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erik wahl

May 29, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Excerpt: Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius

Internationally recognized graffiti artist and creativity expert Erik Wahl releases his new book, Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius, on June 4. Here is a sneak peak at chapter two, where Wahl discusses the importance of retaining a child-like mind throughout the course of your career:

We were truly wired to create when we were young. This doesn’t mean we should stop exploring, discovering, and innovating once we are older. Today’s reasons for creative breakthrough may be even stronger. We should be inspired by the fact that as adults we are far more equipped to do something truly meaningful and lasting with our discoveries. Not only can we make our lives an everyday adventure; we can enlighten the lives of others too. But to achieve our full potential, we have to do away with the notion that curiosity, imagination, and exploration are child’s play….there are unspoken maxims we embrace as children that even the most educated, experienced, advanced adults should never abandon if we want our days to still fascinate and fulfill us.

1. Mystery Adds Meaning:

When Isaac Newton was asked to describe his most productive days as a scientist, he explained, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great oceanof truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

When mystery leads, curiosity follows. Whys, Whynots, and What ifs. There are few things more constant in a child’s life than curiosity.When curiosity is a driving force, a person remains interested, present, in passionate pursuit. Kids are notorious for driving their parents crazy with their incessant questions. But these questions are the reason they learn so much so quickly. They also keep life interesting.

Consider the greatest films you’ve seen or books you’ve read. It was undoubtedly the mysterious elements of them that kept your interest piqued and senses sharp in order to satisfy your curiosity. Mystery is the reason you watch an intense five-minute sequence in a film and wonder if you took a single breath. It’s the reason your limbs can unknowingly fall asleep in the midst of an engaging conversation with someone you love. It’s the reason we are still fascinated by other galaxies and outer space and the possibility of life on other planets.

Mystery is the reason people like business tycoon Sir Richard Branson, Titanic and Avatar  director James Cameron, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spend millions of dollars to explore the deepest depths of the world’s oceans.There is promise in mystery: the promise of virgin paths and uncharted waters. And, if we keep searching, there is the promise of discovery. Mystery makes everything more interesting, and more interesting means more meaningful. Creativity is born of mystery.

2. Ignorance Leads to Breakthroughs:

“Einstein’s vast knowledge of mathematics and science increased steadily throughout his life,” explains author Scott Thorpe in his book How to Think Like Einstein. “But when we look at Einstein’s problem-solving output something seems wrong….The most profound breakthroughs came during a remarkable year during thebeginning of his career. But in later years, Einstein’s problem solving dropped off.”

Thorpe goes on to describe a fascinating and revealing trend in the life of the archetypal genius. It was during his first year out of college, while he was working at the Swiss patent office “reviewing improvements to laundry wringers” and doing physics “on the side,” that he discovered E = mc2.

He was no less brilliant in the subsequent years and in fact knew more about science and math and had more uninterrupted time to focus on his experiments alone and with the greatest fellow minds of the day. And yet, as Thorpe points out, “he didn’t solve any more scientific problems.”

“We would expect Einstein’s problem solving to correlate with his intelligence and knowledge,” concludes Thorpe. “Instead, his problem-solving ability declined as his knowledge increased. Innovation was highest when knowledge was lowest.”

It is the ultimate curse of knowledge: that when we know the most, we are often least able to see new solutions to old problems or new ways to approach entrenched relationships,systems, or hierarchies. Our great knowledge is often the greatest hindrance to creativity in problem solving because the thought of setting all that knowledge aside in favor of a blank slate seems ludicrous. But the blank slate is the secret weapon of every child. At that age, you had nothing to fall back on. Nothing to pre-color your assumptions. No mental files to flip through.Few past experiences from which to draw conclusions.

As a child you based your conclusions on your latest exploration or experimentation. Your knowledge was real-time and constantly evolving because your mind remained flexible and able to adapt your conclusions to your latest discovery. You constantly reserved the right to withhold judgment until further review. With this open-mindedness you remained able to see things, not as you were inclined or instructed to see them, but as things really were. Perhaps even better than they were. Ignorance—even the voluntary kind—leads to breakthroughs.

3. Later Means Never:

Spend an hour around any child and you know they have an unyielding tenacity. They pursue their desires in the moment they arise and do not quit until they have what they set out to get. They want it and they want it now. Later means never. While this tenacity mixed with immediacy can drive a parent mad and lead to disciplining a child, it has apositive side. It is the reason children are masters at spontaneity. They are up for anything,anytime—especially before the requirements of school give them reasons to say no. Ice cream at 7:00AM? Absolutely. Trampoline at 10:00PM? Why not. Song in the middle of a crowded restaurant? Which one would you like to hear?

As children get older, they become more aware of others’ opinions and the expected etiquette of given situations. Before then, however, there are no self- or socially imposed limits on when and where fun, beauty, and breakthroughs can happen.The idea of lucky breaks has been prevalent in our society for some time— especially when describing actors and performing artists. The truth, however, is that most of these so-called breaks were the result of individuals’ exploring possibilities spontaneously, in the moment they arose.

In his book Earning Serendipity, author Glenn Llopis cites some of the most well-known recipients of spontaneity’s rewards. “An apple fell from a tree,” writes Llopis, “and a man sawsomething more than bothersome fruit. Isaac Newton saw an expanded theory of gravity. Atorsion spring fell from a worktable and a Naval officer saw more than a clumsy spill. Richard James saw a Slinky.  A rubber compound spilled onto a tennis shoe and a chemist saw more thana stubborn stain. Patsy Sherman saw Scotchgard, a spill to protect against all spills. A moldy culture of bacteria sat forgotten in a laboratory, yet a scientist saw more than dirty equipment. Alexander Fleming saw penicillin.”

Llopis goes on to tell the story of the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral, who went on a daylong hunting trip with his dog in 1941. When he returned home after the day in the foothills of the Alps, he noticed dozens of burrs stuck to his wool pants. They sparked a child-like curiosity. He pulled one free and observed it under a microscope. He noticed the burr had tiny hook-like arms that allowed it to grab the tiny loops of fabric on his pants. An idea was born, but not just any idea—one that would lead to the creation of a multimillion-dollar company.

The idea: Velcro. It’s one of those creations, like the hanger or the paper clip, that seems so simple we could have thought of it ourselves. It is usually true. We could have come up with the idea,maybe even should have—but only if we had allowed space in our often stringent schedules and blinkered mind for spontaneous creativity. As a child, you had only two things on your calendar,and both of them could occur at any moment of any hour: exploration and creation. Rescheduling wasn’t an option. It was now. Or it was never.

4. Play Is the Supreme Catalyst:

Of play, author Jack Uldrich writes, “It allows people to practice skills they might need later down the line. But play goes beyond such life skills. When we play, we gain practice manipulating things and controlling the outcome of events. We also devise new solutions for old problems and create new endings for our experiences.”

The inimitable British essayist G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The true object of all human life is play.” It wasn’t just an offhanded mention. Chesterton wrote many essays and books on various themes but none more than the subject of play.

Manalive is a case in point. The title alone reveals its thrust, but the story itself is anything but predictable. It is the story of Innocent Smith, a man who is either completely mad or the most brilliant one of all. He blows onto the scene of a dull and lifeless London boardinghouse on the wings of a great windstorm, wearing a tight green suit. To say he is eccentric is an understatement. He is so vivacious and full of antics that few know what to do with him. But they are drawn to his sweet nature nonetheless.

Soon Smith’s presence reverses the mood of the dreary boardinghouse. A once hesitant Inglewood confesses his love for Diana Duke, the landlady’s niece. A cynical journalist named Michael makes amends with the heiress Rosamund Hunt. And Smith himself makes secret plans to elope with the heiress’s paid companion, Mary Gray. All seems perfect—until two doctors appear with the news that Innocent Smith is wanted on charges of burglary, bigamy, and attempted murder.

Smith pulls a revolver and, seemingly confirming the charges, shoots twice at one of the doctors,narrowly missing his head. Smith is subsequently tried, but in an unexpected twist all evidence points to his being, like his name, innocent of all charges or, as Chesterton puts it, “blameless as a buttercup.” In a masterful conclusion, the truth is revealed: Innocent Smith shot at people to inspire them to value their lives; the house he broke into was his own; and the women he allegedly had an affair with were all the same woman—his wife masking her identity with aliases so they could continually reenact their courtship.

Innocent Smith would be a welcomed addition to many homes and offices I know. He is a fictitious, childlike character that represents that missing element in so many adult lives. But the point is not that we need him. The point is that we can be him. We can enter the office with more pep in our step, a curious smirk, an eager expectation that any workday can be a great adventure if we know how to think and where to look.

At one point we all were as playful as Innocent Smith. This is not just an unsupported hypothesis, as author Jack Uldrich points out. “Play has consistently been found to reduce stress, increase energy levels, brighten people’s outlook,increase optimism and foster creativity.”A rediscovery is in order. No, a resurrection.

A resurrection of the manner in which you used to live out your days. A resurrection of the person you used to be. “Life is a hypocrite,”wrote British playwright Christopher Fry, “if I can’t live the way it moves me.” It’s time to live as you are moved to live. With passion. Curiosity. Freedom.

“Play without keeping score,” writes Roy Williams, founder of the Wizard Academy in Austin, Texas. “Play requires the relaxation of the uptight mind. We are rejuvenated and revitalized by it. Children are happy because they play. Adults are unhappy because they do not.”

When we were children, despite the circumstances surrounding us, despite our lack of skills and tangible resources, life still burst forth with possibility at every turn. In that context,creativity flowed wildly and continuously. We lived by the rhythms in our hearts and in the world around us. We fearlessly followed the paths of curiosity before us, wherever they might lead. We did this every day.But that was then. Somewhere, somehow, our innocent, hyper-creative life began to give way to another less wild and less wondrous existence. The easy explanation is that we grew up. It’s only part of the story.