Spending a Saturday morning at Selfridges, if you know me is unsurprising.  Well there was one surprising thing about this particular visit, I was hanging out with Neuroscientist and University Professor Vincent Walsh thinking about creativity and my brain. Is that surprising? Maybe not.  Anyway.

Walsh, a passionate taker of naps, lover of Arnold Schwarzenegger and player of trumpets started with some good news – there is no such thing as a creative person.  We can all be creative.  Scientifically speaking there’s also no such thing as the left brain/ right brain view on the world.  In fact he believes that we can all be creative if we bring something together in a new way that is measureable.  If we are to be creative, it’s likely we will be passionately obsessed about the topic and that the act of creativity will take courage, preparation and knowledge.

He asked the audience to give him examples of creativity.  A couple of lame (authors note) examples followed before he shared his favourite, simple example: Muhammed Ali’s invention of the rope-a-dope. The rope-a-dope meant he could take on a whole heap of punches from the biggest puncher in the world at the time George Foreman (of George Foreman Grill fame) and win the bout.  I would agree that this is creative and is an example of how expert knowledge of subject – boxing – can help you work out how to do something in a new way.

According to Walsh, there are four key stages to creativity:

  1. Preparation – this is the grind where you gather the knowledge you need to become an expert on whatever problem you are trying to solve
  2. Incubation – you never solve a problem when you are thinking about it really tricky problems need to simmer.  The answer will probably come to you when you are out for a run
  3. Illumination – that aha moment
  4. Verification – the cold light of day when everyone poo poos your aha moment.  This can go on for a while.

Creativity is very difficult to measure, so it remains a highly subjective judgement as to who or what is or isn’t creative. Walsh is slightly sport mad so most of his examples of the uber creative, bar Arnie and Albert E, were sportspeople.  On this point, I’m not sure I would have said that Andre Agassi or the William’s sisters were particularly creative.  Yes absolutely experts at tennis, but not bastions of creativity. I’d suggest that in these examples he has mixed up the definition of expert with creative.  But I’m happy to be wrong, as per point 8 on the list below.

Walsh’s key tips to becoming creative, Chief Creative Officers of Fortune 500 companies take note:

  1. Have bad hair – all you need to be creative is a base level IQ of 120. There is no evidence to suggest that being smarter makes you any more creative than having mad hair
  2. Be a little crazy – but not too crazy no maiming or killing a la  Muybridge
  3. Sleep a lot – sleep improves brain function. It just does.  I don’t know how those executives I meet who boast of only getting 4 hours a night function. Presumably other people think for them
  4. Know your stuff – be an expert first, then get creative. As we all know Einstein was average at school and he didn’t start making history until he found his passion much later in life
  5. Be prepared – inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy and creativity is not always a eureka moment, sometimes it’s a slow burn. So do your homework and be patient
  6. Dare to be simple –  take your lead from Richard Fyneman, simple is beautiful , complexity means you have something to hide
  7. Be courageous – you are going to be challenged.  This is why it helps to be prepared and know your stuff
  8. Be wrong – experiment, practice and improvise in the right way.  Embrace failure.  If you are not failing you’re not trying hard enough.  Practicing and failing in the right way is the key to creative success.

There are two key things that get in the way of creativity, which I absolutely agree with.  The first is the external setting of goals, which is all the rage for executives and others who think monitoring their own performance is beneath them.  If you are going to be creative, you need to define your own problem space. The second is giving people the wrong kind of reward.  There are thousands of studies, mostly in the behavioural economics space, that show that cash incentives are great if you are a digger and your employer wants you to dig more holes faster.  Cash incentives are not the right reward for creativity, in fact most of the time they worsen creative performance by focussing their eye on how they can get the big cash reward, rather than the best way to solve the problem.

So why should we stop watching TED talks? To Walsh’s mind science isn’t entertainment – its deep thought.  Also rather creepily he pointed out that they all speak at the same cadence (I checked a few out and for the most part this is true) and all we get is some received wisdom rather than a conversation. He also doesn’t like how they dress. Having said this, Walsh looks and dresses like Simon Cowell.  He also auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent.  On these grounds I am invoking the people in glass houses rule.


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