Prompt: What were your friends like in high school?
Paper: “The Effect of the Sequence of Creative Processes on the Quality of the Ideas: The Benefit of a Simultaneous Focus on Originality and Feasibility.” Jonali Baruah, Paul B. Paulus, Nicholas W. Kohn, Journal of Creative Behavior.
Recipe for Stupid Shit: Old Friend
I attended Walnut Hills, an inner-city high school in Cincinnati. It was a magnet school that drew from the entire city. At the time, it was considered to be among the best public high schools. Today, it’s ranked 112 in the US. It’s also one of the very few public high schools that requires three years of Latin. You have to pass a test to attend.
The famed artist, Jim Dine, attended; so did conductor James Levine and Chicago 7 political activist Jerry Rubin. Alumni include Grammy and Nobel Prize winners, national columnists, and the dude who invented the Easy-Bake Oven. While many graduates accomplished extraordinary things, more impressive is the huge number who went off to do above ordinary things in every field.
In every high school students self-segregate into tribes and cliques, staking territories to defend. At Walnut Hills, burnouts held the front steps. The popular, rich, and beautiful kids owned the back steps, and the weird, ugly, awkward, and studious (i.e. regular kids) hung on the side steps. I was a sidestepper.
High school was something I had to do and finish. I didn’t care much for it then, and I have no strong feelings for it now. It was fine, like dinner at Olive Garden; I don’t need to go back. Same for high school friendships.
I came to Minneapolis for college. Nobody else from my class crossed the Mississippi with me. After a few visits home, I stopped calling my old friends. I lost touch and never really connected with anyone. I’m not good at that, and, apparently, my old friends aren’t either, at least not with me.
I mentioned in a previous post a line from the photographer Duane Michals that has stuck with me: People are disposable. And so, into the bin went my high school friends.
Gone but not completely forgotten. They come back in whiffs.
I got a whiff with this week’s prompt: Billy Cohen’s flame-red hair, hypomanic dangerousness, brilliance, and creative intensity. I haven’t thought about him in decades.
Billy was iconoclastic and hilarious, with an insatiable appetite for attention. A flamboyant and theatrical kid, adopted into a family of ordinary dullards. Everyone was sure he was gay. With his freckled baby face and bright red hair, he stuck out like an apple in a bushel of Brussels sprouts.
Even as a naive and idiotic teenager, I was afraid for him. I wish I could remember some complete stories, but I only have archeological fragments. Without the aid of others to brush off the layers of accumulated dirt, I can barely resurrect a skeleton of a story.
There was the time when Billy decided to wear a large, multi-colored embroidered yarmulke to school every day. A strange decision for someone who didn't follow the other religious obligations and practices that usually accompany such an overt symbol of Jewish piety. It seemed less a religious expression than a masochistic fashion statement inviting even more
bullying and torment than he normally received.
I can’t remember specific dangerous things Billy did, but I remember fearing what might happen when he was around. Even then, I thought, like that Robert Frost poem, there were two paths ahead for Billy; one would lead to greatness, the other, its opposite.
I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that he’d died of AIDs in the 80s, or been institutionalized. He was the kind of character in a movie who’d go into a bar and taunt some thugs – knowing they’d beat the shit out of him. Or worse. I could also imagine him becoming a successful Broadway producer; an iconoclastic columnist; an artist making puppets in a Soho loft; a wildly popular college professor; an advertising creative director.
Curious, I Googled. With such a common name, it took some sleuthing. Turns out Billy died in 2017. His obituary was nothing more than a list of relations with no mention of kids or a partner. I kept Googling and found a memorial Facebook page. The page had a nice illustration as a header that I first assumed he drew, but discovered was from an odd 1950s Disney film, The Truth About Mother Goose. There was one snapshot of Billy that looked to be from college. No bio.
He had 1600 friends.
The comments on his memorial post hinted that his life may have taken that opposite path. Other comments suggested, just before he died, he was making efforts to reconnect with people from his past.
I thought about investigating further by reaching out to one of his recent friends. But it’s none of my business. I left his orbit 42 years ago and didn’t look back.
People are disposable.
I owe apologies to the many advertising art director and writer students I’ve taught over the years. I made a mistake and unintentionally passed along misinformation.
I’ve been teaching that while working on new ideas, one should treat ideation and evaluation as separate processes that are sequential and distinct. Based on a theory that it’s best to generate a lot of wild and crazy ideas without judgment and then go back later to evaluate and elaborate on their value and feasibility.
Although I’ve been teaching it this way, upon reflection, I don’t think that’s what I actually do. When I work on creative problems, I’m simultaneously switching between originality and feasibility. I do it instinctually, without realizing it. I think most successful creatives do so as well.
Jonali Baruah, Paul B. Paulus, Nicholas W. Kohn, in their paper, The Effects of the Sequence of Creative Processes on the Quality of Ideas: The Benefits of a Simultaneous Focus on Originality and Feasibility, provide laboratory evidence that focusing on both originality and feasibility—at the same time—is the best way to generate original ideas of high quality with the best chance of being useful.
Originality and feasibility are cognitively different. In some ways, they may be antithetical. I’m not well-versed in neuroscience but I’m sure there are parts of the brain that are processing the fanciful, creative ideas and other parts churning the practical. Running these two mental processes in unison is a complex orchestration. The flute and the drums, working together with the violas and oboes. This is a Jeckel and Hyde problem. A married couple problem. A marketing vs. operations problem. If only our cognitions could all get along.
This study finds ample evidence to conclude that this difficult simultaneous approach is better. (Difficult usually is better.) They came to this conclusion after testing a group of subjects directed to focus first on originality and then on feasibility. They also tested another group that started with feasibility and then originality. The third group considered feasibility and originality simultaneously in their creative task.
Traditional brainstorming, and the variations most organizations practice, tend to separate originality and feasibility. This might explain some of the reasons why collaborative ideation tends to yield lower-quality ideas than those coming from individuals. Simultaneous focus is easier alone than with others.
A simultaneous focus on novelty and feasibility requires that one possess subject matter expertise to ground ideas in feasibility and a broad repertoire of diverse knowledge to feed originality. Divergent and convergent thinking together. Thinking with breadth and depth at the same time.
Collaborative creative work brings together minds that have different biases toward divergent and convergent thinking. Subject matter, depth, and multitudinous breadth. This should create a multiplier effect to generate more and better ideas. Does it?
We know, from theory and practice, collaboration works when a team can synthesize ideas organically, like a jazz combo, or is led, through structured procedures, by a conductor—centralized or decentralized simultaneity of originality and feasibility. A bunch of smart people and a whiteboard more predictably produce frustration than innovation.
The case for a simultaneous focus on originality and feasibility lends more support to the validity of intentional models like Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). In the SIT model, ideation is forced into narrow constraints that are formed within what they call the closed world of the product. This is a very good hack to force feasibility and novelty together.
The Design Thinking (DT) model is open-ended as to the way feasibility and originality are addressed. The stages of DT aren’t meant to be linear; however, the creative ideation stage is most often adjacent to problem definition and prototyping, making it biased toward feasibility. If a simultaneous approach to originality and feasibility is superior, design thinkers should consider how they incorporate it into a human-centered design project.
Without intentional processes and effective creative leadership, original and feasible ideas are difficult to manifest. Asynchronous workflows and fragmented communications make things even worse. It’s no wonder managing innovation is so difficult in contemporary businesses.
How can collaborative coworkers embrace the simultaneity of original and practical ideation using asynchronous workflows? Is it even possible? The only way I can think of is an intentionally designed process that understands the dynamics between novelty, feasibility, and elaboration discussed in this paper.
Take a look at how your team creates new ideas and evaluates the feasibility of turning novelty into innovative and practical solutions. You might discover that your methods are out of focus.
Recipe for Stupid Shit: Old Friend
Here’s a way to use the discarded glass jars that fill up the recycling bin. When you’re done, you can keep your sculpture/shrine or toss it back into the bin.
3-5 glass jars
Glue that works on glass
Take 3-5 glass jars and fill each with something that represents your long-lost friend. Glue them together in an interesting way.