Posted by: Liz Massey | July 26, 2008

Summer Reading List (II): Intersections, Illness, and Mindful Creativity

This month, I serve up three different slices of the delicious pie that is creativity, through highlighting books on finding inspiration in the intersections of concepts and cultures, how to wrest artistic benefit from a disabling illness and the benefit of approaching creativity from the standpoint of mindfulness.

The Medici Effect
by Frans Johansson

My edition of this book (which came from the public library) had the very practical sub-head ‘breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures,’ but Amazon tells me that the paperback version sports the slicker sub-head of ‘What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation.’ Regardless, the book is a detailed look at the combinatorial process that often leads to breakthrough ideas.
The title highlights the effect that the Medici family had on seeding the confluence of people, ideas and commerce that blossomed during the 1400s into the Renaissance. Johansson documents famous historical ‘intersectional’ ideas, such as Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as well as the exploits of modern-day innovators such as Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed chef at New York’s Aquavit, who combined his Ethiopian heritage and his adoption into a Swedish family and Scandinavian culture to create mind-bending, yet taste-satisfying, luxury dining experiences.

Aimed more at encouraging individual creativity than team performance in the workplace, Johansson’s book is filled with insights on how to make ‘random’ connections between ideas in disparate fields more common and, frankly, more predictable!

When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness By Tobi Zausner

What happens to an artist who suffers a debilitating physical or emotional illness? Zausner, who herself survived a bout with ovarian cancer, decided to find out. Her research sleuthing uncovered evidence that many great artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt, may have had limitations (ADD and partial red/green color blindness, respectively) but were nonetheless able to transcend their conditions to thrive and make masterpieces.
Zausner asserts that, ‘Most of us swim on the surface of life until a storm of illness impels us to dive within and discover new sources of inspiration and strength—yet they were there waiting for us all the time.’ She backs this assertion up with interviews and discussions with a number of contemporary artists, mostly in the visual fine arts field. This book is an inspirational read for all creative people wanting to do more with their work and become more of the artist they were meant to be.

On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity
by Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer, a social psychologist who is known for books such as Mindfulness, is also a passionate visual artist and author. She brings her expertise on mindfulness (which she characterizes in a uniquely Western way as having the qualities of novelty-seeking and novelty producing behavior, as well as engagement, and flexibility) to bear in this wonderful book about making art in an attentive way.

Langer’s work is a breath of fresh air for creative folk weighed down by the fear of making mistakes, worries about whether they possess enough inborn “talent” or the negative comparisons they may make between themselves and other artists. Deftly weaving her own experiences as an artist with her research into mindful creativity, Langer notes that those who are less “evaluatively” inclined tend to experience less guilt, less regret, less blame and tend to like themselves (and presumably their artistic output) more. This is a wonderful antidote to anyone who spends significant time in artistic disciplines that are competitive at the more professional levels.


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