Keith Sawyer is one of the world’s leading scholars on creativity. He is author of the bestseller ‘Group Genius’ that focusses on group creativity. He has just released his new book ‘Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity’ in which he shows that the creative process is not and should not be approached as a straight line. A creative process is zigzagging, improvisational, with lots of unexpected twists and turns.
This interview follows the 8 steps of a creative process that Keith Sawyer develops in his book. And true to the nature of a creative process the 8 steps can be read in any order you wish. Just zigzag through the interview.
The 8 icons are from the book, Copyright 2013 by Keith Sawyer and used with permission.
Creativity starts with asking penetrating questions, searching for good problems. Of course an interview is all about asking questions. But the questions underneath sparked off the discussion between Keith and myself.
Ruben: What is your ambition with ‘Zig Zag’?
Keith: I want to help people to become more creative. And I want to show it’s fun, engaging and relatively easy to do. I started writing the book because I noticed that among the many books on creativity, none of them were written by creativity scientists. It’s all trial and error and some of the still popular books like ‘Thinkertoys’ or ‘A Whack on the Side of the Head’ are actually quite old. I had a need for a book grounded in scientific research.
Ruben: How do readers react ‘Zig Zag’?
Keith: I get a lot of positive feedback. I’m a little surprised. I did not expect it. It’s a very practical book and many people tell me the book provides them with solutions to problems they have.
Ruben: Would you consider yourself a Zig Zag Master?
Keith: I don’t know. I guess I should be… (Follows a silence). I’ve never been asked if I were creative. I’ve done the research on creativity and my claim is that the book is based on the latest creativity research. There are people like Tom Kelley (CEO from IDEO)… people listen to him, read his books because he’s a creative person. In my book I simply use the latest research. Of course I apply the techniques of my book in my own life, I go through the creative process. In that sense I practice what I preach.
In a creative life you’re constantly learning. And ‘Zig Zag’ is a handbook with many, many exercises to develop your creative skills. The reward: becoming a creative genius.
Ruben: The book is easy to read, but it actually takes a long time, especially since I took the invitation to do the exercises with my own problems.
Keith: That’s a good point you raise. Doing all the exercises at once is something I hadn’t taken into account. The book is dedicated to my son Graham. He is 10 years old and immediately wanted to do all the exercises. It takes us a long time to go through the book.
Ruben: You use the term ‘creative genius’ a lot and give many examples of great minds and people. Do you truly believe everyone could be a creative genius, or in your words a Zig Zag Master?
Keith: Yes, everyone can be a creative genius. It’s a matter of somehow mastering the process of creativity, the process I describe. Maybe you will not achieve the level of Picasso, Bach and the like but the process followed will result in greater creativity. Especially the 2nd step, which is ‘learn’, is associated with greater creativity.
Keith: That’s about having an intense focus and hard, dedicated work. Creativity is effortful. When people say ‘I’m not creative’ they have the belief that creativity should be easy. And not investing the hard work in it is a bad excuse.
You are constantly, quietly aware. You see the new, the unusual; constantly exposing yourself to new experiences. But not many people do so.
Ruben: Are there still many people that believe they’re not creative?
Keith: Oh yes! In my workshops I get participants from many industry sectors like steel mills, pharmaceuticals, grocery stores… and these people don’t associate their work with creativity. Most executives have read about creativity and innovation, so they view it as something important. They know they have to do something with it. But linking creativity with personal success is difficult for them. So I tell stories, and I show them creativity is not only about dancers and painters.
The creative life is filled with play, the kind of unstructured activity that children engage in for the sheer joy of it. One exercise struck me: leaving work unfinished.
Ruben: What’s the value of leaving work unfinished?
Keith: Yes, you should leave something for the next day. Some creators rewrite the next morning what they’ve created the day before. Psychologists talk about cognitive traces that we leave open in our brains. By leaving work unfinished we let the subconscious mind work, which provides an opportunity to somehow result in a path forward. Leaving work unfinished enhances creativity.
Successful creativity is a numbers game: when you have tons of ideas, some of them are sure to be great. In his little masterpiece ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite’ Paul Arden posits that the wheel is reckoned to be the best idea ever, because it has been used over and over.
Ruben: If we consider ‘Zig Zag’ as an idea, how to make it as good as the wheel?
Keith: For my book to become a meme it has to go viral, in one way or another. I’d love to be in a talk show by John Stewart or that President Barack Obama mentions my book. Everyone wants this. And I believe in the wisdom of the crowd. Nowadays a lot has to do with social networking. It has to emerge from the crowds. I would love my book to turn into a wheel.
Successful creativity never comes from a single idea. It comes from many ideas in combination. But in ‘Zig Zag’ I missed one aspect of it.
Ruben: Your book is full of humour yet humour is not explicitly mentioned in one of the steps. How come?
Keith: Well that’s not totally true, because step 6 ‘Fuse’ is about combining ideas. That usually brings a lot of humour. Fun, play and humour are associated with creativity. But if you have any ideas or techniques, I’m happy to add them.
Choosing is essential, because not all the ideas and combinations are fit for your purposes. So I asked Keith about his choices.
Ruben: Shamelessly guarding your peak time for yourself is one of the advices you give in order to become a creative genius. What would you recommend to find your peak time?
Keith: What works for me is to reserve the morning. I will not read any email till lunchtime. In the afternoon I turn more towards day-to-day tasks, reading articles and engaging with others. It’s an alternation between the more open and creative mode and closed mode. It struck me that a lot of creative people use the morning this way.
Ruben: Why did you make the move to individual creativity as opposed to group creativity, which you expanded in your previous book ‘Group Genius’?
Keith: It was a conscious decision. Once you have a successful book you have basically have two options. And I did not want a sequel, so it had to be something different. At the same time I was conceiving ‘Zig Zag’ I was also busy with ‘Explaining Creativity’, which is a textbook overview of creativity research. And I started immersing myself in the creativity body of research. And a lot is about individual creativity. So the choice is primarily driven by the body of research.
It’s not enough to just have ideas; you need to make good ideas into reality. But making is not a straightforward process. It’s in continuous play with all the other steps until you build what you like.
Ruben: How did you come up with the 8 steps?
Keith: There are many different taxonomies of a creative process. I didn’t start with a certain number of steps in mind. Putting all the writing in piles I eventually ended up with 8 steps. And I’ve covered all steps. I’m pretty sure it’s exhaustive. 8 steps just feel right. But it took a long journey to arrive at those 8 steps.
Ruben: In one of your blog posts you asked your readers to come up with a name for the book. You didn’t come up with the title yourself?
Keith: Once I had the 8 steps, I gave the book ‘The Compass’ as a title because a compass has 8 directions. The idea behind it is that the book would be guiding you onto your path of creativity. But the publisher felt this title was not quite right. He felt a connotation with ‘moral compass’.
Ruben: So you had to come up with ‘Zig Zag’ as new title
Keith: The process of the whole book is actually much of a zig zag process. It sparked off somewhere in 2007, there were different numbers of chapters along the way and the title changed multiple times too. The book cover that emerged could not have come at the beginning. It’s a true creative process; it’s going to be zigzagging. And surprising new things will emerge at the end. And that’s how creativity works.
Ruben: Thanks a lot Keith! I hope your book inspires many to lead more creative lives.
Keith: Thanks to you.