Advice for a Brainy 16 Yr. Old


I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there. –Richard P. Feynman

When Ben turned 16, his mother (my good friend) asked people to give him life-advice by snail-mail.  I recently found a copy of what I wrote and thought I’d share it will you below:

Dear Ben,

I’ve known you since you were eight years old and I know two things about you. You use big words and you get things others miss. Big words are easier to come by than most people think, you just read a few thick books.

But seeing the invisible, now that could be a full-fledged super-power. So here is my advice to you–  find one big question to answer. Look for questions that intrigue you and explore them until you can pick one to work on until you answer it.  Then share it with others who have been trying to answer that same question. Here’s an example of what I mean.  Gregor Mendel, the man who ended up studying heredity using peas was initially interested in a million things.  But he wanted to see something no one else saw or had ever seen before.  So he checked out the most intriguing questions in the Science of his day. It turned out nobody knew how heredity worked. So this is what he decided to figure out. He did not stop there of course. He shared his findings with other Natural Scientists. The world needs people who see what the rest of us miss– like you, but more than that, we need you to help us figure out the world. I don’t mean to lecture you or leave you with one big chore.  Just know I believe in you this way and I thought you should know.

 Happy Birthday and all the best as you turn 16!

If you’ve ever “just-known” things– Carl Jung called this innate just-knowing “intuition”, my advice to Ben could pertain to you.  Let me know if you try it– I don’t expect to hear from you for a long time.  My advice to Ben takes years to follow through– I know, I try some days.

If you’re not sure what I’m writing about– read on.  My 6 year-old wrote Ben the following:

I can’t give you much advice because… I don’t know what to say.  You have lived more than I.  So give yourself the advice you want to hear and let’s pretend it was from me!

Your (smaller than you) Friend

Careers Start by Peeling Potatoes

Originally posted on Steve Blank:

Listening to my the family talk about dividing up the cooking chores for this Thanksgiving dinner, including who would peel the potatoes, reminded me that most careers start by peeling potatoes.

KP – Kitchen Patrol
One of the iconic punishments in basic training in the military was being threatened by our drill instructors of being assigned to KP – Kitchen Patrol – as a penalty for breaking some rule. If you got assigned to KP you were sent to the base kitchen and had to peel potatoes all day for all the soldiers on the base.  It was tedious work but to my surprise I found that it wasn’t the dreadful experience our drill instructors made it out to be. But working in the mess hall, the real eye-opener was the inside look at the workings of something I took for granted – how do you cook three meals a…

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Courage to Make

The lovely lady who cares for my children when I work is peeved.  A few weeks ago her brother-in-law moved in with her family to live closer to work.  He cleans up after himself and makes pleasant conversation.  The problem is he’s often home first in the evenings but never starts a pot of spaghetti or tosses a salad. Instead he waits for his hosts to cook and serve him dinner.  They are just as tired and hungry as he is at the end of the day. He can see this. It makes him uncomfortable enough for my babysitter to notice.  He shifts in his chair. He almost-gets-up five-times-a-minute.  But he never learned to cook and now he is stuck between cowardice and lack of skill.  What should he do?  It’s obvious to his hosts.  He should learn to cook.

I’m reading Rollo May’s wonderful The Courage to Create and came across the following quote:

If you do not express your own original ideas and  listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.

Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole. 

I thought about my babysitter’s brother-in-law’s failure to contribute for lack of courage to boil water.

This is where I am this morning, needing courage to contribute something to my community, something that is my own, that I have made or written. Like my babysitter’s brother-in-law I stand between cowardice and lack of skill.  Rollo May reminded me Creative work is about feeding my Self and about contributing .  If I do no creative work today I am letting more than myself down.  I am failing to make my contribution to the whole.

Courage to do creative work comes and goes with mental energy.  On days when I am lost my to-do-list (made in days past) saves me. It is my source of courage. Item #1 on my list: write three pages of long-hand dribble to get your mind flowing again.  So today I will carry my notebook and write when I can– no pressure, except to put ink to paper.

As for my babysitter–  she confronted her husband last night. You have to teach your brother how to cook, she said.

Today her brother-in-law will learn how to fry eggs.  He’ll write the steps so he can repeat the feat tomorrow without help.  Item #1 on his list:  Remove 4 eggs from fridge.

What is Creativity Anyway?

I started Creating because I needed to read it.  I have always thought of myself as creative but through years of having little children underfoot and family-size to-do lists my creative energy shrunk.  Still I read widely and went to graduate school. Then one sunny afternoon in May my oldest daughter died suddenly and cosmic entropy ensued.  Several years later I had to admit I was no longer creative.  How could I be? I could not even remember my last novel thought.  One dark night while in the hospital expecting my last child I began this blog. I read and wrote about Creativity every day for one year.  I poured-through Applied Creativity, Biography, History, Neuroscience, Creativity Theory and insights from contemporary highly Creative people on how to live the Creative Life—from Scientists, Architects, Writers and Humanitarians.  Along the way I tinkered with practicable plans to recover for myself and my still-young children what I once thought core to human nature– the capacity to Create beyond biology.

The first book I read and claim (after reading hundreds of books on and around this topic) as my favorite, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s  Creativitysupplied the original working definition for this blog. Csikszentmihalyi defines Creativity as follows:

Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.


The definition of a creative person is:  someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain…a domain cannot be changed without explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.

Not everyone will agree with Csikszentmihalyi’s definition, of course, but I love it most because it inspires as well as defines.  Others have tried to define Creativity.  Check out some of my favorite attempts below:

  • Any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one with explicit or implicit consent of the field responsible for it. (Used by M. Csikszentmihalyi)
  • Makings things from scratch. (Used by Twyla Tharp– choreographer)
  • Building on and with the works of others. (If I have seen further, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.– Isaac Newton). 
  • Self-expression with no editing. (Expressing with precision all the gold sparks the soul gives off. –Joan Miro, painter)

So what is Creativity then?  Is it an effect?  Is it a cause?  And why must we (still) define it anyway?

I’ll start with my last question.  Creativity must be defined and the definition must be accepted as standard so the topic may be studied scientifically rather than philosophically.  Sixty years ago historians wondered how to improve the study of history.  History was still a discipline of philosophy at the time– inexact, subjective. It lacked scientific definition and definitiveness. This is no longer the case.  Twenty-first century historians work governed by academic definitions and parameters, more science-like than philosophical. There are down-sides to definitiveness for sure. But the study of History has progressed like never before since this transition began in the late 1970’s.  The study of Creativity would benefit from a similar transition.  The Science of Creativity is becoming more, well, scientific.  With hi-tech research tools–  fMRIs and EEGs, scientists hone in on the particulars of the Creative process.  But a general, universally accepted, definition of Creativity is still at large. Eventually we’ll want to unite all we know about Creativity from history, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and more but for now a definition seems the next crucial step.

Am I right?  Let me know what you think.

And now back to my first question– What is Creativity after all?  Do you agree with Csikszentmihalyi or Miro?

Do you have a definition to contribute?  (If yes, write a new definition in the comments section below).

I love comments! I can’t wait to read what you think.

*Note:  I play with my children, work on a book-length project, teach college History and am about to return to grad school to complete my PhD in Early Modern European History so I do not post on Creating very often these days.  Still, the topic of Creativity fascinates me — I will be back and more often soon (or at least sort-of-soon).

On Being Juicy or Short Tales of My Past

I was shocked by what I saw. But also relieved. I didn’t know the man on the steel cot.  I had never met him at a party or seen him on a motorbike. But more than that “he” did not look like a man at all.  “He” looked more like a display of a man at the Smithsonian, set next to a reconstructed velociraptor or a twisted piece of art at MOMA– fake skeleton wrapped in dehydrated tofu with a hint of yellow.  Still, this was the first time I had ever seen a dead person. 

I exhaled. My shoulders dropped an inch. Then I pushed through the crowd of student gawkers to stand very close to the former man. I brushed the edge of the table with the back of my hand.  It was smooth and very cold. I looked the former man up and down slowly. His devastating dehydration took my breath away. Suddenly I became aware of how juicy I was. I could lick my lips five times in a row for no clear reason because I had plenty of saliva ready and waiting. Heck, I had a whole river of blood running in bursts from heart to head and toes. And back to heart again. I could blink, think and sweat because I was full of fluids. The biggest difference between that cadaver and I?  I was sopping wet inside but he was dry like paper.

I left class that Friday lighter. I walked the mile back home with several friends and faster than usual.  I would not talk to anyone about my first cadaver encounter for years.  None of my classmates did either, at least not within my earshot.  But we all stood a little taller that day on, like we knew something ordinary people didn’t. I had seen death and for its lack of visible connection to life it did not scare me.  Two days later I returned dissection kit in hand to clean out, one square centimeter at a time, bits of a different cadaver. Over the next months the morgue amphitheater’s formaldehyde smell wove into my clothes, seeped into my skin and smoothed my hair.  It proved I was who I wanted to be the Fall before my nineteenth birthday–  a first year student of medicine.  

On Apathy, Authors and Too Much Driving

My favorite contemporary author, Adam Gopnik, doesn’t drive at all.  Ever.  He doesn’t even know how but it doesn’t matter because he lives in Manhattan.  Almost everything his family requires– schools, grocery stores, museums, parks, zoo, plenty of creative friends and a subway station, is within three blocks of his apartment.  My geographical home– Southern California is almost exactly opposite of this.  Only children or the homeless don’t drive here.

I rarely drive this much but yesterday I drove a total of five and a half  hours. Not all at once, but mostly spread out throughout the day.  I drove my children to summer camp, got them hot soup for lunch, got lost in a town I don’t know well– you get the picture. Cons of so much driving? My brain runs on reduced O2 levels (I can’t prove this), apathy creeps into my psyche like cheap perfume (this I know for sure) and I end the day physically exhausted even though I pretty much just sat.  Pros? My one-year-old logs in tons of beauty sleep and ends up smiley by dinner time. Also, I listen to a lot of audio-books and podcasts– which is totally awesome.

This morning, I listened to bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how she works.  Listening I felt a smidge envious because she has her routine down (and I don’t). I long for the certainty a proper routine brings a creative person.  Gilbert inspired me to work on my routine again.  I especially want to cut my driving by several hours!

Check out Gilbert’s talk at Big Think below:

Did Gilbert inspire you at all?

Let me know– and if she did, how?

Choosing a Middle School is Hard To Do

We’ve ordered uniforms and we’ve met the Principal.  My eleven year old daughter, who is starting middle school this Fall, is half-way through her required summer reading list.  She’s ready.  But I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy she’s turning a new page in her life. I’m proud to watch her move into full-pledge adolescence.  Her brand new charter school is fabulous– on paper. Check out some of what my daughter’s new school plans to offer:

  • Inquiry-based learning,
  • Hands on experimentation,
  • After-school clubs galore,
  • High-tech classrooms outfitted with the latest Apple stuff,
  • Daily music lessons,
  • Friday outings to a 300 acre ranch for agriculture,
  • Animal husbandry and archaeological studies.
  • Organic food lunches.

The list of super-cool offerings makes my mouth water.  Heck, I want to sign up myself.  But sometimes (my inner pessimist says often) reality is not so shiny.

Last Saturday, my daughter and I stood in an open hallway waiting for her turn to audition for the school’s show choir.  Other people waited for their turn also.  After ten minutes of quiet, some of the kids started talking to each other.  Here’s the deal:  those kids talked about TV shows (and nothing else) for as long as we all stood there (1 hour).

We don’t even have a television at home.  My girl needs at least a friend or two she can talk to about a million other things– make-up, books, cousins, snorkeling, homework, the future, boys, girls, teachers,YouTube, the past, food, music, sports, summer travel, winter travel, college plans etc.  It could be these kids just happened to talk about TV for an hour this one time.  But what is more likely is that they are wasting their summer in front of the tube.

Possibility #2:  My daughter could go to the local, high-quality prep-school instead.  The uniforms are prettier (red and blue, instead of grey earth tones), there are lots of different sports available for kids to participate in,  but more important students come from families that travel and read (at least the newspaper).  The down sides?  The teaching is heavily top-down. There is a ton of homework.  And it costs a lot.

Growing up, I attended a total of 7 different K-12 schools. Some encouraged inquiry, some shoved information down your throat.  Some had sweet teachers, some had scary ones with bad hair. Some had huge playgrounds (one surrounded by a forest), some had a lot of cement-scaping. But what I found most compelling in my education was my classmates.  The best education comes from having the brightest (and nicest) classmates.

Which school, the new charter school or the fancy prep, would be better for my daughter’s creative development?  Both have great potential.  The charter school encourages inquiry.  The prep-school drills in the proper skills and offers more interesting peers. It would be nice if these schools could merge into one amazing institution for my daughter’s sake.  But since that isn’t going to happen any time soon…here’s the question:

Where should I drop my daughter off come September?

Advice for the First Day of Summer– How To Be (More) Creative

A while back I wrote a series titled “Living the Creative Life”.   I’m reading it again for inspiration and thought I’d share it with you.  Check out the advice these amazing people dish out:

I’m also reading (sometimes at the same time– does multi-reading count as multi-tasking?)  Creativity researcher Keith Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity which summarizes current findings about how Creativity works.  Sawyer has a new book out as well, Group Genius, but I thought I’d read his stuff in chronological order. In Explaining Creativity, Sawyer makes recommendations for anyone wanting to be (more) Creative.   Check out his list below:

  1. Make sure that you are doing something you love.  Creativity takes years of hard work and dedication.
  2. Get involved with a group of like-minded people, share ideas and collaborate.
  3. Don’t worry about who gets credit.  When everyone genuinely collaborates, everyone ends up being more creative.
  4. Build on past ideas, whether or not they are yours.  Stay on top of what everyone else is doing, and be open to inspiration from other people’s ideas.
  5. Create a large network of colleagues, and stay in touch constantly.  Put yourself at the center of a creativity web.
  6. Don’t expect the solution to come fully forged in a flash of insight.  Creativity takes time and involves many small sparks of insight, which you need to work hard at weaving together.
  7. Put yourself in an environment that rewards failure.  Creativity is risky;  successful creative people are also the ones who fail most often. 
  8. Creativity is inefficient.  Don’t expect every idea and every project to pan out.  Know when to cut your losses and move on. 

This to do list is a bit overwhelming especially when summer has just begun.

The cure?  Turn back to simplicity.

So this first day of summer, here’s MY one line advice to you–

Just get to work baby!

First a Decision– The Manifesto for Children (Of All Ages)

Take thought of the seed from which you spring.  You were not born to live as brutes. –Dante

Creativity is a lifestyle.  You choose to leave something material behind–  some proof you once existed and contributed on Earth.  Then you build your life around that. You still bathe, eat, make love and nurse a hobby but those are all the negative space around your creativity.  Creativity itself is the main thing.  The happiest creative people throughout history finished their lives knowing they did this.

One thing I’ve found is that the seeds of such a big decision are almost always planted in childhood. And children who experience the creative spark never forget it.

Creativity scholar E. Paul Torrence followed 400 children from kindergarten, observing how creativity blossomed in some subjects and withered unattended in others throughout their lifespans. He began this project as a young psychologist in the 1950’s.  As some of his subjects entered their 30’s, he recognized certain characteristics of children who grew to lead Creative and happy lives.  Torrence wrote a Manifesto for Children, based on his observations.

The Manifesto for Children

E. Paul Torrance

Don’t be afraid to fall in love with something
and pursue it with intensity.

Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, exploit
and enjoy your greatest strengths.

Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others
and to walk away from the games they impose on you.


Free yourself to play your own game.

Find a great teacher or mentor who will help you.


Learn the skills of interdependence.

Don’t waste energy trying to be well-rounded.


Do what you love and can do well.*


Torrence’s Manifesto encourages children to stay true to creativity and childhood’s treasured dreams, but his advice applies to any person who, as a child, worked –full-to-bursting with creative energy.  As Nobel Laureate Neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini says,

The moment you stop working you are dead…For me, it would be unhappiness beyond anything else. …I don’t work for the sake of mankind.  I work for my own sake.

*© E. P. Torrance (1983) Manifesto for Children, Athens, GA:
Georgia Studies of Creative Behavior and Full Circle Counseling, Inc.

Memory and Time & One Super-Engaged Parent

I’m not sure what I had for breakfast yesterday but let me tell you what I had last Sunday– crepes slathered with Nutella, hand-curled into a cone of sorts, filled with fresh-picked strawberries.  Also tabbouleh salad (it was brunch) and small fruit tarts shiny with butter. I can go on and on because this was an extraordinary meal.  Regarding yesterday, I must have had my default breakfast of cereal and an egg.

I just finished Jonah Foer’s new book on memory, Moonwalking with Einstein. Foer points out you remember most easily moments of total engagement. This makes intuitive sense. But Foer also found the more engaged you are in your own life (because its super-interesting and extraordinary– like my Sunday brunch), the longer your life seems to you.  The idea that time flies when you’re having a good time may mean your “good time”  really is not that interesting.  Cognitive scientist Ed Cooke says,

The more we pack our lives with memories, the slower time seems to fly. Our subjective experience of time is highly variable.

I love this idea! Older parents catch me and my children at Trader Joe’s or the UPS Store to say, Enjoy this time when your kids are little, because it flies by.  This advice comes my way at least twice a month and its been coming for over a decade now so it’s gotten old. But it has also prompted me to check how I experience time with my small children. My time with small children does not feel fast in any way.  I could be exaggerating here but I did use the subjective word feels. Time with me feels mostly very, very slow.  After reading Foer’s book I can just assume those old-timer parents were bored silly when their kids where young. And I can pat myself on the back for being so super-engaged with my life.  Nice all around.