Transforming the Conventional into the Creative: Discovering and Designing the “Bright Crystals” of Contradiction

These days everyone wants to be creative, to “think out of the box.” But how do you walk the talk? As a workshop leader who often tries to give organizations a “Jolt of CPR: Being Creative, Passionate and Risk-Taking,” let me share one concept that just might be an integral component of creative thinking and problem-solving. On stage, I like to introduce this concept through a thought-provoking and, possibly, unsettling exercise that was inspired by the research of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, as reported in his book The Emerging Goddess: Creativity in the Sciences and the Arts. (The title evokes the mythic imagery of Athena, Greek goddess of both war and creativity, being born full-sized from the head of her almighty father, Zeus.) This Yale Psychiatrist and Cognitive Psychologist found that subjects who responded with more opposites or antonyms in a word association test – e.g., “wet” to the word “dry” or “fast” to the word “slow” – had higher scores on certain creative personality measures than subjects generating mostly synonyms or “original” responses. (Rothenberg’s sample was fairly small and at most his results can be suggestive. My casual workshop trials indicate that usually less than ten percent of the audience free associate predominantly with antonyms. Of course, I remind participants that this is only one informal measure of creativity.) Considering the small or informal sample size, nonetheless, why might there be a correlation between contradictory association and personality differentiation? To expand your worldview and problem-solving vision, consider these Seven Cognitive Complexity Keys for Transforming the Conventional into the Creative:

a. Challenge the Conventional. To think oppositionally reveals a willingness to confront the conventional and the accepted or even “the respected authority.” While some view this as defiance, others see a delicious opportunity. As von Oech wryly noted in his classic on creativity, A Whack On the Side of the Head: “Sacred cows make great steaks.” Or more potently and paradoxically, consider the pioneering 20th century artist, Pablo Picasso’s refrain: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction!” (Guess sometimes to “think out of the box” is not sufficient; to start fresh and be fertile you may have to blow up the sucker, or at least be willing to challenge some traditional or foundational assumptions.) To seek a higher truth, one may have to look at the oppositional with a more complex, ironical, or even volatile mind’s eye and become more comfortable with seeming contradiction. (Hot ice anyone?)

b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective. This Eastern symbol depicts a complex truth: that seeming opposites don’t necessarily result in division or separation, but potentially flow into each other forming a greater, interconnected whole. Also, the symbol illustrates how a small circle of contradiction embedded in its opposite (as represented by a small black dot in the largest part of the white flowing amoeba-like space or a small white dot in the largest part of the black flowing amoeba-like space) is seeding the emergence of its counterpoint, that is, the white space ultimately transforms into black space and the black into white.

A Yin-Yang perspective was articulated by the pioneering actor and comedian, Charlie Chaplin, who, for example, believed the “light-hearted” emerged from darkness: “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.” Or consider the poignant observation from the inspiring disability pioneer, Helen Keller: The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks. Ms. Keller certainly perceives the yin-yang seeding principle. Finally, what about this seemingly contradictory example: have you ever had a fair fight with a close friend or partner? You both express angry feelings; each one says his or her piece without wanting to rub the other’s face in the mud. And lo and behold, once feeling genuinely heard (even without reaching total agreement) the anger begins to subside replaced by a sense of relief, sure, but also some intimacy, perhaps even a little more trust.

c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy. Oppositional thinking is not simply reactive: by definition it’s positioning one concept in juxtaposition or relation to another – such as by quality, e.g., “wet vs. dry,” quantity, e.g., “large” vs. “small” or by position, “above vs. below” or “hill vs. valley.” That is, oppositional perspective challenges you to see multiple points of view, including your antagonist’s mindset – which may facilitate understanding and empathy or even give you an advantage in terms of short-term tactics and long-term strategy. Creative problem solving requires definite feel for details (the trees), but you also want a sense of the big picture (the forest).

Grappling with polarity encourages the rejection of simplistic “black or white” and “good or bad” thinking. A capacity to make discriminations, to see shades of gray (a byproduct perhaps of the tension between forest and tress and other dichotomies) and, especially, examining both sides of an issue is critical for being a guide “on the cutting edge.” (And remember, these days, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up way too much space.”)

d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic. Oppositional processing also means building a mind bridge within, that is, harnessing your masculine and feminine energy, using your head and heart, or according to one neuropsychological researcher, cultivating “bi-hemispheric peace of minds.” Of course, the different sides of the brain-personality are not always in perfect harmony. On a personal level and in the performance arena, I need time and space for my manic-like, “out there” stage persona. But I also must have room for being a sometimes melancholy or a frequently introspective and analytically insightful cave dweller. (Alas, sometimes one soars then crashes or at least burns or runs out of energy before the rejuvenation cycle kicks in.) But when I have both these energy – mind and mood – sources cooking and interacting, when my heated passion is tempered with cool purpose and hard-earned perspective…then I’m “Touched with Fire” (the title of psychologist and best-selling author, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book; its subtitle – “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”).

e. Pay Homage to Janus, F.Scott and A. North. Many in the arts and sciences have recognized the importance of reconciling seeming opposition to achieve a sense of wholeness or enriched integration, what Albert Rothenberg called “Janusian Thinking.” This cognitive process was named for the dual and opposite profiled, Roman deity, Janus, whose image was often found on gates and doorways. And appropriately, Janus was the god of “beginnings and endings” and of “leavings and returns.” Consider my Janusian-like linguistic loop of beginnings and separations: “One must begin to separate…one must be separate to begin.”

Moving from the mythic, to the more contemporary, thinkers of all stripes, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Alfred North Whitehead and acclaimed 20th century author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have embraced the latter’s ideas about the significance of grappling with opposition: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet determined to make them otherwise.” Sounds like another leading edge mantra!

f. Explore and Express Text and Context. As a “word artist” – both on the page and on stage – the importance of grappling with “text” and “context” is inescapable. “Text” is the “on its face” data or “utility” of a message while one notion of “context” is the envelope of personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical background or circumstance in which the message is embedded, thereby providing or coloring it’s full meaning and significance. The best communicators understand that, in yin-yang fashion, both text and context along with substance and style and a forest and trees perspective must be accounted for if real meaning is to be gleaned, or if “message sent is to be message received.” Can you relate to this vexing example of one-dimensional information flow: have you ever received directions for assembling a product with only verbal instructions and no supportive images? GRRR!

Of course, accurately receiving a message is only half the battle. The cutting edge communicator is not simply passionate but also knows how to deliver a message, especially by telling a story. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories. Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. A story blends high concept and high touch. Stories are high concept because they sharpen our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else, a basic tool for understanding. Of course, when telling stories, especially in our ADHD culture, consider this Shakespearean maxim – Brevity is the soul of wit. And I would add, “Wisdom.”

Finally, as James Lukaszewski, founder of The Lukaszewski Group Inc., a crisis communication firm, observed in a recent speech: “Telling stories is far more powerful than all of the studies, analyses, data, and information piled together on any given subject you can name. Data is debatable; stories permit everyone who hears, sees, or reads to make up their own minds from their own perspectives. Great leaders tell great stories. Stories help others learn to be leaders…Be a storyteller and you’ll become known for being helpful, memorable, and a source of inspiration, insight, as well as self-evident truths.”

g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension. When trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable you may experience what psychiatrist, Richard Rabkin, called a state of “thrustration,” which I defined thusly: “Thrustration occurs when you’re torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you haven’t quite put together the pieces of the puzzle.” Some are not able to tolerate such tension. A truly classic New Yorker cartoon, playing off the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, forever lampooned the dangers of self-righteous rigidity in the face of seeming contradiction. A nattily attired, pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: “Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!”

However, if you can stay with such cognitive tension and confusion, the angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns. The reward may be worth the risk. Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between thesis and antithesis yielded a creative and integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don’t ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email [email protected] for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy. Again, a pretty good recipe for a cutting edge thinker, leader and budding “psychohumorist” ™!

Closing Summary

A conceptual framework for turning on your creative brain has been outlined. Seven paradoxical, mind-expanding tools were illustrated:
a. Challenge the Conventional,
b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective,
c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy,
d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic
e. Pay Homage to Janus, F. Scott and A. North,
f. Explore and Express Text and Context, and
g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension.

So learn to discover and design “bright crystals” of contradiction. You will transform conventional cognition and communication into imaginative, insightful and multifaceted understanding and adaptation – the hallmarks of creative connection. And as illustrated, this connection manifests in domains ranging from achievement to affiliation: 1) in the intrapersonal realm of mind-mood/mania-melancholia/heated passion-cool purpose interplay, “bihemispheric peace of minds” along with the synthesizing “Aha!” experience and 2) in the interpersonal realm of empathy, integration and emotional intelligence. Complex concepts to keep us evolving and to enable one and all to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com – called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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