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Remembering: how to be creative

A different take on creativity

 

 

This is not a love song.  This is not a love song.  With apologies to Johnny Rotten, this is not another blog about creativity promoting the message “if only you were more like ______” (complete the sentence with your preferred media friendly successful person).

This is not about determining which psychological traits are associated with creativity.  It is about the role of memory in creativity. Why?  Because

a) it turns out that memory is the most important element in creativity;

b) we all have a memory, so we all have the potential to be creative

c) because our individual memories are unique we vary in how creative we can be in particular areas

d) because memory is rarely considered in creativity and so writing about it seems a suitably divergent (creative) thing to do; and finally

e) because this cognitive approach forms the basis for my practical model of creativity called Beyond Personal Mastery®.


 

 

Remembering how to be creative

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” Steve Jobs Wired Magazine, 2004

As Jobs points out, creativity involves making links between what we are currently thinking of and other experiences we have previously had.  Creativity requires memory. This obvious point about creativity is largely overlooked in most treatments of the subject that favor considerations of psychological traits (e.g. Csíkszentmihályi, 1997) or the environments that promote creativity (e.g. Pink, 2005; Robinson, 2009).

Focussing on characteristics and environments that promote creativity has resulted in a plethora of studies and stories that look at creative people and attempt to draw conclusions about their traits, ways or worlds.  Like much of the self-improvement literature, the conclusions are limited by a failure to study the uncreative to see if they possess similar characteristics to the creatives or share similar environments.

Looking at the cognitive processes involved in creativity provides a different perspective that offers the promise of revealing processes that are involved in being creative.  So understanding memory may provide a key to being creative.

We are our memories.  Our very identity is closely bound up in what we bring to mind. Retrograde amnesia – the failure to recall from memory past events –  can be accompanied by a loss of a sense of identity. The relationship between identity and memory is clearly illustrated by the case of Benjamin Kyle.

The Curious Case of Benjamin

On August 31, 2004, a man was found behind Burger King near Interstate 95 and Highway 17 in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Burger King employers found him lying on the ground by the Burger King dumpsters. Police who searched the scene found nothing to identify the man such as clothes or a wallet. Paramedics reported that there were indications that he had suffered blows by a blunt object. He had no memory of who he was, and displayed prosopagnosia (inability to recognize his own face).  Known by the initials BK (for Burger King) he now lives using the name Benjamin Kyle.

To this day, Benjamin is able to recall only sketchy details of his past, such as public debates about construction projects in Denver and more detailed memories about restaurant operation and food preparation.

Benjamin’s case underlines how we use memory in everyday life for everything from being to answer the profound “who am I” question to knowing what a knife and fork are for.  It is not surprising then that memory plays a central role in creativity.  But we need to understand what we mean by creativity to understand the role memory plays in it.

Creativity Defined

Creativity is generally agreed to involve the production of something novel and worthwhile (e.g. Mumford, 2003).  It is not necessary for us to get bogged down in what counts as novel or worthwhile. Suffice to say that consensus on these points is subject to change over time and differs between judges.  For instance, the composer Bach was seen as a journeyman during his lifetime, but has subsequently been recognised as a genius.  Nonetheless the basis for both Bach’s earlier and more recent reputation rests on whether he produced novel and worthwhile work.

Since both novelty and value are socially determined judgements as Csíkszentmihályi (1997) points out, we must look for memory processes that lead to ideas that may be contenders for the appellation of creativity, ideas in of themselves cannot be “creative”.

Creativity is also generally agreed to involve connecting existing ideas, things, or processes to create the novel and worthwhile thing (e.g. Jobs, 2004).  This is where memory plays a role, in the process of making the links between the new and the old, or even the old and the old.

Working Memory and Long Term Memory

The memory processes that are likely to be involved in creativity are working memory (Baddeley, 2007) and instance-based long-term memory (e.g. Hintzman, 1986).  Working memory for our purposes can be seen as the current contents of consciousness.  It stores information that we are currently aware of and using. Working memory is very limited in its capacity, and is able to store generally about the last 2 minutes worth of information.  After that the information is lost (forgotten) or is encoded into long-term memory.  It is for this reason why long-term memory is so important for identity, because all of us, in a sense are living in our pasts.  We need to continually recall information from long-term memory just to operate.

Long Term memory can be thought of as a storehouse of our experiences. In episodic models of memory such as Douglas Hintzman’s MINERVA model, long term memory is said to be made up of a series of memory traces that reflect the episodes that we have experienced.  Thus if we see a black car, next to a fragrant gardenia bush on a sunny day when we are planning to go sailing with our friend David, our memory for that moment is stored in a trace that contains all of these elements (ie black, car, David, sailing, gardenias, the smell, sunshine etc). See this movie animation here

[quicktime]http://www.brightandassociates.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Episodic-Long-Term-Memory.mov[/quicktime]

In this way our long term memory comprises billions of traces encoding all of this experience.   When we come to recall something, we probe our memories perhaps looking for gardenia experiences.  The probes are a bit like a depth sounder sending a wave down through the layers of memories looking for an echo back from a matching memory.  The strongest echo is the memory that is likely to be recalled.  Because memories are subject to degradation over time if they are not regularly recalled (“rehearsed”), the strongest echo may come back from a different memory that nonetheless shares some element in common with the probe such as a memory of buying a gardenia plant at a nursery, or a memory of weeding the garden.

In the video below, a new instance/experience/inspiration acts as a probe of Long Term Memory.  All of the different elements of the new instance are represented by the balls that probe into the Long Term Memory.  When these probes hit a match, they bounce back up high  (or echo strongly in Hintzman’s terms), balls that roll off without bouncing much are the probes that fail to find a match in memory.  The stored memory that causes the most bounces or echoes, is the one that is most likely to be recalled into Working Memory.

[quicktime]http://www.brightandassociates.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Hintzman-recall-iPhone.m4v[/quicktime]

Creativity as linking memories and experiences

These memory systems give us a mechanism to make the links between a current memory residing in working memory and a stored memory trace in long term memory.

If we use the current experience in working memory as a probe of our long term memory, we can bring to mind two things in consciousness at the same time and that allows us to make the link and then store a new memory that is the composite of the new experience and the old memory.  The same mechanism explains the power of reflection in learning as it allows us to recall a previously stored memory and then use that to probe for other stored memories and then link those together in a new memory.

In the video below, a new experience / inspiration in working memory (the green layer), leads to the recall into working memory of a previously stored memory (the red layer). These are combined and result in a new idea (the yellow layer), and all three memories are re-stored in Long Term Memory.

[quicktime]http://www.brightandassociates.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Hintzman-combine-and-adding-iPhone.m4v[/quicktime]

Several implications flow from seeing creativity in these terms.

  1. The more experiences you commit to memory, the more building blocks you possess to make different links.  The more links the greater the chance of being creative
  2. The more richly encoded are experiences are (the more we process the patterns and elements of our experience) the more accessible these memories become for later recollection and linking. The more richly encoded the greater the chance of being creative.
  3. The more that experiences are recalled, rehearsed and practised, the more available they will be for subsequent recollection and linking.  The more rehearsed the more creative.
  4. Paradoxically, the more rehearsed the memories, the more likely they will be compiled or chunked together with other very similar memories.  This is great for expert snap judgements, but can dominate to such an extent, that it precludes creative alternatives.

Essentially, this is the cognitive mechanism the underpins the Combining and Adding step in the Beyond Personal Mastery® model of creativity.

Implicit Creativity – why confidence, risk taking and persistence are important for creativity

 

Like Peter McGeorge and Mike Burton (McGeorge & Burton, 1990) before me I used Hintzman’s model in my PhD (e.g. Bright & Burton, 1994) to explain a fascinating situation where people appear to make links between different stimuli without being apparently aware that they’ve made the links.

I showed people a series of clock faces.  The clock faces had different designs. The shapes of the clock faces were either circular; square; diamond shaped or triangular. The numbering system was either arabic numerals; roman numerals; lines at  12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock; or totally blank faces.

I then showed people 30 different clock faces that varied in their design features.   I asked people to rate each clock for how well it represented the time shown.   I didn’t tell my volunteers or draw attention to the fact that every clock had a time showing that fell between six and twelve o’clock.

After they were done, I removed the clock designs from view, and surprised my volunteers by giving them a memory test.  I presented them with two clock faces at a time, and told them they had seen one, but not the other of each pair.  The volunteers had to choose the one they’d seen before.   Often this test generated howls of protest with people stating that they couldn’t remember the clocks and were just guessing.

I’d fixed the test so that one of each pair showed a time that fell between six and twelve o’clock and the other clock did not.  However even the clock that showed a time in the same range as the earlier clocks had a specific time that had not been seen before.  For instance, if the volunteers had seen 6:35 earlier, they might be shown 6:50  during the test.

It turns out that people typically picked the clocks that showed the times that were consistent with the previous ones they’d seen (about 7 times out of 10, compared to 5 out of ten if they were truly guessing).

What I’d done was to get people to lay down 30 memory traces that all contained features of the the clocks including the time shown on the clocks (even though they were not particularly focussed on the time shown).   Then at test, they compared the two alternative clocks to their previously stored instances.   The clock that got the biggest echo back was the one most like what they’d seen before – which was the one showing a time in the same range as the ones they’d stored in memory.

The volunteers were able to make the links between the novel clocks and their stored memories to make a decision even when they were unaware they had the knowledge to make the decision.

We store more information than we are readily consciously aware of.   This allows us to respond to new stimuli and automatically link them to our memories even when we are not confident we can make the links.  Once my volunteers were told of the time ranges they rapidly understood what was happening.

Subsequent studies by my PhD student Ben Newell (Newell & Bright, 2002) indicated that the volunteers actually did have some insight into their choices, but they were not very confident in their choices.   So people are naturally good at making the links, but often they are reluctant to try to make the links or not confident that they can do so.  I think this helps to explain why creativity is so regularly associated with qualities such as Self Efficacy, Risk Taking, Playfulness and Persistence (all steps in Beyond Personal Mastery®). People need to be either naturally confident, risk takers or stubbornly persistent, or they need encouragement and an encouraging environment to help them make the links and work with that they’ve linked together.

10 tips for boosting creativity

 

  1. Have a good memory.  This model shows us that having a good memory is likely to be helpful in being creative, because it allows us to bring to working memory more stored stored memories, and that increases the chances of making links that might be novel and worthwhile.
  2. Have lots of memories or experiences.  It stands to reason that the more memories that are laid down and accessible, the more different combinations can be made between them and with new memories. This is why the Inspiration step in Beyond Personal Mastery® is so important.  It underlines that old adage, you should get out more often, read more often, experience more often, reflect more often. It is also consistent with the idea that many creative people have many thousands of hours of experience in their chosen domain.  It is consistent with the 10,000 hours hypothesis for creativity.
  3. Encode your memories richly by being aware of and examining the patterns they contain. As you experience things, actively look for patterns and try to associate the experience with other experiences.  Think about what you are experiencing in many different ways. For instance you could consider your experience in terms of deBono’s different thinking hats (information, feeling, judgement, optimism, alternatives, meta cognition). What you are doing is adding lots of different “tags” or elements to your memory that will make it more accessible to recall in the future by a wider range of probes. In turn this increases the chances of this memory being linked to something ostensibly quite different in the future and hence increases the likelihood of creative thinking. This is why the Patterning step in Beyond Personal Mastery® is so important.
  4. Reflect on your memories and link them to existing categories, or create new ones if they do not readily fit. This is the Learning step in Beyond Personal Mastery®.
  5. Be aware of the expertise effect (e.g. See Blink by Malcolm Gladwell).  Too many similar memories – such as acquired becoming expert in some endeavor are likely to be very dominant and will quickly be recollected.  This is known as the Chunking effect in memory studies of expertise.  For instance Chess experts have been shown not to analyse a chess board piece by piece, but rather chunks the arrangement of pieces together into a pattern.  This is great for expertise because it allows for very fast retrieval and processing of one pattern rather than many individual components, but it can stymie creativity because it can limit the number of new or novel associations that you can make. In social situations like brainstorming, it can lead to stereotypical and unoriginal ideas.
    1. Overcome the expertise effect by:  encouraging adusrdism – forcing yourself to consider links between seemingly unrelated ideas.
    2. Force yourself to consider individual elements in a situation rather than chunking stuff together – step back from the scene, to see the bigger picture, look sideways at the situation
    3. Using humor such as caricatures, parody, satire, and exaggeration as mechanisms to make new links
    4. Using the Arts (e.g. Music, poetry, plays, film, painting, sculpture etc) as ways of finding new associations and links to memories.
  6. Adopt a mind-set that is consistent Nickerson (1999) and with the Mind Steps of Beyond Personal Mastery® – i.e. Open, Flexible, Optimistic, Playful & Risk-taking, Persistent, Self-Efficacious & Visionary.  These attitudinal factors are likely to increase the chances of seeking out new inspirations to become memories which enhance the chances of making new associations, and recalling and combining new and old memories in novel ways.
  7. Children are often seen as naturally creative.  It is likely that this results from a combination of necessity and nurture.
    1. Children have fewer encoded memories, and therefore when they recall and link things together, the links are likely to seem less natural, or more forced, and therefore sometimes goofy and sometimes highly creative.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  One implication of this is that injunctions to adults to think like a child are unlikely to be successful because the resulting behavior may mimic childish attitudes, but will not mimic children’s smaller store of long term memories.  However it does suggest that too many memories can hinder creativity, unless one actively masters techniques to prevent automatic encoding of new material along stereotypical lines (ie in the way that all the previous memories have been stored).  This is why coming to things with “fresh eyes”, “sleeping on a problem”, possibility as well as probability thinking (Pryor, Amundson & Bright, 2008) or using metaphors (see Amundson, 2010) can be so powerful.
    2. Children are nurtured and encouraged to be curious, to experiment, and to fail. The consequences of failure are downplayed and they are generally in environments where the consequences of failure are not severe.  In fact parents naturally encourage the sort of conditions that Nickerson (1999), Bright (2008), and Pryor & Bright (2009) consider essential for creativity.
  8. The Beyond Personal Mastery® model of creativity was developed based on the research cited here and more generally fits within the Chaos Theory of Careers (e.g. Pryor & Bright, 2011).  The implications of the model are to take Action steps to get as many inspirations as possible and then to encode these richly taking into account the patterns these experiences hold, and to reflect on these patterns and learn new ways of encoding our experience.  Then practice reproducing the experience from our memories to master them, and then once richly encoded, learned and mastered to combine them with other experiences to create new ones.  In this act of Combining and Adding, we can  have those “aha” moments of insight  where a solution to problem presents itself, or where a new creative idea emerges.  It is from this that we can then set about the tasks of strategizing, goal setting and finally execution.  The model is useful because it shows that there are a lot of important steps to go through before we reach the goal setting and strategizing stages.
  9. Too often commentators, counsellors and coaches jump in at the goal setting or strategizing stage in the mistaken belief that this will lead to the creative step.  In fact, the creative step comes first. This is an important consideration, especially around New Year, when we are assailed by lots of well meaning advice encouraging us to set goals and strategies.  It assumes we already have sufficient experiences and memories to create attractive, useful or realistic goals.   However for many, ignoring the first five steps of Beyond Personal Mastery® are likely to condemn them to limited, unoriginal and unsatisfying goals and plans which in turn are probably more likely to falter.
  10. To be creative, do lots of things, reflect and learn from those things and continually try combining the new with the old and the old with the old and even the new with the new.  Foster your memory to foster creativity.

Remember we are all Creative

 

We all have memories and so we all have the apparatus to be creative. In fact in one sense we are all creative all of the time.  However much of our creativity is overlooked, or focussed on things that society does not currently place a high value upon (but recall Bach, you never know, your creative lists of train spotting numbers could be the celebrated fugues of the 22nd century, but then again perhaps not!!).

A lot of our creativity is stymied by our lack of confidence, persistence, or lack of risk-taking.  These Mind steps of Beyond Personal Mastery® are important not only in the creative act in the first place, but also in transforming the creative idea into an innovation.  This article has focussed on the creative act and not the innovative act – which is the transforming of creative ideas into useful products or services.  However I encourage the reader to check out Beyond Personal Mastery® where it should be apparent that the model applies to the Innovation process as well. Remember you just need to make the links!

 

 

References

Amundson, N. (2010). Metaphor making. Ergon Press.

Baddeley, A. (2007). Working Memory, Thought, and Action. Oxfrod University Press, USA.

Bright, J.E.H. & Burton, AM. (1994). Past midnight: semantic processing in an implicit learning task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 47(1).71-89.

Bright, J. (2008). Beyond Personal Mastery®. Extracted from http://www.beyondpersonalmastery.com

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1997) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial

Duggan, W. (2007). Strategic Intuition:The creative spark in human achievement. Columbia University Press.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown & Company. USA.

Hintzman, D.L., 1986. “Schema abstraction” in a multiple-trace memory model. Psychological Review 93, pp. 411–428.

Jobs, S. (2004). Interview in Wired Magazine

McGeorge, P., & Burton, A.M. (1990). Semantic processing in an incidental learning task. Quarterly Journal of. Experimental Psychology, 42A, 597–609

Mumford, M. D. (2003). Where have we been, where are we going? Taking stock in creativity research. Creativity Research Journal, 15, 107–120.

Newell, B.R & Bright, JEH. Well past midnight: Calling time on implicit invariant learning?  European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 2002, 14 (2), 185–205

Nickerson, R. S. (1999). “Enhancing creativity”. In R. J. Sternberg. Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge University

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind.  Allen & Unwin.

Pryor R.G.L., Amundson, N., & Bright, J. (2008). Possibilities and probabilities: the role of chaos theory.  Career Development Quarterly 56 (4), 309-318.

Pryor, RGL & Bright, JEH (2009). Failing Successfully. Presentation to the Career Development Association of Australia Annual Conference, April 2008, Melbourne.

Pryor, RGL & Bright, JEH. (2011). The Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge. New York.

Robinson, K. (2009). The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Viking.

Working with a terminal illness

My late Aunt Sylvia Cox was an inspiration to me. She was not only my Aunt, she was a teacher at my High School.  Her enthusiasm for life and her naturally exclamatory style engendered a sense of fun and a sense of the possible in those around her.  Whether it was taking us for “puddle rides” in her ancient Morris Minor Traveller which involved swerving alarmingly across country lanes to hit puddles of water that would splash up through the hole in the floor of the car, or fitting 3 adults and 2 children into a Lancia Fulvia 2+2 sports car for a 3 hour drive to the Pleasure Beach at Blackpool, she was always innovative and fun.

When soon after retiring she was diagnosed with cancer she decided to keep in touch with her friends and family around the world using Skype.  She was the person who introduced Skype to me when she called me on it and told me!  She also used Skype to keep us all informed of her progress, which may have been difficult for her, but was something I was very grateful for. I am proud that a techboy like me was introduced to a new technology by his retired and ill Aunt.  It spoke volumes about her attitude to her terminal illness.

In many ways the passing of Steve Jobs reminded me of the similarities between my Aunt and the CEO of Apple.  They both faced questions of who to tell and when and how about their condition.  And they both used I.T. as part of that communication strategy.  I never thought my memories of my Aunt would be modified or linked in any way with Steve Jobs, which just goes to show how a person’s memory and life continues to grow and inspire one years after their passing.

For those still in the workplace living with a diagnosis of a terminal or chronic condition, not only do they have to deal with their emotional response to their condition, they have the very real dilemma of deciding what to tell their boss and work colleagues. Not everyone will want to be as open as my Aunt was with her colleagues, friends and family.

There are two ways of looking at this situation, the formal or legal one, and the career development approach. I have no ?legal training and so what I can say about this from a formal perspective is limited and readers are strongly advised to take advice from appropriately qualified independent legal advisors. If you are a member of a union, they should be able to assist.

The first point to make is that you have a duty to notify promptly your employer of your illness or incapacity and of the estimated duration of the absence as a condition of any sick leave you are going to take. Employers have a right to demand an explanation for unexplained absences from work, indeed I am told by lawyers that it could be argued that under Occupational Health and Safety laws employers who do not inquire into absences may be abdicating their duty of care to their employees. Consequently you should expect management to request information about any absences.

Ok, so much for the formalities, how in practice can you maximise the chances of keeping your job while at the same time dealing with the emotional shock and upheavals that accompany a diagnosis of a chronic or terminal condition??The first point hardly needs making it is so obvious, but you are likely to be in a highly emotionally charged state around the time of medical investigations and diagnosis. When under such stress, we do not make the best decisions, and understandably our focus is on ourselves, our well-being and our loved ones. The employer generally ranks very low?in our priority list, however the remuneration they provide may well rank as important. Consequently you need to give yourself the best chance possible of communicating clearly with your employer. Try writing out or talking out with a sensible friend, what you want to tell your employer. This will help you collect your thoughts and communicate?more coherently when the time comes. Take a little time to gather your thoughts about work and to decide on your strategy.

Do not be tempted to quit in an emotional state. Think through your actions. If you are going to require the financial support of a regular income during the course of your illness, the stresses of continuing to work need to be balanced against the stresses of being unemployed and being financially insecure. Even if you do not need to work?for the money, think very carefully about the sense of social support, recognition and social contribution that can accompany work. Do not throw away such things lightly.

Despite your personal circumstances, the reality is that work goes on for your employer, and they have a responsibility to their other employees, customers and shareholders. Consequently, you might want to consider framing your discussions with your employer in terms of how you are going to continue to meet performance expectations. Do not be tempted to personalise the situation or become resentful if the employer seems to be coldly indifferent to your circumstances. If your goal is to continue to make a professional contribution, then you need to behave professionally. You are likely to be treated a whole lot better if you maintain a dignified and supportive approach to your colleagues and boss, than if you simply “trade” on your illness.

Openness in communication with your manager is an essential for most people at work. Understand the nature and course of your diagnosis and ask your medical advisors about how your illness and treatment is likely to affect your performance at work. Test yourself so that you are fully confident you know as much about the impact of your illness as possible and remember there are no stupid questions if you do not know ask your doctor and ask again for clarification it is part of their job. When you fully understand the nature of your illness, plan out how you see this translating into your work situation. How long realistically will you be able to continue with your duties? What modifications to your duties or workplace will be required, when and for how long? What are the realistic best and worst case scenarios relating to?work? Once you have set out these parameters you are in a good position to have a meeting with your manager, where you can set out all of this information for them.

If your condition is one that is not likely to impact upon your work or your work colleagues, or not for a long time, then your condition is not a work-related issue at this stage and there is no obvious reason to inform your managers about it. However if your condition is going to impact upon your work, or is going to be plainly obvious to your managers and colleagues you should not delay in discussing the matter with your boss.

You need to decide on a preferred “communications policy”. In other words, you need to decide who you want to share?your diagnosis with. Some people will prefer to limit knowledge of their condition to a manager and no one else, whereas others will want the information disseminated more broadly. You need to discuss this with your manager and make it very clear what your preference is. Remember your manager may well have an obligation to report your case?to their superiors and so on.

Even if you have close friends in the workplace, your boss should still be the first (or a very close second) work colleague you inform. The last thing you want are rumours starting and your boss hearing second- hand. Your goal is to get your boss on-side as a supporter. Schedule a meeting at a quiet time, such as the end of the day or early morning when there is less chance of interruptions. Indicate that you want to discuss something of importance, and that you will need at least 30 mins to an hour. Indicate that you need to see them reasonably urgently. After the meeting, follow up with an email, or a note (keep copies of either), politely thanking them for their time and setting out briefly your understanding of what was discussed and what was agreed.

My golden rule of all communications is to get it in writing. Keep a dated written record of all meetings, and communications with people at work. Write up notes as soon as possible after face-to-face meetings or even?corridor conversations, and date them. Keep the records up to date and limit your entry to the facts of what occurred do not include any defamatory opinions or reflections. If someone reduced you to tears, say so, but do not write down a lot of personal attacks about the other person. Why go to all this trouble? Simply to cover yourself in the?event that the employer becomes unreasonable or reneges on an agreement.

If you fear that being open with your boss is likely to result in your sacking, it is likely that your boss would also sack you for any regular or long absences for treatment, so unless the impact of your illness is not going to impact on your work, you have little to lose in informing your boss (and lots to gain, because you are actually helping your boss to manage you better).

Finally, I have known cases where the most irritating, anti-establishment employees who were convinced their boss hated their guts, found after diagnosis of a terminal illness that the boss became their greatest supporter. Most people (and that includes most bosses!) are compassionate, reasonable people, but like most people, they can be cold-hearted or unreasonable if approached in the wrong way. Be honest, be proud and be positive. Nobody and no employer could ask for more.

(Dedicated to the memory of my Aunt Sylvia Cox)

The 3 Rs of Creativity and Careers

The 3 Rs of Creativity and Careers

I found myself coining a new phrase to capture some of the key ideas in career development. The phrase is:

  • Reinvent,
  • Respond,
  • Resort

The idea flowed from an inspiration from Steve Jobs being interviewed by Stephen Fry in Time Magazine. Jobs responding to Fry’s question about his “career” said “”I do stuff. I respond to stuff. That’s not a career — it’s a life!”. Herein is a great way of thinking about 21st century careers “I do stuff. I respond to stuff”. Indeed it reminds me of what Tim Costello said at conference in Melbourne last year “My career has not been linear, rather I made the best decisions I could at the time”. (I used that last quote in my youtube video on Chaos Theory of Careers and Reinvention) video.


The Problem with “Career”
A lot of commentators have argued that the term “career” no longer adequately describes the experience of work, non-work roles, education and so on. Modern paid employment is increasingly unstable, interrupted and unpredictable. For some the response is that we can “design” a life, however for me such a term too closely resembles the traditional predict and control ideas associated with careers in stable labor markets. The metaphor of jazz improvisation is close to my heart as a jazz lover, the idea of making it up as you go along – or more accurately reinventing, responding and resorting. Such an approach inevitably leads to notions of creativity. Making the move from predictability and design, to improvisation and creativity is a significant one, because it allows counsellors, coaches and educators to put their efforts into fostering these desirable qualities, and from these a career will emerge. In Steve Jobs’ words, it encourages us to do stuff and respond to stuff.

One of the consequences of making this shift is that we move from predictions to patterns (see my paper with my friend Robert Pryor called “Shiftwork” in the Australian Journal of Career Development, or look at a earlier post here. Some of the patterns that are worth looking at are ones associated with successful creativity and imagination or improvisation. For instance Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple are often the focus of enquiries into their success. Jobs’ own comment that “creativity is making the links” is instructive, as it provides a practical clue to creativity. This is explored in my Beyond Personal Mastery® model of Creativity (see Beyond Personal Mastery website.

We can also study failure in creativity (failure is an important and neglected component of career development see the presentation “Failing Sucessfully” with Robert Pryor in podcast form on this site for more details). For instance 9/11 has been described by terrorism experts as a “failure of imagination” on behalf of the security forces because they had failed to imagine the awful tactics that the terrorists would employ. It turns out that the security game is a creative challenge in the same way that to a greater or lesser extent all occupations are. In John Paul Getty’s words if you haven’t got a problem, you haven’t got a job. Jobs are exercises in problem solving. If there were no problem to solve, why employ a person? The solution to that problem can be an employee – but where is the employee located? Is it cheaper to employ that person in India or China? Secondly, it is cheaper or faster (ie more efficient) to get a machine or computer to solve the problem and finally is does the solution to the problem produce something that people need or want? These are Dan Pink’s three questions from his Whole New Mind book (2005) – is what you are offering meeting the challenges of Asia, Automation and Abundance. Perhaps the most likely way to fail to rise up to this challenge is to fail to generate creative solutions to whatever problems are posed.

For me making this move from predictability and control to unpredictability, patterning, improvisation and reinvention – creativity permits us to engage in tasks that address the challenges everyone of us face in order to survive and thrive in life. Patterns will emerge in our lives over time, and inevitably we will fall into the trap of oversimplifying them into a story which is better than trying to describe them in terms of an assortment of trait test scores, but still represents, be in no doubt, an oversimplified and usually overly neat version of events. We can look into those stories and scores (for both can be very useful) to help us make our next moves, but we can do so much more by also straining to see the possibilities and not just the probabilities (see the paper with my friends Norm Amundson and Robert Pryor in Career Development Quarterly on this point, or look at the Creative Thinking Strategies cards that address this as a practical thinking tool CTS cards link. We want to encourage people to be continually trying to make new links and associations, which implies continually experiencing new things and reflecting and learning, as well as trying things out, which in turn will need to new insights and experiences and so on – the essence of Beyond Personal Mastery® indeed.

“Careers” do not exist in their own right, rather if “a career” means anything it is a description of the pattern of experiences, thoughts, learning and reflections that emerge from “doing stuff” and “responding to stuff”, indeed it comes from continually Reinventing, Responding and Resorting. In the Chaos Theory of Careers terms it is an emergent pattern generated by the complex dynamical systems that we are and that we interact with. It also follows that his pattern will not be totally random, but will have a structure that repeats, but it may well be exceedingly complex and prone to sudden unpredictable reconfiguration.

That is why these three words resonate for me when thinking about careers: Reinventing, Responding, and Resorting

Reinventing
Invent from the latin “venir” to come, and so invent to come upon, or find. Re-invent, to come upon again, find again, or find another. Hence when we talk of “finding ourselves”, we are inventing or re-inventing ourselves. However because we are so beautifully complex and ever-changing, there are infinite things to find out, or come upon, so and there are an infinite number of ways that we can reinvent ourselves. Some of these reinventions may simply be a matter or “tweaking”, “tightening” or “tuning”, but never under-estimate the benefits of a well tuned instrument or well-tuned engine, often it makes all the difference between success and failure. However even the best instruments or engines need a re-tune. In my office at the recording studios, whenever musicians come in to record and need the Yamaha CFIII 9’ Concert Grand, a piano tuner is employed to make sure it is right, and there is always something that needs doing. As I said even the best need this. So even for those for whom things seem to be going fine, there is still the need for reinvention.

For those for whom things are not going so well, reinvention is more obviously necessary and pressing. The changes required may also not be much more than a re-tune, but may require much more significant reinvention. Sometimes it is hard to recognise it is the same person at the end of it.

Reinvention is a central concept in many career development theories in so far as it implies a conscious and thoughtful approach, it emphasises the planning and designing elements.  It has a certain rationality associated with it.  It is not hard to see the relevance of ideas such as Arthur’s Intelligent career “knowing why, knowing how, knowing whom” or Acjzen’s Planned Behaviour – Behavioral, Normative and Control Attitudes, or Constructivist notions such as writing the next chapter, or indeed classic positivistic ideas about matching and planning (e.g. Holland 1959, Dawis & Lofquist, 1984).  All of the approaches cited emphasise the importance of “Think before you act”.  Action is primarily based upon a rational consideration of what we know or believe and what we perceive we want or need to do.

However I mean Reinvention in a broader sense that also includes spontaneous, continuous and unplanned reinvention.  I am not at all sure outside of the confines of a counsellor’s office whether we consciously design our lives or spend time writing the next chapters.  I am not even sure it is possible.  How does it work?  We sit down and literally or metaphorically write the next chapter?  But the act of projecting into this future takes time and hence intrudes into that future, meaning that whatever we see at the beginning of the future in our projections cannot be, because we are too busy thinking about it, to allow it to happen. Hence immediately there is a slippage between what we think will happen next and what does happen next.  If you believe in sensitivity to initial conditions and non-linearity (i.e. that small changes now can have profound impacts later) then these slippages really matter.

This is in essence a variation of Kitching’s (2008) reminder that we not only think about the world, we act in it too.  Discoveries about the world are made by acting in the world as well as thinking about it.  Experience is not limited to the experience of thinking, but generally and more commonly is comprised of action.  Why does this matter?  Because I believe that privileging “Think before you act” over “Act before you think” is limited and limiting when it comes to careers.   The Chaos Theory of Careers characterises all of us as ultimately limited in our knowledge and that ourselves and our world are ultimately never fully knowable.  Thus there is always uncertainty in any situation.  The rational/cognitivist response (the dominant view in Careers) is to acknowledge that fact and then seek to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible through rational thought, planning and so forth. No matter how well we do this, not all contingencies can be imagined, and sometimes acting in the world is a more efficient way of discovering them and learning.  Thought compliments action, it is not necessarily pre-eminent. Action provides the content for the narrative, and a script provides the motivation for action.

That people often act, and sometimes without a well articulated plan ought to be self-evident from countless recollections from people in all walks of life, including the comment from Steve Jobs, “I do stuff”.  We often act on the basis of hunches or impulse yet such behaviour is frowned upon or not readily accounted for in most Career Development theories.

For professionals working the field the challenge is how do we help people reinvent themselves, what are the processes involved, and what works best when and how. There is a practice and research agenda right there!

Responding
from spondere to promise or pledge, hence pledge in return – respond. Often it is how we respond to changing events that can influence or even determine our “career” success. It is understandable but unfortunate that those who are confronted by a serious setback may respond with negativity, self-limited thinking and perhaps even depression making it even more difficult to respond in a positive way. Responding to failure by saying “that’s interesting” rather than “why me” or “never again” may help in learning rather than ingraining an avoidance philosophy.

Recognising the need to be responsive and that we will inevitably have to respond to things is an important first step. Again I would argue that traditional approaches in our field that emphasise predictability, planning and goal-setting serve to diminish the importance of responding. If you have everything planned, then responses are predictable and well thought through.  Sometimes this is a very sensible thing to do, but on occasions the ability to respond spontaneously, authentically, quickly, and to unexpected events can be critical.  Rather I argue that we need to privilege Responding and Responsiveness and support, model, coach, teach, educate and research effective responding. What does it mean to respond? How do we avoid characteristic responses? How do we avoid responding in the most expedient manner? How could we respond creatively? What are benefits of delaying responding? How can be learn to trust hunches?  How can be improve our responses to the unexpected?  Etc.

Resorting
The last word, the final resort, perhaps seems to be least comfortably appropriate word here. Resort – from sortir to go (out), hence to go, to act. I also mean re-sort as in rearrange here. Hence I like the word because it can imply action as well as rearrangement, and of course resorts are nice places to go to!

So in my first sense here, Resorting means acting or “doing stuff”. Through action new possibilities arise, as set out in the Action Steps of Beyond Personal Mastery®. It also implies the implementation of hitherto unused options – i.e. I had to resort to climbing in through the window. Often we are at our most creative when we are obliged to resort. It implies “stretch” a term that is trendy amongst HR practitioners as in a “stretch assignment” one that encourages the person to maximise their potential and use all of their resources.

In the second sense Re-sort, the term captures that often creativity and reinvention are right under our noses waiting to be discovered. It can often be a case of taking existing things and combining them in novel ways. Sometimes we discover these things by accident or failure, like failing to wash our hands! The artificial sweetener Saccharin was discovered when chemist Constantin Fahlberg didn’t wash his hands after a day at work. Fahlberg was trying to come up with new uses for coal tar. After going home noticed the rolls he was eating tasted sweet. He asked his wife if she had done anything interesting to the rolls, but she hadn’t. They tasted normal to her. Fahlberg realized the taste must have been coming from his hands — which he hadn’t washed.

In career terms re-sorting can occur by taking a fresh look at our knowledge, skills and abilities – our transferable skills if you will and finding new connections or arrangements of them. Sometimes University degree courses and trade training will deliberately encourage students to “think like a” psychologist/engineer/doctor/plumber/chef etc. While this serves a purpose, it may also discourage the person to think more laterally or creatively about their knowledge and skills. It is not uncommon for students so-encouraged years later to have an epiphany as they come to the realisation that they can combine their training with other experiences in a way that is creative, effective and yet still ethical. Stoltenberg and Delworth (1987) model of Supervision captures this type of notion in their level 3 supervisor who “shows increased professional self-confidence, with only conditional dependency on the supervisor. He or she has greater insight and shows more stable motivation. Supervision becomes more collegial, with sharing exemplification augmented by professional and personal confrontation”.

Re-sorting can be aided by “professional and personal confrontation” – i.e. by challenging ourselves in terms of what we think we know, and to also think about what we know we dont know, and what we dont know we know and finally Taleb’s (2007) Black Swans – what we don’t know we don’t know. Taleb calls such cases Black swans, because in the past Europeans thought all swans were white and did not know that they did not know that in Perth, swans are black.

So continually re-sorting our knowledge and skills is also a critical component of career creativity.

So there is my Kick Rs approach to being creative in Careers. Those three words: Reinventing, Responding, Resorting may seem simple but as I’ve tried to illustrate, or at least alluded, they depend on a whole new approach to Career Development derived from Robert Pryor and Jim Bright’s Chaos Theory of Careers, Shiftwork, Beyond Personal Mastery® and the work of other leading thinkers in this field including Norm Amundson, Spencer Niles, Mark Savickas, Raoul von Esbroeck, Jean-Pierre Dauwalder and many others.

References

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211

Bright, J.E.H. & Pryor, R.G.L.. (2008). Shiftwork: A Chaos Theory Of Careers Agenda For Change In Career Counselling. Australian Journal of Career Development. 17(3), 63-72.

Bright J.E.H. & Pryor R.G.L. (2005). The chaos theory of careers: a users guide. Career Development Quarterly. Vol 53(4) Jun 2005, 291-305

Dawis, R. V., & Lofquist, L. H. (1984). A psychological theory of work adjustment. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6, 35-45.

Kitching, G. (2008). The trouble with Postmodernism. UNSW press.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind. Allen and Unwin.

Pryor R.G.L., Amundson, N., & Bright, J. (2008). Possibilities and probabilities: the role of chaos theory.  Career Development Quarterly 56 (4), 309-318.

Savickas et al (2009). Life Designing. Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Stoltenberg, C. D., & Delworth, U. (1987) Supervising counselors and therapists. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Taleb, N. (2007). The Black Swan. Random House.

Managing your job with a terminal or chronic illness

(Dedicated to the memory of my Aunt Sylvia Cox)

Steve Jobs’ of Apple sad passing highlights the dilemma faced by employees diagnosed with terminal or chronic illness of how many details of their condition they share with their employer and colleagues.
There are two ways of looking at this situation, the formal or legal one, and the career development approach. I have no legal training and so what I can say about this from a formal perspective is limited and readers are strongly advised to take advice from appropriately qualified independent legal advisors. If you are a member of a union, they should be able to assist.

The first point to make is that you have a duty to notify promptly your employer of your illness or incapacity and of the estimated duration of the absence as a condition of any sick leave you are going to take. Employers have a right to demand an explanation for unexplained absences from work, indeed I am told by lawyers that it could be argued that under Occupational Health and Safety laws employers who do not inquire into absences may be abdicating their duty of care to their employees. Consequently you should expect management to request information about any absences.

sunset

Ok, so much for the formalities, how in practice can you maximize the chances of keeping your job while at the same time dealing with the emotional shock and upheavals that accompany a diagnosis of a chronic or terminal condition?
The first point hardly needs making it is so obvious, but you are likely to be in a highly emotionally charged state around the time of medical investigations and diagnosis. When under such stress, we do not make the best decisions, and understandably our focus is on ourselves, our well-being and our loved ones. The employer generally ranks very low
in our priority list, however the remuneration they provide may well rank as important. Consequently you need to give yourself the best chance possible of communicating clearly with your employer. Try writing out or talking out with a sensible friend, what you want to tell your employer. This will help you collect your thoughts and communicate
more coherently when the time comes. Take a little time to gather your thoughts about work and to decide on your strategy.

Do not be tempted to quit in an emotional state. Think through your actions. If you are going to require the financial support of a regular income during the course of your illness, the stresses of continuing to work need to be balanced against the stresses of being unemployed and being financially insecure. Even if you do not need to work
for the money, think very carefully about the sense of social support, recognition and social contribution that can accompany work. Do not throw away such things lightly.

Despite your personal circumstances, the reality is that work goes on for your employer, and they have a responsibility to their other employees, customers and shareholders. Consequently, you might want to consider framing your discussions with your employer in terms of how you are going to continue to meet performance expectations. Do not be tempted to personalise the situation or become resentful if the employer seems to be coldly indifferent to your circumstances. If your goal is to continue to make a professional contribution, then you need to behave professionally. You are likely to be treated a whole lot better if you maintain a dignified and supportive approach to your colleagues and boss, than if you simply “trade” on your illness.

Openness in communication with your manager is an essential for most people at work. Understand the nature and course of your diagnosis and ask your medical advisors about how your illness and treatment is likely to affect your performance at work. Test yourself so that you are fully confident you know as much about the impact of your illness as possible and remember there are no stupid questions if you do not know ask your doctor and ask again for clarification it is part of their job. When you fully understand the nature of your illness, plan out how you see this translating into your work situation. How long realistically will you be able to continue with your duties? What modifications to your duties or workplace will be required, when and for how long? What are the realistic best and worst case scenarios relating to
work? Once you have set out these parameters you are in a good position to have a meeting with your manager, where you can set out all of this information for them.

If your condition is one that is not likely to impact upon your work or your work colleagues, or not for a long time, then your condition is not a work-related issue at this stage and there is no obvious reason to inform your managers about it. However if your condition is going to impact upon your work, or is going to be plainly obvious to your managers and colleagues you should not delay in discussing the matter with your boss.

You need to decide on a preferred “communications policy”. In other words, you need to decide who you want to share
your diagnosis with. Some people will prefer to limit knowledge of their condition to a manager and no one else, whereas others will want the information disseminated more broadly. You need to discuss this with your manager and make it very clear what your preference is. Remember your manager may well have an obligation to report your case
to their superiors and so on.

Even if you have close friends in the workplace, your boss should still be the first (or a very close second) work colleague you inform. The last thing you want are rumours starting and your boss hearing second- hand. Your goal is to get your boss on-side as a supporter. Schedule a meeting at a quiet time, such as the end of the day or early morning when there is less chance of interruptions. Indicate that you want to discuss something of importance, and that you will need at least 30 mins to an hour. Indicate that you need to see them reasonably urgently. After the meeting, follow up with an email, or a note (keep copies of either), politely thanking them for their time and setting out briefly your understanding of what was discussed and what was agreed.

My golden rule of all communications is to get it in writing. Keep a dated written record of all meetings, and communications with people at work. Write up notes as soon as possible after face-to-face meetings or even
corridor conversations, and date them. Keep the records up to date and limit your entry to the facts of what occurred do not include any defamatory opinions or reflections. If someone reduced you to tears, say so, but do not write down a lot of personal attacks about the other person. Why go to all this trouble? Simply to cover yourself in the
event that the employer becomes unreasonable or reneges on an agreement.

If you fear that being open with your boss is likely to result in your sacking, it is likely that your boss would also sack you for any regular or long absences for treatment, so unless the impact of your illness is not going to impact on your work, you have little to lose in informing your boss (and lots to gain, because you are actually helping your boss to manage you better).

Finally, I have known cases where the most irritating, anti-establishment employees who were convinced their boss hated their guts, found after diagnosis of a terminal illness that the boss became their greatest supporter. Most people (and that includes most bosses!) are compassionate, reasonable people, but like most people, they can be cold-hearted or unreasonable if approached in the wrong way. Be honest, be proud and be positive. Nobody and no employer could ask for more.

By Dr Jim Bright, Partner Bright and Associates Career Solutions
this article originally appeared in the Arrow Bone Marrow Transplant Association Newsletter