Transcript: A Crash Course in Creativity by Tina Seelig at TEDxStanford Conference

Tina Seelig

Here is the full transcript of Tina Seelig’s TEDx Talk titled ‘A Crash Course in Creativity’ at TEDxStanford Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: A crash course in creativity by Tina Seelig at TEDxStanford


What an amazing day filled with incredible ideas!

So, where do these ideas come from? This is a question that I have been pondering for the last 35 years. Where do ideas come from? I started as a neurophysiologist, poking little tiny cells with even tinier electrodes to see what they would tell me about creativity and innovation.

After I finished my PhD, I went out to study and sort of learn all about creativity in the wild, working in big companies and small companies, even started my own. And for the last almost 13 years I have been in Stanford, teaching classes on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. And in my classes I have done endless experiments with my students, trying to figure out what is involved with unlocking creativity.

What I’ve realized over the last few years is that we look at creativity in much too narrow a way. We really need to open the aperture and look at creativity in a very different light. And what I’ve done is put together a model that I’m going to basically explain to you in the next few minutes, about all the things we need to unlock creativity.

And I want to point out, before I take it apart, that this innovation engine, that’s what I call it, has two parts. The inside is you: your knowledge, your imagination, your attitude. And the outside is the outside world: the resources, the habitat, and the culture.

So let’s start, let’s start where most people start. Most people start thinking about creativity by thinking about imagination. So let’s start there. Now imagination, one of the sad things is that we don’t really teach people how to increase their imagination in school. And so there really are ways to increase our ability to come up with really interesting ideas, we have to go back to kindergarten to see what the problem is.

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If you are in kindergarten, it’s very likely you get a question like this: What is the sum of 5 plus 5? So what is the answer to this? 10. You guys are really smart, right? OK, we know it’s 10 because there is one right answer to this problem.

But what if we ask this question in a slightly different way? What if we ask: “What two numbers add up to 10?” How many answers are there to this? Infinite. Infinite number! And this is critically important, and something that many of the speakers have brought up today, is that the way you ask a question determines the type of answers you get. The question you ask is the frame into which the answers will fall. And if you don’t ask a question in a thoughtful way, you are not going to get really interesting answers.

Consider the fact that the Copernican revolution came about by re-framing. The question, what if the Earth is not the center of the Solar System? What if the Sun is? And that opened up the entire study of astronomy. But you know what, you don’t have to do this in such a serious way. You can practice it every single day with jokes. Because most jokes that we tell are interesting, because the frame switches in the middle of the joke.

Consider this, the Pink Panther, if you see them in this movie. He walks into a hotel, there is a little dog sitting on the carpet, he says to the hotel manager, “Does your dog bite?” And the manager says, “No, my dog doesn’t bite.” He reaches down. The dog basically attacks and he says, “What happened?” He says, “Well, that’s not my dog.”

Think about it. Whenever you hear a joke, you will find that almost always it’s that a frame switched in the middle, and it’s a really fun way to practice framing and re-framing problems. So that’s one of the ways that you can increase your imagination. But there are other ways.

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One of the key ways is to connect and combine ideas. Most inventions in the world, most innovations come from putting things together that haven’t been there together before, often in really unusual and surprising ways. One of my favorite ways to practice this is with the Japanese art of Chindogu. Chindogu is the art of creating un-useless inventions. They are not useful. They are not useless. They are un-useless. And what they really are is a way of saying there might be something here, but I’m not quite sure. So in this example, with the umbrellas on the shoes, well, gee, it might not be very practical, but it unlocks some really, really interesting ideas.

Speaking of shoes, here’s another Chindogu. OK. Little dustpans. Again, it might not be practical, but you know what, there is an interesting idea there. Again, you can use jokes for inspiration every single day. One of my favorite things, whenever I get the New Yorker, and I’m sure anyone who reads the New Yorker knows, the first thing you do is to open up the back cover and you look at the cartoon caption contest. The cartoon caption contest always puts things together that are not obvious. Often they exert out of scale, or things that would be very, very surprising to have in a same frame. And your job is to come up with a really creative way to connect these things in really interesting and surprising ways.

So here’s a caption for this cartoon. It is, “We’ll start you out here, then give you more responsibilities as you gain experience.” Now of course, you can come up with an endless number of other solutions. So there are two ways for you to increase your imagination but there is another that I want to bring up today. And that is challenging assumptions. One of the biggest problems we have is that we ask people questions and give them problems, they come up with the first right answer. So we are getting really incremental solutions.

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So what we do in our creativity class is we give problems that are really surprising where there is not one right answer. So here is an example of one I just gave recently. This is the exact design brief. And I gave this actually to the group of students at the Osaka University, and their challenge was — to create as much value as possible, value measured in any way they wanted, starting with the contents of one trashcan. They had two hours to do it. How do you like to do that?

One of the interesting things about this assignment, and I put a lot of thoughts into framing the problem beforehand, is that trash actually has a negative value, right? We have to pay people to take it away. So what happened is these students ended up spending quite a bit of time and advanced diving into the project, thinking about what value meant for them. They thought about friendship and community and health and financial security. All sorts of things ended up in forming the way. They thought about the trashcan that they were going to use to create some value.

To raise the bar even further, I gave them a little bit more of a challenge. I told them that I had sent a note out, which I did, to my colleagues around the world, and invited their students to participate at the same time. So there were students in Europe, in Asia, in the US and in Latin America, all doing the same project at the same time. So let me show you a couple of the things that resulted from this.

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