Life as Art

How our world shapes who we are and how who we are shapes our world

Creativity and the Art of Annoyance

How to use life's irritations to generate creative ideas

Where do “creative people” (in quotations because we are all actually “creative people”) get their original ideas? If you’ve ever said “Why didn’t I think of that?” then you have probably wondered about this yourself.  Creative problem finding is part of the creative process; and it can be difficult to come up with creative problems, especially when our lives are often bubbling over with stress. However, the things that cause you stress may actually be a rich source of creative ideas.

In my book Your Creative Brain, I recommend keeping a list of things that bother you or cause you stress. I call this an “Annoyance List.” Each time you encounter an annoyance or stressor, write it down on your list. The goal is to then convert things that irritate you into creative opportunities.

Here’s a classic example: When George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, came home from an Alpine hunting trip with his dog in 1941, he found that both his jacket and the dog’s fur were covered with small burrs. This is an annoying situation (if you’ve ever spent the afternoon pulling burrs off a cocker spaniel, you know just how annoying this can be!). However, de Mestral chose to view this as an opportunity rather than an annoyance. He became fascinated with how the burrs hooked themselves onto material or fur and examined one of them under the microscope. He found that each burr had numerous little hooks that allowed the burr to stick tenaciously to a variety of materials. Converting irritation into curiosity led de Mestral to develop that modern wonder: Velcro (Freeman & Golden, 1997).

Here’s another amazing present-day example. Kit Parker is a veteran Army Major who spent two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He is also a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, who is doing cutting edge research on traumatic brain injuries and other battlefield problems. He was annoyed by the poor care an Army buddy received after a brain injury, so he decided to do something about it. He and his team are growing human and other brain cells in their lab in order to discover ways to better protect them from injury. Other annoyances he experienced in the military have also led to inventions in Parker’s lab. For example, deployed personnel who move from dessert to woodland terrain may find that they are in the wrong color of camouflage uniform (dessert tans in a forested area or forest green in a dessert), making them more vulnerable to enemy detection. Parker and his group are now working on camouflage gear that will change colors to match different terrains using the biology of the chameleon-like cuttlefish as a model.  In a story written by Elizabeth Ross for WGBH News, Parker explains: 

“Over time, I went back and revisited the list of things that had pissed me off while I was in the battlefield, and I just decided to do a little bit of science for everything that pissed me off," Parker said. "So, we’ve evolved this into work on camouflage, because the camouflage patterns were pretty poor in the Afghanistan desert.”

Parker is now recruiting other student veterans to help in his lab and to bring their own lists of annoyances as potential creative ideas.

Whether you refer to it as an “Annoyance List” or (like Professor Parker) a “List of Things that Piss Me Off,” a catalog of irritating or stressful situations can be a jumping-off point for creative ideas. Just by changing the way you view annoyances, you can take something that’s irritating and convert it into a creative, beneficial (and perhaps even financially rewarding) result!

References:

Carson, S. (2010). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freeman, A., & Golden, B. (1997). Why didn’t I think of that: Bizarre origins of ingenious inventions we couldn’t live without . New York: Wiley.

Ross, E. (July 10, 2013). Former soldiers work to solve battlefield problems from a Harvard lab. U.S. News. wgbhnews.org.

* Portions of this blog were excerpted from Dr. Carson’s blog “That’s so irritating,” on the afterdeployment.org website afterdeployment.org.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is an instructor and researcher at Harvard University, where she teaches creativity and abnormal psychology.

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