James C Kaufman

And All That Jazz

A Creativity Researcher's Thoughts on the Oscars

A Creativity Researcher Discuss the Oscars

Posted Mar 09, 2010

Most of initial thoughts to the Oscars on Sunday were similar to most people's:

• Ben Stiller is not and has never been funny

• I think Neil Patrick Harris should host the next American Psychological Association convention

• Dang, there were virtually no upsets

• No time for singing the best songs, but time for an interpretative dance?

• Who is Elinor Burkett and why was she allowed to be out in public?

Some of my thoughts are, perhaps, more unique to that of a creativity researcher:

I've always liked Michael Giacchino, composer of Pixar movies and Lost; now, I love him. In a brief speech, he articulated nearly everything I know about how to encourage creativity:

When I was nine and I asked my dad, "Can I have your movie camera? That old, wind-up 8 millimeter camera that was in your drawer?" And he goes, "Sure, take it." And I took it and I started making movies with it and I started being as creative as I could, and never once in my life did my parents ever say, "What you're doing is a waste of time." Never. And I grew up, I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all through my life who always told me what you're doing is not a waste of time. So that was normal to me that it was OK to do that. I know there are kids out there that don't have that support system so if you're out there and you're listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it. It's not a waste of time. Do it. OK? Thank you.

Yes! How do we nurture creativity? We allow mini-c (the initial creativity inherent in the learning process) flourish. We allow an environment to be psychologically "safe" from judgment and discouragement. We encourage people to pursue what they love.

And if we're lucky, we get a Michael Giacchino.

More thoughts: If anyone gets discouraged about their creative progress in their careers, take heart from Mauro Fiore. The cinematographer won the Academy Award for his work on Avatar. Twenty years ago, Fiore was the key grip (i.e., camera placement/rigging) for Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls and Saturday the 14th Strikes Back. These films were not just truly horrible films - they were also sequels to truly horrible films.

Consistent with the general research indicating that it takes ten years to become an expert in an area, Fiore worked on Schindler's List (as a gaffer, in charge of the electric work) in 1993 and then advanced to be a cinematographer on a successful televisions how (Tracey Takes On). Consistent with research I did with fellow PT blogger Scott Barry Kaufman, Fiore illustrates that if it takes ten years or so to make a professional contribution to a field, it takes about ten more years to make a truly outstanding mark. After twelve years of being a cinematographer on such movies as Training Day, Smokin' Aces, and Tears from the Sun, Fiore reached his (likely) peak with his brilliant, Oscar-winning work on Avatar.

What does this mean? It takes time to become an "expert" in a field and even longer to reach a level of "greatness." It's okay to not be a superstar yet. Even Chaucer started small (indeed, his first story was supposedly called Strypped to Kille: The Miller's Wife Returnes).

Thirdly: One of my frequent topics to write/talk/think about is the idea of creativity across domains. Is creativity one thing or many things? Even with a broad domain (such as acting), there are still nuances (which, which John Baer, I have expanded into the Amusement Park Theory of Creativity). For example, acting in movies does not necessarily mean the same thing as acting on television. One striking illustration can be found in examining which people were ignored for the Oscar memorial segment. Notable omissions include television superstars Bea Arthur, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Ricardo Montalban. All four made movies, ranging from the outstanding (Fawcett's The Apostle's Wife) to popular (Montalban's Naked Gun and Spy Kids 2 and 3) to the regrettable (Arthur's Mame) to the completely obscure (McMahon's The Vegas Connection). All four are obviously much better known for their contribution to television (and all will likely get special tributes at the Emmy's). This feeling that those with major acclaim in television and minor acclaim in film do not deserve a tribute at the Oscar's may illustrate a strongly domain-specific point of view. Of course, they did honor Michael Jackson, who appeared in The Wiz and little else.

Fans have been commenting extensively about the omissions (especially Fawcett). Some of this anger has taken the form of criticizing other memorial inclusions, such as the writers/directors/behind the scenes people (such as Tullio Pinelli, Ken Annakin, Daniel Melnick, and Gareth Wigan). Such comparisons hint at the differences between how novices and experts perceive the movies. One message board poster wrote - and I quote - "Too much focus on the 'behind-the-scenes' people. People don't want movies for the writing or directing." Clearly, most expert moviemakers and movie connoisseurs would acknowledge the small contributions of folks like Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Scorsese.

Finally, I noted Howard Stern's reactions to best actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe. In his typically antisocial manner, he delivered a wide array of insults. These ranged from racial/sexist humor ("the most enormous, fat black chick I've ever seen") to mock sympathy ("You feel bad because everyone pretends that she's part of show business and she's never going to be in another movie") to crude humor ("What movie is she going to be in? ‘Blind Side 2,' she could be the football player") to supposed advice ("You just want to say to her, listen, honey, now that you've got a little money in the bank go get yourself thin, because you're going to die in three years"). Reactions have been varied, with some people voicing agreement and most expressing disgust, shock, and anger.

Why does Stern say these sorts of things? One reason is that it gets the desired results - it gets him attention. There is actually some scientific evidence of this phenomenon - three researchers studied shocking content in social appeal (i.e., HIV/AIDS prevention) advertising. They found that people shown the shocking ads remembered them better, paid more attention, and were more likely to change their behavior. Obviously, these are different contexts, but it may be that Stern is going to continue to get exactly what he wants from his antisocial comments.

How will Sidibe react? One interesting study looked at the role of honor and how it impacts a person's response to an insult. For both honor-driven (i.e., collectivist) societies and non-honor-driven (i.e., individualistic) societies, anger is a more likely response than shame. When someone is angry after an insult, they typically have a desire to punish the insulting person. This feeling can result in a verbal attack (i.e., insulting the person back) or giving verbal disapproval. Shame can also lead to verbal disapproval, but it can also lead to withdrawal (doing nothing). Honor cultures tend to verbally disapprove more; non-honor cultures tend to withdraw. In part, this tendency is because shame is seen as an embarrassing thing in non-honor cultures.

None of this, of course, changes the fact that Stern is an ass.

This is purposely not a picture of Howard Stern.

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