The Science behind Creativity

Creativity – a science? Sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? For the longest time, I’d associated the word creativity with “right brained” activities such as singing, dancing, painting, decorating interiors and things you “do as a hobby”. I found that this was a rather common misconception about the concept. I’ve often heard people who crunch numbers on Wall street or those who effect corporate mergers and acquisitions and in general those who work in environments that engage the “left-brain”, say “Oh, but I’m not creative at all” alluding to their non-engagement with the right-brained world. Being someone that straddles both kinds of environments to some extent, I have spent some time thinking about this and have come to realize a few things about creativity — (a) creativity lies not in what you do but in how you do it, in other words, creativity is a way of doing and a way of being(b) creativity lies in what the do-ing means to the do-er and (c) when practiced with intention and awareness, even creativity or creating can be perfected into a science and hence, anyone can be creative!

Even though the framework for creativity can be broken down to an objective science, there is a subjective element to it, in that it is closely tied to one’s life purpose, one’s why. Executing on life purpose has a plethora of benefits such as good health, this feeling that life is one big vacation, the constant presence of awe and magic in your life (I will elaborate on this in another post). Everyone has his or her own unique strengths and gifts and invariably their life purpose is closely tied with those strengths and gifts.  Some people are lucky enough to have identified their life purpose very early. Yet some others may have a hunch, but not follow through with it due to life circumstances, prejudices and other artificial constraints. But for most of the rest of us, it (finding our true purpose) is a journey. The journey of creativity may help with that. Knowing the how, may sometimes help with the unfolding of the why.

Here’s how I’d break down the phases of the creative journey.

1. It all starts with slowing down and paying attention… to the thought, the inkling, the hunch, the desire that strikes you as you go about your life, work, play; observing the thought that enamors or invades your psyche, sometimes in a fleeting way and sometimes more persistent. No matter what the subject is, be it a concept for a painting, an architectural blue print or a proposal for a clinical trial, noticing or paying attention to the thoughts and hunches and daring to see just how far the rabbit hole goes, is really an “artistic” pursuit.  But the art or the ambiguity in it is nothing to shy away from. After all, yesterday’s art(imagination) is today’s science(theory) and today’s science is the basis for tomorrow’s engineering (reality). It all starts with paying attention…to the in-between.

2. Paying attention leads to awareness. The first step to the process of creativity is awareness — awareness of an interest, a passion, a gift even. If you already have awareness of your gift, good, if you don’t, follow the white rabbit. Follow the goose bumps, follow the tears, follow that which makes your heart leap and laugh, follow that which makes you daydream and if you follow it long enough, no matter what your head or your parents or “common sense” tells you, you will have uncovered something. Awareness over time, leads to the formation of a belief, a vision, an ability to see beyond (the box, the state of the art), an ability to imagine…to imagine a line or a connection between the dots.

3. No matter where you are in the awareness spectrum, i.e. whether you have an interest or itch or belief or whether you have knowledge of your strength, which is a step further in the awareness spectrum,  desire is not too far from it — a desire to do, a desire to know, a desire to be, a desire to grow…(and ultimately a desire to serve). If desire is not a word that suits your fancy, then call it an urge or a drive, but an internal ember is essentially the flavor of this next step.

4. If you do desire something bad enough, the Universe conspires to give it to you. I haven’t heard of a more repeated cliche, but I haven’t heard a truer statement either. If your desire is genuine i.e. it originates from deep within you and from a very pure place, you would have begun to manifest it already, in other words, things would have already started to arrange themselves in order to make the object of that desire accessible (not available) to you. Feel the desire, be aware of the desire.  The thoughts you put out to the Universe have a way of manifesting as an opportunity. You just have to learn to recognize the opportunity (remember the paying attention part?).

5. The only way to quench the desire is to take action on it. Once you recognize and embark on the opportunity, do not give up even if you encounter roadblocks, discouragements and naysayers, there really is no substitute for hard work which includes the fortitude to persevere on your vision. When the inspiration is genuine, the effort relentless and the practice consistent, the day is not far when the result will be apparent. The result could be anything from baking a themed cake for your kid’s birthday to building a nuclear reactor to landing a “dream” situation. The result is the connection between two (or more) dots that heretofore were just two (or more) disparate entities in your mind. It is important to not get distracted or confused by those that say “work smart, not hard”, “its in the genes”, “oh, but are you really happy?” etc. It took a lot of hard work (in some shape or form invisible or indiscernible to you) for the smartness to be in place or for the genes to be programmed that way (in “those others”) in the first place. So your belief, your desire and your practice are all you have and you will do yourself a big service by not giving up on any of that. Of course sometimes, the result, can also be a conclusion, a very firm one in your mind and that is also completely worth it.

6. With the validation of result, and continuing practice, somewhere along the road, the conscious practice becomes a part of the unconscious skill-set or repertoire. This way you find that you have moved the needle on your capacity or knowledge. And just like that, the box you were operating in, just grew in size or added another dimension to it!

Creativity is nothing but this process of theorizing and then converting theory into practice, converting belief into knowledge, converting imagination into innovation! And then of course, change is the only constant. Life changes, time moves forward, you change, the state of the art changes, just like day and night and the seasons, it is all a cycle. With the newly equipped knowledge, if you consciously go back to step 1 and pay attention, over time, new beliefs form and from there on, you know how it goes. :). Creativity is therefore this process of identifying the box and then gradually increasing the size of the box, until you reach a point where there is simply no box.

So if in the pursuit of being creative, you do not know where to start or you find yourself stuck at any point, having this framework (translations of the abstractions is in the mind of the reader) may help you understand where you are and help you figure out how to move forward on your journey. To be creative or not is therefore ultimately a matter of choice.

“Beam me up”, he said.

<Names altered to protect the privacy of the subject>

This afternoon, I attended the funeral service of my batch-mate (from BITS, Pilani), Arun Ramalingam. He passed away on Friday, April 5th, amidst the mountains of Snoqualmie Pass. He is survived by his young wife, 2 young children aged 8 and 4, his parents, 2 brothers and a sister.

The turn out for the funeral was large, his family, friends, colleagues… and then there was the local BITSian turn out as well as a few folks from around the country. Speaks for the wonderful soul he was. I did not know Arun either on campus or off campus. We moved in completely different circles. All these years in Seattle and I had no clue such a person existed and that he was here. Several times, the topic of BITSians has come up in conversation and I have combed through my rolodex to identify BITSians in the local area, but Arun’s name was nowhere in mine… and yet… there was a certain connected-ness I felt when I heard — BITS, Seattle, hiker, spirituality… just a good, simple, innocent soul (who had an appreciation for melancholy and yet spread happiness — all this I gleaned from the ceremony). I felt a draw (even before I knew all this) and contributed to his memorial fund as well as attended his funeral ceremony including cremation.

There were speeches and notes from friends, local and from afar. But when his father Mr. V.Ramalingam, came to speak, it just killed me. Such a simple man, clad in a simple shirt and veshti and a sweater, being from Chennai (and having flown at 2 days notice), so articulate, put together, grateful, humble and yet emotional and empathic to his daughter-in-law’s plight. My heart broke when he came up, and thereafter each time I saw him. Still does when I think of him. God bless him and the entire family with lots of strength, fortitude, reconciliation and peace in their hearts sooner rather than later.

This is the first time I have attended a funeral in my physical lifetime. I have experienced deaths in other forms, and deaths of elderly grandparents while I lived away from them; but this was really a first, well, I remember one other from a long time ago (a distant elderly relative by marriage, who lived in the same area I did growing up). And I am also no stranger to the concept of losing one’s child, from experience in my own family (I’ve seen my beloved late maternal grandmother lose her son, my beloved uncle). Maybe it was that knowledge and experience, that made me feel so much this time around, and yet it gave me new respect for everything she went through.

I later learnt, Arun was alone on the hike. It was a working day and he had chosen to work from home, but decided to go on a hike to this spot that he apparently frequented to clear his head. His body was found the next day, thanks to the signal emitted from his iPhone, who’s charge was still alive. His body was found in a spot that one could get to only if one had fallen off a ledge, which itself is off the path and couldn’t have been hiked up to. So no one seems to fully understand.

There is something about these souls. They are people who find themselves in special situations, unlike most others’ (in a spiritual sense), there is a certain inner sadness, perhaps from a certain realization, but they radiate happiness and invariably give comfort to others in so many ways. They are usually honest, sincere and funny. Their physical ends are tragic (to the rest of the world)…. but I almost feel that in that moment of decision, they are free-est and I like to believe they are in a better place.

A weekend getaway

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Roaring waves against rocky shore
Sea lions and surfers galore
Welcoming the morning tide
View from the mansion at Seaside

Inside I hear a pin drop
Aromatic Java till the last drop
Chirping birds and clinking chimes
Fill my senses in the morning times.

Creativity Quotient

For several decades spanning most of the earlier part of the 20th century, an individual’s success was directly correlated to his or her IQ or Intelligence Quotient. Tests that measured raw intellectual horsepower i.e. ability to quantitatively analyze information and frameworks, process audio-visual data, reason and take quick decisions were used to predicate “success”. Success, in a world that was dependent largely on an individual’s capacity to memorize, retrieve, process and apply scientific information.

The turn of the millennium advanced the state of the art and brought with it a proliferation of  distributed information,  enterprises and machines having the ability to analyze and number crunch;  and with this, success became synonymous with collaboration. It was no longer just about what you know, but more about who you know. If you were able to work well with people, rally people together behind a cause, you were more likely to succeed. What therefore emerged was the need for or significance of the softer side of intelligence called emotional intelligence or the ability to know, evaluate and maneuver the emotions of oneself and of others. An individual with access to traditional intelligence as well as a high EQ – Emotional Quotient was more likely to succeed.

Today, a combination of both IQ and EQ is still required for success in just about any arena. However, with easier access to the tremendous power of technology and just the overall rise in consciousness, the planet is collectively and individually pushing the state of the art like never before. The new baseline for individual power has risen significantly. As human-beings fulfill their infrastructural and social needs and move on their path to self-actualization, the definitions for success are changing. We are seeing an unprecedented need for differentiation and rapid innovation, which in turn is fueling intense competition and paving the way for the individual to become the enterprise.

Going forward, an individual’s success will be determined by his/her ability to not just process information and harness networks, but to envision, tap into imagination, connect the dots and come up with solutions to new problems as swiftly as possible. Success would be defined by the ability to adapt, create and contribute in an agile manner. Success would require imagination, thinking outside the box, risk-taking and agility at an individual level. This does not undermine the importance of raw intellectual horsepower (IQ) or the ability to leverage contemporary talent (EQ), but instead highlights that an individual would need to have built upon IQ and EQ,  identified and filled up gaps, zoomed out, connected dots and created a new paradigm. This is no longer about conforming to existing frameworks, but about challenging them and coming up with new frameworks that impact the collective in a positive way. An individual would need to be creative to be successful. And while it may not be straightforward to quantitatively measure such a capacity, the future belongs to the one with a “high” CQ – Creativity Quotient.

Put simply, your intelligence and your emotionality are gifts that were given to you. Your creativity is your return gift to the cosmos.

Sex – An out of body experience

I’ve often heard and read these phrases “treat your body as a temple” or “your body is a temple” or some variation of it growing up. A cliché thus far, I’ve really come to understand in the last 5 or so years, what that means. In a way I have arrived at that conclusion on my own.  From my point of view, my body is home to my spirit, my energy, which is a sliver of the eternal energy, the universal energy, the infinite… God if you will, and hence the reference to temple.

There are many sensations one experiences, some that are experienced by the body (for e.g. heat, cold, pain from cuts, blows and such), some experienced by the mind (for e.g. the excitement from an intellectual debate, a really good movie, or exploring a new concept, travel etc., fear from impending danger etc.) and some that remain relatively unexplained but yet stir you in a deeper way but experienced for sure, like, when you just tear up inexplicably at something that moved you, or when your hairs stand on end, or when your mouth inadvertently waters at the sight or thought of certain foods at certain moments, these are sensations experienced at a deeper level that are not easily explained.

These sensations are experienced by the consciousness that exists in every cell of your being, collectively known as the spirit or the energy within. When it encounters something that speaks to it, it tries to communicate, it reaches out, and the body expresses it as a release. This is what we experience involuntarily as mouth watering, tears, hairs standing on end and yes, even an orgasm. Notice that in that instant, all you are aware of is the feeling, your mind just blanks out at that moment. In that instant, all you know is the nothingness, the stillness of that moment, no past, no future, no worry, no other distraction but just that moment.  Orgasm is one such moment which erases the mind. It is about experiencing your soul. In that moment, the flush you experience is just you, the real you,  devoid of all the artificial conditioning of life. It is the moment when the soul is trying to “come” out of the body.

Beauty from Creativity

Written Jan 30, 2012

(Published in Courageous Creativity, a Flying Chickadee publication, March 2012)

I had always felt right-brained, even from the early years.  Recognizing my natural inclinations, my father had suggested that I pursue the arts and languages as a primary course of study, but being a straight A-s student growing up in the competitive, Indian middle-class environment of the 80s, I succumbed to implicit pressures, and chose to pursue degrees in electronics and computer science instead. For the last decade, I have had fun writing and designing software, but through the years, my right-brained-ness has sought to express itself through travelogues, photography, cooking, nutrition, music, dance, theater, poetry and an ongoing and evolving curiosity in all of these areas. Believing that my path to fulfillment lay in pursuing one or two of these interests and turning them into a career, I have toyed many a time with the idea of making a 180 degree shift professionally.

Snowed in on this wintry day in early 2012, I reminisce about the fall of 2010, when, in response to a brewing creative urge, I turned in my application for Seattle’s Yoni Ki Baat (YKB), a South Asian show case of original narratives inspired by The Vagina Monologues. I had wanted to return to stage for a while, something I had immensely enjoyed in school and college. The authentic expression and bonding facilitated by YKB gave me a space to connect with kindred spirits, and inspired me to create and share at a deeper level than I had expected to. I remember vividly the evening in my living room, when I was bantering with a friend about alternative forms of love, being that we were both single and in our mid-thirties. It was a couple of days before the deadline to turn in the first draft of my YKB story, and I did not have the faintest clue yet, what I was going to write about! Egged on by what I’d shared with my friend that evening, I brought up the idea with the YKB Creative Director, joking that a piece on ménage-trois might push the YKB envelope. When she came back with “Bring it on!”,  a unique idea for a piece on spirituality, balance and sexuality enabling freedom in love, was born! In spite of that initial inspiration, I did have some reservations about presenting an unconventional and bold stance on love that transcends gender and societal stereotypes, because I was unsure about audience receptivity and perceptions. But soon, armed with encouragement from my family and close friends and the resonance from some of the women I met at YKB, I decided to go forth with my idea. A thousand words literally flowed out in a matter of two hours!

The ripples of energy triggered from the performance and which lasted well after the show, blew me away. This experience made me see the beauty and power in just being courageous and authentic, even very vulnerable in an audience’s witness. During the months preceding the show, I also found myself emotionally relating to and invested in the stories the other women brought forth. Soon my mission with YKB subtly changed from just a creative outlet or stage experience to my larger spiritual purpose, enabling me to focus on the sisterhood that had been created, and provide help, encouragement and positive energy wherever needed. In the end, along with creative satisfaction, I walked away from YKB with renewed confidence and a beautiful community, which continues to be a source of joy and inspiration long after the show.

My YKB experience was beautiful because I chose to expend creative energy by being, writing performing and providing support through  emotional and editorial input within a larger collective, and the choice was propelled by my love for stage, expression, emotion and humanity. This return to stage opened doors within me, and inspired me to perform at various other local cultural events. These forays were energizing because I chose to express my dormant talents in the art forms that I knew and loved. In the end, we preserve what we love, we love what we understand and we understand what we study. So eventually, love itself is really a choice. I can choose to love something.

The large software conglomerate I work in employs people of myriad backgrounds, skill-sets, and perspectives. My role of Program Manager is like that of a movie director. It is about creating a synergy across all the individual experts, each of whom speaks a different language, and leading their talents to converge into a vision for our products, which ultimately, add value in the lives of our customers.

YKB’s execution into a synergistic, collective and connected experience of growth and evolution showed me parallels between the two worlds, and I realized how they were, though apparently different, actually governed by the same principles. In the pursuit of feeding my hungry right brain, I understood some truths about love, choice and taking creative action, and have now chosen to apply them into the left-brained world that I work in. Or perhaps I have stopped distinguishing between left and right altogether! Rather than relinquish my “left-brained” training and experience or abandon my scientific and analytical acumen, I have chosen to find connectedness, beauty and love in the world of technology, steering my career in a direction that involves end-user experiences and collaborative work – work that forges connections and that creates beauty. I now choose to see it and act on it differently, I choose to love it, and I choose to see its beauty.

I want to leave you with my musings on beauty. Notice how beauty or its magnetism is something you feel and never something you think about. Beauty stems from emotion. What is emotion after all? No matter what kind it is – attraction, grief, regret, pride, fear, anger, stress…or even “a creative urge,” emotion is energy that is built up due to an unresolved idea or an issue that is not fully understood, which blocks free energy flow through our existence. In the process of understanding and seeking resolution, should one choose to, one builds pathways and solutions, and therefore creates. Creating is the act of changing the state-of-the-art for the better and thereby eventually unlocking mysteries of the world and of the mind.  Creating is thence a way of finding purpose to our existence. So, it is important that we allow ourselves to feel our emotions, even the negative ones, and address them. We will then find ourselves building pathways and connections. These, in turn, become conduits for energy flow, and when energy flows freely within and through, what it radiates is called beauty. And in that state, the only remaining emotion is bliss, which is the bedrock of authentic strength and power.