Sunday, November 14, 2010

HOW TO SURVIVE IN TOUGH TIMES

Weathering the Storm

Created Apr 28 2009 - 11:00pm

In September of 2008, Philip Schultz, a humble and plainspoken fellow, crossed the hardwood floor and slid in behind a temporary lectern in the Center for Well-Being at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was commencement day for the eighth-grade class. Some students recognized Schultz, who was giving the address, as the father of eighth-grader Eli. He was a local poet.


Schultz told the students he hadn't learned to read until he was 11. By then, he'd been held back a grade and was a permanent member of what the other kids called the "dummy class." Teachers just didn't know what to do with a kid like Phil Schultz—who, it turned out, was dyslexic. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life and Schultz said he wanted to be a writer, the teacher laughed. "I wasn't insulted," Schultz recalls. "I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn't write a simple English sentence."


Schultz' punishment for being a dummy was exile to shameful outsiderdom within a class moving forward. And that's exactly the kind of experience from which writers are made. Within "the loneliness of having so little expected of me, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten," as he put it to the assembly, was time for careful attention to his interior life. All a writer really needs are the self-knowledge to decipher his feelings, the judgment to recognize the original ones, and the courage to make them public. It's a job open to anybody—even dyslexics. And so Schultz steamed ahead toward the one career for which others thought he was the most ill-suited—poetry.


Cut to 2007. A working poet now, Schultz realized that almost everything he wrote was about failure. Failure was his clay. He was writing about his dad—a drunkard who'd been a lousy parent and a worse provider—but he was also tapping the part of himself that felt like a failure. Schultz had aimed to be a novelist, but couldn't pull it off. Alongside the very personal poems about his father, a long poem took shape about a character who walked other, more successful, people's dogs.


The voltage that shot through the plainspoken language was unlike anything Schultz had produced. He called the collection, simply, Failure. On its cover: a bent nail in a board. Last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.


These days, failure—what Schultz calls "the great American taboo"—has bubbled to the surface just about everywhere. Few people can escape the feeling they're giving up ground. The global financial crisis has produced the sort of circumstances playwright Arthur Miller warned every generation must face—the sort that mints Willy Lomans.


The recession has brought a sense of siege, and within it, the collective emotional tone of the whole world seems to cycle. More than 4 million workers have been laid off since the recession began. On a single day in January, 70,000 people were laid off, and another 50,000 or 60,000 lost their jobs on each of the 10 days that followed. The rage spilled into the streets in 10 countries.


One day, we may look back on this period as "a time when the gods changed," to paraphrase James Michener, a moment when a convergence of big scares rattled people's beliefs about basic things: Am I safe? Who can I trust? Is there anything I can do? And how, given everything that has happened, should I live? It no longer seems possible to avoid failing simply by being conscientious and working hard—the formula our parents, and their parents, took to the bank.


There are failures and there are Failures, but the differences between bankruptcy and financial diminishment, divorce and marital strife,spiritual crisis and anomie are distinctions of degree, not kind. And they are connected. Woe in one sphere strains the seams of others. It's not pretty. And that's why failure is something you wouldn't wish on your least agreeable relative.


Or would you?


A theory is gaining momentum that looks at failure differently. Failure, it says, is at worst a mixed blessing: It hurts, but can pay off in the form of learning and growth and wisdom. Some psychologists, like the University of Virginia's Jonathan Haidt, go even further, arguing that adversity, setbacks, and even trauma may actually be necessary for people to be happy, successful, and fulfilled. "Post-traumatic growth," it's sometimes called. Its observers are building a solid foundation under the anecdotes about wildly successful people who credit their accomplishments to earlier failures that pushed them to the edge of the abyss.


Last fall, J.K. Rowling described to a Harvard grad class a perfect storm of failure—broken marriage, disapproval from her parents, poverty that bordered on homelessness—that sent her back to her first dream of writing because she had nothing left to lose. "Failure stripped away everything inessential," she said. "It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way."
Apple founder Steve Jobs describes three apparent setbacks—dropping out of college, being fired from the company he founded, and being diagnosed with cancer—that ultimately proved portals to a better life. Each forced him to step back and gain perspective, to see the long view of his life. "I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed," said Michael Jordan—as did Oprah, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, in slightly different words. Indeed, so oft-repeated is the trope that we lose sight of how strange it is.


We do know that learning is error-driven—probably as a result of the brain trying to be efficient. Failures grab our attention. So many things happen the way we expect them to that mistakes register disproportionately. We're forced to integrate that new information. Researchers have found that the more wildly wrong our prediction was, the quicker we learn. The brain, you might say, feeds on failure. We are acutely sensitive to negative feedback, and this "negativity bias" drives learning, at least from teenagehood on up.


Paul MacCready, Jr., the famed aeronautical engineer who died in 2007, understood the practical value of failure, and very consciously built his success on it. Vying for the Kremer Prize for the world's first human-powered airplane, he designed his airplane to crash well—to protect the pilot and be quickly repairable, so he could crash, and learn, again. MacCready not only expected to fail, he actually depended on failure as necessary grist for the mill. (It worked: He won the prize.) For MacCready, failure had became an implicit part of the scientific method. Which of course it is. The term "trial and success" isn't much heard, because it doesn't make sense.


"An occasional failure in life is extremely important information," Haidt says. "When you look at stories of great leaders, they almost all had major setbacks. That was the concern I had with Obama. I now think he'll make a great president—but the fact that he really hasn't had any major failures in his life means that he may not be as tempered, as challenged, as hardened."
If you don't get the kind of information failure provides, you'll end up with unrealistic expectations for yourself, explains Haidt. You could wind up in a position where failure, which has gathered under cover of darkness, reveals itself all at once.


We should hope, then, for exposure to failure, early and often. The sociologist Glen Elder proposed that there is a sensitive period for growth—late teens through early 30s—during which failures are most beneficial. Such a pattern seems to promote the trait sometimes called equanimity. We learn that trauma is survivable, so we don't plunge too deeply following setbacks. Nor, conversely, do we soar too high on our successes. Some businesses in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street make a point of hiring ex-pro athletes to their staffs. It's not just that their high profile draws business. It's because athletes are master compartmentalizers. "We needed people who could perform and not get emotionally attached to losses," a Chicago oil trader told the New York Times, explaining why the firm likes jocks on the trading floor, particularly in ugly economic times like these. Buddhists call such equanimity upekkhaa. The image is of a rider easy in the saddle. Nothing can so surprise her—either for good or ill—that she'll be knocked off.


One way to help keep life's slings and arrows from knocking you off course is to ensure your life is multidimensional, says Stephen Berglas, a California psychologist and personal coach. That way, a setback in any one area won't mean in your mind that you're a failure categorically. Call it spreading your risk across your emotional portfolio—or adding another leg to the furniture for balance, says Berglas.
Failure—especially public failure—stirs some of the most potent social emotions we have: humiliation, guilt, shame. Guilt—which occurs when you chalk up a failure to something you did—can be beneficial. Shame, on the other hand—which is present when you attribute failure to something you are—casts a generalized depressive pall on you that's harder to face, let alone fix, notes Richard Robins, director of the Personality, Self and Emotion Laboratory at the University of California at Davis.


That may explain why, though writer Sascha Rothchild's rejection from Yale felt shameful and made her depressed, getting divorced after just a year of marriage didn't seem as personal. "It seemed that the two of us tried this thing and it didn't work out," says Rothchild. "It was our fault. We weren't working out together—that doesn't mean either of us is a bad person." The guilt left behind in the tailing pond of a failed marriage was actually productive. It made her deconstruct in minute detail what might have been done differently. (The result was a forthcoming memoir sardonically titled How to Get Divorced By 30.)


Failure has implications for our development as whole people, fulfilled and purposeful. It can initiate a search for meaning, a shift from pursuing the kinds of happiness that flare briefly to the kinds of happiness that endure. Suppose you've just gone broke. A wicked hit registers in the "work and success" dimension of your life. But the psychic immune system has a strategy for such a loss. There are four basic dimensions of our lives, says Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. There is achievement, community, spirituality, and legacy. When one dimension fails us—we lose "achievement," say, when we're laid off—the remaining three get stronger.
Achievement is a big one in America—disproportionately valued, and often conflated with material success. But other dimensions actually have a potentially higher payoff. We easily habituate to material things, and they quickly stop making us happy. But these other less tangible values, a number of researchers have found, don't lose their happiness-making punch—at least not as much.


And so the once-autonomous striver, bulletproof and bowling alone, is forced to throw that old life over the side and start making other connections. A new unifying principle coalesces around some "higher purpose," and damned if the new life doesn't feel like an upgrade. Thus does failure lead, roundabout, to happiness. "London and Chicago seized the opportunities provided by their great fires to remake themselves into grander and more coherent cities," Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis. "People sometimes seize such opportunities, too, rebuilding beautifully those parts of their lives and life stories that they could never have torn down voluntarily."


Everyone gets laid low by failure sometimes, however briefly. The real difference between people who pull themselves out somehow versus the people who do not, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a psychologist at Yale, is that some slip into "rumination"—a spiral of morbid self-involvement that's extremely difficult to shake. But what separates the ruminators from the resilients? Why is it that the same set of circumstances that drives one person deeper into the mud makes another stronger? Is there just a kind of native temperament, a Donald Trump-ish optimism some psychologists have described as "enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks"—something that helps some people find the kernel of good inside the bad and profit from it—that's either in play or isn't? How can we learn, as Samuel Beckett put it, to "fail better"?


"Failing better" boils down to three things. It's a matter of controlling our emotions, adjusting our thinking, and recalibrating our beliefs about ourselves and what we can do in the world.


"Chess is a game of failure," says Bruce Pandolfini, an American chess master known for his work teaching young chess players. (Sir Ben Kingsley played him in Searching for Bobby Fischer.) "At the beginning, you lose—a lot. The kids who are going to succeed are the ones who learn to stand it. A lot of young players find losing so devastating they never adapt, never learn to metabolize that failure and to not take it personally. But good players lose and then put the game behind them emotionally."


Pandolfini teaches his students this calming sense of perspective. The present moment is laid out against the past. What you see is compared to your memories of what you've seen—and mastered—before. What you have in the end is a kind of coherent story. He calls it chess instruction, but really, it works with anything. In fact, it's not so different from the way writing down your feelings in a journal helps you process failure and move on, a phenomenon demonstrated by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas.


Teachers, studies reveal, can foster resiliency among students, creating students who don't flinch from failure but actually welcome it as a learning opportunity. People have one of two belief systems about how intelligence works, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. We think intelligence is either "fixed" or "malleable." In other words, we're pretty much as smart and good and competent as we're going to get, or else we're a work in progress, and the way forward is up.


People who believe intelligence is fixed are less resilient. If you don't believe you can learn anything from your mistakes, you won't welcome failure with open arms.


But students who are taught that the brain is plastic and that they can become smarter and more competent—that the brain grows, like a muscle, when you work it hard—show a spike in grades and enjoy school more. Because they're less afraid to fail, they succeed more.


How much failure is too much? Bubble-wrapping kids to shield them from failing does them no favors. Without that trial-and-error learning from gradual exposure to risk, kids become vulnerable to anxiety disorders, says Michael Liebowitz, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. But at the other extreme, exposure to repeated and relentless failure can crush the spirit of even a resilient kid. A parent's job, then, is to create a kind of sweet spot of exposure to failure.


"There's a bleeding edge of where we have to push ourselves—it can't be too far in front of us," says Michael Ungar, head of the International Resilience Project at Dalhousie University. "You can't just say to a kid, go learn to swim on your own. But you can take them through the process gradually. Let them see what buoyancy feels like, let them have little moments of mild distress where everything is then immediately okay—manageable risk. This is how we learn to solve problems, and receive an inoculation against major stressors. But there is a little bit of a cult of self-esteem that short-changes it all."


Failure can't help us if we're oblivious to it. And yet. There's something deeply sympathetic, and not a little familiar, in repeat failure. So often are our rehabilitations short-lived. Despite our best intentions, our mightiest resolve, we find ourselves endlessly repeating earlier failures.


But the great payoff in failing is it gives us another chance, as Alex Trebek encourages his Jeopardy contestants who risk everything and crash down to zero to "start building." To begin again from scratch is itself part of the American script.


In this sense, failing well amounts to taking a weird kind of pride not just in the potential positive consequences of failure but in the failure itself—the awful, agreeable humanity of it. Failure drives us out of our caves and into the world of Other People, that plane where happiness is less perishable.


After Failure was published, Philip Schultz couldn't help notice the strong reactions other people had to it—the "triggering mechanism" of the word itself, as if it was a private shame or fear everyone had, and were grateful for having the entree to talk about.


"It's interesting how many people are coming up to me and talking about their relationship with failure," he says. "Everyone thinks they're a failure. The only people who don't are the ones who really are." —Bruce Grierson

NINE ways to fail better

Some people learn from failure and bounce back stronger. for others, failure destroys them. Be one of the ones who rise from the ashes.
  1. Lighten up
Most people who bounce back from setbacks have a sense of humor. They know when they're taking things—and themselves—too seriously. We're often so paralyzed by fear of failure that we "self-handicap," sabotaging ourselves by putting an impediment in the way, says personal coach Steven Berglas. Because, hey, if something prevented you from trying your best, you can't be said to have failed, right?

"I'll die if I don't win the Olympics," Berglas sometimes hears from his clients. "Really?" he replies. "On the court? Or will you die of shame?" OK, they acknowledge, they didn't really mean die. But now there's a fissure in their anxiety through which the ridiculousness can seep in. It's hard to find the funny in the fine grain. Humor is about stepping back for fresh perspective. We assume that's something we're born with, but we can become better at seeing the lighter side by sheer exposure to that way of thinking. And it does take the edge off of failure. After all, an embarrassment today makes for an entertaining story tomorrow.
  1. Join the club
Misery loves company. Just look at the growth of Web-based support groups like "15,000,000 Recession-Touched People" (onFacebook) and Global Depression Support Group (on meetup.com).

There's real value in commiseration. When Montrealer Sylvain Henry started a Facebook support group called "Recession Survivors" after being laid off from a software company, the group became a lightning rod for pain and blame. "You've gotta blame someone, right?" Henry says. "Whose fault is this?" People vented about the lost house, the failed marriage. It was cathartic.

Then something happened. "People vented themselves out," Henry says. "After that came another impulse: Let's do something about this." The members began posting productive hints, little money-saving tips about budget-friendly cookie recipes or how to throw a good garage sale. The site transformed into a clearinghouse of resourceful coping strategies for hard times. Call it Failing Better: the Open-Source Edition.
  1. Feel guilt, not shame
The difference between guilt and shame is the reason we assign as to why failure occurs, notes Richard Robins, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. Guilt says it's "something I did." But shame means feeling failure occurred because of "something I am"—in which case, you expect failure and don't act to avoid it.

But the cycle of learned helplessness can be broken. Instead of thinking "I'm a failure," think "I'm a good person who made a mistake I can learn from." If your story about failure is, "It's all my fault," you might need to practice looking outward and ask yourself, "What other things—things that aren't about me—might have caused this negative event?"

On the other hand, if your story is, "It's never about me," you may need to seek out some aspects of the problem you can do something about. Because let's face it, you do mess up—everyone does. In which case you need to own the failure, see what you can learn from it, and move on.
  1. Cultivate optimism
Of the seven learnable skills of resilience—emotion awareness, impulse control, multiperspective thinking, empathy, the belief that you can solve your own problems, taking appropriate risks, and optimism—the most important is optimism, says Karen Reivich, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," said Hamlet, and indeed, paying attention to the positive infuses the world with hope—and creates a climate in which failure loses its sting.

The key to resilience is thinking more flexibly and learning to increase your array of options. The psychologist Martin Seligman advocates disputation, in which you think of your mind as a courtroom where negative thoughts are instantly put on trial.

You can rebut these thoughts, and you should. Now you're acting as your own defense counsel, throwing at the court every bit of evidence you can think of to prove the belief is flawed. The bad thought is no longer a lock, and it dies amid the doubt.
  1. Ask not what the world can do for you...
Getting fired and left without savings or health-care coverage is rough, but for some, it carries an unexpected message: "Now you are free." Free to do something more meaningful with your life—like volunteering overseas. If you don't have to earn money right away, ask yourself: How can you be of service to others?

The sales manager of a Portland, Oregon radio station, Margaret Evans was let go unexpectedly in late September. As she researched new jobs and grad schools, it occurred to her that getting laid off was a kind of gift. She'd always intended to do service work. "This was my chance to make it happen," she says.

The tumblers aligned, and by December she'd signed on as a volunteer at an orphanage in Belize, through a Florida-based charity called Dream Center International. Travel, live cheaply, and do good for people who genuinely need it: not a bad recipe. "This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me," she says.
  1. Scale down your expectations for yourself
When we succeed, we tend to just ratchet up our expectations for ourselves and not get a lot of pleasure out of it. But when we fail, it's much harder to ratchet down our expectations for ourselves. "That might be what failing well is," says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. "A willingness to lower our sights when that's realistically required."

Gilbert Brim begins his book Ambition with the story of his father in rural Connecticut: or rather, his father's windowbox. As a young man his father took pride in maintaining the forest on the whole property, but eventually that task became impossible. So as he grew older and weaker, he reduced the range and scope, until he was content just to tend the flowers in his windowbox, albeit to the same standards of excellence. If failure is about failing to meet goals you set for yourself, then one way to avoid failing is to revise those now-outdated goals. That way, instead of failing on a stage you once mastered, you're still succeeding on a more modest stage.
  1. Harness the Bridget Jones Effect
Keeping a journal can help you cope with failure. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, studied middle-aged engineers who'd lost their jobs. Those who wrestled with their feelings about the trauma through journaling were far more likely to find reemployment. It wasn't simply the tension-relieving "catharsis" of getting their feelings out. Nor was it that they were more motivated to get out there and pound the pavement—they didn't receive more phone calls, make more contacts, or send out more letters.

Rather, writing helps create meaning—finding coherence and building a personal story that lassos all the question marks hanging in the air and making sense of them. Writing about their feelings forced them to come to terms with getting laid off. It also boosted their social skills—making them more likeable, less vindictive, and better able to get on with things. They were less wrapped up in their past. They could listen better and were more optimistic and less hostile.
  1. Don't blame yourself
Self-blame is corrosive. Research on kids raised amid domestic violence, abuse, or maternal depression shows that self-blame can trigger or worsen depression. Attribution errors—blaming yourself for the bad things that happen to you—are probably the biggest reason people metabolize failure badly. Attribution has a potent effect on depression—the more you blame yourself for problems, the more depressed you grow. And it's a vicious circle—the more depressed you are, the more you blame yourself. By contrast, children who understand that such negative life circumstances are outside their control are not as vulnerable, notes Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
  1. Act!
Failure is an opportunity to change course. Seize it.


Everyday Creativity

Created Oct 22 2009 - 1:06pm

The tattoo artists throughout Russia's prison system have never had lessons in painting technique (nor, apparently, hygiene training). They don't have ink and tools at their disposal. And yet they create entire murals on one another's chests and backs: onion-domed cathedrals, intricate cobwebs, chilly grim reapers. And they're not just beautiful decorations—they are coded biographies, telling those in the know their bearer's history and affiliations.


One would be hard-pressed to find a tougher environment than the jails where these artists work. Their ink is made from soot shaved off their shoes and mixed with urine. It's injected via guitar strings attached to electric shavers. The tattoos are a brutal mafia ritual. But they're also a mark of determined resourcefulness and self-expression.


When we think of creativity, we think of Mozart, Picasso, Einstein—people with a seemingly fated convergence of talent and opportunity. It's too narrow a set of references, because the truth is that all sorts of people, possessing various levels of intelligence and natural ability, are capable of engaging in fulfilling creative processes. Just because you'll never be Brando or Balanchine doesn't mean that you can't harness your idea-generating powers and make your life your own masterpiece.


Some do so every day. Pete Herzog noticed that his three kids rarely drove the expensive battery-powered toy car he had bought them for Christmas because it was always out of juice. One afternoon he spotted a broken solar-powered garden lamp rolling around and took off its panels. He hooked them to the toy-car battery, using parts he melted off the lamp's circuit board. Now the car, left to bake in the sun all day, is always ready for joyrides.


Herzog is director of the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies, a nonprofit dedicated to researching how security works in all aspects of our lives. His job requires him to think like a top-notch computer hacker. So it's not surprising that he can solve nagging problems in his own backyard. But he doesn't think of himself as a creative person! Buying into a limited definition of creativity prevents many from appreciating their own potential.


That would be a shame in any era, but in today's economic environment, no one can afford not to innovate, whether it's doing more with a shrinking budget (household, corporate, you name it, it's contracting), or positioning oneself to join a new industry. You may have to be creative to survive right now.


The good news is that you can build up your innovative abilities in many ways—by doing things (noticing details in your midst, wearing your hair in a new style) that don't sound intimidatingly ingenious. You can simply get to know your personal problem-solving style—everybody shines at different stages of the process; understanding where you fit in gives you a big advantage. And perhaps most important is adjusting your overall attitude toward life—approach your experiences with an open mind and cultivate the belief that possibilities and solutions are always within reach, and you'll be equipped to handle any challenge with flair.

I: What Is "Everyday" Creativity?

"Every day, we use language to speak sentences that have never been spoken before. We express thoughts that have never been expressed. All of this is so deeply ingrained that we don't notice how creative it is," says cognitive scientist Art Markman, co-editor of the book Tools for Innovation.


The concept of everyday creativity was defined, assessed, and validated in 1988 by Ruth Richards, Dennis Kinney, and colleagues at Harvard Medical School. They defined it as expressions of originality and meaningfulness. Rebecca Whitlinger, the executive director of the Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh, tapped both areas when surveying her voluminous and seemingly useless collection of bridesmaid gowns, in all their gold lamé and satiny peach splendor. The clichéd promise "You'll definitely wear this again!" swelled into an evil chorus each time she opened her closet. She resolved not only to wear them again, but to wear them everywhere. Whitlinger enlisted friends to take snapshots of her wearing her maiden gowns to construction sites, to passport photo sessions, to the voting booth, and even on a parasailing expedition.


Then it occurred to Whitlinger to translate the shenanigans into a fund-raising event for Cancer Caring Center. At "Ushers Unlimited and Bridesmaids Revisited," guests were encouraged to wear an outfit (such as a bridesmaid dress) that they would ordinarily be unable to wear again. "A couple got married at the event, making it the World's Largest Wedding Party," she says. Novel? Check. Meaningful? Well, the fund-raiser grossed $90,000 between 1998 and 2001.


"It's too bad that when considering what endeavors may be creative, people immediately think of the arts," laments Michele Root-Bernstein, co-author with Robert Root-Bernstein of Sparks of Genius. "It's the problem-solving processes they exhibit rather than the content or craft that make them so. Just about anything we do can be addressed in a creative manner, from housecleaning to personal hobbies to work."
Imagine you wake up one morning and put on electric-green eye shadow instead of your usual beige tint. Then you call a friend and invite her on a spontaneous road trip to a city you've never visited. While there, you order dessert for lunch at the local diner. Then on the way home you tell a long, hilarious anecdote that makes your friend laugh for two minutes straight. Would you call such a day merely interesting, or an expression of your creative self?


Zorana Ivcevic, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Tufts University, is a scrupulous collector of everyday creativity. By quizzing college students about the frequency of hundreds of potentially creative acts from joke-telling to road-tripping, she was able to come up with a taxonomy of expressive behaviors anyone can easily try. Making wacky recipes and dying your hair an unusual color qualify, as does working on a scrapbook of memories for a friend or making oneself the center of attention.


While some students fit into more traditional creative slots, as amateur dancers or musicians, or serious scholars and budding scientists who had already contributed to professional fields in some way, many others expressed themselves through more routine acts. About 30 percent weren't creative by any standard, which marked them as "conventionals."


Ivcevic found that students who practiced forms of everyday creativity share, on average, certain personality traits with their "officially" artistic classmates—qualities lost on the conventionals. They share a tendency toward open-mindedness and curiosity, they are persistent, and they are positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their chosen activities. Whether engaging in everyday creativity could foster such personality traits in the conventionals remains a question, but other studies show that taking up creative pursuits actually makes people more flexible and less judgmental.


Adaptability, in fact, is what Jennifer Schweikert considers the source of her own creativity. A Virginia-based interior "re-designer," Schweikert reinvents and reworks what a client already owns to make rooms functional and stylish. "I was a military brat and married a military man," she says. "I've moved 28 times in my life, so I have a tendency to accept what I'm given and to make it work."


When Schweikert encounters a new space, she quickly sizes up what needs to be done and then, in a serenity prayer of sorts to Ste. Martha Stewart, she determines what she can change and can't change about the space. Recently, at a temporary women's shelter apartment, the problem was a door with an uncovered window facing a common room, violating the tenant's privacy.


The most obvious solution—installing a curtain rod—was ruled out since she couldn't drill through the steel door . "I took a piece of Plexiglas, spray-painted it black, and cut it to the size of the window opening. Since it would be good for the residents to still be able to use the door window, I glued heavy-duty magnets to the four corners to make it removable," Schweikert says. The shelter's director reproduced her innovation in all of the building's apartments.


The first step to increasing your creativity quotient is believing you can. Even if no one has ever assigned the adjective "original" to anything you have ever done, you must acknowledge that you have inventive powers. Don't think about making something from nothing or exposing your deepest feelings—just acknowledge that you can solve problems better if you approach them with a different mind-set.


The Root-Bernsteins cite playful experimentation, a willingness to learn from mistakes, and persistence as keys to unlocking creativity. Laura Bergman, a mother who lives in rural Pennsylvanian Amish country, began an odyssey by picking up discarded glass she found when out running errands. She felt compelled to collect the shards and didn't censor her dumpster-diving impulse. One day she spread her shards across the dining room table and was taken aback by their sparkling beauty. "This old glass is as pretty as any gem," she thought.


Bergman slowly taught herself how to cut, drill, and wrap glass. As she started to sell her pieces in town, she noticed that customers loved to hear the history behind the jewels, so she began including a "story of the glass" with each item. Eventually, she was able to leave her job of 15 years as an advertising manager to run a jewelry company.
When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent people, he found that they held almost contradictory impulses and qualities within: a desire for solitude but also a need for social stimulation; superior knowledge on a subject but also a childlike naïveté.

These qualities seemed to fuel their ability to come up with great ideas and their ability to execute them—quite a combination. Exploring the less-prominent parts of your personality could activate the same yin-yang nature found in creative geniuses. If you're usually a busy bee, slow down and explore your lazy side. If you're very girly, dress like a tomboy.


Creativity coach Eric Maisel suggests that those who want to up their extracurricular creativity output figure out what really turns them on and cultivate the quality of creative desire. "You need to distinguish between interests and passion, because mere interest won't sustain you over the long haul," Maisel says. "People are convinced they need to become more disciplined, but when you are passionate, you don't need to cultivate discipline; it follows naturally."


Take the tiny town of Holguín, Cuba, where a hip-hop group dazzles audiences without the track-making and mixing software on which their American counterparts rely. Such programs are not commonly found on the island, and anyway an hour in a cybercafé costs as much as a month's worth of food. The group has devised a low-tech solution for creating melodic loops to rap over: They literally cut and paste together repeated sections of cassette tapes. The ultimate result is just as affecting and danceable to fans. The behind-the-scenes process is tedious, but for them, it's a small price to pay to do what they love.

II: Problem-Solving Styles

The real question isn't "How creative are you?" but rather "How are you creative?" Innovation is rarely a one-step deal; the trick is figuring out how you solve problems. That way, you can build on your strengths and team up with people who compensate for your weaknesses, says educational psychologist Donald Treffinger.


Brainstorming often launches the process, as does framing the dilemma at hand. We've all heard that there are no such things as bad ideas during initial brainstorming sessions. But during office meetings, barely- formed suggestions are often immediately shot down.


If you want to come up with truly original schemes, it's essential to separate idea generation from idea evaluation. Otherwise, you'll be too quick to dismiss seemingly implausible yet brilliant notions. Tina Seelig, executive director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and author of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, asks her students to come up with the best business idea they can muster and the most horrendous start-up idea imaginable. She then dramatically rips up the "good" ideas and redistributes the "losers" among the students, with instructions to turn them into viable proposals. One student's joke of a bikini shop located in Antarctica was morphed into a jet-set-friendly exercise camp called "Bikini or Die," designed to get clients in top form for the beach. A "cockroach sushi" pitch became an exotic restaurant featuring non-traditional foods: "La Cucaracha."


Stumped? Get out the eraser board: Visual thinking can yield more initial ideas than written lists, says Markman. "It's often easier to sketch relationships between concepts than to describe them. You can use arrows and boxes to say things that would be difficult to put into words." And since many different areas of the brain are involved in vision, sketching essentially calls in more brainpower to fuel your abstract-thinking abilities.


Treffinger and colleagues at the Center for Creative Learning provide an online test to help their clients in the nonprofit world figure out their personal problem-solving styles. "Explorers," in their framework, are great at coming up with completely novel ideas but not as good as "Developers" at executing and making them work. "Developers may have gotten the idea that they are not creative," Treffinger says—think engineers—"but both groups are equally creative."


Another style point turns on whether you are "Internal"—meaning you like to gather and think about information quietly, by yourself—or "External," drawing energy from talking and sharing ideas with others. The final dimension to Treffinger's test gets at what you emphasize when making creative decisions—harmony among people or the demands of a task . Those who conform to the "Person" style seek decisions that all involved can comfortably buy into, whereas "Task"-oriented people base their decisions on facts and what makes logical sense. Work groups made up exclusively of developers (detail-oriented craftsmen with no architect to give a big-picture plan) or explorers (a film director and set designer without a producer to tell them what's possible and within budget) would both be at risk for total dysfunction, which is why a balance of styles yields the best collaborations.

III: Start Innovating

Even if your heart is fully in it, you still need to get into the habit of creating. Creativity coach Maisel believes that your waking hours are best since they enable you to apply your "sleep thinking" to glitches in your haiku-writing, furniture-designing, or quilting. (Studies confirm that "sleeping on it" indeed allows for stellar solutions to make their way to the forefront of your mind.) Furthermore, Maisel sees carving out morning time for a creative pursuit as a way to infuse the rest of your day with existential meaning. The boost you get from your 7 a.m. compositional breakthrough could propel you through a rote desk job.


If you take up a creative project you may soon fall prey to what Maisel calls unfriendly self-talk: "I'm not talented," or "Why should I bother with this—there is too much competition out there." First, listen to what you're saying to yourself, then dispute the utterances that don't serve you. Lastly, substitute more affirmative statements and get back to work.


The most important thing anyone can do to improve creativity is to find unsolved dilemmas to address, says Robert Root-Bernstein. He suggests starting today at work: Why not force yourself to come up with 10 ways for your office manager to save money, or take what your team is good at and think of 10 new ways to turn those skills into a new service you could sell.


We spend so much mental energy either avoiding or unproductively mulling over problems that the idea of chasing and embracing them seems strange, and yet it is a hallmark of the creative orientation to life. Seelig warms up her students by telling them to solve a problem they have with an object already in their homes. Last semester a young woman faced the headache of a looming moving date and no way to haul her boxes to her new digs. She sifted through her half-packed possessions and found an unopened case of wine, left over from a party. She put an ad on Craigslist—"Case of wine in exchange for a ride with my stuff across the Bay"—and quickly secured a willing man-with-van.


Just because a solution is orthodox doesn't mean it's not excellent. Take one of the winning teams in Seelig's challenge to earn cash over a weekend with just $5 of seed money: The students were told to make as much as they could and to report back to the class on Monday in a quick presentation. A sharp observation of their college town yielded one team's plan to make reservations at popular restaurants and later sell them to hungry parties waiting in lines. The enterprise raked in $200. (And it's perfectly legal.)
One team generated much more—$650—by turning the problem inside out. "Their insight was that their most precious resource was their three-minute presentation time on Monday," Seelig reports. "They decided to sell it to a company that wanted to recruit the students in the class. The team created a three-minute 'commercial' for the company and showed it to the rest of the students during their allotted three minutes. They recognized that they had a fabulously valuable asset just waiting to be mined."

IV: More Benefits of Creativity

Stumbling upon a way to eliminate a nagging concern or pushing your abilities to new heights is wonderful for its own sake. But living life imaginatively comes with additional benefits—and can even enhance your most important relationships.


"Personal problems usually result from people having mismatched expectations of each other," says Robert Root-Bernstein. "Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person with whom you are having problems. Try to imagine why they respond to you the way they do. Look for patterns of behavior that solve or avoid the problem you are having.

Playact the new behaviors in your mind, and try to select the best ones." The attitude shift alone, from "Oh God, we're fighting about this again?" to "What's a new way to handle this argument that keeps being replayed?," is in itself calming and therapeutic.
Parenting can be the ultimate opportunity for exercising creativity. When Seelig's son was 15 years old, the avid athlete asked for an expensive bicycle. She was reluctant to shell out the cash and could have just said no. Or she could have said yes and then felt resentful about the purchase. Instead, she asked him to come up with a creative solution: "What do you think you could do for me to make this worthwhile?" she asked. He countered with an offer to do laundry and cook dinner three times a week for the rest of the year. They both felt very satisfied with the innovative arrangement.
The hectic routines facing parents of little children can sap any desire to do extra work. But Gretchen Rubin, author of the forthcoming TheHappiness Project, found that if she went to the trouble of getting up early on holidays, dying her children's food (black on Halloween, red on Valentine's Day), and spreading treats and decorations on the table, the girls' delighted reactions to their novel breakfasts actually energized her.


Ruth Richards, one of the researchers who coined the term "everyday creativity" and a psychology professor at Saybrook University and Harvard Medical School, has uncovered even more reasons to start innovating. Expressive writing has been shown to improve immune system functioning, for example, and older people who think more innovatively tend to cope better with aging and illness. Engaging in creative behaviors, Richards argues, makes us more dynamic, conscious, non-defensive, observant, collaborative, and brave.


Creativity provides opportunities for self-actualization. "It makes you more resilient, more vividly in the moment, and, at the same time, more connected to the world," Richards says.


Ivcevic's study supports Richards's idea: Students who were engaged in everyday creativity had a greater sense of well-being and personal growth than non-creative classmates.


One day last year, in another constrained prison environment, the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Phillippines, Warden Byron Garcia noticed a horde of orange-uniformed prisoners clustering in the yard and found the bright waves of colorful forms in motion intriguing. Since he wanted to start an hour-long exercise program anyway, he began leading the inmates, many of whom are accused of committing violent crimes, in group dance numbers set to disco and pop classics. The inmates' interpretation of Michael Jackson's Thrillerleapt over the barbed wire and spread throughout the world via YouTube.


After Jackson's death last July, 1,500 inmates rehearsed a routine to the song "Dangerous" for nine straight hours, delivering exactly the kind of tribute that fans wanted—a sincere expression of joy and freedom. It didn't get them out of jail, but it got them somewhere.

One Bright Day

Here are some tested tips for injecting powers ofinnovation into your routine.


Wake 'n' Write: Creativity guru Julia Cameron swears by free writing (no self-censoring) until you fill three pages. Get intrusive worries out and productive ideas flowing.


Relationship Shake-Up: Practice creative loving: If your partner annoys or upsets you, react the opposite way you usually do. You might be pleasantly surprised with the result.


Disrupt the Daily Grind: Jolt your brain out of automatic pilot by taking a new route to work.


Don't Compete, Collaborate: Team up with a coworker who has complementary skills: If you're a detail-oriented person, find a big-picture partner, or vice versa.


Daydream in Long Distance: Psychologically distant thoughts spur creativity. Think about designing a new product in Bali and your perceptual abilities will soar.


Search for Inspiration: Go to a museum or sit for a few minutes in a beautiful building or park on your lunch break. Try to notice all of the aesthetically pleasing details surrounding you.


Get Ahead: Start tackling big projects now. Procrastination does not fuel creativity, despite what procrastinators tell themselves.


Hit a Blue Note: Decorate your cubicle or home office in blue, since a study showed that blue surroundings boost creativity.


Be an Aficionado: Creative people often have hobbies, and those who play musical instruments are better at associative thinking. So dust off your old guitar or stamp collection.


Sleep on It: Think about a thorny problem before you go to bed. REM enhances creative problem-solving and may even deliver the answer to you at dawn.

The Role of Facebook in Research Sample Recruitment

Make the most of your social network.


There are currently more than 500 million active Facebook users (i.e., Facebook subscriber who visits the site at least once within a 30 day time frame) who spend 700 billion minutes and share more than 30 billion items (e.g., postings, web links, news stories, photos, notes, etc.) on Facebook per month. The site is translated into 70 languages and 70% of users live outside of the United States (facebook.com, 2010). This popular social-networking source allows users to reconnect, stay in touch, join common interest groups, send wishes, as well as build farms and other empires. Friends keep each other current by posting their thoughts (i.e., What are you thinking?) and sharing comments and insight about their Friends' though-of-the-moment posting.

Facebook Friends typically consist of a random mix of volunteers representing our past, present, and future. Users' Friend lists are likely to be a diverse pool of people in terms of their race, nationality, ethnicity, locations, age, gender, career, as well as marital status and socioeconomic status. Friends are normally interested enough on some level to be our Friend by sending or accepting a Friend Request.

Throughout my nearly 20-year career in psychology, I have been collecting data in a number of conventional and unconventional contexts. The more conventional settings were research labs or structured meetings in prisons, boardrooms, offices, schools, universities, churches, and community centers. The unconventional settings include laundromats, stores, train stations and aboard boats. Whether it was surveying prisoners about their hostility level and scuba diving instructors about their personality, holding focus groups for intercity community members about neighborhood safety, or observing fighting work groups, I learned that a little creativity goes a long way to collect the best data to accurately answer the research questions.

Unfortunately, a great deal of highly publicized psychological research tend result from data collected in laboratory settings, using homogeneous and convenient samples who gain course credit for their participation. We all know that the stronger and more diverse the sample, the more generalizable the data. So why not stay out of the lab and try the Facebook route to "spice up" your sample a bit?

As a research psychologist, research professor, and former Institutional Review Board (IRB) Chair, I endorse Facebook and other social (and of course, professional) networking sites to be potentially valuable resources for sample recruitment when studying common psychological constructs. Since Friends openly post questions and other event information, informing Facebook Friends of an opportunity to participate in a study that could benefit them or share their insight through a survey could only be a win/win. Plus, there is an excellent chance they will pass information along their network. Of course, with an iron clad commitment that their participation remain voluntary and anonymous and a promise that their responses will be aggregated and confidential.

You have this diverse social network, use it!

Reference:
Facebook.com (2010)