Creativity is a Social Business

The nameless are like dust with no one to offer flowers.
Only those with names are honored.
“Record of Lodoss War”

Creativity is a social business. It often doesn’t seem this way. After all, in science, the scientific method should be impartial and independent from other peoples opinion. In art, the work should speak for itself. In engineering, the best design should prevail.

But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

In science, the field (reviewers) decide what is published/funded and what is not. In art, the artwork itself must be seen to be successful, and as in science, there are people who decide what is seen. And in engineering, the best design will not win if its strengths are not conveyed in a convincing manner.

No wonder that the most successful scientists, artists, and engineers are also very good in dealing with other people. Or at least, the people who get the credit for the works are. Timid little green men, who work in the background and are only suspected but not proven, might exist, but nobody knows of them — and so they do not get credit.

So, you have to deal well with other people, something which is hard for many people. As a scientist, I really hate small talk. It’s inefficient, it’s superficial, it’s pointless, it lacks integrity — but unfortunately, if you want to build relationships with other people, you often have to go over unimportant topics before you get the the good stuff. So you have to learn how to do that — and it’s possible, albeit mind-numbing at times.

Presentation skills are also crucial. If you cannot convey your idea, it will not be realized — at least, not by you. Other people might present “your” idea another time, and if they can convey it, it will be realized — and guess whose name will be associated with that idea.

A basic problem is remembering people, especially their names and faces. Forgetting them is often seen as a lack of interest, and no, “I have no memory for names and faces” is not regarded as a valid excuse. After all, you do remember the names of your friends and family members, do you? Luckily, times have become easier to remember names and faces. As long as you jot down the name at the earliest moment (ask them to repeat the name to make sure you really got it), you can look up information about the person later. Many people have profiles at LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing, or any other social networking site, which usually includes one or more photos. Many companies have (at least internal) websites where each employee is listed — name and photo. So, there is nothing that hinders you to download the photo and the name, include them into your address book on the computer or your mobile phone, and go through these photos from time to time. When I started my last job, I did this with the photos and names of all co-workers. I invested a few hours looking at the photo and the name, training to remember both. Got me up to speed in less than a week.

But names and photos aren’t everything. How do you remember other things about the person? Again, social networking sites can be very useful for this. Much information is already available there. If your communication is via eMail, you have a perfect recording of all of your interactions right there. But the eMails might be hard to review on short notice. So, you might also think about creating a Farley File. It’s named after James Aloysius Farley, a campaign manager for F. D. Roosevelt, who kept a file about the people who met Roosevelt and included personal information about them. The next time this person met Roosevelt, he made sure that Roosevelt got the file immediately prior to the meeting, allowing Roosevelt to remember this person and the prior meetings perfectly. There is a nice description of this system in “Double Star” by Robert A. Heinlein:

Anything at all, no matter how trivial — in fact, trivia were always the first entries: names and nicknames of wives, children, and pets, hobbies, tastes in food or drink, prejudices, eccentricities. Following this would be listed date and place and comments for every occasion on which Bonforte had talked to that particular man. When available, a photo was included. There might or might not be “below-the-line” data, i.e. information which had been researched rather than learned directly by Bonforte. It depended on the political importance of the person. In some cases the “below-the-line” part was a formal biography running to thousands of words.

It might sound dishonest, but it really isn’t. Again a quote from “Double Star” by Robert A. Heinlein:

“I said that this is what he wanted to remember. But since he can’t, not possibly, this is how he does it. Don’t worry; you don’t have to memorize anything. I just want you to know that it is available. It is my job to see that he has at least a minute or two to study the appropriate Farleyfile before anybody gets in to see him. If the need turns up, I can protect you with the same service.”
I looked at the typical file she had projected on the desk reader.
A Mr. Saunders of Pretoria, South Africa, I believe it was. He had a bulldog named Snuffles Bullyboy, several assorted uninteresting offspring, and he liked a twist of lime in his whisky and splash.
“Penny, do you mean to tell me that Mr. B. pretends to remember minutiae like that? It strikes me as rather phony.”
Instead of getting angry at the slur on her idol Penny nodded soberly. “I thought so once. But you don’t look at it correctly, Chief. Do you ever write down the telephone number of a friend?”
“Eh? Of course.”
“Is it dishonest? Do you apologize to your friend for caring so little about him that you can’t simply remember his number?”
“Eh? All right, I give up. You’ve sold me.”
“These are things he would like to remember if his memory were perfect. Since it isn’t, it is no more phony to do it this way than it is to use a tickler file in order not to forget a friend’s birthday-that’s what it is: a giant tickler file, to cover anything. But there is more to it. Did you ever meet a really important person?”
I tried to think. Penny did not mean the greats of the theatrical profession; she hardly knew they existed. “I once met President Warfield. I was a kid of ten or eleven.”
“Do you remember the details?”
“Why, certainly. He said, ‘How did you break that arm, son?’ and I said, ‘Riding a bicycle, sir,’ and he said, ‘Did the same thing myself, only it was a collarbone.'”
“Do you think he would remember it if he were still alive?”
“Why, no.”
“He might – he may have had you Farleyfiled. This Farleyfile includes boys of that age, because boys grow up and become men. The point is that top-level men like President Warfield meet many more people than they can remember. Each one of that faceless throng remembers his own meeting with the famous man and remembers it in detail. But the supremely important person in anyone’s life is himself — and a politician must never forget that.
So it is polite and friendly and warmhearted for the politician to have a way to be able to remember about other people the sort of little things that they are likely to remember about him. It is also essential — in politics.”

Sure, keeping a Farley File about your partner (past dating) or your close family would be insulting to them. Some things you should keep in mind. On the other hand, many people write down the wedding anniversary or the birthday of family members in the calendar. And personally, I keep a list in my Wiki about possible gifts for people I know, including close family members. The ideas come during the year, but I need that idea immediately prior to the birthday, so I write it down.

And while a full-blown Farley File might be out of the question for most people, due to the time it takes to keep and update (I strongly suspect people who really keep a Farley File also keep a staff dedicated solely to this), it might be a good idea to write down a few things about the people you interact with infrequently. Just make sure that your notes are strongly protected.

After all, you have to interact with them to convey your ideas and in paying close attention to them, you might realize that there is more to them than colleagues or business partners. And as long as you keep in mind that such notes (as organizing creativity in general) is just instrumental to realizing your ideas and not a goal in itself (it’s a tool!), there is nothing wrong with it.

Happy socializing 😉

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