I love speaking in public. I find an amazing thrill in just about any opportunity to get up in a room and speak - whether it is a keynote speech, a training session, or a new business pitch. And while I believe I have some strong public skills, part of my passion lies in always trying to improve. One of my strategies for improvement is closely observing others. Whether they do well or poorly, watching others speak helps to teach new lessons and reaffirm old ones.
Last summer I got to attend a summit at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, and watch an amazing speaker at work: Ken Robinson. Below is a link to a similar speech given at last year's TED conference. But this blog entry is not about how Ken Robinson's speech challenged me to improve my skills - rather it is the topic of his speech and book, which I had to run out and purchase after returning from Seattle. Robinson's featured topic was the importance of creativity in our society and his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, is a powerful analysis and call to arms.
Most important for this blog, Robinson often embraces challenge as a key part of building strong creative results. He does not simply endorse "art for art's sake" or encourage a bunch of people continuously brainstorming. Robinson outlines a few interesting ways in which challenge leads to innovation and improvement in the creative arts.
First, Robinson speaks to the value of working within constraints:
"Great work often comes from working within formal constraints. Some of the finest poetry is in the form of the sonnet, which as a fixed form to which the writer must submit. Japanese haiku similarly makes specific formal demands on the poet, as do many other forms of poetic structure. These do not inhibit the writer's creativity; they set a framework for it. The creative achievement and the aesthetic pleasure lie in using standard forms to achieve unique effects and original insights."
Second, he embraces the need for creativity to be judged and produce value, both by outside observers and the artist herself:
"Creativity is not only a process of generating ideas. It involves making judgments about them. Creativity is not just a matter of being original, but of producing outcomes that are of value. Other people may come to their own views about the worth of a new work or idea. But the person creating is also making judgments as an integral part of the process of creation. In any creative process there are likely to be dead ends: ideas and designs that do not work. There may be many failures and changes before the best outcome is produced."
Finally, Robinson presents a fascinating story of the evolution of an entire field of creativity because of the challenge of innovation:
"At the end of the 19th century there was an earthquake in the visual arts. For centuries one of the main roles of painters and sculptors was to record the likenesses of people, places and events. The invention of photography broke their monopoly. It provided a quick, cheap and faithful method of visual record...Relieved from the duty to depict, painters explored new possibilities, from the expression of personal feelings to extending the limits of visual form itself through abstract and conceptual art. The period from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century was dominated by the artistic movements of modernism."
Working in a creative advertising agency, I find much truth in Robinson's words. While we wish to be as creatively free as possible, we must in parallel provide meaning and produce results. We need boxes to think out of and are challenged to pass the judgment of the client and the ultimate customer. And new technology like the web and mobile diminish the old modes of TV and Print ads, but open exciting fields to creative exploration.
Challenge fundamentally drives creativity - and thus challenge drives improvement.