University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Unleash Your Creativity

Alumni and faculty offer tips to help you live a more imaginative, fulfilled life.

At the monthly Creative Mornings' gatherings, several hundred people get together to be inspired to live mroe fulfilled personal and professional lives.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Slater

LAST NOVEMBER, on an unseasonably frigid morning, 360 people packed the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis. The reason for their early-hours enthusiasm wasn’t the free donuts or coffee. Instead, the charge in the room was thanks to a graphic designer who gave a heartfelt talk about grief and the role the creative process plays in healing from loss. There was laughter. And tears. Above all, there was an appreciation of using imagination to spur new ideas as a skill vital to our personal and professional lives.

The event was put on by Creative Mornings/Minneapolis, the Twin Cities chapter of a national organization that hosts monthly events around town to explore all aspects of the creative life, from nurturing joyful communities to the art of self-care to the beauty of chaos. The events are free and the organization is run by a small team of dedicated Twin Cities-based volunteers, including freelance writer and photographer Lauren Cutshall (B.A. ‘16). In 2018, she learned about Creative Mornings through her thenemployer and felt an instant connection with their mission.

Lauren Cutshall
Photo Credit: Rebecca Slater

“Part of the manifesto is ‘everyone is creative,’” says  Cutshall, over coffee at The Lynhall, a cozy gathering place that’s popular with Minneapolis creative types. “We don’t want to just invite a speaker who is an artist or someone in a very traditional creative field. We try to expand that [definition] and think about it in a more broad, diverse sense.”

In addition to being part of the team that chooses speakers and contacts potential breakfast partners—cue the donuts—Cutshall is the organization’s email and sponsorship coordinator. As a freelancer whose work life moves project to project, she enjoys the long-term relationships she’s been able to build with people who care about living a life seeking out inspiration and who are open to unconventional ways of doing things.

“Creativity to me means valuing the uncertainty that comes with any process,” she says. “It’s a lot of problemsolving and having an idea and putting your faith in itwithout certainty about where it’s going to go or if it’s going to go.”

In 1950, psychologist Joy Paul Guilford, one of the founders of the psychology of creativity, described this kind of divergent thinking as a sensitivity to problems and an ability to generate multiple ideas. Since Guilford’s day, this mindset has become even more prized. A 2019 analysis of LinkedIn data showed that the skill companies need most is creativity. That’s because “while robots are great at optimizing old ideas, organizations most need creative employees who can conceive the solutions of tomorrow.”

In fact, creativity is “novel and useful, original and applicable,” according to Brad Hokanson (B. Arch. ’75; Ph.D. ’00), Mertie Buckman Professor of Design at the U of M’s College of Design. Last winter, he cocurated an exhibit called “Creativity in Everyday Life” at the University’s Goldstein Museum of Art. Drawing inspiration from the museum’s 34,000 commonplace objects, the exhibit showcased the many ways that both small tweaks—the evolution of blue jeans from work clothes to fashion—and major inventions—the Walkman as a portable way to privately enjoy music—draw on the spark of useful problem-solving.

Hokanson got interested in the inner workings of creativity while he was in architecture school at the University. That’s when an instructor introduced him to the idea of employing creative problem-solving as an alternative solution to strict design methodology. In the late ‘90s, Hokanson taught a course on the subject for a freshman seminar at the University and the idea took off. Today, he teaches a similar in-person class to about 60 students at the College of Design, and he also teaches a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), which is a course of study available over the internet, free of charge. The enrollment in his current MOOC class, which has students from as far away as India and Argentina, is 97,000. Yes, 97,000. (If you’re interested, you can see the class here: coursera. org/learn/creative-problem-solving).

“The basic model of the course is I challenge people to do something different,” he explains. That can be as simple as eating something you’ve never tried, or eating in a way—using chopsticks, say, or sitting on the floor—that’s different from your normal patterns. A student from Cambodia who was used to snacking on grilled tarantulas tried eating one in a sandwich as a way to shift her perspective.

“My goal is to try to change habits about what [my students] can accept as opposed to ‘I’ll do the same old thing,’” he says. “We all have habits, and they’re efficient ways of thinking. But getting people into that ability to continually change and keep coming up with new ideas—that’s the thing that’s going to give them value in the future.”

Tane Danger
Photo Credit: Jack Rodgers / Minnesota Daily

Coming up with new ways of thinking is the stock in trade of Tane Danger (M.A. ’16), cofounder of the Theater of Public Policy, an improvisational theater troupe that tackles some of our culture’s wonkiest issues—agriculture policy, long-term care, recession economics—through events that pair policyleaders with improvisational artists. He also teaches a class called Improvisation and Design at the College of Design.

In addition to his group’s onstage work, Danger and his colleagues at the Theater of Public Policy consult with businesses and nonprofits to teach the principles of improvisation as a way to help employees think more creatively. For the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Danger did docent trainings for their 2012 exhibit “Rembrandt in America” where he dressed up as the Dutch master. This experience evolved into docent-led tours where Danger, still in costume, riffed on the paintings and tour goers then held up signs to indicate whether they thought what he was saying was true or false.

“For people doing improv for the first time, there is a point where … people get over their initial fears or hesitations about performing and they come to me and say, ‘So I can do anything? I can be a space cowboy on the moon?’,” Danger says. “How often as adults do we play make-believe, do we just allow ourselves to imagine things that aren’t with somebody else who is also pushing us to keep growing the idea?”

Discover Your Next Steps with the help of classes at the U of M

The Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing (CSH) offers a wide variety of programs—all open to the public—that can help individuals explore their goals and purpose in life. As part of the CSH Wellbeing Model, which includes teaching on the environment, security,
health, community, and relationships, the Center notes, “Purpose can guide life decisions, influence behavior, shape goals, offer a sense of direction, and create meaning. For some people, purpose is connected to vocation—meaningful, satisfying work. For others, purpose lies in responsibilities to family or friends. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Some people may find their purpose clearly expressed in all these aspects of life.”

You can learn more here: takingcharge.csh.

A fundamental tool of improvisation, according to Danger, is the concept of “yes/ and.” “If you come into a scene [where there is another actor] and you say ‘Hi Mom, I’m home,’ and the other person says ‘I’m not your mom, I’m your coworker,’ you have derailed the whole thing. Whereas if you say ‘Yes, you are home and thank God because Dad set the kitchen on fire,’ we now have a relationship, we have a situation, we have characters, and we are cocreating this thing together.”

For Danger, this yes/and construct is a potent counterbalance for a culture that is steeped in rules and allegiances to the way things have always been done. “Yes/and is about possibility and growing ideas and going in a different direction.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the senior editor of Minnesota Alumni.

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