Imagine That!

Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius

Everyday Creativity: It’s Not What You Expect

Remarkable moments of everyday creativity are not what you expect.

Writing girlPick up just about any book on how to be creative, how to get your juices flowing in words or images, melodies or movements, and you're bound to come across this piece of advice: Look around each day for something remarkable. What's remarkable? Well, it's not always what you expect.

In fact, remarkable is never what you expect, because, of course, if you expected it, it wouldn't be remarkable. Still, there are times when something in the environment forces a double-take. And for those on the lookout for the effective novelty of creativity, a double-take can be instructive.

Consider, for example, the construction company van Michele noticed the other morning. She had just finished her walk in the wetland park near our home, where she consciously works on heightening her attention to the sights, sounds, and tactile feelings of nature. This particular foray, however, had proved uneventful and already her mind had pitched forward to lunch and more work at her desk. What was it about the van that caught her eye? In every way it seemed like every other van of her acquaintance - except for the slogan printed across the side. An inveterate processor of words, she read: "You'll be glad when we're done."

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White House kitchen, 1952Huh? Couldn't be. She read again. It was! Had the contractor really meant to say that his work left something to be desired? Did he really want to run around town with this anti-advertisement emblazoned on the side of his vehicle? Had his imagination really run that dry when it came to empathizing?

Empathizing, one of thinking tools that we describe in our book Sparks of Genius, refers to the imaginative capacity to put yourself in another's place, to feel what they feel and close the gap between 'I' and 'other', whether that other is a person, an animal, a plant or a star. If the contractor had placed himself in his clients' shoes - if he had ever had his kitchen redone or maybe his bathroom - he would surely have felt the double meaning and understood the irony in the word ‘glad'. Does any construction work come in on time? Without a hitch?

White House kitchen, 1971On the other hand, a little empathizing on Michele's part had her conceding that when home construction work is very well done indeed, whatever the time frame, then no words could be more true than "You'll be glad when we're done!"

In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she liked the slogan. Following hard on the initial jolt of incredulity, there was the aftertaste of delight as she shifted, Gestalt-like, from one interpretation to the other and back again. Quite unexpectedly, she had come across an ingenuous bit of found poetry, a joke that confounded expectations, a moment of exchange that was both novel and effective.

Well, nearly so. Michele can't remember the contractor's name, though his slogan will remain forever in mind as a delicious morsel of creative ambiguity, suggesting larger and synthetic meanings. Was it in fact possible to see both sides of the story at once? Might this contractor's clients be glad for both reasons at the same time?

Of course! This was no hapless contractor, Michele thought, but a saavy salesman whose handshake came with a wink, whose sly slogan suited a world of open-ended situations.

Even, perhaps, the reading of this blog!

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2010

Pictures of the White House Kitchen, 1952, 1971 @ http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/floor0/kitchen.htm

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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