The flexible, creative working spaces inside the Stanford d.school.

Tina Seelig: On Unleashing Your Creative Potential

Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” As we enter adulthood, we tend to self-select in, or out, of creativity. (We’ve all heard someone say, “I’m just not a creative person.”) Stanford professor Tina Seelig argues that such hard-and-fast distinctions are both inaccurate and untrue.
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r. Seelig’s latest book, inGenius: Unleashing Creative Potential, offers insights and tips from a career spent teaching both creativity and entrepreneurship. I sat down with Seelig to discuss her own rather unusual career path, the overlooked importance of physical space for big ideas, and tips on how to live a more creative life.

How do you approach the idea of creativity?

When we go to school we’re taught different “languages.” Like the language of math or music or the language of art. When you want to express your creativity, you have to figure out what language is best for what you’re trying to express. One of the things most helpful for people is having as many languages available to them as possible and then pick the ones that are the most appropriate at that time.

I find for me that creative outlets come in all different flavors. So there are times in which I really want to write. Times in which I really have to paint or just get outside. It is important to have a palette from which to choose.

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Tina Seelig with students at Stanford’s d.school

What is your response when people claim creativity can’t be taught?

Can you teach math? Languages? For some people these subjects come easily, and for others they require more effort to master. But we still teach these topics to everyone because we think they should have these skills. Yes, some people are naturally very creative. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach it to everyone.

It’s a real cop-out to say, “Well, I’m just not creative.” For me, I tend to think of myself as not being very musical. But I know if I put my mind to it I could develop some musical skills.

When you want to express your creativity, you have to figure out what language is best for what you’re trying to express.

Any creative hacks that work for you?

One trick that has helped me: before I go to sleep at night I give myself the challenge of thinking about a certain topic I want to work on for that next day. Then I get up and write for three hours on that topic.I rarely go to sleep without giving myself something to noodle on. Somehow there is some sort of subconscious processing going on and I usually wake up with a bunch of really good ideas.

You have a very interesting professional path – PhD in neuroscience, entrepreneur, teacher. Did you have a solid plan for your career?

You know, I’ve noticed that the most interesting people I’ve met have taken very unusual career paths. I could tell you the story of my career and make it look like it was completely planned and there were never any side trips. Or I could tell the whole story of serendipity and surprises which was the inspiration for the book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.

If you had told me when I was a 20-something and getting my PhD in neuroscience that I was going to be doing what I’m doing now, teaching entrepreneurship and innovation at Stanford, I would have been totally surprised and completely delighted. I would never have imagined it.

Dr. Seelig’s TEDxStanford talk: A Crash Course in Creativity

To do this, did you have to ignore your mentors’ advice?

There were many, many places along the way where the advice I was getting was counterintuitive to what I wanted to do. I hear this from my students as well, and I tell them that it’s really a gift when people disagree with you and don’t support your choice. You know why? Because it tests your conviction about how important it is to you.

If everyone always supports you and says, “Oh, great idea, go to work for McKinsey or go to Stanford,” you don’t actually know if you want to do it. Especially if you’re like me and want to please other people and not rock the boat. It’s really easy to go with the flow.

I see the biggest problem with young graduates is they’ve always done what everyone else wants them to do and then one day they wake up and ask “Wait, how’d I get here?” So having that resistance is good because it tests the strengths of your convictions.

What’s a key ingredient for doing innovative work?
You need the right surrounding environment. You can be an incredibly creative person but if you’re not in an environment that fosters that, your creativity is going to be stifled.

If there are rules in place where you get punished if things don’t work out that’s really unfortunate because you’re obviously not going to try anything new.

To get over this, I think leaders should fail publicly and acknowledge it in a thoughtful way, “You know, we tried this. It didn’t work. Here’s what we learned from it.” That’s the point – you need to mine the failures for insights.

It’s really a gift when people disagree with you and don’t support your choice. You know why? Because it tests your conviction.

How do you build a culture to support that approach?

Well, you can’t just say “we’re going to have a creative culture” and expect it to happen. You have to model it and put rules and rewards in place to support it. So, if you want people to do big things and take big risks, then you need to celebrate all the parts of that process.

This is really, really important: You have to celebrate those people who don’t just think of big ideas but also celebrate when the big ideas fail to work out.  You need to look at failure like a scientist does when they conduct an experiment – you’re just collecting data.

The physical space we work in plays a big role in this?

Cubicles were designed to mimic prisons and when people walk into spaces like that it really sucks the life out of them. When people come over to the d.school at Stanford they walk in and say “I want to take classes here” even though they haven’t met a professor or a student or seen the curriculum. They just want to be in that space.

Space tells a story and space is a stage on which you play out your life. So, it’s very important to create the right stage. If you want certain things to happen there then you need to figure out what the set is going to look like.

What advice would you give to people that want to live a more creative life?

We are creating our lives every day and yet we don’t think of it as being “creative” in the traditional sense. However, if you don’t look at your life as a creative act then you’re not going to view yourself as someone who needs to invent it in a really thoughtful and interesting way.

I think it is extremely important that people believe they have the power to creatively reinvent the world and their lives.

What’s Your Take?

Do you think creativity can be taught? What tips do you have for unleashing creative potential?

Jake Cook

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Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
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