Sunday, October 15, 2006

the hard work of creativity

Although in my position in the Publications Office at Bradley University I spend lots of time doing mundane proofreading and formatting tasks, I also get to be creative. I write stories for our research publication, develop concepts for marketing or advancement pieces, and design covers for the schedule of classes and catalogs. I have always been fascinated with the process of creativity. In my graduate work, I studied the creative process of poets, such as Theordore Roethke and Emily Dickinson, who seemed to use their art to explore their own psychological growth, and who seemed to weave individual poems into groups where images and themes built on each other in complex ways. For both, the creative process involved enormous amounts of time and the enormous risk of psychological vulnerability.

"No one is born highly creative," says R. Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., associate professor of education and of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. "Psychologists studying creativity have discovered that it is based on cognitive processes we all share. Creativity is not the result of some magic brain region that some people have and others don't." Sawyer thinks that creative people have developed good work habits.

He believes that a common pattern for creative people is to alternate periods of hard work with time spent doing something unrelated, like a lunch break, gardening, or a walk. Such time allows them to think of their problems in new ways. He says the "aha" moment often comes while doing something else.

I can agree with this theory. When I get stuck on a project, I often take a walk outside to enjoy nature and to see other people. I go for a tea or coffee. I might leave early for lunch. Sitting and staring at the blank canvas usually isn't productive. When you just enter a different room, or go outside, your mind starts thinking about other things. Sometimes, this allows another part of your mind to work on the problem.

So many times I develop ideas in the shower. The relaxing steam and fragrances let my mind wander. Sometimes I think I have washed my hair several times because I was so deep in thought I wasn't paying much attention to the actual task at hand.

Professor Sawyer also advocates employees taking all of their vacation time. He says that "Many people don't take their vacation and they end up rolling over all of their off time. If I were a senior manager, I would make everyone take all of their vacation time. Time away from work is essential for recharging the batteries, so to speak, and to help people think more creatively on the job. People need freedom in their schedule for idle time."

I agree. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that hard work only goes so far in being successful at work. You do have to get away and develop other interests and other parts of your life. Doing so will allow you to bring new perspectives to the problems and creative tasks you deal with. Sometimes you have to let deadlines go unanswered. Sometimes you have to give up the worry. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your job is to just walk away from it.

You can find a good article about Dr. Sawyer's research at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Right On! Sometimes just engaging a co-worker in a quick one liner and a giggle is a good break! I do that quite often because I am unable to just walk away from my "work". But when I do get to walk away, I run! I breath in the freedom before I return! Always out of doors no matter the weather! Proper attire of course and I'm good to go! Rain, sleet, wind, whatever. Gotta get new air!