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[Interview] “We can all be creative all of our lives!”

Madanmohan Rao
18th Apr 2013
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Interview with Jurgen Wolff, author of “Creativity Now”

Jurgen Wolff is a writer and coach in creativity and writing, who divides his time between London and southern California. His most recent book is Creativity Now: Get Inspired, Create Ideas and Make Them Happen! (see my book review here). His other books include Marketing for Entrepreneurs, Focus, Your Writing Coach, and Do Something Different. Jurgen joins us in this exclusive interview on sustaining creativity, impacts of the Internet on global collaboration, embedding creativity in everyday life, and the creative drive for entrepreneurs.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got when your book was released?

Jurgen: It has been well received and one response I've had quite a lot is that readers felt that the full-colour, very visual aspect of the book helped them to get into a creative frame of mind. When books look too much like textbooks it can trigger associations with schools where, unfortunately, creativity is not rewarded.

It has also been gratifying to hear from readers who have applied the methods in the book to a great variety of situations -- from solving business problems to writing screenplays to figuring out how to solve personal issues.

YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature US/European companies. What are your findings with regard to creativity in Asian companies?

Jurgen: I get the impression that especially in India, businesspeople are not so afraid of the word "creativity" -- in the US and Europe there is still a wide-spread feeling that creativity is for artists and writers and not for business. If you use the word "innovation" instead, they feel more comfortable. However, I think all over the world while people pay lip service to creativity and innovation, implementing the ideas is another thing. Usually this means a change to the way things are done and that's often threatening to the people doing them the current way.

Also, it's acknowledged that failure is inherent when you are trying new things, it's a normal part of learning, but while businesspeople endorse that as a theory they don't actually like it or reward it in practice. Most employees get the message: don't rock the boat and don't fail.

If that is to change, the company's leaders have to show through their actions as well as their words that they accept that innovation carries risks and that mistakes that come from trying new things will not be punished.

YS: What are the typical challenges creative people face as they scale up their company from a small unit to a large firm? How can these challenges be addressed?

Jurgen: There are several that are typical. As the company grows, the founders have to be able to delegate and avoid the temptation to micro-manage. The strong-mindedness that served them well in the early stages can become a disadvantage if they don't recruit talented people and let them do their work their way.

They also have to avoid the temptation to hire only people who are like them. Quite a lot of research supports the idea that having a diverse workforce is beneficial -- if you listen to them and reward them for contributing their ideas. This reward doesn't have to be monetary; in fact, research suggests that recognition is a better motivator than money.

They also have to avoid settling into the "this is how we do things here" trap. Ironically, businesspeople whose initial success comes from challenging a complacent or stagnant established company sometimes don't take long to become the same.

Finally, visionary businesspeople often are impatient, they want to have their company grow or expand into new products and services as quickly as possible. Sometimes, however, this results in problems like moving too far ahead of the cash flow or overestimating how quickly the marketplace will embrace a particular product or service. The ideal is to have someone who will apply the brakes when necessary.

Probably the most famous example of that kind of partnership was Walt Disney, the visionary, and his brother Roy, the down to earth financials man. Walt admitted that if Roy hadn't brought him down to reality at times, he would have gone broke and never achieved his dreams.

YS: How should creative people strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

Jurgen: The key point is to be flexible in terms of the means you use to get to your goal. Usually the goal can stay the same, but the path you've chosen to get there may need to be adjusted. A useful mindset is to think about every new development, "What opportunities does this present for us?" Approaching changes with that mindset will yield more useful ideas than seeing change as threatening.

YS: What would you say are the Top Three impacts of the Internet on creativity at a global level? And what challenges does this create for intellectual property protection?

Jurgen: It has made it much easier to find out what others have done and to build on that. It has reduced the need to reinvent the wheel, although there still a tendency for people to think "Yes, but our situation is different," even when it's not, so instead of adding to what's been done, they duplicate it. It has made it much easier to collaborate, and to do so with people who have a different perspective and background, which can be very fruitful for creative endeavours.

There are really two key aspects to intellectual property protection. One is piracy, which is difficult to control when it can be initiated from anywhere; the other is the growing general attitude that creators should charge nothing or at least not very much. We have seen the impact on the music business and we're in the process of seeing the impact on the publishing business. I think new models will emerge for protection and for rewards but we don't yet know what they will be. We're in that difficult middle period, like the trapeze artist who has left one swing and is in mid-air, assuming the other swing will arrive.

YS: Which countries do you think have the most creative curriculum and systems in schools and colleges?

Jurgen: I haven't looked into that enough to feel I can give you a reliable answer. I do think that in many countries the most creative people are not necessarily following the traditional educational path. With more and more of the best courses available online free, the higher education model is going to change, too. I'm not sure that the people running the institutions of higher education fully understand that yet but they should be thinking about it.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for a creative person to be at their peak? How should people keep themselves open for creativity at later stages in life?

Jurgen: The research suggests that the scientific geniuses peak early while the artistic and musical geniuses peak late. However, we can all be creative all of our lives and we don't have to be geniuses.

It's important to keep feeding our brains by exposing ourselves to new things all the time. Listen to music you don't usually listen to, travel but don't always stay at the chain hotels, try different foods, get to know new people, mingle with people from different age groups. One good way to do this is to sign up for some workshops in topics you've not explored before. Chat to the people there, perhaps make some new friends.

It's also important to be physically fit. We know that exercise helps ward off depression and improves blood flow to the brain. Carrying too much weight causes all kind of health problems and when you're sick it's hard to be creative.

YS: Who are some of the creative people you admire the most?

Jurgen: I do admire all the usual suspects -- Steve Jobs, etc. but I think even more inspiring are the people we run into in our daily lives who are using their creativity to make some kind of difference.

I'll give you an example. Some years ago I did a research project in East St. Louis, which is a tough, deprived area. I met a schoolteacher there who was upset that in many cases the kids' fathers never showed up for the parent-teacher conferences. Some of them had children by several different mothers. Sending them letters or trying to get them on the phone didn't work.

At that point most people would have given up. But this woman knew that a lot of these men had a strong mother or grandmother in their lives -- often their own fathers were out of the picture. So she actually tracked them down and and gave these men a good scolding, like their grandmothers might have done. She told me these big, tough guys, quite a few of whom were gang members, turned meek as lambs and did as they were told.

Now that may not fit the usual model of creativity, but I think it's great. That lady and people like her are my heroes because they don't accept that the things that are wrong can't be changed, and they don't think changing them is beyond their power. They'll never be famous and probably they'll never be rich, but if we could all be like them, this world would be a much better place. If you look, you'll find people like that in very country in the world.

YS: What is your field of research these days?

Jurgen: I'm always looking at new ways that psychological research on topics like dreaming, visualisation, and communication might have practical applications in terms of creativity and innovation.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

Jurgen: I want to do one more book about creativity, but while Creativity Now is more about specific tools you can use to generate ideas and turn them into reality, this one will be about helping people to have the courage to believe in and act on their ideas. The fear of failure, of being judged or laughed at by others stops so many people from making their contribution to the world -- doing what would make them happy and would benefit many others. I'd like to write a book that people can pick up when nobody else believes in them or their idea, and to get enough of a boost from it that they move toward their dream.

YS: What is your parting message to the creative and entrepreneurial readers in our audience?

Jurgen: You have a unique contribution to make. Some people know very early what that is, but others don't and they sit around waiting for a flash of insight. Don't wait. Get out there and start doing something. The feedback you get from others as well as from yourself will guide you in the right direction. Given all the challenges of this world, we need your contribution as soon as possible!

[ Follow YourStory.in’s research director Madanmohan Rao]

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