Last week my employer held an “Innovation Retreat” to help us become more creative. They taught us how to do something called “Design Thinking.” It started with us ripping up our business cards and throwing them up in the air. Then we were allowed to shoot styrofoam finger rockets at the boss.
They divided us into teams and gave us an assignment – a problem to solve – and told us the steps we should use to come up with ideas and channel our creativity. We used poster boards, pipe cleaners, magic markers and smiley face stickers to create our project. At one point, I got a couple of steps ahead of the “design thinking” process and was told to go back.
We watched some videos and learned about IDEO, the design firm and Stanford’s d Center -the epicenters of design thinking. I have no doubt that for many businesses and people, design thinking is a great way to solve problems. However, it totally torqued my creative process.
I have bipolar II, also called hypomania. Coming up with ideas and being creative has never been a problem for me. In fact, for decades it often was the problem. My brain was awash in ideas. At times I couldn’t keep up with all my ideas. And so many of them were brilliant! or so I thought. Finally, I was diagnosed with hypomania and put on medications to control my thoughts.
All I can say about those medications – which I still take – is holy s#*t. Thoughts and ideas now come in an orderly fashion, one-by-one. I can now slow down my brain and digest one idea before I allow the next one to come. I can control my thoughts. It is a miracle.
I have been a writer for 40 years. I started writing in earnest when I was about 14 and for the last 32 years, writing, in particular journalism, has put a roof over my head and food on the table. I love to write. I knew I was going to be a writer when I was just a little kid, when I learned that people actually got paid to write the stuff on the back of cereal boxes. Then Watergate happened and journalism became my passion.
Writing is a solitary creative process. I do it alone, unless you count Dog, my mutt who curls up on his bed under my desk when I write. Since my diagnosis 7 years ago I have spent a lot of time and money learning as much as I can about brains and how they work. I am mesmerized by advances in neuroimaging, deep-brain stimulation and neuro-pharmacology.
I pay close attention to how my own brains works – especially when I write. How do I know what information needs to be conveyed and in what order? I love to talk to musicians who write songs. Do they write the lyrics first and then the music or the music first and then the lyrics? And do they actually hear the music in their head? And how the hell did Beethoven and Mozart and those guys write symphonies? I mean, did they hear each instrument individually in their heads? You’ve got, like, a dozen different instruments going at the same time! Did they use smiley face stickers and pipe cleaners?
It’s not that I believe I am above learning new methods of improving my brain. I am constantly driven to learn more and learn better. For example, one of the best exercises for improving my creativity has been solving math and logic problems. I always sucked at math but about 12 years ago I went kicking-and-screaming into the world of computer-assisted reporting.
CAR required me learning math, SQL and string functions. I did statistical analysis on data for my investigative reporting. I loved it. Time would stand still when I was in the throws of analyzing data. I loved it so much that I often put a sign DO NOT DISTURB on the back of my chair. When interrupted unexpectedly, I would jump a foot out of my chair.
Then I took to doing physical tasks with my non-dominant left hand. Vacuuming, brushing my teeth and left-hand mousing on the computer. Most of all, I have learned that my creative process becomes stale if I sit too long or am tired. So, I exercise in the morning before I got to work. I stand – not sit – at my desk. If I get tired, I walk up and down the stairs or stand on my head. And I eat something – like an apple.
Not once were we asked to stand and stretch during the “Innovation Retreat.” We got “bio-breaks” every hour of so but no one encouraged us to stretch, bend over, go for a brisk walk or stand up while working. What’s up with that?
Quite frankly, I didn’t learn anything at the Innovation Retreat. I’m sure for some people it was a great experience and really helped develop their creative process. But I’m pretty fond of the creative process I’ve developed over the last 40 years.
There are many different ways to teach creativity. A person who is highly analytical is going to require different exercises to increase creativity than a person who is highly creative but not-at-all analytical. And a person with bipolar – who takes medications to control the creative process – is going to need a completely different protocol.
There is no one-size-fits all method for teaching people to be innovative and creative. I know the Innovation Retreat was well intended but forcing me into a creative process that conflicts with my own was terribly frustrating. I don’t want or need smiley-face stickers and pipe cleaners. I would much prefer you give me a bunch of data to clean or do a bunch of word jumbles, where you unscramble the letters to form a word.