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

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.

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.

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.

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.

A group in Ecuador started out with a garbage can filled with yard waste. Yard waste? I probably wouldn’t have them picked about a trashcan but look at how amazing thing they did. They turned it into a beautiful mural. Or a girl in Ireland, her mom had just gone through her brother’s sock drawer and at a whole trashcan of old holy socks, you know what she did, there were all different colors black, white, grey, she cut them out and sew them together and made this sweater. Pretty cool. I hope some of you will go through your socks drawer later today.

So these are three things you can do to increase your imagination, right? Framing and re-framing problems, connecting and combining ideas and challenging assumptions. But unfortunately, this is not enough. You need to look at the other pieces of the innovation engine. And one of the next pieces on the inside is your knowledge.

Your knowledge is the toolbox for your imagination. Today we heard all about medical breakthroughs and about autonomous vehicles and why, how could they make this? These folks needed a depth of knowledge about medicine or about engineering to bring these ideas to life.

Now, of course you can learn things by going to school, by reading books. But one of the most powerful ways to learn things and to gain knowledge is by paying attention. Most of us do not pay attention to the world around us. Not only do we miss opportunities to see problems we can solve but we also miss the solutions that might be in front of us. And one of my favorite ways to teach students is to send them out to a location they’ve been to many times before and get them to look at them with a fresh eyes.

But I’m not the only one who does it. I want to tell you a quick story about a friend of mine Bob Siegel, who is a professor here at Stanford, who taught a Stanford sophomore seminar for two weeks and it was called the Stanford Safari. And the students basically over two weeks acted as if they were naturalists as if they were just like Darwin in the Galapagos but they were in the Stanford campus. And they talked to everyone they could to give a different point of view and perspective about Stanford. From the groundskeepers and the pest-controllers to the librarians and the organists and all the living Stanford presidents. They walked away not just with a deep understanding of Stanford, but an incredible appreciation for how important it is to pay attention.

But, imagination and knowledge are not enough. Every person needs to have the attitude, the mindset, the motivation and the drive to solve the problems they are going to solve. If you don’t have that drive and that motivation, you are not going to connect and combine ideas. You are not going to re-frame problems. You are not going to challenge assumptions that go beyond the first right answer. Most people unfortunately view themselves as puzzle builders. They basically see themselves as having a very defined task and their job is to get all the pieces and put them together to reach that goal.

But what happens? If you are a puzzle builder and you are missing one or two pieces, what happens? You can’t reach your goal. True innovators, true entrepreneurs actually see themselves as quilt makers. They basically take all the resources they have around them, they leverage things, even the garbage cans, right? They leverage the materials that are available to them and create something that is surprising and really fascinating. This is incredibly important. We have to view ourselves as those who can leverage resources we have around us to really make amazing things happen.

So this is our internal combustion engine for creativity. Our knowledge is a toolbox for creativity. Our imagination is the catalyst for the transformation of that knowledge into new ideas. And our attitude is the spark that gets this going. But unfortunately, that’s not enough. And it’s one of the reasons why there are so many amazingly creative people who are basically not living up to their creative potential because they’re not in the environment to foster and stimulate and encourage this type of innovation. So we have to look at the outside of the innovation engine.

Let’s start first by looking at habitats. Now, habitats include several things. It’s certainly the people you work with. It’s the rules. It’s the rewards. It’s the constraints. It’s the incentives. But even more than that, it’s the physical space. Consider the fact that when we were little, when we were kids in the kindergartens. There are stimulating environments you walk in. You know it’s a place you’re supposed to be creative. It’s colorful, there are lots of manipulatives. The room is very flexible. But unfortunately, you graduate from this type of environment and you get to go study somewhere like this. The chairs are lined up in rows and columns. They are bolted to the floor. And if you talk to anybody, you get into trouble. I spent my entire growing up writing, “Silence is golden. Silence is golden.” OK.

And the fact is we then get very upset because the students, you know, they are just not so creative anymore and everyone laments that. And then they are successful in this environment, and they go up to this environment where they were. And I know why you are laughing because it’s all too familiar. These type of offices were designed to be like prisons. And unfortunately what happens is we again get very frustrated that the people who are working in these type of environments are not very creative. The thing is the space we’re in tells the story. Every space is the stage on which we play off our life. And it tells us what role we play, how we should act.

I’m fortunate enough to teach at, these are actual pictures of my class. Now it might look like the kids are back in kindergarten. They were actually working on a very sophisticated problem here as are the students in this picture. But the room is much more like a kindergarten space with lots of manipulatives, lots of things to prototype. The room is set up like a theater we can set it up differently every five minutes, depending upon what we want to do. Nothing is bolted down.

Really innovative firms know this well. This is the picture from Google in Zurich. This is the picture from Pixar. These are not frivolous because these are messages that the company is giving to the employees saying, “Innovation, creativity and playfulness are valued here.” But this is not enough. We also have to think about the resources we have in our environment. And resources come in so many different flavors. Unfortunately we think of resources as things like money. And money is a fabulous resource, we certainly benefited from here at Stanford and Silicon Valley. But it’s one of many resources that we have available to us.

We need to look at the natural resources. We have to look at the processes we put in place. We have to look at the cultures we built. Unfortunately, I get a chance to see this happening in different places in the world. I was up in the northern Chile recently. And it was absolutely spectacularly gorgeous. Up in the north of Chile, the beach was endless, it’s 3,000 mile beach. And Andes are there. And I said to the people in this town of Antofagasta, “Gee, what’s really getting in the way of your success?”

And this man said to me, “Well, it’s a really horrible environment.”

I said, “Really? Did you look outside?” Because they didn’t see. They were trying to replicate the resources someone had somewhere else as opposed to seeing resources they already had.

So here, picture of this city. Think of the culture there. Culture is important. Culture is the last piece of the innovation engine. Culture is like the background music of any community, of any organization, of every team and of every family. And I’m going to play two video clips to demonstrate this. Think of the music in these video clips as the culture in each of these scenes. And I’m going to play the same clip twice. This is a clip from 1919 Coca Cola bottling factory. OK? And I want you to think about how you feel, whether you’d want to be there and what you think is in those bottles.

[Video clip: Mery Music]

OK, then we’ll go to the next one.

[Video clip: Gloomy Music]

OK, you get the point, right? So the fact is, this is the outside of your innovation engine. Let’s put it all together. Now you might say, “OK Tina, that’s really interesting. But how come you have this fancy Mobius strip here? You could just have it inside and outside.” But it’s the Mobius strip because inside and outside are completely woven together. And nothing can be looked at in isolation. Let me show you how.

Imagination and habitat are parallel here. Because the habitats we build are the external manifestation of our imagination. If you can imagine it, you can build it. And in addition, the habitats we build directly affect our imagination, the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. This is also true with knowledge and resources. The more we know, the more resources we can unlock. And the more type of resources we have that determine what we know, right? The more we know about fishing, the more fish we are going to catch. The more fish we have in our environment, the more likely we know about fishing. This is also true with attitude and culture.

Culture is a collective attitude of the community, and the culture clearly affects how each of us thinks. The wonderful thing though is this Mobius strip of the innovation engine is so powerful that you can start anywhere. If you are the manager of your organization, you can set up — you can think about the culture and set up the culture. You can build habitats to stimulate imagination. If you are an individual, you can start by building your base of knowledge. You can start with a passion and attitude that you’re going to solve a problem. You can start anywhere to get this innovation going.

Most important thing is that everyone, everyone has the key to their innovation engine. It’s up to them to turn it. Thank you.

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