowed users to evolve photos from simple blobs like this... more recognizable images like these:

What's interesting is thinking about whether this idea applies to other forms of creative work and research.

The same sort of blind process happened in another series of experimentswhere Stanley and Joel Lehman instructed robots to work toward defined objectives. In one experiment a bipedal robot programmed to walk farther and farther actually ended up walking less far than one that simply was programmed to do something novel again and again, Stanley writes. Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.

And does this thinking apply to teams as well? If you are a company that needs a creative breakthrough, might that require a mental shift from a world of deterministic results, in which deliberate practice is the best process, to one that is more probabilistic, open, exploratory?

I suspect the answer is some mix of patience, novelty-seeking, and persistence. You have to be okay with a high failure rate, and a lot of iteration, but that by its very nature requires a lot of repeated, sustained effort. Thus, much like being an entrepreneur.

Where to set the safety threshold?

Since I’ve been involved with designing and marketing play apparatus, fall surfacing, climbing walls and skateparks the issue of protecting kids from falls and the use of helmets has figured prominently throughout my five decades in this field. My experience leads me to the opinion that helmets, and other protective gear should be worn when the player has the intention of testing the limits of their skill or when the environment is unpredictable. For example helmets when dirt biking or on busy streets are a good idea but may not necessary when playing in the neighborhood.

What makes us safe is not protective devices but judgment, honed reflexes, and fundamental movement skills. The goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of injury. If you watch a toddler learning to walk they have several innate behaviors that help achieve this end. When they are about to fall forward their reaction is to resumes their crawling gait and extend their arms in what is called “protective arm reflex.” When the fall is backwards they drop to their bottoms. In both cases these instinctual reactions to the job of head protection very well.

The question arises then, what is the impact of using a safety helmet? In talking with child development physiologists they suggest several issues. First they suspect, although there is little research on this, that such protective gear may disrupt the normal progression of reflex maturation. They also are concerned that the lack of consequences when falling may retard the child’s ability to form proper assessments of their skill, i.e. reduce their judgment. Finally they speculate that it reinforces a pattern of parenting that is over protective and ultimately harmful.

From this example we can see that, what might appear as a good idea is fraught with complexity and perhaps unintended consequences.

From this post on playground design, questioning a proposal by the ASTM Playground Surfacing Committee (yes, that is a thing) to engineer more safeguards into public playgrounds.

The motivation appears to be that the goal of improving playground safety with the current standard has not significantly reduced the number of hospital visits.

To my mind this is not unlike the logic of the medieval doctor who, when their patient did not get well with one blood letting concluded that they needed more blood letting.

Parenting seems like a delicate balancing act. You can set the safety threshold too high, leaving your child too brittle for the real world they will someday inhabit without you. The anti-vaxxers seem to fall prey to that miscalculation.

I'm very curious to study the parenting style and childhood peer set of kids who become serial entrepreneurs because those are people who seem to have a better understanding than the average person of the concept of risk/reward and thus a healthier acceptance of failure. An overly cautious personality, maybe someone who has always had good grades in school, may only want to play deterministic games, where the relationship between hard work and success is linear.

Entrepreneurship, especially in tech these days, is a probabilistic game. That's not a comfortable style of game for those who bruise easily. Watch someone who isn't in a probabilistic modality sit at a blackjack table and witness their discomfort with every losing hand. Their safety threshold may be set so high the only acceptable play is to never sit down at the table at all.

[That's not to say even those who think probabilistically think they're going to lose when they sit down at a table, and that goes for entrepreneurs as well. The only way the whole system works is if 10 out of 10 entrepreneurs think they'll succeed even as they know 9 out of 10 will fail. As long as everyone thinks they're that 1 out of 10, we get that 1 out of 10.]