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Open Your Eyes: Yes, You Are Creative

Creativity has never been in greater demand. If you’ve got it, you’re golden. But what is it? And how do you tap into yours?

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Creativity can be a collective, workmanlike pursuit: over days and weeks a roomful of TV writers hammers together a script, and the next adventures of Don Draper or Piper Chapman are born. Creativity is often a joint effort: In November 1962, somewhere in Liverpool, England, Paul McCartney runs the opening lines to his latest ditty—“She was just seventeen, Never been a beauty queen”—past his Beatles bandmate John Lennon, who offers a helpful tweak—“She was just seventeen, You know what I mean”—and, as author Joshua Wolf Shenk recounts in his new book, Powers of Two, one of rock ’n’ roll’s most famous couplets comes together for the very first time. 

Yet while it may not be one single thing, creativity is a singularly important thing. In a global economy increasingly built upon innovation, creativity moves the world forward. As technological and global shifts confront more and more industries with brand new quandaries, there’s an increased reliance on new thinking to tackle complex, often unforeseeable problems. In addition, with so many tasks and jobs automated and outsourced, the ability to think creatively is more essential than ever.

This isn’t entirely new: In 2010, when IBM polled more than 1,500 chief executive officers from around the globe, creativity was singled out as the most important factor for future success. Nat Irvin, a futurist and professor of management at the University of Louisville’s College of Business, counsels businesses about adapting for the future. He says creativity is what keeps most CEOs up at night. “A creative mind is at the heart of trying to navigate volatility, uncertainty and complexity,” says Irvin. “Creative intelligence is something that absolutely gives people an advantage.” And the importance of creativity is indeed growing, powered by the lightning pace at which technological advances are arriving, rewriting the rules of business as they whir past. It can be dizzying. 

Here’s the good news: Anyone can be creative. The cliché that creativity is an ethereal gift—artistry that you either come into the world equipped with, or don’t—isn’t true. Rather, creativity can be learned, practiced and sharpened to a fine point. And now it’s a bona fide educational trend. When Buffalo State College first began offering masters' degrees in creativity in the mid-1970s, its program was unique. Today, dozens of colleges and universities, including MIT, Stanford University, Texas A&M University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, offer similar concentrations and courses. Many are available online and attract a significant number of older adults looking for career advancement or transition. At Buffalo State, graduate students in creativity are required to have at least six years of professional experience, though most who enroll have between 15 and 20 years.

“For professional success, the trend is that creative thinking plays a major role,” says Gerard Puccio, the chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State. “The jobs that will survive in a highly innovative economy are those that require imagination.”

Yet it’s not just about helping your career. Tapping into your creativity can enhance all parts of your life. “A big part of being creative,” British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has said, “is looking for new ways of doing things within whatever activity you're involved in.”

Man and Woman Discussing photographs, Airy office space, Creative Thinking,

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Yet it’s not just about helping your career. Tapping into your creativity can enhance all parts of your life. “A big part of being creative,” British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has said, “is looking for new ways of doing things within whatever activity you're involved in.”

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    Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The former Saturday Night Live cast mates have been friends since meeting at a Chicago improv class in 1993. They’ve gone on to sitcom and big screen success apart, but their most memorable collaborations have come the past few years, as they’ve deftly skewered Hollywood’s elite as co-hosts of the annual Golden Globe Awards.

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    Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers cast their creative gaze skyward. “If birds can glide for long periods of time,” Orville once said, “then why can’t I?”

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    Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The South Park and Book of Mormon creators met as film students in the early 1990s and have since conquered TV, movies and Broadway with an iconoclastic, take-no-prisoners comic style. “It’s kind of like a marriage,” Stone has said of their enduring partnership. “We spend so much time together, you can finish each other’s sentences.”

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    Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights pioneers organized the Montgomery bus boycotts, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and became best friends. After King’s assassination, Abernathy took over as director of the SCLC. “The mortal heart of Martin Luther King was stopped by an assassin’s bullet,” Abernathy said days after his friend was killed. “But no power on earth can stop his work.”

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    Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett. The two Nebraskans have been investment partners for more than half a century, remaining true to a simple financial philosophy: Maintain an even keel. “If you stay rational yourself,” the 90-year-old Munger said recently, “the stupidity of the world helps you.”

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    Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. As the bickering couple on I Love Lucy, they charmed early TV audiences, cementing their spot in small screen history. They produced the show together, but their creativity was born of turbulence; their real-life 20-year marriage ended in divorce in 1960. “We decided,” Ball once joked darkly about the creation of I Love Lucy, “that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them.”

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    Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld finds the minutiae of everyday life a source of constant comic wonderment. David finds it endlessly, hilariously annoying. Creative kismet strikes at odd moments: Seinfeld, the beloved sitcom they created together, was born one day as they stood in a grocery store and made fun of random products.

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    Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They met as grad students in computer science at Stanford and came up with a disarmingly simple idea that would become Google’s mission statement: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. It’s true. Google it.

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    Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Jobs was the marketer, happy in the spotlight unveiling the latest Apple gadgets. Wozniak was the developer, content to stay in the shadows. Apple started in a garage when they were just kids having fun. Together they built it into, arguably, the most influential and innovative company of its time.

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    Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jagger and Richards have been at the tempestuous heart of the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years. Their improbably long union proves that total compatibility is not required for creative genius. “The only thing that Mick and I disagree about,” Richards once said, “is the band, the music, and what we do.”

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    You Are Creative. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. One of Old Hollywood’s most glamorous May-December romances also produced several memorable movies: Bogie and Bacall starred together in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, among others. Their relationship was at first scandalous (Bogie was still married), but their 1945 marriage lasted until Bogart’s death in 1957

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     Ethan and Joel Coen. They’ve collaborated on 19 films and won six Academy Awards for an offbeat oeuvre that includes 2007 best picture winner No Country For Old Men. In a movie business that prizes sameness and safety, the Coens are risk-taking originals. “Taste,” Joel has said, “has never been something we’ve worried about.”

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    Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. Friends since their early 20s when they met while working at a Baltimore TV station, King is now an editor at Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine, in addition to her CBS This Morning hosting duties. Oprah is, well, Oprah. The two women say they talk to each other by phone three or four times a day. “I’m never afraid to be truthful to her."

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    Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. From humble beginnings—their first office was a one-car garage—they turned Hewlett-Packard into a giant of the computer age. Some creative decisions rely on luck: They flipped a coin to see which name would go first in the title. Packard-Hewlett just doesn’t have the same ring.

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    Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. At the Big Man’s 2012 memorial service, the Boss described standing onstage with his mighty saxophonist: “You were proud, you were strong, you were excited and laughing with what might happen, with what together, you might be able to do.”

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    Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. They opened their first ice cream store at an old Vermont gas station in 1978. In 2013, they reported sales of more than $335 million, pushed by outside-the-box flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby, and a business model that puts eco-friendliness on par with profitability.

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    Barry Goldwater and John F. Kennedy. The two politicians were on opposite sides of the aisle but formed an unlikely friendship. They might have faced each other in the 1964 Presidential election, but history had other ideas. “He had a great sense of humor, and it stuck out in front of him so far you couldn’t miss it,” Goldwater once said of his rival. “He was a fellow that liked life.”

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    John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The songwriters were the creative engine that drove the most influential band in rock ‘n’ roll history. “I bloody miss [songwriting with John],” McCartney said on the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s 1980 assassination. “We were young turks. We were smartasses. And we did some amazing things.”

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    Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Before Sandberg came aboard as Facebook’s chief operating officer in 2008, the site was popular but rudderless. Since then, annual revenues have shot up $150 million to almost $4 billion. “She could go be the CEO of any company she wanted to,” Zuckerberg has said, “but I think the fact that she really wants to get her hands dirty and work, and doesn’t need to be the front person all the time, is the amazing thing about her.”

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For older people, Puccio says the first step to tapping one’s innate creativity is to suspend judgment and disbelief. “One issue with getting older is that we are quicker to judge,” Puccio counsels. “As soon as judgment enters in, you stop casting a wider net to search for solutions and new ways of doing things. You narrow down your search for possibilities.” The notion that the creative instinct inside all of us must naturally wind down as we age is belied by the success of artists such as Alice Munro and Neil Gaiman. Last year, at 82, Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature, while 53-year-old graphic novelist Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane took the Book of the Year prize at Britain’s National Book Awards. “The constant happiness is curiosity,” Munro once wrote.

Remaining curious is essential, says futurist Irvin. “Creativity is that fundamental spark with the human mind and spirit that connects things that do not seem to be connected,” he says. “One of the things that hinders people from seeing new connections is that they don’t expose themselves to ideas that are different. Gather into your social network people who are different from you. Way different.”

If curiosity and open-mindedness are keys to fostering creativity, resilience is an essential byproduct. “How do you deal with change?” asks Puccio. “Creativity builds resiliency. It teaches you that you’re not a victim of your circumstances. You can respond by using your imagination to deal with difficult situations and change them.”

In fact, though today's CEOs may be taking more note of it, creativity has always been vital to human existence. The ancient Mesopotamians who invented the wheel engaged in the same type of creative thinking as modern moms and dads improvising a family dinner on the fly. From Velcro to Mad Men to Beatles tunes, creativity has power to change the entire world—or just your own. 

Just ask Biz Stone. The Twitter co-founder turned a fleeting idea that shorter blog posts would allow people to read more blogs each day into a global culture-altering social network. In his new memoir, Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, Stone holds that once you've learned how to tap your creative well, you need to refill your bucket often.

“Creativity is a renewable resource,” Stone writes. “Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out.”

Man Standing in Office Setting, Creative Thinking

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Just ask Biz Stone. The Twitter co-founder turned a fleeting idea that shorter blog posts would allow people to read more blogs each day into a global culture-altering social network. In his new memoir, Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, Stone holds that once you've learned how to tap your creative well, you need to refill your bucket often.

For Puccio, one of the most gratifying experiences of his 24-year teaching career came recently, when he received an email from a man who had taken his online course and wrote that it had changed his life. The man, named Maury, was 94 years old. 

"He’s 94! It just gave me goose bumps!" remembers Puccio.

The research, he says, is clear: You’re never too old to learn.

“Creativity, like other skilled areas, is highly trainable,” says Puccio. “From kindergarteners through adults and up to seniors, creativity training can be beneficial and effective.” At the end of the day, you don’t just solve problems in your job or career. There are challenges at home, in a family—in all walks of our lives. You don’t shut off your imagination.”

The big secret, though, may be that many of us have already been trained. We’ve just forgotten it. Students in Irvin’s Louisville business classes sit in a circle. He encourages them to “go find playmates” to exchange new ideas. And he tells them to ask the question they once asked each other long ago, back in preschool: What’s in your lunchbox?

“The question means ‘what are you reading, what are you listening to, what are you thinking about?’” explains Irvin. “You gotta ask it. Ask. Ask. Ask. Invite people whose opinions are different than yours. And listen to them. It’s instant creativity.

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