Why Creativity Will Save The World
In a world that often feels mired in doom and crisis, this keynote talk I put together explains why creativity, optimism, and vision are the secret ingredients we need to build the world of our dreams. Here’s the script.
Every one of us is born as a citizen of Planet Earth.
You probably grew up in a warm room, with toys to play with, and some trees nearby — but it doesn’t take long until that arrow strikes your child’s mind, and you learn the real world out there is fractured— you’re surrounded by stories of disaster, dystopia, and doom:
- Rising sea levels about to engulf whole states, crazy mega storms, a rhinoceros just went extinct.
- You learn there’s more plastic now in the ocean than zooplanktons. Rainforests are being mowed down like lawns. Another murder— and there are more guns, more shootings.
- You see that video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its face. Insane amounts of waste and trash everywhere.
- and yet another horrible politician with a frightening soul and a tiny brain is trying to explain why he’s actively doing everything in his power to stop these problems getting fixed.
It’s all around us, all the time, every day.
As you look out at this cacophony of the human race, what do you do? How do you respond? Do you get angry, heart-broken? Do you pull into a bubble, like a sea anemone withdrawing inside, and shut it out?
Or maybe you think, “I can’t live in this world without doing something about it.”
That’s how *I* feel, and I think you feel the same way too. Actually, I know you feel the same. You want to change the world, maybe even save the world.
But how do we actually save the world, anyway? Do we change the democracy, end consumerism? Or do you “break” “the system,” smash the patriarchy, or do we all meditate our way to a global epiphany of kindness? Maybe you just want to ride your bicycle and grow your own tomatoes.
We have so many hypotheses of what needs to change, and so many programs, foundations, not-for-profit groups, research labs, and start-ups, that are run by some the smartest people in the world, but no one has really figured out how to get past the wall, how to push past the giant obstacle, that is stopping us from fixing the world’s greatest problems. If we really knew how to do it, these crises wouldn’t still be here.
Your greatest creative adventure / A vision for what could be
And in that challenge — lies the greatest creative adventure of our time.
And — maybe we should think about it differently — what if — human civilization wasn’t hurtling towards doom, and the eco-sphere isn’t about to collapse? What if the human species is hatching out of its infancy, and we are standing at the precipice of our most magnificent chapter yet.
What if the world’s cities — instead of becoming polluted labyrinths of concrete, asphalt, and smog — evolved into rolling eco-scapes, patchworked with green roofs, and orchards nestled into parks, with vegetable gardens cascading off the sides of city buildings, so you can put your arm out the window and pick a cucumber and make a salad.
And instead of being scattered in litter, and crime — our towns, cities, and suburbs were rich in color and art, and smelled good, like conifer and orchids — with nice lighting.
What if instead of having noisy polluting cars crisscrossing our geography — and our lives — freeways got taken out and replaced with electric trains, bike paths, and green bridges for deer and koalas to walk across.
What if instead of a food system that is heavy in plastic, farm animal suffering, and artificial junk, our next generation of children grew their own fruit and vegetables at school. Amazing vegan food is available everywhere, in natural compostable packaging. The age of landfill is over, plastic waste has become extinct, and pollution is gone.
What if the world’s technology and factories — instead of chewing up the planet, were developed from a deep intelligence into ecosystems, and grew in symbiotic partnership with nature, instead of at the expense of it.
Imagine a financial system doesn’t leave out the less fortunate by its intrinsic design, where everyone is taken care of by the system.
And what if, instead of trawling the ocean, we finally left the fishies and the dolphins alone to repopulate.
Think of the day when the sun sets on the age of fossil fuels, and the sun rises on a billion solar panels that power our new world.
And the biggest “what if” of all — what if saving the world wasn’t a fight or a sacrifice, but it was your greatest art form? And in this art form, you discovered that — your purpose in life, your unique gift, and your role in sculpting a new world, were all the same thing?
It sounds pretty magical right, but it’s not a fantasy. I see evidence of this future happening all around me every day.
So what is this big obstacle that lies between our current world— and this beautiful future coming true?
There’s a missing link in the craft of saving the world that we aren’t talking about — and we really need to be.
Creativity is the missing link
The one thing we have to get real with, that will give us the rocket fuel to climb over the obstacle — is creativity.
Isn’t “creativity” just fluffy and trivial?
Just in case you’re rolling your eyes and think that there’s no way that “creativity” like painting watercolor can fight big serious things like injustice or war. I mean, you can’t macrame your way to a carbon-neutral economy, right?
You might think that creativity sounds kind of fluffy, and that it's important to be “serious” — and you need to //shock// people with the gravity of tragedy.
You might think creativity is only for people from rich countries, with nice parents, or those weird imaginary people who have “spare time.”
These things might be true a tiny bit, some of the time — but hear me out — because the practice of creativity goes deep — deep into the neuroscience of human happiness and motivation — it’s behind breakthroughs in science and engineering. It even threads through the very atoms and electrons that make us up, and it stitches together our ever-present quest for meaning and purpose.
How I got here — a life long obsession with how to save the world
I didn’t come to this view by being a painter or an art teacher. I studied environmental engineering, and I worked as a green building engineer. I also founded a venture-capital backed media company, and I’ve spent years living in silicon valley, learning how to build software from environmental data.
I’ve been obsessed with the question “How do we save the world” my entire life. Ever since I was 8 years old and I saved up my pocket money to buy a Greenpeace mug to help save the dolphins in 1988, I’ve been turning over every stone, reading every research paper, and going to every conference I could find to unravel the answer. I’m so fascinated by this question, that I just wrote a book, a textbook, called — you guessed it — “How to Save the World.”
And when you keep asking a big question like that over and over . . . for years, decades — like layers of the onion — you eventually peel past the obvious answers like “more solar panels” or “taxing pollution,” and you follow the thread as far as it can take you — to the very core of the question, of what it’s really about.
I’m going to tell the story of why I believe putting the consciousness of creativity at the center of our mission for changing the world, is the secret that will save the world.
Doing something that has not been done before
Let’s start. The most basic definition of creativity is to make something that has not been made before.
If you’re just copying someone or following instructions, you’re not really acting or thinking creatively. You’re not doing anything new.
Something big and difficult, like Saving the World (for example) — requires doing lots of things that have not been done before. We need to discover, experiment, invent — new objects, new lifestyles, new designs, new ideas, and new social norms — all of it — never been done before.
That’s what makes saving the world, an inherently, creative process.
You simply cannot change the world without entering into a creative act.
The creative process means visualizing mental models
And the first step in the creative process is — visualizing a mental model of what you want to make:
Think of how an architect imagines a new building:
Or a dressmaker imagines a gown, or
An engineer imagines a robot or a machine or an app,
Before they get to work — in their mind — they build an intricate and highly detailed mental model of their project.
Then comes the second part — they reverse engineer their vision into reality and do all the practical things, to bring this visualization to life.
Look at this definition of creativity:
Creativity is the reverse engineering of a mental model — of a vision— and the practice of clearly visualizing the future world we want to create is rarely done by those of us in the craft of saving Planet Earth — and it’s something we need to get a whole lot better at.
We’ve been stuck in a problem-centric consciousness — just looking at disasters — but this way of thinking is limited. It shrinks down your lens of the world — and traps your imagination within the confines of the problem.
A vision for the future
The futurist and inventor, Bucky Fuller said,
We need to get really good at cracking our imaginations open to visualize this new model, this new destination.
The visualization creates optimism
And this vision, or dream, possesses a secret superpower . . . it’s optimism.
Your vision is the blueprint of the future, and it’s exciting — it’s optimistic.
A vision moves people
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pioneering French aviator and writer, and he once said,
“If you want to build a ship, do not drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
A vision, that you articulate, unleashes the dream in you and, in everyone else around you.
This is why Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech was so powerful, (yes because of its time and importance) but also because the speech was constructed from a visualization of the positive future reality, and he used those magical words,
“ I have a dream . . .”
And this dream or idea — that doesn’t even exist in a material state — it grows only in the mind of the person holding it — is behind every great advance of humankind. It’s like a piece of the future has traveled back in time to find you and light the path of where you are meant to go.
So what’s your version of “I have a dream” ? What’s the vast and endless sea you are asking people to join you on? How will this world work? How will it feel? What will you write on these lines?
Optimism is motivating / optimism is good for you
This is important, because, if there’s one vitamin you want to give the people around you, it’s optimism.
Study after study has shown that optimism is good for you. Optimists work harder. Optimists make more money, optimists are healthier, optimists even live longer.
And . . . optimists are happier.
That’s because, in the neuroscience of the brain, optimism creates dopamine — the chemical responsible for happiness, and motivation.
When it comes to changing the world, being optimistic about the future of climate change, or democracy, or food — doesn’t mean living in a bubble of complacency. It’s believing that you can achieve a goal, and having the fire of motivation in you to make that dream happen.
The secret to happiness — Happiness is built on optimism, the anticipation of a future positive event.
And it all hinges on the anticipation of a positive future event. Do you know what day of the week people are the happiest? It's a Friday — because people are positively anticipating the weekend.
Happiness is a requirement of creative thinking
So why is happiness important in our quest to save the world? If we save the polar bears — who cares if we are happy or sad — as long as the bears get saved, right?
Happiness does matter — because a positive mood allows us to fully access the parts of the brain we use to solve complex problems and to come up with great ideas.
Creativity gets turned off by stress, sadness, and fear.
Unhappy feelings like fear, doom, helplessness — are really bad for the brain — these negative emotions activate the amygdala — the part of the brain that responds to stress and goes into fight-or-flight — and it releases chemicals that shut down the prefrontal cortex— that’s the mental sketchpad of the brain — and when this happens, you lose about thirty percent of your cerebral brain function. Researchers say that functioning in this state is like looking at the world through a tiny pinhole.
We need to chill out to turn on the DMN
Even just being “busy” inhibits the part of the brain the imagines new ideas.
Imagination happens in a completely different neural architecture to the parts of the brain you use when you’re busy or concentrating. It’s called the default mode network and it activates when you stop doing things — when you sit back, chillax, and daydream. It’s this network that will imagine the details of your “I have a dream” future and may unlock your greatest ideas.
Unleash the environmental design imagination
To build the world of our dreams, we need to get in the driver’s seat of what’s called the positive constructive imagination and unleash the eco version of it— which we can call — the environmental design imagination.
The environmental design imagination needs to do some pretty crazy cerebral feats: it needs to make intricate mental models of the future — like imagining what it would take to cover a whole city in vegetation. It needs to unravel big, complex problems, like how carbon emissions affect the economy. And it needs to produce an abundance of new ideas — everything from bamboo water bottles, to electric cargo bikes to new taxation systems — and then it needs to figure out how to reverse engineer all these ideas into reality.
You need to switch back and forth between imagination (from the default mode network) and engineering (that happens in the prefrontal cortex) — and in this dance between — imagining — making — imagining — making — is the guts of the creative process of bringing an idea, and a vision of a future world to life.
The reward center of the brain
All this requires immense tenacity and confidence— fueled by dopamine — which is administered by the reward center of the brain.
Designing your project to tickle the reward center, means making it enjoyable so people want more — that there’s a positive reward — a carrot — in it for them. It means asking questions, like, “How do I make my project manifest joy?” or “How do I make it interesting and novel” or “How can I make it fun, like a game?” and these questions open up the mental space to invent projects that you, and everyone else will fall in love with — and will want to engage with over and over.
The creative circle
It all comes together in a beautiful virtuous creative circle:
- We imagine a wonderful future
- That makes us feel optimistic.
- Optimism makes us feel happy.
- The brain’s creative and engineering faculties get fully activated.
- We do some daydreaming and relax into the default mode network to come up with new ideas.
- We’re able to make complex mental models and shift between imagining and making.
- and the reward center of the brain gives us the energy to make it happen.
And in this circle — this zone — is where we can take massive creative action, and do our greatest work that can change the world.
How do we do it?
You see, everyone has this unique creative genius zone inside them — everyone — it’s like a giant sun of power— yet most people spend their lives just budding up against the side of it, or never stepping into it at all — so this vast reservoir of energy and intelligence remains untapped.
But we can open the hatch, and step into the center if it by asking different questions — not these stessed-out, problem-centric questions, like “Who’s fault is this?” or “Why is everything so horrible?” We invite the creative genius in by pondering big and expansive “wonder” questions that open our consciousness to new possibilities — think of this question:
“If I were an artist, and my quest was to the change the world, and I had every talent available to me—music, painting, computers, construction, robotics, cooking, anything — with no limitations — what would I make?”
“If I had a billion dollars to change the world, what would I add, what would I give?”
And start digging into your gift by asking:
“What do I love to do? . . . What am I really good at . . . What’s my special gift that I love to share?”
or you can just ask the universe straight up:
“Dear universe, I’m ready, I’m here. How can you use me for your highest creative purpose?”
If you’re feeling stuck, start by asking really simply,
“What am I curious about?”
and follow the thread of curiosity.
Then, listen to the answer —ponder it, feel it — and then dream — imagine — draw.
And to bring this energy into quantitative focus, you can write down a data point you’d like to see in the world, such as zero waste, or zero violence— and then mind map 100 ideas to get there— and a bit like coloring in, it starts to fill out an incredible vision for how to bring this world — where this number is the new normal — to life.
And then spend more time, every day, working on the ideas that come to you, practicing your gift, and sharing this wonder with the world.
Examples of inspiring people
Here are some examples of people that rock my world, that show what’s possible from within the creative circle:
Will Marshall is a space engineer who had a dream of photographing the entire earth every single day. He could have just stayed working NASA, on big and clunky satellites. But instead, he took massive creative action, and with his co-founders, they built a small hand-held satellite in their garage. Now their company, Planet, has launched hundreds of these little, lightweight satellites that help climate scientists and forest activists see what’s happening on the earth in almost real-time — he says he makes little spaceships to help our favorite spaceship, Earth.
This is Ron Finley, and he comes from a tough background in South Central LA. He had a dream of getting his community off drugs, crime, poverty and hunger — by gardening. He could have stayed watching the dysfunction and feeling frustrated, but instead, he took massive creative action, and turned spaces in the toughest neighborhoods and sidewalks in Los Angeles into community food gardens — and is now known famously around the world as the “Gangsta Gardener.”
Peggy Oki is an original skateboarder from the documentary Dogtown —and after years of surfing, she developed a deep love of the ocean, and a dream to save the whales. She could have just lamented how hard it is to pressure an international government to stop killing whales, but instead, she took massive creative action by making origami whales. She asked people to help out by sending her more origami whales in the mail — and then she constructed an incredible curtain made up of 20,000 paper whales, which is the number of whales that are killed globally in a year — and people walk along the curtain of this big 3D infographic of origami whales, which are often made by children and have little messages written on them, and are moved to tears by the scale of how many whales are slaughtered each year—and she uses this support to help push for more bans on whaling.
And this is Patrick Blanc, a French botanist who had a dream to canvass the built world in a living art-scape of plants and moss. Instead of just having the ideas stuck in his head, or tinkering around in his garage, he took massive creative action and pitched his ideas to architects and builders, and has now built over 30 of the world’s most beautiful large-scale green walls, many of which are multiple stories high. His work has kicked off a wave of green facades around the world.
And my favorite place in the whole world, the California Academy of Sciences— a Disneyland of science, art, and sustainability that creatively educates thousands of people from all around the world every day— this shrine of utopia with its iconic porthole studded domed living roof, opens a window into a new high point of what humans can do. And I think, if we can build this place, we can do build about anything.
These people and projects are inspiring — but this type of work isn’t just for genius’ or a brave few — we all have our own version of this magic in us. This kind of work is our soul’s calling.
It isn’t about the pursuit of success, or achievement, or goals, or money— like we’re so programmed to obsess over. So many people achieve conventional goals — they achieve someone else’s dream — or spend their lives trying to — and they’re burned out, tired — and still have that inner vacuum of emptiness sucking at them from within. And although it can look like it from the outside sometimes, no external success can give you that fundamental feeling inside that “I matter,” that I put my life to the best use I could, and I fulfilled my purpose and my potential in my time on the earth.
But the goal of creative expression— can, and it does. It fills the missing puzzle piece of our deepest hunger — that our lives, and our life’s work, has meaning.
And it goes even deeper than that— I believe that creative work is a primal need, even a primal force, that harks to the very atoms and that make us up.
The origin of the universe
This is a photo of origin of the universe when it was just a baby at 9 years old. Its a mass of energy. There are no atoms, no sub-atomic particles, there isn’t even light.
Then after about a million years, these shapeless energy fields evolved into particles, which then stuck together and formed atoms, and eventually coalesced into the first planets and stars.
Then molecules started to form— and at some point DNA — the self-replicating chemical was born.
And with that, came the magic of life — amoebas, fish, trees, dinosaurs, and humans. And then humans started to make things of their own: shoes, music, airplanes, the internet.
The universe has been continually creating things of greater and greater complexity.
— and at some point in this continuum, came you.
Every molecule in your body is vibrating with an energetic momentum that has been set in motion since the birth of the universe 13 billion years ago — and it’s like this momentum has its own craving, or want, to push forward, to evolve, and to invent — and it flows through the vast chemical symphony of your being — and we each have a special role to play in the universe’s unfolding evolution.
There is a profound cosmic beauty in thinking that every time we push into our creative genius and make a break-through or a discovery, or just do something important that has not been done before — we are actually stretching the edge of the known universe.
The trifecta of meaning and purpose
I’ve come to believe that there are 3 things we need to practice every day to get in the center of this creative energy and channel it through our quest for meaning and into our desire to change the world.
1. Invest in your creative genius
Number 1 — The first is to practice your creative genius daily using the secret ingredient — of time.
You have to force to time in as a priority. Sketch your ideas at 4 am before yoga class. Edit your documentary while your baby is asleep. Call up fancy VC’s from your grandmother’s shed. Write code for your idea in your lunch break. Paint your masterpiece in the middle of your divorce. Write your epic poem in the bus shelter in the rain. Don’t make excuses about why you can’t do it. Be the creative cactus and flower in the harshest of conditions.
Begin it — It is the only way.
And then like a small stream turns into a river, and a river cuts away into a gorge, every bit of time you invest in your creative genius, will grow it from a trickle — to a river, and eventually, into a mighty waterway that can power your life’s work.
2. Practice ecological consciousness
The second thing — is to bring the practice of ecological consciousness into all your daily actions— the trees that were pulped to make your coffee cup, the chemicals used to dye your clothes, the plastic that wraps your food.
Being mindful of the planet requires being sensitive, observant, empathetic, considerate to how your all actions — big and small — effect the living breathing tapestry of the earth’s biosphere — and this is why environmental consciousness and creative growth are inseparable — because these finer feelers of your consciousness —that feels out how everything is connected — — is the same sensitive vulnerable part of you that it takes to be connected to your creative force.
There’s no great achievement in making another technology or thing that just adds more pollution and landfill to the world. Weaving this delicate understanding of the interdependence of the ecology around us, together with the creative drive to invent, build, and make is the ultimate high point in human progress.
There’s a lot of things we need to do to save the planet, but the ultimate revolution we need is a revolution in consciousness when not a single person on the earth thinks it's ok to engage in an act that destroys it, and that takes every one of us, practicing it in every moment.
3. Intention of Contribution
The third thing is to practice the intention of contribution. Instead of asking questions like “What could I achieve to make my life better?” ask this instead “If I could give one thing to make the world better, what would I give?”
Instead of thinking “How can I make a million dollars,” think “How can I give a million dollars” — now that’s an interesting question.
Instead of thinking “How can my child get straight As”, think “How can I help 1,000 kids fall love with learning” — now that’s an interesting question.
Shifting your creative lens away from your self, towards what you can contribute, opens up your imagination, for amazing ideas with lots of heart — and really gets you in the zone of doing God’s work.
Conclusion of 3 things / The inner garden
When you practice these three things daily— your creative genius — your ecological consciousness — and your contribution—what you give — as the core of your life’s work — they all come together and build an inner garden inside you. It’s like a cosmic bank account, that you invest in every day. The more you invest in it, this inner garden grows and fruits.
No one can take it away from you. No one can kill it off. This garden is the cultivation of your true essence.
Our purpose is to cultivate it and share it. The modern dancer, Martha Graham captured it when she said:
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”
You can be seen
Through creative practice, we take this inner essence — and like the sea anemone opens up, or how a branch of orchids flowers out —— you take the most hidden and sensitive part of yourself — and sprout it, grow it — and turn it in the most visible and vibrant part of yourself- and then you can be seen. Not your achievements, or your job, or your start-up, body, but you — the best you, the real you.
Someone reads the poem about the sea — and says “I see you.” They visit at your amazing heirloom tomato garden — and says “I see you.” Someone reads over the software you wrote — and say “I see you.” This is the deepest reward — of real connection, a tribe, a movement, or just one, who “gets” you.
That’s the greatest gift you can the world.
You become the force of change
There’s a story in Hindu and Bhuddhist teachings called Indra’s Net. In this story, the universe is draped in a web of jewels, and each jewel in the net, contains the reflection of all of the other jewels —and every jewel is connected to every other one in the universe.
This story tells us of the interconnectedness of our actions, we simply cannot lift ourselves up without also helping everyone around us in the net to lift themselves up also.
When we creativity expresses our essence for a good purpose, we become the fabric of change, we become the jewel lifting the whole net up, reflecting this good upon the other jewels in the web.
Ghandi once famously said,
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
It is to fully live your life’s truest expression.
You don’t just do creative things, you are the creative force that changes the world.
You don’t just plant a tree, you are ARE the environmental consciousness of the earth.
You’re not just an environmental footprint, your entire existence, IS the contribution that saves the planet.
In our lifetime, we can each make a project or a break-through that does some good. But a billion people leaning forward into the creative continuum can make a billion breakthroughs, can believe in a billion unique fragments of a really big and beautiful dream, and I think that will get us over the obstacle.
Each one of us is born as a citizen of Planet Earth — and our purpose is to create.
— and that’s the idea I’ve come here to share — that your creative genius, ignited, put into action, and shared, will save the world.
Get my book “How to Save the World”
“An urgent and useful guide for anyone who seeks to make a difference. It will change your work for the better.” — Seth Godin, Author, This is Marketing
“If you want to change the world, not just talk about it, but actually change it, read this book.” — Jesse Schell, Distinguished Professor of Entertainment Technology, Carnegie Mellon University; Author, The Art of Game Design
“Katie’s enthusiasm shines from every page, and fires hope for my grandchildren. I urge all to read this book” — Professor David A Hood, AM HonFIEAust CPEng, 2012 National President Engineers Australia
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