The essence of creative thinking, or as Michael Michalko calls it "Creative Thinkering, is to make connections between things that seem unconnected. It takes practice and a willingness to step outside of your arena of expertise and learn things that seem irrelevant.
That's one of the benefits of required courses in subjects other than the one you're majoring in. When you are sitting in one of these classes wondering "What does this have to do with me?" or "How is this relevant to my major?" don't stop there. Take those questions seriously. Then make one small change and act.
The small change. Start with this statement: This subject does have something to do with me. This subject is relevant.
The action: Find out how.
Don't wait for someone to show you how things are connected. Make connections. You'll be flexing your creative thinking muscle and coming up with new ideas. You never know what that might lead to.
As an educator, I try hard every semester to learn my students' names. But, I'm not perfect and at the end of every semester I end up with a few students whose names I have never learned. I used to feel guilty about this. I don't anymore. Here's why.
I've been thinking lately about the main reason why I fail to learn some students' names and I think the students themselves bear some, if not all, of the responsibility.
I came to this insight in part by reading Scott Ginsberg's book Make a Name For Yourself. In the book, he offers useful advice for becoming more approachable and memorable. These skills are important in the world of social media as well as social networking.
The most important takeaway is that if you're not approachable and memorable you might be negatively affecting your chances for success both personally and professionally. So, what can students do to make a name for themselves and help their professors (and others) remember their names? Here are a few tips:
1. Smile more. Everyone likes to see someone who is smiling. Even non-smilers like people who smile! Smiling can show engagement, understanding, curiosity, All good traits for students to manifest. And, you'll go a long way towards being more memorable.
2. Ask more questions. This is good advice for students anyway. It's one of the best ways to ensure you are learning and it helps you to clarify your ideas. But, it is one of the least used tools in the average student's arsenal. Perhaps it's ignored because it will lead to being more memorable. No one wants to be remembered for asking a stupid question. But, aside from the fact that no question is stupid if it can further your learning, the benefit of being remembered remains whether or not you think the question you are asking is stupid.
3. Make comments when they are solicited. One of my favorite questions to ask in class is "What do you think?" One of the things I am looking for is some evidence that there is thinking going on! Being able to formulate your thoughts on a topic and articulate them is a very useful life skill. It also needs to be practiced. So, take the opportunity when offered to develop this skill.
4. Make small talk. One of the often-overlooked aspects of networking is small talk. But, such inconsequential chit-chat can serve a useful purpose by establishing common interests, developing rapport, and opening the door to unexpected networking opportunities.
Every semester I am usually asked once or twice to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Sometimes I turn these down simply because I cannot in good conscience write a letter that would really benefit the student. The reason I can't write the letter is mainly that the student was not memorable. How many other opportunities are such non-memorable students missing out on every day? There's no way of knowing but I suspect they are missing out on a few. I can be sure they're missing out on some important learning experiences.
You can’t read every book. You can’t retain everything you read. Given these facts what counts as being well-read? It’s an interesting question to consider in a world where more and more books are being published every year thus making the goal of keeping up with knowledge nearly impossible. Even if you choose to specialize in one discipline, being well-read in that discipline is extremely difficult. But, is there a way to attain a level of general knowledge that is both achievable and useful? And, what are the benefits of such knowledge?
In an effort to plan a homeschooling curriculum for my daughter I have been thinking quite a lot about such questions. While I have a lot of sympathy for the unschooling movement and interest-led learning I also think it is important to gain a broad exposure to many different subjects and have at least a passing familiarity with the broad concepts in basic academic subjects.
One of the chief benefits of such broad exposure is the ability to make connections between subjects you do have an interest in and subjects you find less interesting. As T.S. Elliot once said “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest. For it is part of education to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”
In my curriculum I have organized the various academic subjects into the following categories:
Foundations: Education, Mathematics, Critical Thinking, Language, Life Skills
Moral Philosophy: Economics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Religion
Natural Philosophy: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, Geology, Physics
History: American History, World History, Ancient History, Greece and Rome, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Women in History, English History
Humanities: Art, Literature, Music, Plays, Poetry
One of my initial goals for this curriculum was to create a resource list including important books for each subject. To “complete” a course of study a student would need to read a certain minimum number of books in that subject. But, this leads us back to the original question: What does it mean to be well-read in a certain subject area? Can this be reduced to a specific number of books?
I think you need to begin any course of study with the stipulation that learning everything about that subject might be a worthy aspiration but it is not a realistic goal. One also has to remember that learning about a subject involves more than simply reading a set of books on that subject. So, you have to have time for things other than reading.
Let’s pick as an arbitrary number five books per subject. That comes to 150 books for the set of academic subjects I listed above. At the modest reading rate of 25 books per year that means becoming “well-read” in all of the subjects listed above would take 6 years.
I think you could make an argument that a student who went through such a curriculum could not only pass any exam given for any of these subjects at a high school (and possibly college) level but would also be vastly better educated than the average (or even above average) high school graduate.
A student who went through this curriculum would not know everything there is to know about each of these subjects but would know enough to see how they were connected and would know enough to be able to learn more about any given subject if they so desired. In other words, they would have a solid educational foundation.
This is a nearly impossible question to answer in advance. Many will argue that anything irrelevant to you is not worth learning. But, how can you know what is or will be relevant to you without first learning about it?
Of course, you can’t learn everything there is to know but it is also not a good idea to rule out learning anything without first investigating it. You never know what might be useful and if you’re interested in improving your creativity and critical thinking skills, the more you learn, the more you will improve these skills. Let’s consider, as an example of learning, creativity.
What is creativity? Can it be learned? How do creative people think? These are some of the questions that Jonah Lehrer looks at in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. One insight I think is particularly important and provides a useful argument for the importance of learning as much as you can even if it seems irrelevant to your area of study or your current job. Creativity requires the mixing of ideas and to do this, you need to be exposed to many different ideas from many different areas of knowledge.
There are countless examples of this process that could illustrate the point. One of the most famous is the example of Steve Jobs being inspired by a course in calligraphy he took. This led to the development of the many different fonts in one of the first Apple computers. In his book The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz writes about using the insights of Austrian economics combined with Buddhism to help develop a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. In neither case would that knowledge seem to have been worth knowing. Not until an application presented itself. But, that application would not have presented itself if these subjects weren’t first learned. This is what Louis Pasteur meant when he said that “chance favors the prepared mind.”
In Lehrer’s book, he describes a similar process of combining ideas. Dan Wieden, co-founder of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy came up with the “Just Do It” Nike slogan by thinking about a murderer named Gary Gilmore whose last words at his execution in 1977 were “Let’s do it.” He was originally prompted to think about Gilmore due to a discussion with one of his colleagues who happened to mention the writer Norman Mailer. As Wieden puts it “we were talking about Mailer, and I knew that he had written a book about Gary Gilmore. And that was it. That’s where the slogan came from. Just a little sentence from someone else. That’s all it takes.”
The point is that’s all it takes if you have a sufficiently large store of ideas from which to draw and make connections. Where do these ideas come from? Well, one of the best ways to assemble this storehouse is to read widely, learn about different subjects, have a well-rounded general knowledge of the world, and remain curious. All of these are elements of a good education and are too often missing in what passes for education these days in most primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.
Much of education these days seems to be very focused on relevance. We are told that students want to learn what is relevant to them and will respond best when given relevant information. As educators, we are told that this is the reason why students do not read many books, certainly not the classics. They just aren’t relevant.
But, what is the a priori relevance of calligraphy to developing a computer? What is the a priori relevance of Austrian economics to treatment for OCD? And, what is the a priori relevance of the murderer Gary Gilmore to coming up with an advertising slogan?
Judged by our current standard none of these are relevant and would not merit knowing about. So, the question becomes: How much creativity are we depriving students of (and they are depriving themselves) by only focusing on the relevant? In a world where there is a premium on creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving don’t we need to be teaching more irrelevant information than ever before?
So, don’t rule out anything as “not worth learning” until you’ve learned a little about it. And, even then you won’t be dismissing it as “not worth learning” but simply as not worth learning more about at this time. Who knows when that might change?
Here are some philosophically inspired resolutions for you to adopt in the new year:
1. Become a sage. Chuang Tzu once said, "The sage looks at the inevitable and decides that it is not inevitable. The common man looks at what is not inevitable and decides that it is inevitable." Recognize that what appears to be inevitable is not and take one step to become a sage.
2. Improve the quality of your thoughts. Marcus Aurelius recognized that "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." So, resolve to take this step towards becoming happier in your life.
3. Find time to sit still. Blaise Pascal once said, "Most of the evils of life arise from man's being unable to sit still in a room." Take some time to be still, meditate, or just relax with no distractions. It's good for the soul.
4. Take some risks. Paul Tillich once said, "He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being." Don't be a failure, try something new!
5. Examine your beliefs. David Hume pointed out that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." Take some time to examine your beliefs and the evidence for them.
6. Spend some time with good friends. Epicurus recognized that "Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends." Re-connect with friends.
7. Be mindful. The poet Tagore observed, "The greed for fruit misses the flower." Remember to stop and smell the flowers on your journey.
8. Be satisfied with what you have. Epicurus once remarked that "Nothing satisfies a man who is not satisfied with a little." Focus on and appreciate what you have.
9. Identify your purpose. As Nietzsche once said "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost anyhow." be sure you are clear about the meaning and purpose of your life and strive to live accordingly.
10. Be a prepared observer. Louis Pasteur once remarked that "chance favors the prepared observer. Be ready to take advantage of new opportunities that arise this year.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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