#CuriousCollab, Creativity and Cooperation: It’s All About Empathy in a Digital World

New MindWise logo — mosaic w birds in center

This June, I launched a creative venture in 2.0 mode, stretching wider with MindWise — a consultancy that’s driven by collaboration and curiosity. The design above serves as a wellspring for me throughout this process… Art nouveau meets modernity; past and present merge and advance to future, and the kaleidoscope of connections illuminates. In the center of the wheel, two birds, facing out, taking flight, wings outstretched; their tails slightly overlapped, mirrored intention joining as one. Yes, there’s symbolism here.

My number one reminder, in the midst of this process of expanding an enterprise: it’s all about connections and relationships; all about collaboration and cooperation. Creativity works the same way, for me — it’s what I call (and tweet!) #curiouscollab. It seems to be about taking what I know, and collecting and connecting with what others know; seeking new knowledge out of a curious drive, and creating new meaning and new connections that are valuable. Many people have been using the word “tribe” to represent their web of connections — my tribe seems to be the world, and I allow my own curiosity and empathy to let me step into others’ shoes, see from their views, and learn… It’s as much about differences as it is about similarities. And, by working together for a form of good — by analyzing and questioning and re-interpreting, we can collectively create something better.

Curious Collaboration, #curiouscollab, is how we thrive as mindful creatives

In fact, we might call this form of creativity innovation if it serves to make society better. George Couros does just that in his book The Innovator’s Mindset: “Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative.”

Creativity is not a new topic… it’s been a focus for decades, as innovators look to modernize, improve, express and produce, running the gamut from whimsical to practical, across the arts and sciences alike. A quick entry into Google’s Ngram engine yields a rather steady rise in the terms “creativity” and “creative” since roughly the year 1800.

Looking at the graph, there are a few creative dips , quite literally, in the use of the word — one 1885–1906, the second 1934–1941, and a third drop 1972–1986. Other than these times, which we could guess about in terms of matching historical events and context, worldwide creativity and creative applications, judging by term alone, have been on a steady rise. I’m already enthralled by what this could signal — we are truly in the midst of an age of great synthesis, questioning, wonder and invention.

Just as fascinating is when we pull in other terms, including “design” (see below), which was in steady decline until 1896, when it began to swing back into popularity. I’m still trying to figure out why, looking at the art of creating and designing — the word itself, as a verb, is from the Latin designare, to mark out, or devise.

To devise new angles — to allow creativity to thrive — takes great presence and awareness… This natural curiosity embraces mindfulness at the core. I have been working with mindfulness in design and creative innovation methodology. It serves as the base layer, the foundation that facilitates creative undertakings. Awareness, advancing, authenticity — the three A’s — is how I define mindfulness, all about that inward and outward insight, stretching and adapting. It’s agility and presence, rooted in the art and act of iterations, prototypes, questioning and natural experimentation — things that we do each day as active, curious learners. In a culture of mindfulness, we approach topics with a natural, active inquiring mind, seeking to understand and to focus on the process at hand, the moment of *now* that can be filled with such wonder, if we use openness as a tool and an entry point.

Yes, mindfulness and creativity go hand-in-hand. As I work with leaders and organizations to facilitate connections, the discoveries made together ultimately rest in empathy and true compassion. If collaboration is driven by curiosity, surely it is empathy that is the embodied ethic and the organization’s culture that resonates. Louis Gerstner, famed CEO of IBM, said that good leadership rests in passion and clear communication. This naturally involves the ability to understand the other, in order to reach them and work together.

This working together, this incredible collaboration, is driven by curiosity, by empathy, and also by our drive to survive. In Howard Rheingold’s marvelous TED Talk “The New Power of Collaboration”, he notes that the old 3-D story of defeat, destroy, dominate is replaced by cooperation, collective action, and complex interdependencies.

It’s those interdependencies that can be the most compelling, as it’s a system in which curiosity and finding links proves much more valuable than the antiquated survival-of-the-fittest strategies. In modern learning and collaboration, mutual benefits are a natural collective gain. The ability to network and collaborate are valuable skills, tools that are propelled by curiosity. I would also hope (and conjecture!) that, within this curiosity, kindness prevails. As educator Darren Kuropatwa says, it’s all about persistent kindness… Propelled by storytelling, and listening; by ownership of voice and choice. By recognizing our collective human nature, we find empathy and kindness in heart.

In mindfulness, gratitude and humility are also present. It’s individual and collective; a turning toward a social consciousness that is about embracing rather than exclusions… and, it feels wholly creative in experience, as there’s an integral approach that can recognize complexities of perspectives.

In education and other social organizations, it seems that we’re at a turning point of craving this mindset, which is creative in process and product.

Mónica López-González, Cognitive Scientist and Multidisciplinary Artist, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, says, “Forget teaching about creativity. All courses and disciplines should be taught creatively and foster in-class creativity.” I agree; I love to consider the surprise and delight inherent in creative learning… it is as much about the questions as the answers, and the range of possibilities that each new element and discovery yields.

#mindsight and #insight are states of mind: can you see it both ways?

The great probability pioneer Mark Kac (1914–1984) said, “For as long as we have a record of man’s curiosity and his quest for understanding, we find mathematics cultivated and cherished, practiced and taught. Throughout the ages it has stood as an ultimate in rational thought and as a monument to man’s desire to probe the workings of his own mind.” This creative embodiment and quest is something that can be embraced and nurtured across all areas of what is now widely recognized as STEAM curriculum. The methods are part of a “design thinking” process — mindful, inquisitive, iterative and open. As improviser and design thinking proponent Dan Ryder says, we’re promoting a “culture of critical creativity” in education — and, beyond!

In a recent Adobe study of Creativity and Education (in which 1,000 full-time, salaried employees ages 25+ were interviewed), it was clear (per graphics below) that creativity is seen as a crucial learning focus. And it spans all areas of curriculum:

Again, I’m not sure when the “traditional creative subjects” became synonymous with the arts, and/yet it’s clear that creativity is everywhere, and fuels modern learning and innovation… not to mention, the essential passion that makes learning sticky and life joyful. Arguably, for students to “own their learning,” as Alan November says, creative freedom must be uplifted.

Should such a thing as creativity be taught as a separate subject, or embedded right into learning, as integrated into curriculum models and methods as possible? Can it, in fact, become a mindset, to “be creative”? What would this entail?

New research shows that creativity is indeed a skill that can be taught. Carly Schwartz’s recent post shows several ways to hone creative skills. She also interviews one of the co-authors of the recent book Building Your Creativity, Esteban Gast, who teaches engineering at the University of Illinois. Gast says, “Creativity and engineering have been separated culturally, but at their core, they’re both systematic disciplines. People are shocked to find that there are multiple studies that show creativity can be enhanced.”

Certainly, not only can it be taught as a subject, it can be celebrated and indulged at each step… In many ways, poetry and photography taught me this. Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is just one example of multiplicity. In act and mindset, each moment of wonder is one of mindfulness and creativity, bringing one back to the moment, back to noticing, and to a certain recognition that embraces creative spirit.

Biking to poetic places and spaces: one of Zurich’s many creative inspirations…

In a digital world, online and offline, there are myriad opportunities to sharpen our creative chops — and, best of all, it’s a gift that keeps giving, as we collaborate with others, contributing to a global creative community. Let the #curiouscollab continue!

Shot in Barcelona, cathedral behind me, reflected in the window (busker below the frame — can you imagine the music?)