• What I've Been Reading

    Book Reviews

    The Book of Beautiful Ideas

    by Warren Berger, 2018

    The author Warren Berger identifies as a ‘questionologist’ and to his surprise no one questioned it. As creatives when confronted with a challenging question or situation, he encourages us to stay curious and to simply take the time to ask questions that help guide us to make better decisions.


    So a book that help us make better choices through the questions we ask makes sense. His focus is in a number of key interrelated areas: decision-making, creativity, leadership, and relationships through connecting with others.


    I’m particularly interested in the way he approached the topic of creativity and was impressed in how I could bring these questions into my own problem solving and creative exploration. He believes as children we’re gradually socialised to stop questioning when we’re rewarded for the right answer instead of staying in a questioning exploratory space and developing our questioning habits.


    In the chapter on creativity he moves through a sequence of questioning phases starting with our individual approach to choose to be creative. If creativity is a decision, or a mindset, rather than just a skillset, then we all have the ability to look at a problem, situation, and theme and discover our own ideas and interpretations.


    If you agree with this, then the remainder of this chapter provides a valuable approach to the questions that will assist to move from the curious phase all the way through to a focused completion phase, via a series of well formed ‘why, what, how’ problem solving questions.

    The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time by Allen Gannett, 2018

    Allen Garnett’s background in marketing and with big data lead him to think about the patterns that creative’s display. He begins by re-examining many of the common case studies we’re familiar with … JK Rowling, Paul McCartney and Mozart who’s success was attributed to a gift from a higher order or a flash of insight. He debunks this myth of creativity and the common misconception that successful creatives don’t need to work that hard for their success.


    Anyone who has read my blog would be familiar with this so called 'theory of creativity', and Gannett goes on to outline that anyone can be creative, you don't need to be a genius, you just need to follow a set of rules. In this case these laws are the basis of the Creative Curve.


    The creative curve is a bell-shaped curve that examines the relationship between preference and familiarity. He uses the example of a song, where the more we hear it, the more popular it becomes until it reaches a peak, followed by a saturation that leads to a drop in popularity.


    Gannett’s twist on this theme is to focus on both the novelty and value that creative ideas must provide to achieve creative commercial success.


    The mechanics of the Creative Curve considers four laws:

    1. The law of consumption where we must become a subject expert, pouring ourselves into the subject, over consuming to digest as much as we can. The rule is to spend least 20 percent of your time consuming content in surrounding and related fields. If you’re a blogger, read. If you’re a singer, listen to music.


    2. The law of imitation has a focus on analysis of what others are doing in the field, thinking about what’s missing and learning from successful predecessors.


    3.The law of creative communities is to find a series of collaborators: a Master Teacher to teach you the craft of your industry and hone your skills with deliberate practice; a Conflicting Collaborator comes from surrounding yourself with people who can compensate for your areas of weakness; a Modern Muse/s are people who inspire and motivate, provide fresh ideas and push for your best work. Finally a Prominent Promoter has recognised credibility who’ll enable your success in the market through connections and opportunities to be in the right place at the right time.


    4. The law of iterations enables you to progressively elaborate an idea going through a funnel: conceptualization, reduction, curation, and feedback.


    I feel like much of this has been said before but the fresh take is the simplicity of the process and the emphasis on following the template laws to reverse engineer creative success so that anyone can potentially be creatively successful.

    Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World by Tony Wagner, 2012

    While this book is 6 years old, it is very relevant to the direction we take as a society from before primary school to beyond university. The goal of the book is to understand what makes young innovators tick and to figure out how best to design educational and workplace environments that support innovation.


    Through a series of interviews, the authors takes a holistic assessment of young people who are making their way through university and who have already commenced to show promise as innovators. He is also particularly interested in parenting styles, the teachers and education system that resonated with them and other key opportunities that made a difference in their lives.


    Basically the author dissects through intensive qualitative case studies, how these young people were raised, challenged, supported, and developed to identify what themes emerge and what needs to be in place in all the intuitions our communities utilise to create innovative environments for them to thrive.


    His conclusions focus on many of the themes already touched on by many other writers, but the value of this book is the extreme care he has taken to interview, listen to and seek out a variety of different demographic profiles all providing similar themes for creative success.


    There is strong critique on education systems and particularly on the role teacher’s play and how they can be supported to create rich learning environments. He shines a light on the US university system and the lack of emphasis on approaches to teach students to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate.


    Following the case studies of young innovators he discusses what works and doesn’t in fostering innovation in schools by presenting the themes of

    • individual achievement versus collaboration;
    • specialization versus multidisciplinary learning;
    • risk avoidance versus trial and error;
    • consuming versus creating; and
    • extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.

    The author also spends time discussing parenting for innovation at home and developing innovation-friendly workplaces. Key themes of parenting influences emphasis the value play, passion, perseverance and the importance of failure or iteration. I also particularly enjoyed the additional links to videos that directly connect us to the individuals interviewed.

    The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman, 2017

    I knew I’d enjoy ‘The Runaway Species’ when I saw who the authors were, a composer named Anthony Brandt and a neuroscientist , David Eagleman, a true intersection of the brains behind art and science.


    Over three sections they focus on why humans innovate, how we’re creative and then build a case for more creativity in our schools and workplaces.


    The authors show how we spend our lives creating and seeking novelty, by building on the best of existing ideas and making then better. To innovate is human starts with how our brains strive to conserve energy by predicting what comes next, but as we get bored easily, we seek surprise. Creativity lies in that tension.


    Using examples from technology, manufacturing and the modern art, creators remodel what they inherit. How, by relying on three basic brain strategies by which all ideas evolve: bending, breaking and blending. Bending is “a makeover of an existing prototype through alterations.” Breaking is fragmentation. Blending “combines two or more sources in novel ways”.


    Most of all I loved the way each chapter consistently threaded the links between creativity in the arts, sciences, and technology and celebrated how we create the future by understanding and embracing our ability to innovate.


    The narrative is filled with tips on how to produce successful ideas – key themes we are reminded of – practice- experiment – have lots of ideas and most of all be prepared to let ideas go.

    Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, 2016

    I was instantly attracted to this title. More and more we read about the value of a less structured or improvised approach to our work and lives. But with the negative connotations, messy is often associated with untidy, vague and imperfect. This book builds a strong case for the values found in the way we can improvise when placed in near impossible situations that appear ‘messy’.

    It encourages us to consider the creative approaches to problem solving that can occur when we’re faced with unpredictable and chaotic situations.

    From the perspective of enhanced creativity it builds a strong case for a combination of continuous and gradual learning, as well as random shocks, as means to effectively create. “The enemy of creative work is boredom, and the friend is alertness”.

    This is then broadened to argue against the modern day order and algorithms that govern work and play today.

    The author further argues that government and business propensity for targets can create inadvertent negative consequences as we aim to reach the dot points but neglect the outcomes. It’s that rigid rules become disempowering and results in a messy failure.

    Intellectual messiness can build collaborations and the cross fertilization of ideas. “We have to believe the ultimate goal of the collaboration is something worth achieving”.

    Creativity Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration by Ed Catmul, 2014

    This book is for those of you interested in how to create a culture of practical creativity. Really at the end of the day, culture needs work, buy-in from staff, mechanisms and systems to keep it on track and constant watering... that is what I loved about this book...the reality of what it takes to be the best and how creativity is embedded into the process.

    It's also a perfect example of the story telling that Pixar are known for starting with the early struggles setting up the organisation and the learning experiences that shaped Catmull’s philosophy, approach and insights, e.g. the importance of a conducive innovation environment, hiring the right people who’re smarter than you, etc.

    He then moves onto the foundations and barriers to creativity with key insights into - Getting uncomfortable through honesty, failure and change; Seeing our blind spots and the use of mental models; Protecting the new with a great chapter called "The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby" and the Importance of discovery and uncertainty.

    But the sections that were most useful for me were about building and sustaining a creative culture with great advice on how to broaden a viewpoint through research and fields trips, experiments and a true positive approach to post project evaluation. He also introduces this idea of a BrainsTrust (I've already stolen this one!) where to help managers get feedback once they are immersed in projects and can't see what's really going on. The BT is a work in progress meeting with honest feedback that is not directed at the person but the project (and this takes everyone to be on the same page and not be attached to the ideas.) There is also the annual Notes Day where they used a typical 'lets get feedback approach' but on steroids with all staff involved in the lead up, the day itself and then the implementation of ideas.

    While this book is not about Steve Jobs, its does give some great glimpses of him and a lovely moving afterword on this amazing and challenging character. He is also very deliberate in the way he shares about the another great people who set up this company and the way they came into it or were employed...the question of how to recruit the right people was also discussed.

    The honest reflection of the failures of films, staff and processes is probably the most interesting part.

    Unthink: Rediscover your creative genius by Erik Wahl, 2013

    Erik Wahl explores the power of creativity to achieve superior performance. He builds a case that creativity is in all of us and re-discovering it is the key to unlocking our fullest potential.
    One of the interesting themes picked up is how we deal with the unknown... and uncertainity.


    How do you navigate your way toward making a living when:
    a) Things are changing radically;
    b) You aren’t sure where you should be going and
    c) You don’t even have a map.

    He builds the case that life is based on predictive reasoning--a pattern of thinking that is based on the assumption that the future is going to behave in a way that is similar to the present and the immediate past; thus involving inferring, extrapolating and using analytic methods.

    But, our natural way of learning—the approach we had as children—to try, to fail, to learn, to take the next step, has remained within us all.

    And it remains the best way to deal with the increasing level of uncertainty that we all face.

    Eureka Factor: AHA Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain by John Kounios and Mark Beeman, 2015

    Many writers have assessed the reality of the moment when we think we’re discovered something new… the ‘eureka’ factor. Some have concluded that this creative aha moment is a myth and that these moments come at the end of a lot of effort, research and hard slog.

    What these neuroscientists have added to this discussion is what happens in the brain when we analytically problem solve verses what happens when we have a creative insight. They have revealed that different areas of the brain light up based on scanners such as the fMRI that give us the ability to observe the brain as it works.

    Kounios and Beeman describe, “Our goal is to explain what insights are, how they arise, and what the scientific research says about how to have more of them.” Daydreaming, musing, fantasizing and sleeping all prime the pump. They discuss how various conditions affect the likelihood of your having an insight, when insight is helpful and when deliberate methodical thought is better suited to a task, what the relationship is between insight and intuition, and how the brain’s right hemisphere contributes to creative thought.

    Let the Elephants Run: Unlock your creativity and change everything

    by David Usher, 2015

    I really love when artists and performers cross over and write for the reader who currently see themselves as a ‘non –creative’. David Usher is both a musician and telecommunications expert who has produced a book full of quotes, images and personal anecdotes. He provides great advice and weaves his own story and learning’s throughout the book with some important themes… the key being that creativity is not a mysterious gift given through genetic luck. It’s a learned skill that we can all master with dedication and work.


    Little Bets: How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries

    by Peter Sims, 2012

    This reference provides a step-wise process that encourages people who have big ideas to start small. It’s based on the proposition that little bets are made up of concrete actions that enable us to progress by exploring and discovery.

    The chapter headings tell it all.. from growth mindset, to failing fast to learn, incorporating play into idea development, learning to ask the ‘right’ questions, to acknowledging small wins… This could be the manifesto for anyone wanting to go from where there are now to an entrepreneur.

    A key message – while you have big dreams, start small and keep on learning to develop your project. Long live the ‘BETA’ experimental testing approach to project development.

     “Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable.”

    He also refers to two types of innovators- the conceptual and the experimental innovators. He sites Mozart as a conceptual innovator as he pursued bold new ideas. We would class him as a rare prodigy. So for the rest of us we can use experimental and the iterative, trial-and-error approach to gradually build up our ideas.

    “Experimental innovators must be persistent and willing to accept failure and setbacks as they work toward their goals.”

    With lots of case studies to help explain the concepts, while these maybe mainstream now, it’s a great read and reminder of the power of focusing on what you can afford to lose rather than what you expect to gain.


    Five Minds For the Future

    by Howard Gardner, 2006

    The Premise: We require these five minds to be equip to deal with what is expected and what can not be anticipated.

    These five distinct mental abilities are important to be effective and successful in the globalized complex world of the digital information age. The first three minds are cognitive, the last two relational:

    1. The Disciplined Mind masters key subjects.
    2. The Synthesizing Mind organizes information to make sense to self and others new connections.
    3. The Creating Mind breaks new ground and discovers new concepts.
    4. The Respectful Mind understands and appreciates the differences of others.
    5. The Ethical Mind seeks to identify and fulfill one’s obligations to others and society.

    Gardner believes that the modern workplace looks to select individuals who possess the 'right' knowledge, skills and experience. The conditions of the world are changing calling for new approaches, educational aspirations and processes...and creativity is essential to enable us to conjure up fresh ways of thinking and problem solving ad arrive at unexpected answers.

    The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life

    by Twyla Tharp, 2008

    Twyla Tharp, is a great creative with her medium through dance choreographer, says creativity is no mystery; it's the product of hard work and preparation, of knowing one's aims and one's subject, of learning from approaches taken in the past. It's a process undertaken every day. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.

    This is a practical guide as much as a pep talk for creativity.

    The Myths of Creativity: The truth about how innovative companies and people generate great ideas by David Burkus, 2014

    Another, more recent addition, that helps us understand that by thinking only some people are creative can limit us all and how we have framed this by creating myths to support these assumptions.

    He debunks the common myths that we have come to recognise (eg the born creative, the flash and eureka moment of creativity, or even that all ideas are original...) Again by demystifying this idea we can build more imaginative and productive organisations.

    He also introduces readers to Dr Amabile's 4 Quadrant Model that I've based much of my research on.

    The book is practical in its approach and makes a strong link between creative and innovative organisations.


    It's not enough for people to learn how to be more creative; they also need to be persistent through the rejection they might face. All of the ideas mentioned in this chapter were eventually adopted. When they were, it wasn't just because of their creativity, at least not at first. It was the persistence of their creators that moved them from idea to innovation. Likewise, it's not enough for leaders to make their teams more innovative. Leaders need to get better at counteracting their own bias and recognizing potential innovations sooner. We don't just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.”

    Cracking Creativity: The secrets of creative genius by Michael Michalko, 2001

    The practical reference shows how creative people think based on research and analysis of hundreds of history's greatest thinkers from Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Martha Graham to Pablo Picasso. It explores different creative-thinking approaches and how these worked for the people studied as well as practical ways to apply the ideas.


    This quote sums up the evolutionary advantage to our species need for creativity.

    "We need to vary our ideas in order to succeed. In nature a gene pool that is totally lacking in variations would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances. In time, the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness, with consequences that would be fatal to the species' survival. A compariable process operates within us as individuals. We all have a rich repertoire of ideas and concepts based on past experiences that enable us to survive and prosper. But without any provision for variation of ideas, our visual ideas become stagnate and lose their advantages and in the end, we're defeated in our competition with out rivals." (page 4)

    The Creativity Challenge by Tanner Christensen, 2015

    Over the years I've learned the best two ways to become more creative. The first is to make/do and create, obvious I know, but so many of us stay in our heads due to fear or excuses and just don't proceed with our ideas.


    The next learning, reinforced so beautifully by this author is to change the way you think. This could mean doing something different, going for a walk, becoming curious and researching, using your imagination and acting out a daydream and over 100 more ideas, exercises and challenges presented. Whether you're stuck or not... these are great ideas to explore.

    All Posts