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Julie Burstein is a Peabody Award-winning radio producer, TED speaker, and best-selling author who has spent her working life in conversation with highly creative people – interviewing, probing, guiding, and creating live events and public radio programs about them and their work. In her book Spark: How Creativity Works, she maps out some of the coordinates and dimensions of creativity.  No one can exactly explain creativity, but Julie offers a tour through some of its essential byways; shining a beam onto its mysterious workings in a way that is illuminating and can help us find more of that dimension within ourselves, and put it to good use.

Here’s what Vanity Fair says about the book: “In Spark, Burstein offers enlightening answers from the culture’s heavy hitters, including Chuck Close, Yo-Yo Ma, and Richard Ford, on which experiences, memories, tragedies, or landscapes ignited their imaginations, as well as the process by which they stoked these embers into a roaring fire, and how you, yes, you, might too.”

Julie is host of Spark Talks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and produced and directed the museum’s TEDxMet in 2013, the first TEDx in an art museum, which dazzled the audience with talks from curators, artists, dancers, and a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist. The Met asked Julie to collaborate on the second TEDxMet, in September of 2015. Julie often speaks about creativity and innovation at museums, corporations, and universities.

In 2000, Julie created Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, public radio’s premiere program about creativity, entertainment and the arts. Julie is also the host of the podcast pursuitofspark.com, conversations about creative approaches to the challenges, possibilities, and pleasures of everyday life and work.

When Julie is not writing, making radio, producing events, or spending time with her family, she can usually be found in the pottery studio.

This week, we explore Part One of our conversation about creativity with Julie:

Many people correlate the word “creative” to “artistic” – do you feel that being creative necessarily has to do with being artistic?  What makes someone creative?

I believe that artistic creativity is an aspect of creativity.  But I do deep down believe that creativity is in all of us and there are different ways to express it.  It’s something we can avoid – there are a lot of people say they aren’t creative, some of them are right –  they are not creative!  But I have a friend who’s a doctor and she had read my book and after she read my book, she commented she’s not creative at all.  I asked her, when she sees a new patient – what happens?  She talked about the checklist in her head, that she has to be open to what’s going on in that room, and to draw from her previous experience and observe what’s going on with that patient.  She’s coming to conclusions based on her own experience and what’s going on right there.  You wouldn’t say you want a doctor to be “creative” in the way an artist is making something entirely new, but you do want your doctor to not just follow a checklist, but to be open to the “uncertainty” and to respond to you right there and not to a checklist that they have.  My friend who’s the doctor is extraordinarily creative because she’s able to first, ask the questions in order to know what the problem is and pull from her own experience to create a novel approach to that particular patient.  I do believe that in so many different professions, creativity is an essential component, it’s just not talked about the way that it is in the arts.

One of the main points you drive in your TED talk, 4 Lessons in Creativity is to embrace challenges and accept the unsettling feelings to lead us into creating something new or having new ideas, the “VUCA Environment” as the military describes it (VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity).  What tips do you have for people to help embrace the challenges and uncertainty in order to flourish with creativity?

Uncertainty is one of the key challenges in any creative profession because it’s built in [to the process]. If we’re going to make something new, we can’t be certain about it because it hasn’t existed yet. It may draw on all of the pieces that we know, but if it’s truly new, it’s going to be unexpected and will have uncertainty.

The first tip would be identifying it in your own life and understanding that it isn’t something we can avoid, and as you’re in it, understanding where you are. When I was writing my book, Spark, I knew to a certain extent what each chapter was going to be about, what the overall arc was going to be like. There were some things that happened in the writing of the book that I hadn’t expected, but one of the key things I learned in the process was in every single chapter, I’d get to a point where I’d think to myself, “I don’t know how to do this!” and throw up my hands and say, “forget it!”. [My friend noticed this pattern] and it was usually right after that I would come to some realization that I hadn’t had before that allowed me to move forward. In that experience, it really helped me understand and be able to look at that pattern and say, “Oh right, I’m here again, this is what it feel like. I know I’ll get to the next point.”  It was my friend giving me that observation then allowed me in subsequent chapters to say, “I’m in that point again where I want to throw up my hands…okay, what will happen next? Let’s see…”, instead of getting pulled down into the despair that this isn’t going to work. If I look back at other creative processes for me where I think that it’s not going to happen, and often I need to go “there” in order to open up to whatever it is that I need to pursue that I hadn’t expected beforehand.

One of the things a lot of the creative people I interview talk about is sometimes the abandoning frees you up. I think identifying that [uncertainty] is part of the process and acknowledging it and saying, “Okay I know that I’m not a failure”, and knowing it’s part of the creating process – once you can identify it, it frees you up and allows you to say, “Alright where am I going from here?”. This is a part of the process and it’s not the I’m failing, it’s that this feeling is a piece of getting to what it is I want to do. The other piece about uncertainty is PRACTICE. I do think that the more we put ourselves in situations where we don’t know what that outcome is going to be, the better we get at sustaining ourselves to get through that difficult time. Just play with the idea of uncertainty. Great art follows uncertainty.

Julie Burstein will be speaking at the 2017 Leaders Breakfast in Los Angeles.

Friday, September 15th, 7 – 10am
InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown
900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90017

Purchase tickets and become a sponsor today at iida.org. For more information about the event, visit the event page here.

Sylvia Yoo, CID, LEED AP
Herman Miller