Random finds (2017, week 15) — On creativity and true genius, why expertise matters, and the cult of the entrepreneur

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The Water and Cherry House by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is a private single-storey house in eastern Japan (source: ArchEyes).

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and a reflection of my curiosity.

Creativity and true genius

“Viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue,” says Jessica Olien in Inside the Box. “Online job boards burst with ads recruiting ‘idea people’ and ‘out of the box’ thinkers. We are taught that our creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed.”

The truth, however, is that most people don’t actually like creativity. Studies confirm what many creative people have suspected all along, that people are biased against creative thinking, despite all of their insistence otherwise, she writes. “Uncertainty is an inherent part of new ideas, and it’s also something that most people would do almost anything to avoid. People’s partiality toward certainty biases them against creative ideas and can interfere with their ability to even recognize creative ideas.”

“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect. As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform.” — Barry Staw, a researcher who specializes in creativity at the University of California–Berkeley business school (also: Why No One Really Wants Creativity, 1995)

“Even in supposedly creative environments […] I’ve watched people with the most interesting — the most ‘out of the box’ — ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution. […] In fact, everyone I spoke with agreed on one thing — unexceptional ideas are far more likely to be accepted than wonderful ones.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom as a Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is not actually bad for the creative process. It can even facilitate it. Rejection can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. For some, the pain of rejection is similar to the pain of training for a marathon — training the mind for endurance. For a creative person to be successful, he or she needs to survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure, says Barry Staw.

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Pablo Picasso, who saw ‘good sense’ as the chief enemy of creativity.

“The truth is, humans have the capacity to be creative every day, but in the modern world we often fail to recognize it. But in order to best deploy this capacity we need to remove the set of blinders most of us wear,” writes the American primatologist and biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes in Creative Collaboration Is What Humans Do Best.

According to Fuentes, “Creativity is not a private endeavor vested in a single person or a select group of people. It is not solely about genius in the arts or sciences, or actions by prominent artists, celebrities, or politicians. It is not even limited to the work of particularly original thinkers. Creativity emerges from the interconnections of ideas, experiences, and imagination.”

Fuentes sees creativity, for which he believes humans “are even wired,” as a two-stage process. First, it is our ability to confront a challenge, or work through an idea or concept by imagining possible outcomes, which aren’t automatically evident from the materials and situation at hand. But is’s also our capacity to turn an imagined outcome into materially resounding reality.

“To be creative is to tap into our mental pool of resources, our experiences, and our connections and use them to create something new, revised, practical, or outlandish. Human creativity is our ability to move back and forth between the realms of ‘what is’ and ‘what could be.’” — Agustín Fuentes, the author of The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame

If it is the power of imagination, more than anything, that has made humans exceptional, as Fuentes believes, Leonardo da Vinci is, no doubt, one of the most striking examples of someone who is worthy of being called ‘sapiens,’ or wise.

“True genius results from a rebellious attitude against compartmentalized thinking; it can also appear as a fleeting moment of insight, not necessarily a permanent condition of greatness,” writes Anne Quito in Why it’s so hard to recognize the geniuses around you. “These definitions are highlighted in two new biographies of the ultimate Renaissance avatar for genius, Leonardo da Vinci, a multi-tasking, ambidextrous polymath who bridged engineering and art.”

Annunciation (c. 1473; oil and tempera on panel), by Leonardo da Vinci (Galleria degli Uffizi Florence, Italy)

First, Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, who describes genius as a trait that can be cultivated. “He says da Vinci’s ability to ‘apply imagination to intellect’ is what makes him the quintessential model. The inspiration for his engineering projects, for instance were often drawn from his daydreams about nature.” His facility for mixing observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen, Isaacson explains.

“Leonardo’s genius was a human one. It was wrought by his own will and ambition. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.” — Walter Isaacson

The second book is Mike Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci. Lankford pushes Isaacson’s thesis and argues that da Vinci’s human frailty made him the genius we know today. “Modern biographers like to imagine Leonardo as a total man, utterly complete in mind and body, whereas the evidence suggests someone who was terrifically lopsided,” he writes.

“Lankford also argues that a myopic understanding of the phenomenon [i.c. genius] blinds us from seeing everyday geniuses. If we limit our gaze to the work of known geniuses, we neglect to give breakthrough ideas a chance. He says that genius is often quashed because of today’s regimented social order, and poor barometers for intelligence such as standardized testing system. A boy like the young Leonardo might not be given a chance to succeed today, he points out.” Giving his background — as a child of a slave and a notary, da Vinci didn’t have a privileged education, spoke in regional Tuscan, and could only effectively communicate by drawing — social welfare workers would call him ‘a problem.’ “There are Leonardos among us,” Lankford adds.

“Your disconsolate letter reaches a countryside as sorrowful. I understand the bitterness which sweeps over you at the foolish reception of you and your works. What would you rather have? a mediocrity which pleases everybody or a talent which breaks new ground. We must choose if we have free will. Would you have the power of choice if choosing leads to suffering — a Nessus shirt which sticks to you and cannot be stripped off? Attacks on originality are to be expected from those who lack the power to create and shrug their shoulders.” —Paul Gauguin in a letter to Émile Bernard (from: Paul Gauguin: Letters to His Wife and Friends; source: Brain Pickings)

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Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, Émile Bernard, 1888. (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Why expertise matters

By definition, an expert is someone whose learning and experience lets them understand a subject deeper than you or I do (assuming we’re not an expert in that subject, too),”writes Adam Frank, an expert on the death of stars like the sun, and co-founder of the 13.7 blog, in Why Expertise Matters.

Who would have a problem with that?, he wonders. As it turns out, many people. But how did we reach this remarkable state of affairs?

In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, professor of international relations at the U.S. War College Tom Nichols tries to answer this question.

“Nichols is not arguing for a slavish adherence to anything that comes out of an expert’s mouth. In a wonderful essay that preceded the book, he tells us: ‘It’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us.’ But he is profoundly troubled by the willful ‘know-nothing-ism’ he sees around him. Its principle cause, he argues, are the new mechanisms that shape our discussions (i.e. the Internet and social media).”

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Source: The New Yorker.

According to Nichols, part of the problem is that while the democratization of knowledge is great, it’s threatened by the strange insistence that every opinion has equal weight. That’s an idea, he rightly says, that has nothing to do with democracy:

“Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that ‘everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.’ And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.” — Tom Nichols

Being a true expert means having a healthy dose of humility, Frank notes. “If you have really studied something and really gone deep into how it works, then you should come away knowing how much you don’t know. In a sense, that is the real definition of an expert — knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge. In the end, we need to become insistent on the value of knowing things and the value of recognizing when others know what we do not. If we don’t, there will be a steep price to pay for the democracy we hold so dear.”

“Over time, I learned that few participants had ever built a business before. There was a general resistance to bringing in experts. Most everyone was winging it, as I was. When I asked [Zappos CEO Tony] Hsieh why he hired and funded inexperienced leaders, he cited Uber as an example, noting that innovation typically happens when non-experts apply their knowledge to a new industry. He asked people to have faith in the experimental process.” — Amy Groth in Our obsession with the “cult of the entrepreneur” has gone too far — and here’s why

And this …

According to Amy Groth, “In recent years, a phenomenon has emerged in the technology industry around the ‘cult of the entrepreneur.’ The rise of venture capital and its pursuit of unicorn startups (valued at $1 billion or more) has turned successful founders into mythical heroes. There are many benefits to celebrating the entrepreneur. The clearest upside of this societal construct is that it rewards innovation.”

In an article for Quartz, Our obsession with the “cult of the entrepreneur” has gone too far — and here’s why, she writes:

“But there are dark aspects to this obsession, such as the focus on hyper growth, which encourages founders to challenge moral and ethical boundaries in the name of innovation. Uber, the most valuable startup in the world, is under fire for its toxic work culture, largely a byproduct of a cult of personality and an entrenched ‘bro’ culture. Unquestioning faith in founders also influenced the scandals at Theranos, whose founder sought to channel Steve Jobs; and Zenefits, whose founder was terrified of failure. There are lesser-known examples, like the way a fake startup leveraged Silicon Valley hype to defraud employees. All expose the realities of startup life and its myths.”

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Illustration: Tim Enthoven for The New York Times.

“[…] I came to the conclusion that our society’s obsession with the cult of the entrepreneur has gone too far. We benefit tremendously from the impact of visionary leaders like [Zappos CEO Tony] Hsieh who are willing to make bold bets. But there’s a fine line between supporting that audacity and having blind faith in non-experts who seek to disrupt industries that they know nothing about. People may be starved for a sense of belonging and the need to serve a higher purpose, but through experiencing life inside the Downtown Project [which was initiated by Zappos’ Tony Hsieh to create ‘the most community-focused large city in the world’] I learned that following an inspirational leader who speaks the language of spirituality isn’t enough to create a community that can sustain itself.”

“What is bro culture? Basically, a world that favors young men at the expense of everyone else. A ‘bro co.’ has a ‘bro’ C.E.O., or C.E.-Bro, usually a young man who has little work experience but is good-looking, cocky and slightly amoral — a hustler. Instead of being forced by investors to surround himself with seasoned executives, he is left to make decisions on his own.” — Dan Lyons

In Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin, also Dan Lyons, author of Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, writes, “The technology industry has a problem with ‘bro culture.’ People have been complaining about it for years. Yet nobody has done much to fix it. That may finally change, if the people in charge of Silicon Valley — venture capitalists, who control the money — start to realize that the real problem with tech bros is not just that they’re boorish jerks. It’s that they’re boorish jerks who don’t know how to run companies.”

“Uber plays by its own rules — shortchanging drivers, dodging local taxes and hiding behind expensive lawyers.” Carys Afoko, communications director of the consumer rights activist group SumOfUs, in How Uber conquers a city in seven steps

“Uber’s collapse shouldn’t come as a surprise but it does offer a lesson: Toxic workplace culture and rotten financial performance go hand-in-hand. It’s possible for a boorish jerk to run a successful company, but jerks do best when surrounded by non-jerks, and bros do best when they hire seasoned executives to help them. Without ‘adult supervision’ and institutional restraints, the C.E.-Bro’s vices end up infecting the culture of the workplaces they control,” Lyon adds. “This poisonous state of affairs will get fixed only when investors start getting hurt. A crash at Uber, the most high profile tech start-up in the world, could provide the jolt that finally brings the tech industry back to its senses.”

The American writer, reporter, and political commentator Walter Lippmann famously said, “When all think the same, then no one is thinking.”

Now, in Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis write, “If you look for it, cognitive diversity is all around — but people like to fit in, so they are cautious about sticking their necks out. When we have a strong, homogenous culture (e.g., an engineering culture, an operational culture, or a relational culture), we stifle the natural cognitive diversity in groups through the pressure to conform.”

“If cognitive diversity is what we need to succeed in dealing with new, uncertain, and complex situations, we need to encourage people to reveal and deploy their different modes of thinking. We need to make it safe to try things multiple ways. This means leaders will have to get much better at building their team’s sense of psychological safety,” the authors conclude.

“If the economy is not best thought of as a mechanism that returns to equilibrium and follows fixed laws of motion, how should we think of it?,” Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and explorer of ‘doughnut economics,’ wonders in Old economics is based on false ‘laws of physics’ — new economics can save us. “Like the living world: it’s complex, dynamic and ever-evolving. And for economists, that means it’s time for a metaphorical career change: from engineer to gardener.”

‘Economic gardeners’ can help to create a thriving economy that is inclusive and sustainable, and will help to achieve the sustainable development goals by following two principles: make it regenerative and distributive by design. Regenerative economic design ensures that we use Earth’s resources again and again and agian, while distributive economic design, in return, ensures that value created is spread far more equitably among those who helped to generate it, Raworth writes.

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Economists are shifting from working with ‘laws of physics’ to taking a more organic approach. (Illustration: Sarah Walsh)

“Realising that the economy is ever-evolving is an empowering insight. If complex systems evolve through their innovations and deviations, then this gives added importance to novel initiatives — from complementary currencies to open-source design — that are at the leading edge of new economic design. Better still, every one of us can have a hand in shaping the economy’s evolution. Not just in how we shop, eat and travel, but in how we volunteer, invest and protest. In how we set up new businesses, save for our pensions, license our inventions, and power our homes. Who knows, we could just turn out to be butterflies that stir up powerful winds of change.”

According to Canadian author and artits Douglas Coupland, “people with internet brains are capable of doing huge amounts of work, quickly and from anywhere. This is making, and will continue to make, existing roles obsolete, as automation and AI take over. Coupland predicts the death of the middle classes and the creation of a huge new ‘global mobile class,’ powered by massive broadband access. Increased efficiency will mean people will work less and more flexibly. Indeed, the very idea of a full-time job is up for debate,” writes John Card in Douglas Coupland: ‘The nine to five is barbaric.’

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The Living Internet (2015), by Douglas Coupland, is a kinetic room-sized sculptural tableau visualizing what the Internet and online searching actually look like. (Photograph: Douglas Coupland)

“‘My suspicion is that long distance wifi in an information rich environment means that people will be quite willing to stay in jobs that don’t seem like full-time jobs to us here in 2017. We are coming towards a labour reality where there are more people who have fewer things to do. Maybe that’s a good thing,’ he adds.

In such a rapidly evolving society, possessing actual skills — including those which have nothing to do with the internet — is vital, says Coupland. ‘The winners in this labour force will be the people who have an actual skill,’ he says. ‘Always have an actual skill as a back-up, that’s very good advice.’”

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The Living Internet (2015), by Douglas Coupland. (Photograph: Douglas Coupland)

“The role of humans, at least for a while, will be to ask questions. To ask a great question will be seen as the mark of an educated person. A great question, ironically, produces not only a good answer, but also more good follow-up questions! Great question creators will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new industries, new brands and new possibilities that our restless species can explore. A good question is worth a million good answers. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering. If answers indeed become a commodity, questions become the new wealth,” says Kevin Kelly, the author of The Inevitable, in a column for GE Reports, titled With AI, Answers Are Cheap, But Questions Are The Future.

“As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,’” writes Abeba Birhane in Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons.’

“We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.

Yet the notion of a fluctuating and ambiguous self can be disconcerting. We can chalk up this discomfort, in large part, to René Descartes. The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism. While Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the modern mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours.”

The Cartesian ‘cogito’ considers a person a standalone entity, irrespective of her surroundings, inscribed in the brain as a series of cognitive processes. Memory must be simply something you have, not something you do within a certain context.

“The emerging fields of embodied and enactive cognition have started to take dialogic models of the self more seriously. But for the most part, scientific psychology is only too willing to adopt individualistic Cartesian assumptions that cut away the webbing that ties the self to others. There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,’ which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’”

In Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places, Omid Safi, a Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and columnist for On Being, writes:

“I have been writing, for a while, about the theology of cracked spaces, about failing and failing better. It’s a realization that life is not a smooth, linear climb to the mountaintop of ‘success,’ but often a messy, beautifully messy series of falling flat on one’s face, bouncing back, and falling slightly less awkwardly the next time. (And the next, and the next.)

So thinking about cracking and breaking and chipping (and healing) has been with me for a while. But until recently I had not thought about how there is a beauty that can emerge from the cracked spaces. That there is a way to illuminate cracked cups, spaces, hearts.

Turns out that the Japanese have been doing so for the last 400 to 500 years. It’s called kintsukuroi. It’s a Japanese art form. Cups, chalices, mugs, dishes that are cracked are repaired with gold or silver lacquer. Kintsukuroi is also referred to as kintsugi, meaning ‘golden repair.’”

Kintsukuroi is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means “to find beauty in broken things or old things.”

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An example of kintsugi by Dutch designer Lotte Dekker.
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Huerta de San Vicente, Federico Garcia Lorca’s family home on the outskirts of Granada, Spain.

“I know there is no straight road | No straight road in this world | Only a giant labyrinth | Of intersecting crossroads.” — Federico García Lorca (from his poem Los puentes colgantes, or Floating Bridges)

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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