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A formula for practicing creativity in a changing world

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What if there was a scientific methodology of learning to quickly position ourselves to engage with great efficiency in practices conducive to the kinds of creativity, meaning and impact that we want and that the global economy is focusing on for human labor?

The following are a bunch of different, interrelated thoughts and readings that I thought it could be fun and useful to pull together and share.

An economy shifting toward creativity

Last week at the first SXSW event in Vegas, leading enterprise software and social business analyst Ray Wang spoke on a panel about The Future of Work, chaired by the amazingly humble-seeming Maynard Webb. I Tweeted some of my favorite things Ray talked about, like:

“People call for STEM skills or other skills to be taught more in schools, but business models are changing too fast for that. In the future, your ability to learn will be the key skill…

“The workforce is different today; key new non-monetary incentives for workers are meaningful and include: Rewards, Access & Having an Impact. Workers will sacrifice financial bonuses for those kinds of incentives.”

Ray also spoke about the decline in jobs that will be eliminated by the rise of cognitive computing that can perform tasks like basic legal analysis and other routine analytical skills. I asked the panel what would happen to those people in society who didn’t want to rise up to new opportunities for more flexible, creative work and hustle, because work was a straightforward way to put food on the table and pay for other things they care about more – like taking care of their families. That was another conversation.

Regardless, after that session, I emailed Ray a chart I found some time ago when looking at a Little Bird report on international education. It is below.

I’ve been wanting to post that chart here on my own blog for awhile! It’s from an an OECD report about the change in demand for various types of skills over the past 40/50 years. (source PDF )

I find this chart very thought provoking. The only skills that have grown instead of declined are non-routine analytic and non-routine interactive. Routine cognitive has been on the decline for years and, as Ray argues, is only likely to further diminish with cognitive computing.

So I share that chart with Ray and he writes me back saying that the question, then, is how we teach Creativity.

One theory of how creativity happens

That brings to mind one of my favorite articles on the topic. From neuroscience writer Annie Murphy Paul. (The Five “Core Dispositions” Of The Artistic Mind). I regularly remind myself of what she says are the 5 key dispositions essential to creativity:
* Inquisitiveness
* Imaginativeness
* Collaborativeness
* Persistence
* Discipline

Awesome! So maybe what the world needs is to be taught to foster those skills and thus creativity.

Practice and over-practice according to Kathy Sierra and Annie Murphy Paul

How do you do that? Two more perspectives come to mind. First, from Kathy Sierra‘s incredible talk today at the Hubspot Inbound conference in Boston. (video of related talk) Sierra made a case for a practice strategy that calls for 45 to 90 minute deliberate practice sessions, with clear criteria and immediate feedback, a maximum of 3 times before an evaluation. If you can’t become 95% reliable in those 3 sessions then stop (!) she says, because clearly you’re not practicing the right things and are only going to make bad habits more entrenched and yourself worse at what you’re doing!

I posted a comment about that on a brand new Annie Murphy Paul article over on Time.com (“Don’t Just Practice, Over-Practice“) where Murphy Paul summarizes a recent study that found that people who practiced a task beyond the point where they had mastered it continued to increase their efficiency just because they continued to require less and less energy to perform a mastered task the more automatic it became!

“The brain uses up energy, too, and through overlearning it can get by on less. These gains in mental efficiency free up resources for other tasks: infusing the music you’re playing with greater emotion and passion, for example, or keeping closer track of your opponent’s moves on the other side of the tennis court. Less effort in one domain means more energy available to others…

“‘The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned,’ says Ahmed. ‘We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.’ In other words: You’re getting better and better, even when you can’t tell you’re improving—a thought to keep you going through those long hours of practice.”

Overly-ambitious summary

To tie all of these different perspectives together (and please tell me what you think about this) we might say:
The world has long been seeing a decline in demand for routine skills of any sort, including analytical skills. The emerging workforce is meeting an increasingly rapid rate of change by calling for meaning, creativity and impact. In order to enable people to succeed in this environment, we need to help them foster the underpinning dispositions essential to creativity (also helpful for meaning and impact): inquisitiveness, imaginativeness, collaborativeness, discipline and persistence. Those practices should be practiced deliberately, through a small number of structured short exercises with clear criteria to demonstrate reliability and immediate feedback. If those initial practice exercises succeed in getting us up to 95% reliability after no more than 3 sessions of 45 to 90 minutes in duration, then the next step would be to continue with the same sort of practice beyond the point of apparent continued improvement. That’s because the improvement will come in efficiency and ability to shift some of the energy formerly required to engage with inquisitiveness or discipline – into greater augmentations of those dispositions, be it emotional expression or insight or perhaps greater creativity. And maybe that’s how any of us capable of doing so can become far more creative, capable, powerful contributors to the work and world we find ourselves in.

This is the kind of stuff I love to read about and think about when I can, but I also know that there’s a difference between an internally consistent narrative and something you can really go to town with. If you’ve got something to say about any of the perspectives above, any holes you can poke in this narrative or any supporting evidence you can think of, please share them.

If you’d like to follow a Twitter List of the top 100 most peer-validated experts on learning, we made one with Little Bird here.

Stop Pitching Strangers on the Internet

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Authentic influencer marketing: Make good contact with these people ahead of time so they’re not strangers anymore. You’ll be glad you did. This seems obvious but it’s not.

People used to say that you should reach out to blogs and social media influencers to cover your company’s announcement. Such a simple approach isn’t good advice any more though, because the playing field is full of desperate strangers cold-pitching online heavyweights. I was asked tonight by writer David Spark for an example of some no-longer-good advice that seemed to make sense in the past – and I’ve been trying to figure out how best to express this for a long time.

You wouldn’t walk into a crowded party and shout, “ok, who here is the most popular? It’s time for you to tell everyone about ME!” That’s what cold pitching influencers is like. It happens all the time. That’s not what we’re building our startup Little Bird to do, either.

Instead, you should discover people now (right now!), get to know them over time, enjoy the huge wins that come with paying attention to the best in your field, and then pitch them later once you’re a known and respected entity.

I’ve been on both sides of the coin on this, as the first hired writer at TechCrunch and then the co-editor at ReadWriteWeb – people were pitching me constantly. The ones I was the most responsive to were the ones I knew already because we had been talking for weeks before the pitch: about my work, about their work and about matters of common interest. By talking I mean they were tweeting at me and commenting on my blog posts.

On the other side, as a startup guy, consultant and now an entrepreneur I’m the one looking to get other peoples’ attention.

Let me tell you, it works much much better for everyone if you put in the time and can share real value through authentic online (and offline) relationship building. To say it’s worth it would be a drastic understatement.

I got started in my career by posting smart comments on peoples’ blog posts and linking to their posts in my blog posts. (1st person was Barb Dybwad, who is awesome and later hired me.) Today I send people public @ replies on Twitter. I read their stuff and I respond to or reshare it, with commentary. (Most recent example was Glen Gilmore, who I retweeted with commentary and who then followed me back and now I’m DMing with.)

In all of those cases I try to say something that makes the people I’m making contact with say “hey, that’s really useful/interesting – who is this person Marshall who just added that to my public conversation? If he has more things to say that are interesting, maybe I should be following him, too.” That’s how I’ve gotten just about everything I’ve gotten from other people on the internet: I did something interesting that was relevant to them and I used the structure of social media (comments, replies, etc.) to let them know about it. It’s not about stroking egos, it’s about earning peoples’ interest and appreciation for real. That’s not easy but there are ways to make it much easier.

So if you’re thinking “I’ll engage with the leading influencers in my market when it’s time for me to pitch them for coverage,” then you’re missing the point and leaving huge value on the table. (Imagine: “Hey Jared Spool, I have a product for designers – would you re-post my link? What’s that? You’ve written years of incredible content that could boost my professional development if I just read it and you’re coming out with more every day – and that’s why you’re at the top of the field? Whatever! Tweet my link, jerkface!!” < -- don't let that be you, no matter what field you're in.) And I'm sorry to tell you that unless you're incredibly, unusually interesting - you're going to have a much harder time getting someone's attention if the first time you ping them is to ask them to use their voice to promote you. So don't pitch top blogs and social media influencers on your company's announcement. Pitch your friends online, the world-class thought leaders you've interacted with in a dignified, interesting way. You're smart and interesting, don't you deserve to be thought of as a peer to those people at the top? If so, you'd better get started now. (We’ll make it a whole lot easier, by the way.)

Update: Here’s a great example of how you do it.

This morning B2B marketer Maureen Blandford shared with me a link to Alexis Madrigal’s great post about hiring Rob based on his great use of Twitter.

Rob got my attention by becoming a part of The Atlantic Tech’s extended cast of writers and interlocutors. His network analysis was uncanny. One minute I’ve never heard of this kid, and the next minute, he’s engaged in interesting, respectful conversation with half of my Internet friends.

That takes a certain kind of fearlessness, and most of the time it’d be paired with arrogance. But not with Rob. His humility is genuine, driven by a real desire to think this stuff through. And the thing that I always noticed about Meyer’s conversations with everyone was that he was such a good and generous reader of other people’s work. He tended to respond with whatever the opposite of snark is. His role became to connect good ideas with each other by connecting good writers with each other. He wove the social fabric tighter and made our conversations richer.

Full story here, with great detail. All of this is much easier to do well, of course, with Little Bird – but if you want to just muscle it all through, this is a great example as-is!

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