What I like about this post is that he suggests that we do something we suck at. Or paint with ketchup on the kitchen counter. Or play the digeridoo.

This is what recharges the creative batteries. Sometimes we need to step away from competency and embrace discovery instead.

A choice to see trash as treasure. An inspiring ability to imagine possibilities. An example of the irrepressible human instinct to create beauty. 

The beat of your heart’s song is too loud.

Here is an actual cover letter sent to my husband’s software development department with an application for a job opening:
Dear Hiring Manager:
I am interested in the recent Front-End Developer position listing at XX. So I am listening to the beat of my heart’s song, taking the chance, and dancing to this new song that is daring me to dream a dream of becoming a valuable contributor to your team, and XX’s remarkable future.
Life is a danceimage
As a software designer by day, and a competitive Ballroom and Latin dancer by night, I see how the interactions within business teams and peer groups in our day-to-day lives are like working towards having the peace within to hear the music of life. Trying to first find the beat of the environment we are in, then learning how to move the body to that beat, and finally connecting with others to work towards finding the unique balance of lead and follow, push and pull, giving and taking of creativity resulting in a work of pure, and awe-inspiring art. I seek to bring new energy, and connect with the current wealth of energy that adapts to moving with XX’s influential vibrations rippling across the world.
He wasn’t given an interview. Where does creativity end and crazy begin? Give me some examples of when playfulness crossed the line from creative to crazy in your work life!

Mother made of germs



My personal hero is Sir Alexander Fleming, the scientist famous for saving 200 million lives. It was his play ethic that drove the discovery of Penicillin.  The image of a man with furrowed brow focused on test tubes and lab reports just isn’t accurate.  In truth, he was "painting" with germ samples. For funPenicillin was an accidental discovery as he tried to generate new colors for his artwork. Our Protestant work-focused culture doesn’t celebrate the true story of the discovery and perpetuates the attitude that play is frivolous.

"When we play, we are free.”  Here’s a guy who discovered that he sucks at drawing and that playing with matches opened the door to success.  For Hanoch Pevin, roadblocks are a blessing.

Forgive yourself. Play. ”It’s not about technique. It’s about communication.”

Interview with Seth Godin: Parenting for a New Economy

 “…the greatest shortage in our society is an instinct to produce. To create solutions and hustle them out the door. To touch the humanity inside and connect to the humans in the marketplace.” –Seth Godin.


For Seth Godin, the most valuable people in business aren’t the ones who do what they’re told. They’re the ones who tell him what to do. Who innovate. Who design.  Who change. Who take risks. Who say, “This is not enough.  We can go further than this.”

It’s a sermon Godin has been preaching for decades, in best-selling books, speeches and blog posts and one which has made him among the most sought after and respected thought leaders, entrepreneurs and business consultants working today.

Godin blames what he calls a “compliance surplus” on an outdated education system, designed at the turn of the last century to train factory workers for an industrial economy.

In his education reform manifesto and TED Talk Stop Stealing Dreams, he advocates for a revolution in mission, instructional strategy and culture of learning that replaces the emphasis on the assembly line skill set with one that trains for leadership in a modern “connection economy.”

Still, most children today are pushed out the door and into a public school environment that destroys initiative, discourages generosity, and extinguishes curiosity and creativity—the very qualities most prized in the connection economy.

In Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable, he describes that dynamic as a “Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.” In The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?he suggests that choosing “stability” in a “race to the bottom” is just as dangerous as flying too close to the sun. 

But for many parents like me, driving kids to perform according to state achievement standards without aiding and abetting the theft of their dreams feels like the story of a different myth: that of Sisyphus, condemned to an impossible task.

In an April interview, I spoke with Seth about aligning parenting with purpose—about creating a new mission for childrearing based on a modern economy and culture—in spite of what happens in the classroom.

Here are some quotes from Seth, taken from our conversation:

(to listen to the full 30-minute interview, click here)

On the end of the industrial economy:

We invented public schools… jobs … suburbs—so many of the things that are part of our lives because we wanted and needed to support the industrial economy…. [It] was a very seductive bargain: if you gave up certain elements of self-determination and elements of your dreams—in return, the industrial economy would take good care of you and give you riches unimagined by anyone who wasn’t royalty years ago. [And now]… anyone who reads Play Buffet has more resources than the King of France did. And that is a huge step forward. But something has shifted. And what has shifted is that the industrial economy is faltering—it cannot and will not grow like it used to. And so the industrial revolution that kicked off in 1875 has played out, and now there’s a new revolution right here and right now that is not of industrial economy but of the “connection economy” and what we need to do now is inspire and train those of the connection economy fundamentally different from those that the industrial economy brought us.

 On priorities:

 I’ll ask the well meaning parent three questions that will get to the heart of how hard this [issue of success] is as a parent:

What’s better: for your [child] to have five B’s or one A and three C’s and a D?

I would daresay that most parents would go for the five Bs. Be “pretty good” at everything. But in fact in the connection economy, the people who thrive in it are great—unbelievably off the charts at one thing. And they’ll do fine because they can hire someone to take care of the stuff they’re not good at.

[What’s better]: A kid who plays on a champion soccer team and doesn’t get a lot of playing time and doesn’t develop emotionally or a kid who loses every single game but along the way, with every single kid on that team, [plays and] figures out what it is to grow and to connect and to nurture each other?

Again, if you look at the parents in the stands—If you look at the coaches in high school that we reward— if you look at what they write about in the newspaper and what they talk about at school, you would seem to think that the purpose is to get trophies as if there is a trophy shortage and I don’t buy that.

What happens when your child comes home with an essay, a painting or a piece of pottery that… they are incredibly proud of but no one else gets, understands or admires? Do we reward the kid who has “talent”? Do we make sure that the star of the musical is always the same kid because she has the best voice? Or do we reward wide-eyed enthusiasm and righteous effort?

For that kid who’s just a natural and can sing like a bird—it’s not going to carry her very far—there are 500 other schools with kids just like her and there’s only room on Broadway for one. What in fact is going to pay off in the long run is the emotional intelligence and the resilience to care enough about a thing to keep pushing yourself to confront and dance with the dark side of failure — not applauding the one who happens to be good at it today.

[For] parents who are so focused on their kid getting into a famous college and so focused on how the other parents rank us because our kids have some sort of preternatural talent—it’s really hard to suck it up and say “nope, I am really enthusiastic about my kid who doesn’t appear to be good at this, but is on a track to be great at it.”

On Seth’s parents and his childhood:

I won the parent lottery and I’m not ashamed to say it—my mom… was an extraordinary member of the community where I grew up in Buffalo. She started by volunteering at the art museum and ended up as the first woman on their board of trustees. She invented the modern museum store and was treasurer of the museum store association. My Dad became an entrepreneur when I was 17 and was the volunteer head of the United Way and the local area theater. I grew up believing that being part of the community was what you did. I lived in the suburbs, but we were in downtown Buffalo all the time. I had neighbors who had never once set foot in downtown Buffalo because people who didn’t look like them lived there.

My parents were totally in favor of raising free-range kids.  As I’ve written before I was abandoned by some guy in downtown Cleveland at midnight when I was 14 and had to figure out how to get home on my own. And that changes everything because you start to realize that you have way more resources than you think you do. [My parents] also made it clear … that the goal wasn’t to mimic somebody and do what your were told—the goal was to be excellent at what you chose to do….

I spent every summer … at a camp in Canada called Arowhon that is still in business, that’s very focused on extinguishing bullying and challenging kids … to do “something” all of the time. And once you realize that you can … put on a show, make a speech, create a prank, learn how to sail, go into the world, [on your own initiative] it gets really boring to just sit there doing nothing. And too often, we’ve over-programmed our kids too much that we’ve extinguished their desire to make a ruckus on their own.

There was a lot of being left alone. When I think about stuff we did with electrical wire, chemicals, shovels and other implements of destruction—it freaks me out. … This idea that “I’m not going to entertain you right now—you’re seven years old, here’s a spool of wire- see you later”—there’s a lot to be said for that.

 On technology at home: 

We don’t “really” have TV in my house … even in interactive screen time, you are anonymous and what I think is important is that you have to put your name on it. You have to be in the [real] world and say “I made this”. Not, my avatar made this— not, my username made this— I made this. And once that starts, I think every eleven-year-old ought to be blogging and every twelve-year-old ought to be uploading videos they made because being able to say … I made this [and then see] a reaction creates a cycle where you can get better at it. That is really different than consuming South Park.

On creative challenges:

 Different (creative challenges) resonate with different kids. I’m a huge fan of putting on a show …The act of putting on a show or selling a girl scout cookie or doing a fundraiser is that you get to say “I made this”… the point is saying “here I am”—it doesn’t have to be acting but it has to be something: somebody connecting to someone else about something they care about.

What we (parents) have to do is understand that we’re the ones who are going to take the hits the same way we did in the delivery room and the same way we take the hit when we have to swallow our fear when our kid rides his bike away for the first time. And those hits involve looking our kid in the eye when he says he doesn’t want to go to college and finding out if that’s a real thing and if so, applauding that. And sending our kid out to sell girl scout cookies all by herself like “a free range kid” as opposed to doing it for her so that she ends up with higher scores on the girl scout cookie rankings.

On courage and letting go:

 Courage in WWI was a little different than it is now. Courage in WWI was most certain death to help a country thousands of miles away … so the courage we are talking about now is the Brene’ Brown sort of courage—the vulnerability courage … [and] … it’s the courage to sit still and just create gaps where creativity and passion can fill in. And that’s really hard to do. Because in those gaps and in those moments you’re not in control. You don’t know what’s going to happen next … .but if you create a good enough vacuum and you’ve earned it, your kid will tell you what happened to her in school because she wants to build that bridge if you let her.

On achievement and success:

If I look at someone like [musician and artist] Amanda Palmer who broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter fundraiser ever raising 1.2 million dollars, organizing her 24,000 fans, building a worldwide tour, giving one of the most popular TED Talks of the year and most of all, bringing her art to people who wanted it, Amanda Palmer by every [traditional] measure, was not a success when she was 15, 20, 23. She spent years at Harvard Square, standing on the street, busking on the street, pretending to be a silent bride in a wedding dress. And you look at the arc of Amanda Palmer’s life and it’s not the arc that you brag about in the alumni magazine. It’s the arc of someone who cares and someone who is going to get there because she needs to and wants to and has committed to. And it’s not the arc of someone who went to the famous college, got picked at the placement office and has a niche in the industrial economy.

If your goal is for your kids to be successful, 40 years ago, you could argue that a niche in the industrial economy was exactly the right thing, but I’m pointing out that that’s not available anymore. So parents have to suck it up and back their kids up. They have to say to their kid who is boring but has straight A’s, “You are letting your family down” because all you are doing is playing in the industrial economy.

What’s fascinating about [places like] Manhattan school of Music and Julliard is [that they are] basically sweatshops churning out low paid  workers for the orchestral industrial complex … what they spend all their time doing is pushing their students to play [music] as written. Technique is the dominant metaphor and practice is the only way to get there … [But] the students who are both happy and successful do not get that way because they have out-practiced everyone else or can play a scale 1% better than everyone else. In fact, the Yo Yo Ma’s, the Emanuel Ax’s and the Keith Jarrett’s  of the world, don’t get there solely by practice….

You succeed by playing what you feel. You succeed by having the guts to do something that might be criticized and yet we’ve created these institutions where we try to push people to do things that are beyond criticism as opposed to raising kids who are eager to be criticized because it means they are on to something.

On compliance:

The industry of 20’s 30’s 40’s was 100% about the power of the manager and particularly the middle manager to demand compliance from “his” employees … and if you had compliance and the work they were doing was simple enough, you would make a profit …Compliance was prized above all else. And it’s not a big leap from compliance at work to corporal punishment at home: to sitting up straight at the dinner table and doing what your parents insist upon. And leaving aside the ethical and moral implications of that … those who are really good at [compliance] are never going to get a great gig in 2020, because we really don’t need anyone who’s merely competent and compliant. 

On becoming “artists” again:

“Art” is the work of a human being seeking to connect with another human being usually by doing something that hasn’t been done before. Doing something that might be risky and most of all doing something that’s generous … And I want to be very clear here that it’s easy to get carried away in the soft stuff that comes with nurturing and humanity and looking your kid in the eye and feeling that wonder of what it is to be 12. I am a huge fan of that. But I am talking about something different. I am talking about the fact that in addition to the fact that this is the right thing for people to do emotionally – it is also an economic imperative. That all the things we got sold on why we needed to leave [humanity] at home and why we needed to say to our son, grow up don’t cry—those excuses for acting non-human are GONE. They’re bogus now. Ironically we are back to where we started, which is being human.

On what parenting is for: 

Until you’ve asked the question what is parenting for … you can’t decide if you’re doing a good job.

I’m arguing that what school is for is to create leaders and people eager to solve interesting problems … Everything we do at school should do one of those two things or support one of those two things. That’s my thesis and if you have a different one that’s fine but you should say it out loud. And when we think about parenting and ask what is parenting for… you can argue that a dominant, obeyed, authority figure sets the table - creates the platform for you to do the things that parenting is for, but I’d like to know what that is, because I don’t agree.

For me—[the purpose of] parenting is [to] create a family that supports each other as they thrive and [to] create children who will grow up with joy in their heart and the passion to connect—[who will] be generous and lead us. Because if we have more of those people in the world- I think we’ll be better off.



"Stop Stealing Dreams"

Seth Godin asks the question, “What is school for?” and shines a light on the disconnect between what school produces and what our society needs. 

For a deeper look at the issue of the toxic effect of an outdated educational system on both our children and our society, read Godin’s manifesto, also entitled Stop Stealing Dreams.

Lingering questions:

What does fertile soil for dreams look like in households and in the context of day-to-day parenting? What parenting habits and attitudes did I bring from my own childhood that may inhibit or destroy dreams? 

Stay tuned for some insights from Seth Godin, who has agreed to talk to me about what I can do to inspire and support my children, in spite of a school system that tries day-in and day-out, to steal their dreams.

In a rut? Is the way forward so complicated?

"Winging it": An interview with Pamela Meyer, PhD: author of From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement

"Western cultural views of how best to organize and lead (now the methods most used in the world) are contrary to what life teaches. Leaders use control and imposition rather than participative, self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging people’s best capacities to learn and adapt. In doing so, they only create more chaos. Leaders incite primitive emotions of fear, scarcity, and self-interest to get people to do their work, rather than the more noble human traits of cooperation, caring, and generosity. This has led to this difficult time, when nothing seems to work as we want it to, when too many of us feel frustrated, disengaged, and anxious." —Margaret Wheatley

Why shouldn’t I slit my wrists? 

Because at least for now, Pamela Meyer, author, scholar, speaker and organizational development consultant is telling leaders and executives in organizations both large and small that it’s ok to let go. That work doesn’t have to suck and that play is a key element of success.

Thank God, because when I look into the eyes of my teenaged children and imagine their adulthood I don’t just want to see responsibility and work ethic (will they ever stop leaving underpants on my floor?)— I want to see joy. Curiosity. Resilience. And knowing that Pamela is shining a light on the work of scholars like Wheatley and bringing her own research based strategies to counteract the legacy of the Protestant work ethic, I’m not going to end it all. I’ve got a spring in my step.

Pamela Meyer received her doctorate in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University and holds Master of Arts degrees from Antioch University and Fielding Graduate University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Boston University’s School for Theatre Arts. She works as a consultant for organizations and teaches courses in business creativity, organizational change and adult learning at DePaul University, where she is director of the Center to Advance Education for Adults and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Creativity and Innovation, part of the Driehaus College of Business and the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.

The expression “winging it” perfectly illustrates Pamela’s concept of co-creative play.  It was first used in an 1885 edition of Stage Magazine to describe an improvised performance by an actor, supported by a facilitator, hiding in the “wings”, whispering prompts and words of inspiration.

Innovation and agility develop in relationship, she teaches, in a community space where permission to play—with roles and ideas— is given and taken. Pamela has dedicated her life to bringing this relational “play” space into the workplace. There, she stands in the wings, giving professionals permission to let go of patterns, roles, habits, ways of thinking and systems that diminish creative capacity and thwart transformational change. She combines more than fifteen years of experience and research in organizational development with strategies she learned in her years building creative teams in professional theater.

Through facilitated improvisation exercises, Pamela demonstrates a powerful alternative to the traditional plan-based management system: an “emergence” model that supports co-creation of solutions, ideas and strategies that are revealed rather than dictated. The engagement she fosters through this corporate paradigm shift increases productivity, drives growth and increases profit. The success of the emergence model requires recognition that play be given proper time, space and value in corporate culture.

I read two of Pamela’s books on the role of play in work settings:

In From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement (Jossey-Bass, 2010), Pamela writes: “The legacy of the Protestant work ethic is a dualistic view of work that filters out information, emotions, and experience that are not immediately relevant to accomplishing the task at hand. A shift toward a playspace orientation transcends the work-play dualism and makes room for both the task and dynamic engagement in it. When the interdependent and essential organizational dynamics of innovating, learning and changing are framed as play, the focus shifts from a sole interest in the product to one that also values the process through which the shared space supports the free play of ideas, insights and discovery as well as individual and organizational learning. When we move beyond the work-play dualism, we see the possibility that emerges in a space where there is room for many of the qualities we associate as either work or play come to life in a dynamic playspace.”

In Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work (Playspace Press, 2011) and From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement (Jossey-Bass, 2010), Pamela writes: “The most successful permission-getters do not leave inspiration to chance: they are intentional and explicit in their search. Some of the most effective innovators actively seek out provocative examples to give them permission to push beyond heir own ideas and preconceptions…… Permission-getters know the value of looking beyond the comfort of their own domain for fresh perspectives ideas and inspiration.”

I also watched her impressive TEDx talk online. In just 18 minutes, Pamela tells her personal story, highlighting an academic career in organizational psychology, a passion for improvisational theater and an early childhood filled with creative inspiration and fraught with abandonment. She shares her vision for adults to bring work and play into the same place, and to rediscover the value of play as a key ingredient of success. Both of her parents play the role of permission-giver in her life: her father as an imaginative, charismatic rule-breaker who packed up and left one day, never to return and her traditional 1950’s mother who raised her and embraced her coming out as a lesbian with love and support. Her undergraduate work in theater arts inspired her play-based research at  DePaul University and her training and consulting models for corporations.

It was too short. Who, I was left wondering, stands in the wings of  Pamela’s stage, giving her permission to take risks? And what do her “playspaces” look like? What contexts represent new learning, force her to think on her feet and stretch her creative capacity?  How does she maintain mental agility? I reached out to Pamela and asked her if she’d be willing to let me interview her by phone and ask some of those questions. On February 22nd, we started with a look at “playspace” in her own life. She described it as the context in which both muscle and mind-set are exercised. She said that in order to stay “fit”, she works at “staying comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Recently, she took up skiing again after many years. No longer an “expert”, she is now having to re-learn with new equipment and is enjoying the unbridled joy she remembers as a beginner. She says that skiing is the perfect metaphor for practiced agility: launching yourself down a hill, responding to the unknown, keeping your knees bent and your face open to the whole landscape. And, after years of research and experience with the power and impact of play, she no longer sees experiences like skiing as a luxury but as a critical investment in mental agility. And, she tries to stay out of the comfort zone of “expert status” as a faculty member, published author, widely respected speaker and sought after corporate consultant, by making time for new academic learning. She is studying agility in SWAT teams, film crews, and computer programers and she reads organizational and art space literature. Pamela explained that while we are socialized to seek comfort and follow familiar pathways, the thrilling “discomfort” on an improvisational stage, in unknown territory or atop a snowy cliff engages us most fully.

(Pamela on the slopes)

When I asked Pamela to talk more about the permission-givers in her life, she spoke more about her father’s abrupt departure from her family, noting that she’d sought and found comfort in the rigid and predictable environment of school. There, her commitment to academic study gave her the sense of control she needed as an antidote to the chaos at home. By stark contrast, the safe and open setting to push boundaries, break rules and explore new capacities, Pamela found in her college improvisational theater community. There, she learned to let go of control, take risks and give and take permission. As she explained in her TEDx talk, the experience of having a father who both inspired and abandoned her helped shape her worldview. She smiled as she recounted for her audience the time when as a young girl, her father invited her to figure out where he could land a Jetson’s style personal plane in the city of his workplace, so that flying could be his means of commute. He skipped right over the issues of affordability, safety and actual ownership to explore the more exciting and dramatic challenge of flying it in for a landing. The sobering counterpoint to this story was his later purchase of a sailboat and subsequent disappearance from her life. In our interview, Pamela described the dramatic lifestyle change in the aftermath: financial stress, her mother’s full-time work schedule and single parenthood. Her mother was the rock and sustaining presence in her life, until an afternoon in a doctors office set it on a dramatically different course. Pamela became her mother’s caregiver until sadly, her terminal illness claimed her life.

Surviving the unplanned. Resilience. Flexing with change. In Permission, the book she co-wrote with Brandy Agerbeck, Pamela begins with the acknowledgement that we are a society of rule followers, adept at identifying and operating within parameters and norms. But in order to imagine the new and different, envision transformational change, respond to crises and perform without a script— we must have skills to improvise. Pamela explains that agility is not just an “imagination muscle” that needs to be loose and limber. “It’s about mindfulness.” Any time she steps into a play space, improvisational stage or unknown territory, she asks herself “How am I showing up”. Am I loose in consciousness?  Am I Open? Closed? She takes time to note physical sensations throughout her body, to experience breath and bring awareness to the co-creative space. Awareness. Responsiveness to others, rather than control, she explains, is the foundation of emergence.  Margaret Wheatley, a writer, scholar of organizational development and “permission-giver” for Pamela, notes that the opposite of an emergence model, the “highly controlled mechanistic system” only “create(s) robotic behaviors.

Other permission-givers in Pamela’s life? Besides both of her parents and Margaret Wheatley— the work of Romanian born theater director Andrei Serban known for innovative, experimental and iconoclastic interpretations and stagings; a colleague at the DePaul University who once played with a lemon twist in the hallway outside her office. (Remember that rubber loop that was attached to a rubber cord that had a plastic lemon on the end? You slipped it onto your ankle, twirled the lemon around with one foot and jumped over it with the other?)  And Pamela’s junior high school language arts teacher: “She was the first person who really saw me. She gave me permission to be more of me.  —To take my own life seriously. She made it ok to write in my journal at a time of life when I was getting a sense that I just might be somebody outside of my family.”

To me, Pamela’s teacher is the most compelling of the “permission givers” she mentioned in our interview. I imagined what school might have been like for me, with teachers willing to relinquish control of and share the sage-stage, to allow classrooms to become laboratories of discovery. Pamela’s books, corporate consulting and teaching represent hope that such discovery and co-creation is still possible for adults for whom school is a distant memory. With compelling research and evidence of increased innovation, productivity and corporate growth, Pamela proves that play is  a key element of professional success in organizational settings. My interview with Pamela revealed its even more powerful role in our personal lives. I am inspired to let go of control; to be mindful of ways I can give and take permission to be creative. Imagine possibilities. Improvise.
To wing it.

exhilaration— By Irene Dunsavage

How really inspiring to know that they experienced this freedom and the opportunity to be free-to make their own connections and explore possibilities from their point of view.

to feel clay as it’s smushed between the fingers or watch the red morning sky slowly fade to an azure blue in minutes.

to gather stones and form new constructs. add twigs and wires.

to form newspaper around your feet to cross a heated street.

sensorial learning at its best..coming from within through an escape and exploration of the outer world.

bliss as no other. and an adult who understands that learning is forming and expanding with ever-exalting expansions..like a balloon filling up.

Expanding. Finally exploding ….pure bliss.

Don’t punish your hamster!

I love the way  Rex E. Jung, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, and Research Scientist at the Mind Research Network, defines creativity:  ”[It] is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it.” 

—which is why cringed when I came across a post entitled:

5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Judging Creativity: Assessing creativity with a tool that looks only for divergent thinking

on a site called Idea fusion

"Creative thinking makes ample use of divergent thinking, so it makes good sense to consider it when trying to assess creativity.  When creativity tests were first devised, test designers were looking for ways to measure the ability to think “far out” as a way to counter the effects of the convergent thinking training we get in school.  Fluent divergent thinkers can come up with lots of new ideas.  They may not all be good ideas, but they can think up dozens.

When a creativity test asks for as many uses for a paper clip as you can think of, it is calling for divergent thinking.  But, for an idea to be truly creative, it must be novel and useful, while attractive enough to encourage adoption.  Few pencil and paper tests of creativity actually consider all three dimensions of creative production.  A test that merely counts the number of new ideas (as some do) is not a good way of judging real life creativity.”



Since I am less interested in the business of assessing creativity and more interested in the business of nurturing it, the porno analogy works for me. Just as porn is a public manifestation of sexual instinct, creativity is the manifestation of the play instinct.  And just as what constitutes obscenity or depravity depends on culture, context and individual aesthetic, the same is true of what constitutes novelty, utility and “attractiveness” in the manifestation of the play instinct.  So…. how do you think your sexual instinct would hold up if the cameras were on you all the time? I don’t know about you- but I’m a little afraid- of judgement. The shame I’d feel would kill it for me. I’d pull out the mom jeans and shut it all down. Get my ya yas out with chocolate. Now imagine for a minute, the child who is playing with clay in his first grade classroom, squishing it through his fingers, experimenting with it’s properties to hold shapes and imagine it in the form of his pet dog Charlie. What do you think would happen to his instinct to play with that clay when his teacher comes around and says “that doesn’t look ANYTHING like a dog.”

It’s no wonder that most adults don’t think of themselves as “creative”. Their play instinct, as core to their essence as the instinct to well…. you know… is ruined by judgement. It’s no wonder that adults turn to rule-bound leisure activities whose outcomes they can predict and control. Hobbies they can excel at without fear of being wrong. Comfort zones without judgement or failure. 

In the spirit of creating fertile soil for the divergent thinking skills that awaken creative capacity- for making masterpieces, solving problems, inventing new designs and staying in love with your spouse, I suggest that we nurture the play instinct way beyond kindergarten, in every grade at school and in workplaces using the very tool we used to use to “test” for creative value.

Except- I’m tired of paper clips. And, they are less sexy than say, an Altoids tin. Look how the company who manufactures the ” curiously strong mint” uses its packaging as a creative challenge for its brand-loyal consumers:


Are you turned on? I am. To me, that is some serious creative porn, offered by a mint lover with mad divergent thinking skills. And the appealing, rectangular paper tin liner? Altoids applied the paper clip challenge to brand managers who offered this ingenious idea for its use when the mints are all gone:


Is the dunce cap novel? Check. Useful? Nope (unless the hamster is stuffed and nailed to a little wooden stool). Attractive enough to encourage adoption? Hmmm. I don’t know. I want to adopt it- if only I had a hamster that would behave badly and then accept the punishment.

But seriously- the novelty and utility of Altoids’ clever paperclip style challenge clearly has value: consumer engagement on social media platforms is driving sales. Altoids recognizes our play instincts to imagine possibilities (for paperclips, cardboard boxes, a stick) and yet another instinct: to “show and tell”. Through Facebook, we are invited to  share our ideas and our re-purposed tine masterpieces without judgement- without fear of being wrong.

Our ability to be creative then, depends on our willingness to protect and nurture the play instinct. And that means, jettisoning our judgement filters during the creative process.

It’s posts like the one above— that show us how to critique the results of the creative process— that encourage us to self edit along the way, to suppress playful instincts and to succumb to fear of judgement

I say, play with paperclips and Altoids tins and don’t worry about the quality of ideas until the process is over- until the play instinct is satisfied. Set your inner hamster free and don’t worry about him breaking the rules or getting punished.

Turn off the cameras of judgement.

Take off your clothes, turn off the lights, and have fun. 


“Tangle is a huge, messy, fun, interactive elastic weaving event created live by children and their families. It’s part mass visual arts installation, part performance, part play ground, part dance party and all chaos.  Like a giant peg board, children and families create a landscape together, tangling and weaving coloured elastic through giant poles. It is an organic and constantly evolving piece, colourful and vibrant and fuelled by live music. Tangle is a giant experiment where children take control and create a giant abstract tangled artwork by stretching their bodies and their imaginations.”

What a brilliant example of the kind of play we need to do- the kind our brains need us to do in order to strengthen our imagination muscles. 

"I see a snail, a rocket, and a mother holding her baby". 

When we ran away from our New York City bedroom community in New Jersey to live in Mexico, our kids were 7, 11 and 12 years old.  There was no Toys R Us there. No coloring books, legos or Monopoly. And…. no TV.

Did they flip out? You bet they did. No crack addict suffered worse DT’s. After 48 hours when the shaking and keening were over, all three did something truly amazing. They played outside.

Evelyn, age 7 spent hours pouring water from one container to another and then onto surfaces to see how fast the water would disappear. She named all the street dogs. She collected coils of rusty construction wire, run over by cars and flattened into appealing “scribbles”. She called them her street drawings and hung them on a wall in her pretend museum. Like soft white bunnies in clouds, she saw something amazing in each. 

Remember that “what can you do with this paper clip” test we all took in kindergarten? The direct opposite of those that measured our ability to apply a series of steps to arrive at a single predictable answer, this test measured our ability to generate possibilitiesdivergent thinking skills that are the foundation of creativity and the key ingredient of innovation.  The thing that kindergarden kids find so easy about that test is the jettisoning of that stack-of-paper image. They just un-stick it from their consciousness like a post-it note. 

Seeing my children adapt to a new, non commercial culture and embrace such profound simplicity was a refreshing reminder of our creative capacity as adults, if we are willing to  let go of attachments: to ideas, familiar surroundings, patterns, routines—comfort zones.

Innovators and inventors may not run away to Mexico to recharge their creative batteries, but they do visit “discomfort zones”, where they are free to experiment— play spaces where they go to imagine possibilities and get un-stuck.

How many of us can still pass the paper clip test?  When do we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable?

What is the ROI when the investment is….penguins?

That is--miniature penguins that serve as a vehicle to engage 250 employees in a successful design of and move to a new work facility. Imagine that professionals with expertise in digital design and information technology are told that they are no longer to report to their New York City headquarters and that instead, they are to double their traveling time to commute to a suburban office park in New Jersey. What percentage of employees do you think are likely to quit? A major media corporation considered this question and decided that the announcement of a move would accompany an invitation to take ownership of the design of their own culture and work spaces.  

Over a six week period, I facilitated a three-phased process that solicited and documented ideas for the design of a new tech center. A conference room was transformed into an ideation laboratory— a safe and neutral space away from HR representatives and senior managers where work-flow process, commuting solutions, work station design, aesthetics, collaboration and corporate culture could be explored in the context of productivity, morale and innovation. The penguins pictured here have left their ice flow where plenty of fish swam all around them.  And here they are in their new desert climate sitting on a sand covered conference room table defining the aesthetics and amenities for an oasis. 

Immediately following the announcement of the move at an all-hands meeting, employees were invited to react with bold black marker on a Wailing Wall:  "You can’t put lipstick on a pig"  and "Time to get a new job"

At first, it seemed that no promise of improved collaboration, connectivity or amenities could mitigate the horror of doubling (and tripling) commuting times, cramped shuttle buses and isolation in the great expanse of cultural desolation.

And yet. During the first week after the announcement, a modern style, tech themed Wishing well made from stainless steel sheeting and copper wires displayed a single wish for the new office, written in silver marker onto a coin shaped ornament. Natural light

Over the weeks that followed, many more wishes were added and employees signed up for facilitated sessions and dropped in to the ideation room to add wails to the walls, bitch about the man and offer solutions. 

What made them get up from their seats? Leave their cubes? Turn left instead of right to visit Playbuffet’s laboratory? And what made them let down their guard? Soften the jaded perspective? Stop scanning job postings? 


And silly putty, legos, popcorn, wigs and hula hoops. 

My twenty years of experience in communications and human insight doesn’t go very far if employees don’t speak. If they never leave their desks. 

A conference room filled with penguins and a hallway featuring tigers climbing out of their cage onto circus tightropes are water cooler oases for the imagination. While willing and curious hands are busy squishing silly putty and arranging penguins into undignified poses, minds are forgetting job descriptions and taking risks. In an environment without judgement, employees swim out of their lanes. Break the rules. Enjoy the process without constraints around budget and practical application. The outcome? Culture and design solutions that are both practical and cost effective. Ownership. Pride. Retention of talent. Employees who move with the company.

Penguins thriving in the desert.

They call it “the fun theory”. I call it “play”—What happens if I hop to this step and then to that one? Given the choice between a predictable (and forgettable) experience and an experimental and (memorable) one that involves the senses and offers elements of surprise- people of all ages choose the latter. And how brilliant that Volkswagon uses both the play experience and social media sharing habits to build their brand.