Creativity: Slow Looking and Hidden Revolutions

I promised tools, so here is the most useful first:  look at everything around you.  Deeply.  Observe it closely.  We have a lot of distractions but the trick is to really see things.  I had a great physics professor who said that Einstein was brilliant because he saw the world in a baby, baby, baby way – very simply.  No ornamentation.  No grand structures.  Naked and simply.  Deeply.

I have an exercise for you – from the Barnes Foundation.  If you haven’t been, it is a shockingly large collection of impressionist art.  You really should go.  My wife and I were visiting and she turned to me and her eyes were welling with tears.  She said “We’re in room twelve.  Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Renior, Van Gogh.  Room twelve!”  She was saying that each of the pieces in that one room would be central to most museums’ collections but at the Barnes, that is just room twelve.  Amen.

Take a look at Cezanne’s “Ginger Jar” at the Barnes:

Really look at it.

Ok, a little longer.

Just some fruit on a table.  Right?

Nope.  Cezanne has hidden a revolution in this fruit – he is distracting you with what you believe to be ordinary.  It very much is not.  Look at the table.  Look at the left and the right sides.  That table does not exist on our planet.  Look at the pear at the front.  It is almost floating.  Is the jar in the back on the table?  How can I see the table from the front and from the top simultaneously?  The pear on the right – the green one – is ready to fall off the table.  Look at the legs of the table – not possible.

This is slow looking.  Cezanne has hidden a revolution in this painting – one that Picasso saw and that lead him to reject rules entirely.  He said that Cezanne was the grandfather of all modern painters.

How much more can we bring into our lives and our work if we just saw more of what was around us?  How many more opportunities would we see?  How many more possibilities?  I am imploring you as a way of imploring myself – I am deeply guilty of missing so much around me.  There is so much around.  So much.  If we can just see it.  The universe is always asking us to dance.


I should clarify:  I will not be talking about creative techniques (e.g. brainstorming techniques, thought triggers, etc.).  I want to improve our individual creativity.  I know that sounds crazy to many.  I could make a long argument but let me use an analogy:  before we understood plant biology, we knew how to grow food.  Even if we didn’t understand the exact mechanisms of how plants grew, we understood how to create the conditions in which it could happen.  That is what I seek to do.  I will not be telling you how to wire the black box labeled “Creativity” in your brain but I hope to help make it bigger and stronger.

Creativity and Engineering

Engineers are part scientist and part artist.  We talk a lot about the former and not so much about the latter.  To paraphrase Theodore Von Karmen, science is about studying things as they are and engineering is about creating new things that never existed before.  Bringing new things to the world is what artists do – so we’re artists – but we (often) use science to guide our choices.  Sometimes we have to figure it out empirically, which means we lead science – we find a solution even without an understanding of the reason(s) as to why our solution works.  An example of this are the flying buttresses at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that solve the wall buckling problem that prevented construction of buildings of its size before the buttress solution.  Don’t think that I am anti science – I’m also a chemist – I’m just clarifying the role of engineering.  I am saying all of this for two reasons:

  1. Many who dream of a better world and want to get to the business of creating it don’t see the art and creativity inherent in engineering.  The science we use is our language.  The things we create are, when done well, poetry.  When we fail to acknowledge this, we lose those who are drawn to engineering by a desire to create and improve.  The world loses the contributions they could have made.
  2. The problems we face now, and will face in the future, will demand creative solutions.  For engineers to solve those problems, we have to recognize creativity as a valuable and necessary skill/tool for engineers.

Hopefully these assertions are self-evident.  I hope to make some arguments for them here.  I also hope to provide some ways to explore and expand your creativity here as well.  Welcome.