Making Working From Home Work

On any given day, you’ll likely find me hunched over my laptop at the dining room table or on my laptop at Maxfield’s House of Caffeine. Summers tend to be quiet times on college campuses, and the hour commute to an empty office makes going in a tough proposition. So I spend most of my days working at home, which often leads folks to ask, “how do you stay productive?

Short answer: it isn’t easy. Staying productive is a lot simpler with an office full of like-minded colleagues buzzing away on similar tasks. At the same time, many of the 6 million Americans who work from home on a given day are writers and artists and coders who don’t have that option; they need to stay on top of their creative game without that external help. Doing so turns out to be completely possible, but it takes a bit of strategy and a lot of discipline. Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful in trying to stay productive (and creative) at home:  Continue reading

Friday Finds: Food!

We’ve talked a lot about creativity, generally with academic theory and the occasional Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. That’s all well and good, but it’s more fun to see creativity in the real world and to share clever tricks we can use in our daily lives. In that spirit, enjoy a bit of DIY inspiration with these fun (and creative) foodie finds.

For some links to follow, we’ve got (1) hard-boiled egg hearts, (2) egg’n peppers, (3) removing corn silk with a toothbrush, (4) cupid’s arrow, (5) perfect chocolate-covered strawberries, (6) quick ‘n easy strawberry hulling, (7) fresh fruit ice cubes, (8) ice cream cone cupcakes, (9) mass-produced breakfast sammies, (10) cookie cups, (11) novice chopsticks, and (12) the easy way to remove an avocado pit. Thank you, interwebs!

Now let’s nerd it up a bit. You may have seen half of these already, or don’t think some of them are that creative. And that’s totally fine. Many people will agree that Jackson Pollack’s work is (or was) novel, but they may have a hard time finding meaning in a canvas that’s been massacred with a paint can. The definition of creativity that we’ve been using is that which is “different than what’s been done before” while also being “valuable, appropriate, or expressive of meaning.” Every term in that phrase requires individual interpretation, which means that in some way creativity must be in the eye of the beholder.

So if we take these ideas back to our kitchen, are we being creative? Probably not, if we simply copy the ideas wholesale (although our friends may disagree). At the same time, no idea is truly novel, and the heart of the creative enterprise is sharing, adapting, and improving existing ideas. That is what makes forums like Pinterest and Lifehacker so valuable; they allow people to exchange ideas and inspire one another like never before. I recently came across a post where someone had shared the egg-n-pepper idea above, and by the next day another commenter had riffed on it by adding onions and bacon to the meal. That artery-clogging adaptation is what creativity’s all about.

And it’s delicious. Happy Friday!

We Think You Need This

Nobody likes commercial breaks, but advertising is what keeps so many of our beloved products like WordPress, Gmail, and ABC’s The Bachelorette online and available. And it’s not just a necessary evil, it’s a really interesting and really valuable opportunity for creative thinking. Advertisers have a fascinating problem: how do you convince someone that they should purchase a product, given that they’re likely bombarded by around 5,000 ads per day and that even if they do notice you they’ll probably resent your interruption?

Google goes for data. With their giant suite of products they’re able to capture ever more data about you, and if you read up on their business plan it’s to (eventually) present ads that are so targeted and so relevant that you’re glad to see them. In conventional media, ads can be bright and flashy (Sunday Sunday Sunday!), loud and annoying (Head On! Apply directly to forehead!), or downright subtle.That’s the idea behind product placement, which is designed to sneak past your anti-advertising filters and make you think, “yeah, Doritos really would be good right now.” Companies can appeal to childhood memories (Coke), sports heroes (Nike), heartstrings (SPCA), or national pride (Bud). But the ones that I find most exciting are those that engage our minds and our curiosity.

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Grab a Drink: It’s Time to Get Creative

What did Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, and Jackson Pollock all have in common? First, they’re considered to be among the most prolific and creative minds in history. Second, they all had more than a bit of a fondness for the drink. And that’s probably not a surprise to many people: “altered cognitive processing”, brought on by insanity, sleep state, or substance use, has long been linked to creativity in artists and problem solvers. But will grabbing a beer really help you or me tackle tasks more creatively?

That’s exactly what three researchers at the University of Illinois recently set out to test. Their paper, titled “Uncorking the Muse” and published earlier this year in the Journal of Consciousness and Cognition, has got to be one of the funnest studies ever printed. Here’s the punchline: intoxicated individuals solved a test of creative problem solving more completely, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. They were also more likely to have confidence in the creativity of their solutions.

To test the effect of alcohol on creativity, the authors recruited a target sample of forty male social drinkers aged 21-30 through Craigslist and the University community. The subjects were “administered” a succession of Smirnoff vodka cranberries and shown the movie Ratatouille. Once they reached peak intoxication, the participants completed a battery of creative problem solving tasks known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), while also undergoing occasional breathalyzer tests. The control subjects did the same routine, minus the Smirnoff.

Not only did the intoxicated subjects complete a greater portion of the RAT items, but they did so faster and more creatively. The underlying intuition is that alcohol reduces ones ability to mentally focus and control attention. Laser focus may help a lot on structured analytical tasks, but actually inhibits creativity by discouraging associational, divergent, and nonlinear thinking. By limiting the ability to keep one’s thinking straight, alcohol can therefore encourage creativity. In this sense, it acts just like grogginess or sleep deprivation, as I discussed in an earlier post.

Now, this doesn’t mean that getting smashed is going to make you more creative, but it does suggest that having a beer before your next project might not be a terrible idea. And hey, it’s Friday.

Check out the paper here. Thanks to Brooking for the heads up!

Friends With(out) Benefits

You’ve stumbled on an amazing opportunity, or maybe you’ve been working tirelessly to bring it to life. But now you need help. Who are you going to choose to help build your idea into a viable business? It’s a simple question without an easy answer: there are issues of expertise and availability, trust and goals, working styles. There’s also a wealth of research suggesting that choosing the right partners makes a world of difference for both firms and individuals.

And that’s what makes a recent study of the venture capital industry by three Harvard researchers so interesting. Paul Gompers, Yuhai Xuan, and Vladimir Mukharlyamov assembled a dataset of 3,500 early stage investors and the 12,000 deals they collaborated on. The goal was to determine what factors made investors likely to work with one another, and how that affected their financial performance.

Their first big finding is that investors prefer partners with whom they have something in common: having worked together in the past made them 60% more likely to co-invest, and having the same alma mater or belonging to the same ethnic group each gave a 20% boost. These findings are in line with a general theory in social networks known as homophily, which refers to the fact that we generally like spending time with people who are like us. Homophily governs a lot about everything from how people find friends to how firms make alliance decisions, and it makes sense: having similar backgrounds and cultures allows for more effective communication, increases the likelihood of having common goals, and cultivates trust between partners.

But it’s also dangerous. After all, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, diversity is a big component of creativity and innovation. Homophily, by virtue of pairing similar partners together, limits access to diverse information and skills. And that’s exactly what our Harvard team finds: the odds of a startup having a successful IPO are 22% lower if the investing pair are from the same university, and 18% lower if they share a past employer. Ethnicity has no impact on performance by itself, but when a pair of investors are from the same ethnic minority their startup is 25% less likely to succeed.

What this means is choosing partners is no simple task. On one hand, we need to find collaborators that we understand and trust. On the other, we need to find partners with complementary skills and diverse perspectives. Performing well, be it on a collaborative music project or a VC investment, means balancing these two factors. And that may take some creativity.

Check out the full paper here, or the brief Economist writeup that led me to it here.

Why My Daughter Will Study Computer Science

Let’s say you’ve got a great idea. How do you make something of it?

Chances are, that idea is a few words on a page, or a vague concept with a lot of promise. It needs refining, and clarifying, and improvement. It probably needs some feedback, and it definitely needs money. In short, it needs a lot of work.

The best way to get all of that done is through prototyping. This isn’t a new idea (look for 20.5M+ Google hits), but it’s surprisingly hard to do. Our ideas are precious, and we want to shelter them and improve them until they’re ready to face the harsh light of reality and the cold critiques of our peers. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is exactly the wrong way to go about doing it. Innovators might do well abide to by the slogan “prototype early and often.”

The intuition is that physical prototypes simultaneously reveal the weaknesses and gaps in our thinking while also effectively communicating the idea to others for feedback and extension. Building on that, it’s no surprise that the most effective prototyping is quick and dirty; the drawers at Stanford’s design school are brimming with post-it notes, pipe cleaners, and modeling clay. The emphasis is to convey the idea simply and inexpensively, but not for the reason you might expect. Continue reading

The Most Creative Music Video of All Time

I recently stumbled across this music video by David Fain called “Choreography for Plastic Army Men”. It’s for an instrumental piece by the Portland band Pink Martini, and – you guessed it – it’s got some creativity. Which led to an interesting question: what is the most creative music video of all time?

I had a hunch that the internet might have an opinion on this, but it pays to be scientific. First off, let’s define what we mean by creative. One useful definition comes from Amabile (1996), who defines creativity as “the production of novel or useful ideas” that are “valuable or expressive of meaning.” That’s great, because it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily looking for the best song or even the best video.

Next, I did some science of my own. I fired up a Google search for “The Most Creative Music Video of All Time” and looked at the top twenty hits for the sites that were discussing the most creative music videos. Then I started collecting the nominations. There’s a lot of taste to this sort of thing, so my list below includes only the videos that were named on two or more sites. Drummmmmrolllll please!  Continue reading