The Problem-Solving Paradox of Creativity

The Problem-Solving Paradox of Creativity

Create July 24, 2012 / By Jeffrey Davis
The Problem-Solving Paradox of Creativity

Thriving as a creative requires neither avoiding nor hyper-focusing on solving problems.

If you avoid problems, you’re not working in a creative mindset. If you seek solutions, you’re not working in a creative mindset.

This problem-solution paradox is another contradiction I’ve discovered in the science of creativity.

This Wednesday I’ll deliver an interactive talk on The Creative Mindset at Work at the Annual Giving Forum Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. People in the non-profit business of training NPO grantmakers to NPO’s around the nation will be attending.

I’m thrilled to talk and work with this group because this is where I thrive: helping people work more optimally with greater pleasure & gratification via a creative mindset.

What a cool job these people have, right? Organizing groups who give money to smart ideals. Ideals to improve how our children are educated. How we live in diverse and thriving communities and healthy housing. How we support art that celebrates our diversity and enriches our daily lives, and more.

And yet working for an NPO or a regional association that coordinates NPO grant makers seems anything but romantic. I’ve spoken and corresponded with some of them to glimpse their daily work lives.

Responding to Board member concerns, organizing and attending meetings, repairing email spam. It seems far from ideal and far from creative.

Sound familiar? Are many of your workdays mostly about contending with one mundane problem after another? Do you ever imagine that if you just had the perfect job, your life would be less problematic?

A Problem-Free Life is a Fantasy Not Worth Feeding

This work situation reminds me of Jonathan Fields’ recent interview with Garden Cafe founder and owner Bart Potenza. Potenza has flourished in the hyper-competitive New York City restaurant field for 25 years with his signature vegan restaurant. And what does Potenza think about most hours of the workday?

About equipment. Whether or not the restaurant equipment will fail at the last minute and compromise customers’ dining experience.

Fantasizing about a problem-free, suffering-free life is a trap for aspiring creatives. If you’re prone to escape problems, avoid the creative life.

Creativity is imagination applied to making situations better - more effective, enriched, beautiful, meaningful, humane. Better.

Creativity is imagination applied to enriching life.

To improve a situation, you have to track what’s problematic and apply your imagination to improving or solving it.

This is what we human beings are biologically and spiritually driven to do.

So, a work life rich with problems is a gold mine for creativity.

Cultivating a creative mindset at work involves three tactics:

  • habits & systems to track and solve problems or to improve situations
  • habits to capture creative insight and convert them into action
  • workplace conditions to support problem-tracking and creative insight

So when a problem unexpectedly arises, being in a creative mindset prompts an open, flexible response instead of a closed, rigid reaction.

Hyper-Focus on Solutions is not the Solution

Does focus benefit creative problem-solving? On the face of it, yes.

What’s the single distinguishing trait among exceptional and deeply gratified chess players, athletes, surgeons, scientists, writers, artists, and CEOs versus their “good enough” peers? The ability to concentrate for an extended period of time on a single issue, activity, or problem. That according to neuroscientist Richard Restak and a slew of follow-up studies. (Persistence and the pursuit of mastery are also at the top of the list among distinguishing qualities of field-busting creatives.)

So, yes, intentional focus is a foundational habit for deeply gratified creative people, regardless of field.

But here’s the contradiction: Over-focusing on a problem won’t always lead to a solution. It might lead to frustration over the short run and burn out over the long run.

Take Frank Offner’s perspective. Offner invented the first electronic controls for jet engines. He - along with numerous other thriving creatives - discovered that over-focusing was counter-productive.

“If you want to solve a problem, don’t sit down and try to solve it,” Offner suggests in psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal study Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

A slew of new studies confirm that we might add two other complementary traits to the optimal creative’s mindset tool belt:

* awareness of awareness - what I call “Mirror Mind

* the ability to take intentional delightful divergences - Mind-wander-ness

Above is @ottsatwork's illustration of some of these ideas as articulated in my piece Creative Thinking Myth.

A thriving creative person’s path of thinking and living is, by its nature, not linear. But it also is not chaotic or formless.

A thriving creative person finds the right, flexible flow of focus & divergence, of problem-tracking & pleasure-tracking, of mind-watching & mind-wandering.

Why? Because just like so many impressive and effective NPOs, so many thriving creatives challenge the status quo and empower the disempowered to make the world a better place.

How do you balance the Problem-Solution Paradox in your own workflow? Scholars: Anything you’d add to the conversation here? Am I off the mark anywhere? Travelers and Pittsburghites: Any hot spots for creatives you think I should check out in downtown Pittsburgh? (I don't have much time there.)

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In Memoriam: To the man who gave me my first notebook at 6, my first typewriter at 10, & my first audio recorder at 11 and who encouraged me early on as a creative problem-solver, my father and lifelong cheerleader Jimmy “JD” Davis, July 22, 1938-July 19, 2012

Article featured image: @ottsatwork

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