The timing was perfect: Mere days before leading a workshop on creative thinking at the Florida Creativity Weekend, my memoir Committed was named to a list of “40 Books to Unlock Your Creativity and Get You Started on Your Life’s Best Work.” I arrived in Sarasota, Florida, feeling I belonged. And that was important, because while I’ve studied creativity for much of my career, it had been several years since I had attended a conference dedicated to creativity, let alone taught at one.
What soon became clear to me, however, that I was really in Sarasota to learn from my creative peers, the other presenters and other attendees. For three days I was immersed with people I will lovingly call “creativity geeks.” These people are dedicated to the study of creativity and the dissemination of insights from that study. I quickly fell into the role of student.
I also fell into the role of observer, something I’ve done throughout my life as a journalist and creative writer. And by the end of the conference I had identified some common characteristics of these creativity geeks.
Creativity geeks are…
- ACTIVE LISTENERS: Look, I like to talk. I’ve been guilty of waiting for the other person to stop talking so I can talk again, and forming what I’ll say while the other person is talking. That is not active listening. But it seemed to me that when attendees were in conversation, they focused intently on whatever was being said by another, and then taking a moment to process that input before responding in a way that directly addressed that input.
OPEN TO POSSIBILITY: If one is to encourage divergent thinking—unexpected leaps that are a cornerstone of creativity—then one must be open to the unexpected. But as I observed conversations among attendees with varying backgrounds, I sometimes heard someone say something that clearly didn’t jibe with the other’s experience. We are all human, and I could see on the listener’s face a moment of “Now, wait a minute.” But what would follow that was a face of reflection, and then usually the response reframed in the form of a question, such as “That’s interesting. So are you saying FGH is really like PQR?” It allowed the possibility to discover common ground and have both parties grow from the conversation.
- PRECISE COMMUNICATORS: “Words have power” is a mantra in the creativity community. Words can empower, and they can constrain. For example, in brainstorming sessions, individuals are encouraged to ask “What might I do with XYZ?” instead of “What could I do with XYZ?” A minor difference, perhaps, but “might” goes beyond limits toward possible action. Another example: In my workshop I made the mistake of referring to brainstorming “rules.” “Guidelines!” a creativity veteran said from the audience. I had at the start of my workshop encouraged audience members to add their own wisdom, and she did so. And she was right; the last thing you want to do when brainstorming is impose limits, and rules are, by definition, limits.
- GENEROUS: I don’t mean just in terms of money, although a number of people participated in the silent auction that funds scholarships to allow college students to attend. And I don’t just mean in terms of time, although everyone there had other responsibilities they had put aside to be there. What I really mean here is generosity in terms of sharing personal wisdom. In conversations between sessions and over meals, I frequently saw veteran creativity geeks volunteering insights to others that they clearly are paid to deliver in their day jobs.
- EMPATHETIC: I’m not a mind-reader, so I can’t say for certainty that my fellow conference attendees were practicing empathy, i.e., actively putting themselves in another’s metaphorical shoes and walking their path. But the fact is that while most of the presenters were leading workshops they often conduct for Fortune 500 businesses and enterprising start-ups, many of the attendees were there for far more personal reasons, seeking to self-actualize or resolve a life problem. The degree of sensitivity I saw from the workshop leaders in these situations was admirable. But that fits with the broader philosophy of generating a creative environment; you aim to create a place of complete trust.
I think these characteristics often can be found in practitioners of creativity, i.e., the artists and inventors with whom I interact in my professional and personal life. But one can be a talented painter and also, well, a selfish jerk. That’s their prerogative; their art is their own, as is their manner of interacting with the world.
But I don’t think a jerk would last very long in the creativity community. The lessons they teach–active listening, positive reinforcement, forming trust–are also how they choose to live their lives.
There are many paths to creativity. These creativity geeks have collectively settled on a set of rules—sorry, guidelines—that couple with a common language to facilitate creativity for their clients and readers of their books. That wisdom reflects their personalities. And individuals with those personalities make for delightful company over a three-day weekend in sunny Florida.
Do you have someone in your life who geeks out on creativity? Do you? What characteristics am I leaving out?