The One Resolution

Jan 3, 2018–Ah, the new year is here and that means it’s time to endure the cascade of “resolutions” that last as long as a bunch of organic bananas.

I have one resolution, and it’s the only one you’ll ever need: be more creative.

If social media has done nothing else, it has revealed the shallowness of our discourse. You don’t need to scroll far to begin seeing repeated comments, clichés, endless pictures of pets, precocious children, the pompous and the posed, and that mind-sucking stepchild of the internet, the “meme.”

Memes are visual clichés, the cute pictures with the clever captions, that are the nemesis of creativity. Any meme wears down quickly. The first time you see it, you might “laugh out loud.” The next appearance may garner a chuckle. By the 13th time, you pass by it as if it were another flat armadillo along Highway 16–a distraction to avoid that smells.

Here’s the problem with being more creative. No one is sure how to do it. You can’t simply tell someone to “be more creative.” I know, because I tried. And failed.

As a “thought leader” in an educational organization, I was asked to make a presentation at the annual conference. The subject was how to be more creative.

Sounds straightforward. But when I sat down to prepare it, the task became impossible. Telling someone how to be more creative is like telling them how catch a ball. We all know how to do that, but some people do it better than others. Plus we didn’t learn it from a powerpoint or dummies book. It’s just something you do.

But, of course, that didn’t stop me from trying.

First I looked at how others teach creativity. (That’s called research, or plagiarism, depending on the depth of your “research.”)

I read Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. He defined creativity as what happens when talent has an encounter with a challenge. Say you are a painter. You encounter a tree. You paint a tree in a way that never existed before. Creativity.

I read A Whack On The Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. His approach to creativity is to give you exercises to loosen up your creative logjam. Examples from his list:

  • Exaggerate
  • Slay a sacred cow
  • Check your ego
  • Try a random idea
  • What would your grandma do
  • Take the least important thing and make it larger

In the iconic out-of-print publication Co-Evolution Quarterly I found an article where musicians Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a list of “Oblique Strategies” to turn to when stuck for an idea. Just reading through the list is itself an exercise in oblique creativity:

  • Call your mother
  • Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list
  • Listen to the quiet voice
  • Remove the middle, extend the edges
  • What would your enemy do?
  • Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame
  • Work at a different speed
  • Tidy up
  • Do nothing for as long as possible
  • Get your neck massaged
  • Emphasize differences
  • Ask people to work against their better judgment
  • Breathe more deeply
  • Do something boring
  • Pay attention to distractions
  • Infinitesimal gradations
  • Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them
  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  • Remove specifics; convert to ambiguities
  • Disconnect from desire
  • Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
  • Use “unqualified” people
  • Accept advice
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Repetition is a form of change
  • Use an unacceptable color
  • Don’t be frightened of clichés

Ugh. That last one kind of torpedoes my premise.

The best inspiration I found was from my elementary teacher materials. The lesson was “how to find a star inside an apple.”

The solution? Cut an apple in half the wrong way–not from stem to bottom, but through its side. Inside reveals a perfect 5-pointed star.

But that was all I could come up with. I canceled the session. A bag of apples does not a presentation make. And placing paring knives in the hands of your audience didn’t seem a propitious path for a presenter.

So I end my exhortation for more creativity by resorting to the lamest bailout of the writer’s art: quoting someone more literary.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

So my resolution for myself and for you: Think once or twice a week.