Alpha waves and creativity

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I listened to this podcast by Kevin Kaiser and Robert Liparulo and it was great. The podcast wasn't meant to be about creativity, but they talked a lot about creativity. It was great.

They talked about how alpha waves are what your brain makes right before you have a good idea.

They talked about the decline of creativity because children watch too much media (visual media) and how school is focused too much on quantifiable results (read math and science).

They talk about quiet and solitude and deep focus and boredom being very important to creativity and art.

It's an hour commitment to listen to (less if you listen to it at higher speed) but it's really good stuff. Enjoy!

Update on stand up

I just wanted to give an update about how our daily stand up meetings are going. If you don't remember this experiment my family and I are doing, you can read about our daily accountability here.

The jury is still out on this experiment. My kids really love the meeting. When I asked them if they wanted to keep doing them, the answer was a resounding yes. But there reasons for liking the meetings was something along the lines of "we like to talk about what we're doing" and "we like the clap at the end."

Seriously, they love clapping as a family at the end. It's just a single clap on the count of three, but they love it. And since I'm usually video chatting with them, my clap isn't timed well with their clap. They just roll on the floor laughing because I can't ever clap at the same time. Come on guys, it's not my fault :)

But the things we talk about are pretty rambling and there isn't really a clear direction to what they—or we—should say. I'm not sure if saying everything you plan to do today is valuable. I've tried to steer it toward us saying what we are creating for the day, but it usually turns in to a checklist for what they have to do that day.

And scheduling it is hard. Since I have so many meetings at work, it's been really hard to do it consistently. We usually do it 2 or 3 times a week at the most.

So, I'm not sure if it's helpful yet, but we're going to keep doing it, mainly because the kids love laughing at daddy I think.

5 Steps to Tackle Your Creative Anxiety

You've likely experienced anxiety and stress while trying to be creative. Anxiety is our natural fear response. You've heard of our flight or fight reaction. Flight is our instinct to avoidance, escape, and even procrastination. Fight is directly tackling a problem and anguishing over the problem until we find a direct solution. Psychologists also say we have a third fear response: freezing which is playing dead, ignoring the problem, denial. All three of our natural responses are sometimes appropriate. Why are we afraid to be creative? 

My personal experience with social anxiety disorder gives me some insight on how this panic response works and how to deal with it. Social anxiety or social phobia is the fear of judgment. It could be self judgement or judgement by others. I remember waking up late for an important meeting with my university where I had recently graduated. I was to present my portfolio as a graphic designer and share some ideas for their university magazine. I wanted to really impress them with my work and thoughts. I was so focused on what they would think if I was late. The panic attack that I felt when I realized I woke up late was this intense fear response.

My body was filled with adrenaline and other fear hormones. Attempting to make it to the meeting, I tried to get up and at first struggled to move. Once I recognized that this was a fear response, I was able to calm myself down. Making it to the meeting, I nailed it and the staff was very impressed with my insights. Still, ten years later what I mostly remember was that extreme panic attack.

From that experience, behavior therapy and research, I've learned so much about how to manage stress that I'd love to share with you:

Step 1: Identifying your bad habits

What pattern do you want to change? To understand stress, you really have to understand what thoughts specifically are you stressed about. Identify your thoughts, anxious thinking and worry. Common thinking errors include all or nothing, over generalizing, catastrophizing, exaggerating, negativity, jumping to conclusions, blame, and overly rigid rules. Do you identify with any of these? Take creative inspiration from these thoughts. Write, draw, scribble all of the thoughts that make you anxious when you're trying to create. Embrace them as a normal part of your creative process. There aren't "good" or "bad" thoughts.

Step 2: Empowerment

Identify what you can control. Accept what you can't control by identifying who or what could possibly be responsible and in control of those thoughts: leave those elements to fate, the universe, a higher power, or just to the other people who are better equipped. Whatever happens is what happens.

Identify and focus on what you can control. What you can control is putting marks on paper, the time you set aside, your own actions, and even how you respond to your own thoughts. Another chance to look to your scrap paper or sketchbook and visualize and write down these ideas. Stick figures or words or little comics.

Creativity itself has been shown to reduce stress. Part of reducing our stress reaction is confronting the feeling and then learning to identify the activity as not dangerous. The more you create, the less you'll associate your work with fear. The fear is really reaction to new or unfamiliar. Imagine a wild animal seeing a new or unfamiliar experience, it wouldn't know whether it was dangerous or not.

Step 3: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the state of being more aware and focusing on awareness itself. Various studies have shown that mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression. Review your notes and your experience without judgement. Note that anxious behaviors aren't really good or bad/ Everyone thinks that way sometimes. By identifying our habits and being aware, we can start to change our reactions.

Mindfulness has also been shown to help directly with being more creative, generating new ideas, and with imaginative thinking.

Step 4: Goals and Next Step

Imagine how you’d want to react or think. When you jump to conclusions, for example, how would you want to respond? I’d want to laugh at my initial conclusion as a silly joke I tell myself. Then come up with a few alternate conclusions. The first few might exaggerate the idea even more absurdly. Then come up with reasonable versions. To come up with the reasonable version, ask "What is the simplest next step?"

In the answer, try the phrase "It'll help if I..." If you have a "bad drawing", the next step is to identify the part that doesn't look quite right, then make adjustments. Rather than "I never will be able to draw arms!!" The next step is: the arm isn't drawn quite right, it'll help to sketch a few quick arms with the mirror on scrap to practice, then revisit this drawing with what I learned."

Having goals about compassion and self image have been shown to reduce anxiety. The consistency of having regular goals increased the effects in the college students who were studied. Creating goals about how your actions create compassion for others and for yourself will help you be more creative and less afraid.

Step 5: Learning Experiences

Note the results of your previous negative thoughts. Maybe you planned to get more done and just ended up procrastinating and judged yourself for doing it, just creating even more anxiety when you think about trying again. Let’s take that experience as just a learning experiment. Admitting what went wrong, forgiving ourselves, deciding we can try again and that any effort is a good one.

Remember, we are at least in part creatures of instincts. Fear is a normal emotion and part of our design that allows us to learn and grow. Naturally, instincts affect our behavior. To change how these instincts identify our behavior, we first need to notice and become aware of those instincts on some level. Awareness leads to a conscious recognition of choice. Rather than instincts directing behavior, we now practice letting our fear response trigger our awareness. From that awareness, we can make choices and create and imagine that much better. Thank you for hearing my thoughts and about my story. How have you tackled your creative anxiety and stress?

Brian E. Young helps others be more imaginative as an artist and graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland and by answering your creativity questions on the The Uncanny Creativity Podcast.

There is only one of you

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I read this post by James Clear about Martha Graham and I just have to share.

Here's the quote that I absolutely loved from Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
There is only one of you and if you don't do your thing and follow your passions, those will be forever lost to the world.

We need that passion and your creations and your light. Don't snuff it out. Go create!

What does it mean to be a good engineer?

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This week at work I've been thinking a lot about how to determine if someone is a good engineer and how do you put someone at a certain level of ability. Next week I have to give training about this, so I really want to have something valuable to say.

The way that many companies interview software engineers includes whiteboard problems. You're in a room with the person interviewing you and he or she asks you to write some code on the whiteboard to solve the problem that they give you.

Before this week I almost wrote off whiteboard problem interviewing completely. I had a talk with a coworker (@zachp) and he explained the importance of whiteboard problems, and the efficient way it gets at problem solving skills and a little bit of just raw technical ability.

It's not about them coming up with the best solution or if they can do that the fastest. It's not about the interviewer seeing if the candidate can come up with the "correct" solution that the interviewer was looking for.

You're looking for just a few things while whiteboarding:

  1. Can they find a solution, any solution
  2. Can they identify patterns in the problem
  3. Can they identify where their code isn't performant and edge cases it misses
  4. Can they iterate towards a better solution or the optimal solution
If the candidate can't do #1, they're not at the level of the problem. Maybe try another problem or they aren't a good fit.

Great candidates will do #2, 3, and 4.

This was really world-changing for me when he explained that. Interviewing became clear and I think I'll be able to give a halfway decent training next week.

Last of all, we talked about the need for interviewers to not just be familiar with the problems, but to know them inside and out, and to know basic solutions, mid-level solutions, and optimal solutions. Role playing and practicing with other engineers is recommended to help them get up to speed on each problem that they are going to have the candidate do.

Do you have some insight into hiring good people?

3 great insights from Harold Shapero

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Harold Shapero was an American composer born in the 1920s and whose hero was Beethoven. I read some of his writing in this book that I'm reading and it just blew me away.

Here's some of the most important things I got out of the 3 pages I read of his writing (just 3 pages and yes all this).

Practice the building blocks

He talks about breaking a musical piece down into its phrases and practicing creating and rearranging phrases over and over to learn the techniques and improve your craft. More importantly, he talked about daily practice.
"The importance of daily practice also cannot be overemphasized, for without it, the bridge established between the conscious and the creative unconscious by technical exercise is soon blocked by non-musical associations. Just as the function of daily ritual and prayer, as related to the intuitive realization of deity, is that of preserving the thread of connected thoughts which lead to the intuition itself, so the function of daily technical practice as related to musical composition, is that of maintaining free the inroad to that corner of the mind from which the music comes."

Copy the masters

He goes on to say that breaking music down into phrases and practicing those, and imitating the phrases that masters have used and trying to come up with similar ones yourself, will lead to your own flavor of the art. He says this will lead to the "personal materials of your own art" and that you will find where your passions differ from the ideas of the masters and where you can bring yourself into the art.

Law of Association of Ideas

He includes a story in Beethoven's own writing about how he dreamed a song while on a carriage ride, but that afterward he could not remember the tune. Later, when he was on a carriage ride to the same place he had a "waking dream" and suddenly remembered the tune he had dreamed or invented. He said that this is because of the "laws of association of ideas." Harold Shapero's comment to that was "the use of this phrase is indeed striking.

I don't know what those laws are, but I've heard a lot about creativity being the ability to associate two ideas that have no business being together to come up with a brand new idea. This sounds like it is the same thing but almost in reverse. In order to remember the brand new idea, put yourself back in the situation where you associated the ideas in the first place. Maybe?

Bonus: Inspiration in art

Here's a little bonus for you. Shapero finished with some great ideas about inspiration in art—all forms of art, but he specifically talked about musical art.
"It is evident that inspiration is a most vital component of art. … it is possible to consider inspiration the creative absolute. … The composer can be certain that something has gone wrong with his musical thinking when he loses his inspiration. The composer to whom inspiration is granted can be assured that he is drawing on the most significant creative forces which are available to him."
And there you have it. Drink deep the words of the masters. As always, go to the source because their words are more powerful than my summary of them.

Harold Shapero died in 2013, but I want to thank him for his inspiration and his words. They have touched me deeply, all in just 3 pages.

The Spirituality of Creativity

Today I'm going to mix in my moral compass a little bit with my ideas of creativity. I'm Christian and I believe that God created our world.

I want to talk about that. That act of creating the whole universe.

Imagine the sheer size of creating the universe. There are billions of galaxies. Each galaxy is billions of stars. Each star is many times larger than Earth. Earth is many times larger than me. Therefore, the universe is much much much larger than me.

Imagine the complexity of creating the universe. I'm pretty big compared to the ants I stepped on as a kid. Those ants are pretty big compared to the cells that make them up. Those cells are pretty big compared to the proteins that make them. Those proteins are pretty big compared to the atoms which make them. It just keeps going, all the way down to subatomic particles.

Long story short: the universe is huge and very complex. It's made up of tiny ity-bity pieces that make gigantic, massive things.

Artist AND Engineer

What's my point with this?

God had to understand at a very high level how big things like galaxies work, and at the same time he had to understand the most minute detail of how subatomic particles work. Creating the universe took a little bit of genius and a little bit of creativity. Okay, maybe "a little bit" is an understatement. God sounds to me like a brilliant architect, and if you look at nature's beauty, He also seems to be a very creative being, very artistic.


Though he has the ability to create the universe and we don't, we have something in common: we all have the ability to create. Creation seems to be in our nature.

We love creating. We strive all whole lives to create beautiful and meaningful things. Not everyone likes creating the same thing, but we all strive to create. Music, words, clay, business plans, buildings, families, software, chairs.

Creation is the ultimate act of creativity. Creation, and therefore creativity, is in our nature. It's who we are. The scale of creation doesn't matter, we are like God in that we create.