Saturday, October 29, 2011

Creativity Exercise "Five Lives": Let Your Imagination Do Some Trick-or-Treating

This Halloween, don’t only dress up in a costume, let your imagination dress up in some imaginary lives and see what they say to you.
This morning, I walked into the kitchen, where overnight the blood splattered blade of a guillotine magically appeared. Skulls hung in dirty nets above the sink. In my largest Cuisinart pot was a boiling concoction filled with bones that smelled as bad as it looked.

It is two days before Halloween.

Every year in our household, the last weeks of October gather into a maelstrom of dark and gory creativity as my boyfriend preps his props for the (terrifying) haunted house that he runs at a local country club. With the apartment looking like Jack Skellington’s workshop, and class prep on my mind, I was inspired to take a different angle and think about the lighter-side of Halloween today. Not the traditional meaning of the holiday, but the actual traditions—such as dressing up in costume.

This put me in mind of one of the activities from Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way that she calls Imaginary Lives (and I call Five Lives for ease of remembering).

It is a simple activity, not to be over-thought, where you list what you’d be if you had five other lives to lead. I suspect that this is actually an activity that everyone indulges in to a certain amount everyday in their imagination, which is why it becomes very powerful to put pen to paper and see what lives are officially calling to you.

My list today includes:
1. Secret Agent
2. Sea Captain (circa 1880)
3. Stationery & Gift Shop Owner
4. Best Selling Author (paperback “trashy” romances)
5. Yoga Teacher

This exercise has two very important elements to it that relate to creativity and inspiration. The first is that through seeing what lifestyles or careers are sparking your imagination, you can dig a little deeper and see what themes each of the lives has that make it so attractive. (This digging is important, because frankly as much as I like the idea of being a circa 1880 Sea Captain, it would: a.) be impossible due to restrictions in time travel. And b.) I like hot showers.)

Through a light “digging” into each of my five lives, I discover:
1. Secret Agent = Mystery + Adventure + Action
2. Sea Captain (c. 1880) = Adventure + Exploration + New Horizons + Travel + Courage
3. Shop Owner = Independence + Creativity + Merchandising + My Own Space + Action + Community + Sharing Happiness
4. Best Selling Author (Romances) = Writing + Creativity + Sharing Happiness + Fun + Research
5. Yoga Teacher = Healthy Body + Energy + Sharing Happiness

As you can see from my list, there are some themes such as Adventure and Sharing Happiness. These are two things that I can then brainstorm (or mind map) on how to incorporate into my real life, rather than it just be an impulse that manifests itself in my imagination.

Which brings me to the second valuable inspiration element of the Five Lives activity: action and incorporation.

There are two directions you can take the results of the activity once it is on paper. You can take the idea of the lives at face value, and use a creative medium to explore that life. For instance, I could write a one page sketch of my inner Sea Captain (that could lead to an awesome character for a longer story). Or, I could plan a trip down to tour the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. Or, I could watch Master and Commander: Far Side of the World.

If I explore this from the themes that being a c. 1880 Sea Captain represents in my imagination, I can think about ways that I can add some adventure to my life. Maybe I begin to think about planning a trip, or learning something new in order to appease the desire for new horizons or adventure.

There are many, many ways to leverage this simple activity. Use it as a way to enrich your everyday life, which in turn, nourishes your creative self.

This Halloween, don’t only dress up in a costume, let your imagination dress up in some imaginary lives and see what they say to you.

Inspired? I'd love to hear about your imaginary lives! Share here on The Paper Compass.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Creativity: The Importance of Postmortems

In creative endeavors, as in life, it is worth learning from—but not dwelling on—your successes and your failures.

The past few weeks have been busy in way that is unique to the beginning of the fall semester. Schedules change, routines change, the weather changes; autumn is a time of transition. Yet, the last few months of the year are also filled with tradition and annual milestones such as the first day of school, holidays and holy days that give us a feeling of familiarity. Through this dichotomy, I find that autumn is an intuitive time of year to meditate on change and progress.

With the advent of Halloween only a few weeks away, I thought I would share one of my favorite (and most morbid sounding) post-creative project evaluation techniques that we discuss in Creative Thinking & Problem Solving, the class that I teach in the Emerson College graduate Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) program.

At the beginning of every semester, I have the students read and discuss the insightful Harvard Business Review article “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” by Ed Catmull. The article is one of my favorites as it relates to understanding and appreciating the four dimensions of creativity: People, Place, Process, and Product. Through these “4 P’s of Creativity” the problem solving process and institutional architecture that powers Pixar Animation Studios' success and vision with movies such as Toy Story and Up are revealed to be tangible and consistent solutions that can be applied to ironing out the kinks in a major motion picture—or, due to their structure and simplicity—applied in order to empower your own creative process.

One of the techniques, that Pixar employs after a movie has been completed, is called a Postmortem. This is where, rather than just celebrating the launch of a movie and sweeping several years of stress, trial, and triumph under the rug, the company rounds up the team to reflect on the process and data and create a record of learned experiences for future projects. As Ed Catmull notes, “…although people learn from the postmortems, they don’t like to do them.” To be relevant to end of the project, and the point in the process where usually people want to move on, a Postmortem is a balance of both positive and negatives. At Pixar, the team lists the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things they would not do regarding the project. This is combined with the data from the project to create a final and factual big picture of lessons learned.

While I am a creative, I am also a project manager at heart and the idea of a Postmortem speaks to me. Creative people have a tendency to see solutions quickly, coupled with a willingness to take on new experiences, which often leads to projects that are started quickly, muddled through in the middle, and then finally finished in the dark hours of the morning, fueled by coffee and a pending deadline. I am no exception to this. Introducing the Postmortem to my endeavors, be they professional or personal, has helped me create reminders of what I can do differently to make the next project more successful, the process smoother and everything less stressful. Granted, there will always be new and unforeseen circumstances when embarking on a creative project, but understanding what worked, or should be avoided as learned from previous projects is an invaluable experience, and a great way to stimulate your own thinking process.

There are no special tools, or set-in-stone instructions for Postmortems. In fact, Pixar usually mixes up the Postmortem routine in order to make sure that they always gain new insights. On a basic level, you want to set aside time to document in your sketchbook or a master project file the five things that you would do again (or that went well) and the 5 things that you would not do again (or that went poorly) as they relate to your project or creative endeavor. From this, I usually have some mind mapping type lines that connect to ideas for avoiding or cultivating future solutions as needed. Most important: make sure to place the Postmortem somewhere that it can be referenced in the future!

Do you currently use a postmortem-like process for any of your projects, creative endeavors, or in general? Is it similar to the Pixar Postmortem? In what ways is it different? What do you personally find as the most effective way to learn from a completed project? Share your thoughts here on The Paper Compass.

To inspire your thinking, here are a few of the ways (usual and unusual) that I have found to successfully apply the Postmortem technique:

• Books: This summer, I was SO EXCITED that the long awaited volume, A Dance with Dragons, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (for those of you watching HBO it is Game of Thrones) series was released, but I was also lamenting that after six years, I could not remember what characters had been left where and in what peril. In the case that it is six more years until the next book comes out, I wrote a “postmortem” cheat sheet when I finished the book and tucked it into the back cover of the last volume.

• Holidays: Every year, I do a short Postmortem the first week of January, which evaluates the triumphs and trials of Christmas. Not only am I reminded what gifts were a success (or forgotten in the back of the closet), I also always have ready the travel information (phone numbers, hotels, etc.) on hand for the following year—which makes the holiday travel (slightly) less stressful.

• Teaching: At the end of every semester I do a Postmortem on the class and what materials were successful or not successful. In the spirit of Pixar’s data collection, I review my notes from each class and determine what exercises worked or failed, and what I can introduce to improve them. Sometimes, if a particular class did not go as I was anticipating, I will enact an Immediate Postmortem in order to get things back on track or customize the material and timing to the different learning habits of the students in that semester.

• Parties: Postmortums and parties go hand in hand. This is how the following year I remember to use the crock pot, buy plastic bowls that are heat resistant, and have a good idea of how many bottles of red and white wine will be needed, and how many will be brought. Better party, much less stress. Thanks Postmortem!