Keep them guessing

This morning I attended Jabber, a local networking group in St Albans. And I came away with a completely unexpected insight about communication.

I worry constantly that when I tell people that I’m a creativity coach they immediately put me into a bunch of boxes, many or most of which aren’t quite right. The issue is, you see, both creativity and coaching are frequently misunderstood concepts.

Many people think that coaching means giving advice or guidance, being the expert in a given field. The truth is that traditional coaching is more about helping the client think and solve his or her own problems.

Creativity… well, I suppose it’s a good thing for me that so many people believe so many wrongheaded things about creativity otherwise I wouldn’t have a job. Here’s three:

  1. There are too many rules and regulations in my industry for me to be creative
  2. Creativity? You either have it or you don’t
  3. Creativity is art and stuff, right?

So when I call myself a creativity coach I fear that many people assume they know what that means but get it entirely wrong.

My response to this has been to attempt to make what I do more and more clear and, in fact, my coach of the term “creativity coach” was the end result of trying to find two words that were easy to understand. But what if I’ve been going about this all wrong?

Speaking to a couple of chaps at Jabber we got on to the problem of pigeonholing and how people are quick to try to stick you in a box and then, once they’ve done that, stop thinking about you. This is, as it happens, exactly the problem we face often when trying to express creativity; we have a desire to solve problems quickly and save mental energy. This kind of thinking is effortful and so we have a strong drive to want to simplify and categorise.

Perhaps, in using these plain English words, what I’m actually doing is reducing the cognitive load of my listeners at the expense of them failing to understand what I really do.

We know that when something is too simple, too easy to parse, people have a habit of not thinking about it at all and delegating it to their automatic systems. To stimulate recall, therefore, it actually helps to make something ever so slightly harder to parse. Simply printing something in a smaller font can increase recall in the reader.

All this is to say that perhaps I should be using a description, a title that is less apparently clear, that people will not assume they understand even if they don’t.

Maybe I should call myself a conceptual relationship manager or a solutionisation bridge builder. Or possibly an unseen value materialiser…

This may take a little more thought. But the point remains: perhaps in struggling to reduce the complexity of what we do into words that others will believe they understand we run the risk of miscommunication. It comes down to this question:

Is it better for someone to wrongly believe they understand or to correctly believe they don’t?

The Powerful Play is Improvised

Errors, mistakes, unexpected problems for which we not only are unprepared but could not possibly prepare come up time and time again in my work as I help people to build stronger relationships with creativity. Today I want to share one of the techniques I've used to explore this challenge.

Several weeks ago I lead a workshop for a group of young people at Trestle Arts Base, in partnership with my good friend Shayla Maddox. The concept was simple – we asked the children to draw a circle in a single stroke, similar to the Japanese enso in that you must complete the circle without removing your pen from the paper and without going back and cleaning up any imperfections. It's worth noting that even this unchallenging request was met with some anxiety, so deeply ingrained is our need for perfection.

The next step was to ask the children to draw inside and around the circle any image they wanted to draw, importantly, to use the flat bits, the wobbly bits, the "mistakes" in the circle as the basis for what they chose to draw. The desired insight was that the children would come to see errors as opportunities for creativity rather than value destroying limitations.

I had three experiences on the day that stuck out to me and I want to recount them here.

A little boy in the group looked despondent when he was finished with his circle. In his words it was "rubbish". A young girl, similarly, was very upset with how flat her circle was at the bottom, how lopsided it was. Finally another girl was irritated by the way her circle spiralled in on itself. At this point all three of these children felt very unhappy with their artistic skills.

This is when I got to feel like a hero (yeah, that is why I do this). To the little boy who's circle was full of irregularities and lumpy bits I said that all those imperfections made his circle, as far as I was concerned, the best one in the room. He was taken aback by this but I told him that I knew he would be able to see something great to draw in that shape. By the end of the workshop he had drawn a giant rhino, the nobly bits serving as his horns and ears.

The girl with the squashed and lopsided circle needed something a little more analytical so I asked her why her circle might be flat at the bottom and leaning to one side. Immediately she brightened and said that it must be sitting on something and, she added, leaning because it's falling off of the edge. By the end of the workshop her circle was indeed sitting on a table and being pushed off the edge by a small figure.

The girl with the spiral circle actually didn't need my help at all. By the time I spoke to her she had already decided that spirals were beautiful and had chosen to draw an intricate pattern growing from that one, inadvertent spiral with which she had begun.

All of these children and the rest who took part, it is my hope, took one lesson away with them; that mistakes can lead to something beautiful. And I have some evidence that at least some of them did internalise the concept.

We were carrying out this workshop specifically because the next weekend these children would be performing at the Fun Palace, a weekend activity for school children. Four of the girls, Erin, Elyse, Elizabeth and Fola, would be performing a show about the early days of midwifery. I was fortunate enough to watch their hilarious rehearsal and I was sure they'd be fine on the day… but disaster struck! Fola was sick and unable to attend (ironic since she was playing a doctor). So the group had to improvise a new show on the spot.

Improvising a show is hard. And they found it hard. But they used the unexpected challenge and, by the end of the day having performed this new show three times, what they had created was possibly better than the original show. This creative challenge might have stopped a group with less robust relationships with creativity.

I'd like to think that, in a small way, being able to think about their circles and how imperfections lead to beauty might have played a part in helping them roll with the changes and make something great out of the unexpected.

Creativity means solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. That's a very nice definition of life, too – solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. In this sense, being strong with creativity is about being powerful in life. I feel very confident that these children, if they maintain their present relationships with creativity, will have no trouble dealing with whatever life brings their way.