Back in January, Chris O’Brien wrote a column (here’s the blog version, since the full version is now in the archive) discussing the myth that only young people can be creative or innovative. The title in the print edition was “Do you lose your innovative edge after 30?” And that’s certainly the way a lot of people think about it, perhaps particularly people in Silicon Valley.
Myths usually have a grain of truth in them somewhere, and this one is no exception. For example, a random selection of kindergarten students can astound most adults with their idea generating prowess. Young children tend to be more free in the brainstorming process, all else being equal, probably because they haven’t yet been told “that will never work” as many times as we have.
But innovation requires more than just idea generation — it also requires the ability to evaluate ideas, to develop them to the next step, to try things out, and to start the whole cycle again at the next level of detail. One must thus continually jump back and forth between idea generating and evaluating in order to be truly innovative. And several of these steps are actually enhanced by age, education and experience.
As I was thinking about this article, I happened to hear part of the Fresh Air show on NPR. This was an interview of Barbara Strauch, health and medical science editor at the New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. As it turns out, while there are some areas, like remembering names, that grown-up brains do less well, there are other areas where they excel. Studies show that people in middle age, which she is counting as 40 to 68, are actually better than younger people at getting the gist of arguments, recognizing categories, sizing things up, and analyzing, among several other things she lists. These are skills which are very useful in innovation in the stage of evaluation and developing to the next level.
So what’s an engineer to do? Is it inevitable that as one gains in some of these other skills, one is also losing the ability to brainstorm and generate new ideas? Not necessarily! We can improve our creative thinking by practice and attention — like any other type of thinking we do. Here are some ways that will keep your creative juices flowing at any age.
— Keep reading
Many people recommend reading in your field. And that’s a good thing, no doubt about it. But I find reading things that are only tangentially related to what you do, or are related to what you want to start doing, or are maybe not related at all, even more helpful. Books, articles, or blogs on engineering and how it relates to the rest of the world, on areas of engineering other than your own, on business, and specifically on creativity, can all be very useful.
Just a few of the many excellent books on creativity:
Experiences in Visual Thinking
Drawing on the Artist Within
The Care & Feeding of Ideas
A Kick in the Seat of the Pants
A Whack on the Side of the Head
— Use your inventiveness in other pursuits
My second recommendation is to use your inventiveness in other pursuits, in addition to your work. Creative thinking, like any other type of thinking, improves with practice, and the creative process is essentially the same, whether the output is a story, a drawing or painting, a mechanism or structure, a menu, or a sculpture. Two of the things I do are “random ingredients” and paper mache and plaster.
“Random ingredients” is something I do with friends. This is for one of those days where there is nothing to cook in the house, I couldn’t be bothered to go to the store, and I don’t want to spend the money to eat out. I get together with one or two friends that are in the same boat, we combine our “nothing” and invent dinner. The process involves group brainstorming, a good imagination for taste, texture, and appearance, and working within tight constraints.
I’ve made a number of sculptures of faces over the years with several different paper mache and plaster techniques. I also taught a friend two of these techniques and gave on-going suggestions for her project of a “Flintstones” mobile built out of a golf cart. This uses hands-on skills and 3D thinking, both in ways that are somewhat the same and somewhat different than in traditional engineering jobs.
— Do brainstorming and creativity exercises
It seems clear that creativity and idea generation improve with practice. Of course the traditional way to generate new ideas with a group is the brainstorming session. If you do have access to a group, this process not only provides fresh ideas to solve the problem at hand, but also gives excellent practice to the individuals who engage in it. As a reminder, two rules when doing a brainstorming session are to withhold judgement for later, and to build on other people’s ideas.
But sometimes a group is just not available. In this case you can still do idea generation alone. Techniques abound that are designed to help break out of your previous thinking. Many of the books in the list above have exercises and suggestions.
— Take classes (or teach them!)
Another thing you can do is to take classes. Full academic classes at universities or community colleges can be great, but so can one time only talks on various subjects. In the 90s, I took not-for-credit art classes from a teacher I knew in Ann Arbor. In the last couple of years, I took 5 quarters worth of Pro/Engineer and 4 quarters of SolidWorks at my local community college. And I often attend Cafe Scientifique for one hour talks on a variety of scientific topics. The academic classes gave me some in depth knowledge and skills, the art classes improved my drawing and especially my seeing, while Cafe Scientifique exposes me to ideas and topics that I otherwise would not have known much about. All are excellent fodder for the design process. I’m thinking about what my next classes will be — possibly bicycle repair, but I haven’t decided yet.
Teaching others, whether in a classroom setting or simply one-on-one, is an excellent way to solidify your own knowledge, learn something from your student(s), think of a new way to explain something, or find some new connections between this area of knowledge and other things.
— Stay curious!
I find that the most creative people are the most curious. Indulge your curiosity when you wonder about something. Look things up. Ask questions. Try things out. Your creative process will be all the stronger for it. Who knows, you just may have a conceptual breakthrough in your latest project because of it! And in my book, you’ll end up being more interesting as well.
If all this sounds like an awful lot of work, keep in mind what Thomas Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my own perspiration now.