Saturday, September 4, 2010


Last week, I was asked to deliver closing remarks at the Purchase College Faculty Retreat. The topic was fostering creativity on the college campus. Below are my comments.

Good afternoon. For those of you who don't know me yet, I am Ken Tabachnick, the new Dean of the School of the Arts. Thank you for offering me this opportunity to give you a few of my thoughts on this intriguing topic we have been discussing all day: creativity. I would also like to thank our Provost, Damian Fernandez, for putting together this program and for getting us all thinking about these issues that are critical to our success in serving our students and community.

This morning's program was planned to foster discussion on creating an environment that would encourage greater creativity in our classroom and studio learning. The materials distributed for today's program offer a simple definition of creativity: the ability to imagine or invent something new. The materials also acknowledge some of the  factors or “symptoms” attendant to creativity: an openness to newness or change; a flexibility of thought and outlook; a natural curiosity; and, at least in certain areas, an ability to synthesize data in ways that may be at odds with common or accepted ways. They also note that creativity is the result of a constant evaluation of the input involved, which requires continuous hard work.

George Balanchine, the most prolific dance creator of the twentieth century famously said: There are no new steps, only new combinations. Mr. B., as he was affectionately called, was born at the turn of the last century, and was trained in the Vaganova technique of classical ballet, which adopted a particular interpretation of the basic canon of ballet technique or steps. His training, like that of the ballet dancer of today, would have included endless repetition and correction in an attempt to ingrain the necessary steps, common to all ballet technique, into his body and psyche so that they were automatic and precise.

As so often happened, Balanchine's words held much more meaning than their simplicity implied. There are no new steps acknowledges his training in the closed universe of ballet technique, while accepting that this body of information is still relevant for him and that he did not reject it. By focusing on new combinations, Mr. B. innately understood that his part in creating a revolution in the famously conservative world of classical ballet lay in the way he looked at, synthesized, and manipulated the data he had – the steps. His willingness to spend his life “playing” with the basic givens of the well-established technique, led to a revolutionary way of presenting and appreciating classical ballet, which continues to influence dance-makers to this day.

In retrospect, great creative insight always seems simple and clear. Ballet technique is designed to show the grace and beauty of the dancers by giving the appearance of defying gravity for as long as possible. Before Balanchine, dancers slowly raised their leg to its apogee, lengthening the time we see them “fighting” gravity in order for the limb to rise. Balanchine, looking at the laws of gravity in a different way, realized that the effect desired would be emphasized even more by reversing the dynamism of the movement, focusing the dancer's energy on quickly reaching the apogee and slowly lowering the limb. Simultaneously, he subtly, almost imperceptibly shifted the dancer's center of gravity off the vertical axis. The result was an exciting reinvention of the entire canon of ballet technique.

Similarly, he attacked the prevailing concept of dramatic development and created a body of work based on what some would call the “plotless ballet,” which was, as Richard Feynman might say, a “perfectly reasonable deviation.”* Responding to critics' complaints about Mr. B's abandonment of narrative storytelling in ballet, Balanchine responded something along of the lines of:  A beautiful woman enters an empty room. A handsome man follows close behind. Where is not the story in this?

Like so many others whose creativity has resulted in, what Thomas Kuhn would refer to as a paradigm shift, Balanchine's ability to so fundamentally alter the art of ballet stemmed from, and would not have been possible without, his deep immersion in the status quo of his time. It is axiomatic that creativity with far-reaching and resonant deep implications is the result of deep immersion like Balanchine's coupled with exposure to other diverse inputs that inform the immersive experience.

But, creativity is not restricted solely to the arts, nor is it solely relegated to formal training. It can be messy, disorderly, and even poorly articulated. In my experience as a designer, lawyer, arts manager, fundraiser, teacher, and father, I have seen creativity in every area, in every field. I am amazed at the richness of creativity I see in daily life in large and small ways.

One of the most vexing aspects of creativity is its inability to clearly align with morality and goodness. The historical record leads one to conclude that creativity is agnostic, taking no account of good or bad, or the creator's beliefs. In spite of this, we may be able to appreciate and revel in the results creativity brings, even if we don't revel in the creator him or herself. For this reason, it should be encouraged and fostered at every opportunity in every way.

Truly resonant creativity opens our eyes to a new way of seeing the world or doing something. We can see it in DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation, Danger Mouse's Grey Album, Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point, and Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton's insights on Ptolemy's cosmology. Look at the contrasts in this list: an African-American artist remixes one of cinema's seminal, though racist, early works;  a young DJ from right here in White Plains creates a new work based on the Beatles' iconic White Album, created almost a decade before the DJ was born;  a Jesuit priest describes the inevitable end of time in contradiction to accepted religious orthodoxy;  and independent thinkers challenge the accepted state of the universe over centuries.

This college was born out of the belief that a true liberal arts background, integrating the arts with more intellectual study, is necessary to being a fully formed person, capable of fulfilling the highest potential. Rephrasing this, I would argue that a diverse, broad general set of knowledge is essential to the foundation of fostering creativity. We might disagree on the details of that set of knowledge, but I have no doubt that without such broad general knowledge, the fertile soil of creativity is lacking nutrients.

In addition, sufficient specialization and understanding of the existing state of belief about a particular topic is necessary before creation can occur in that area. Finally, an attitude of openness, whether conscious or not, is critical to the psychic freedom required to see the same set of details in a different way, which is creativity.

Tori Haring-Smith, the president of Washington & Jefferson College and a noted speaker on creativity, suggests that we should consider training students first to be specialists and then generalists, which is the exact opposite of the traditional training students receive. The truth is, however, that for resonant creativity to flourish, both are needed. A creative person must have exposure to a broad and diverse portfolio of thought and theories. As importantly, a deep immersion in the then existing state of a subject with all of its attendant history is essential to the break that is embodied in the creation. Additionally, one must be able to analogize or apply other models of thought in a nonlinear way to what appears to be an inapplicable situation to foster the truly resonant creativity we all crave.

It seems to me that Purchase College, mixing specialized conservatory with extensive liberal arts education, has been and continues to be the embodiment of the broader ecology of creativity.

Looking ahead, one of our greatest challenges is determining how to counter what I refer to as “the flat thinking” engendered by surfing and immediately (supposedly) “assimilating” information, which has been made possible by the internet and living in the digital world. I believe that for creativity to resonate and have an impact, it must be the result of “deep thinking,” rooted in contemplation, whether conscious or not, over time until the creative insight appears. For us then, the goal should be encouraging our students and ourselves to continually examine our subjects bringing broad and diverse possibilities to bear. Not all of our efforts will succeed, but the other thing that every creative person understands, even if that understanding is innate and not overt, is that creativity includes failure, often repeated and over long-periods of time. Once gripped by the creative impulse, a creator has no choice but to pursue his or her creative urge, sometimes despite overwhelming barriers or high costs. Despite the hard work and challenges involved, creative people do not give up; they keep thinking, exploring, and experimenting.

In 2004, the magazine Fast Company published a story about research done at the Entrepreneurial Management Unit of the Harvard Business School.  The  study, looked at creativity in seven commercial ventures and tried to understand the “experiences and thought processes that lead to creative breakthroughs.” The characteristics the study identified give us an outline for our efforts. Here is what they found:

1. There is no such thing as a creative type. Almost all research shows that “anyone with normal intelligence is capable of doing some degree of creative work.” In addition to the various characteristics I and others have discussed, the study highlights intrinsic (not external) motivation as critical to creativity.

2. Money is not a creative motivator. As noted above, intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation is critical. Bonus and pay-for-performance plans tend to make people risk-averse, which does not foster creativity.

3. Time pressure does not fuel creativity. Time pressure prevents people from engaging with an issue in the way that results in creativity. Focus is critical, and distractions prevent the deep engagement required for the creative impulse to arise.

4. Creativity is “positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with fear, anger, and anxiety.    AND

5. Collaboration is more effective at fostering creativity than competition. The most creative teams are those that have the confidence to share and debate ideas.

In closing, I would like to describe an experience that a wonderful conductor/educator named Benjamin Zander describes in his book: The Art of Possibility,**  which he wrote with his wife Roz, a psychologist. In struggling with how to address the closed minds of his students when he was attempting to foster their creativity, he realized that the students were concerned and being held back by their anticipation of not receiving the grade they wanted. To release them, he told the entire class that they would be getting an 'A' at the end of the year. The only requirement was that each student had to write a letter describing, at the end of the class, what he or she had accomplished in order to receive the A. As he describes it, “this A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.”

While I do not recommend this as a proper pedagogical methodology, I think you can see how such a strategy creatively addresses some of the blocks to creativity that the Harvard study and many of us in the field have noted. Developing such strategies for ourselves and our students is imperative if we are to successfully engender creativity here on campus.

Thank you.

* From a letter by Richard Feynman to Mrs. Whitehouse of the California State Curriculum Commission, dated April 13, 1966, in regard to a 5th grade textbook by Scott Foresman:
“In 5th grade, chemistry and sound is [sic] good an clear, but material on weather and electricity are [sic] not very good. In particular, in both these parts (weather and electricity) the teacher's manual doesn't realize the possibilities of correct answers different from the expected ones and the teacher instruction is not enough to enable her to deal with perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track.”
 Michelle Feynman, ed. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track (Basic Books, New York, 2005), 214.

** Benajmin and Rosamund Stone Zander. The Art of Possibility (Penguin Books, New York, 2002), 25-32.