How to Spark and Harness Ultra-Productive Creative Conflict
Conflict, an intellectual conflict, is actually good for the creative process. And how do we spark it, how do we harness it in a way that doesn't turn us into the kind of people that no one wants to work with? How do we do this effectively so that we can sort of elevate our game rather than be the kind of person that no one wants to work with? Imagine a bicycle shop in 1902. 1902, you're wearing, you know, a pocket chain, the little pocket watch, got one of those sun umbrellas. You're walking down the road in Dayton, Ohio. I don't know how they dressed in 1902. Everyone has a sun umbrella and a pocket watch I think. You're walking down the road, Dayton, Ohio, 1902. And you walk past a bicycle shop. You just passed the ice cream shop, and you just passed, you know, a couple of nice people whistling as they go by, someone's happy, and then you hear this strange sound coming out the windows of the bike shop, and it's screaming. And it's not screaming like someone's getting murdered, it's ...
screaming like, like "I'm gonna bite your head off" kind of thing, and it's a screaming argument about whatever is going on. And if you pass by any given day, you'd hear this, except if you passed by at lunchtime. Lunchtime, there's no screaming. And the two owners of the bike shop, they got along strangely, but this was sort of what they did, and their shop assistants would worry that things were getting really hot, and somehow they never escalated to the point of a fistfight, but it always sounded like it was going to. And this might sound like a hostile work environment. It's not the kind of collaboration that I want when I'm working on something, but you'll forgive them when you learn that these two guys are the inventors of human flight. This was the Wright brothers. This was their process, their creative process, which was screaming. So what they would do is they'd be working on a problem, and they're two engineers, and they grew up fairly similarly, right, they were brothers. They had a little bit more tolerance for fighting, kind of like me and my brother did in the back of that van, like we had some tolerance for fighting that maybe two strangers, two people that weren't brothers wouldn't have had, but they had some fairly similar perspectives, and so they knew that they needed to force themselves to broaden their perspectives in order to solve the kinds of problems that you need to solve if you're trying to get a machine into the air. So their process was they would, they'd find something to fight about, and they'd fight, and they'd elevate their voices, and they'd scream, and things would crash, and they'd get really heated, and then at lunch they would hit pause and they'd eat their sandwiches, and then they would switch sides of the argument. So Orville had to debate Wilbur's side and Wilbur had to debate Orville's side. And there were a couple of things that happened with this. One is it forced them to detach their ego and their identity from being right, 'cause if you're gonna take the other side after lunch, then you couldn't be so invested in this thing that it hurt you when you were proven wrong, which is pretty cool. So they knew the secret that in order to unlock more out of that combination, be more than just whoever was the smartest at whatever given topic, they knew this, that possibilities, creative possibilities, live in this zone of tension. So this chart here, at potential energy, higher up, the more potential energy, and amount of tension at the bottom. Now if you have no tension in a relationship between people or between ideas, you're in this zone of kind of inertia. You're stuck on a mountain peak. But as the tension increases, there's more possibility for potential energy, potential new ideas. At a certain point, it leads to this sort of destruction zone where, you know, the Wright brothers do murder each other and then it's over. But in here, they knew that the more they could push this relationship to the edge, the higher potential they'd have for coming up with breakthrough solutions to problems. So they stoked this creative conflict by starting these arguments and they would purposely raise their voices, which, this isn't the exact strategy that I recommend, raising your voices, but because they were brothers, they knew they could do this. But they would purposely raise their voices and get really into these arguments 'cause they wanted to stoke this zone of possibility, and then at a certain point, they realized that things could go too far, and this, one of them would identify, "Okay, it's time to switch sides of the argument." And this is how they brought themselves back off the cliff and into this zone of possibility. So, it turns out that it's not how well you get along that makes you a pleasure to work with or a great creative collaborator, it's how well you fight. You can fight nicely, you can still be a pleasure to work with when you fight, but how well you can have creative conflict is actually what makes the difference between a good collaboration and a great collaboration. Want to talk a little bit about how to argue well. This is something that I wish they taught in elementary school classes, from the very beginning. It would annoy the shit out of me as a parent if my kid learned how to argue, like as a fourth grader, but I think this is one of the best skills that we can have when it comes to creativity is to start teaching debate early on. So rule number one is to start by acknowledging your fallibility. So there's this thing called priming, psychological priming, which is basically, it's setting up your brain to be open to certain suggestions. It's almost like a little mini hypnosis. So they'll do this in experiments all the time where scientists are doing an experiment and they say, "all right, before you walk in the room, "I want you to look at this green card." And then they walk in the room and somehow the memory of that green card will actually affect something that you choose, and if you're supposed to choose between an array of stuffed animals, you're more likely to pick the frog because it's green just 'cause you saw the green card a few minutes before. It's this sort of crazy phenomenon that our brains hang onto memories that we just had and use that as input into whatever next thing we're doing even if it has nothing to do with it. Sort of crazy. Another thing to look up on Google is psychological priming, but all that's to say is if you start an argument by acknowledging that you could be wrong, it sets your brain up to be a little bit more okay with being wrong. This is, my favorite is Ben Franklin actually used this trick all the time. He knew that he was usually the smartest person, he also knew that he needed other people in order to get smarter, and so when he was about to express an argument, about something, an opinion he held strongly or something that he'd want to be very persuasive about, even if he knew he was right, he would start by saying, "I could be wrong, but," and then he'd hit you with the argument. And what this did is it made it okay if he was proven wrong for him to change his mind because he was still right. Someone proved him wrong, he was like, "Well, I said I could be wrong, "so therefore I'm right." This helped him ego-wise, but it also, it primed him to be more open to what other people were going to say. So rule number one when you're arguing: say "I could be wrong, but this is what I think." Rule number two: don't use absolutes. Anyone who's married knows that this is maybe rule number one in arguing in a marriage. Never say, "You never do the dishes," or, "you always leave the dirty socks on the," never use absolutes. It's sort of the follow-up to this admit your fallibility. Nothing is absolute in an argument, and when you start to use absolutes, then it turns the argument into an argument about that absolute, whether this thing you just said is always the case. It makes the argument about what you just said, not about the idea that you're trying to push forward. So, "You never do the dishes," maybe Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you did not do the dishes, that's a little bit more correct, that is much more correct than "you never do" 'cause you don't want to argue about how, "Well, I did the dishes on Tuesday and Thursday." The argument is about dishes, not what you did. All right, I'm beating that analogy to death. That's rule number two. Rule number three, this one is really fascinating to me, and I think there's a lot more work to be done in psychology about this, but keep your identity small. Turns out that human beings, we have this thing called ego that is very much attached to our identity that is important for a lot of reasons but it also gets in the way of a lot of things especially in creative work. So, anyone here could say, could identify them as who you are. "I am a writer," right? "I am right now an instructor at CreativeLive." "I am an Idahoan," right, there's all sorts of things, "I'm a ginger," right, or sort of a ginger. But there's all these things that are sort of part of my identity that sort of put me in these groups, and the more of that that you do, the more in a debate or an argument, that becomes attached to things that can sometimes derail the argument. So, if I'm thinking of myself as an Idahoan, we're arguing about something that has to do with Idaho, I'm just, you know, whatever that might be, me having that attachment to my identity might actually prevent me from seeing what I need to see in this argument. That makes sense. I think in our culture we have this problem of tying identity to a certain stake that we have to have or a certain point of view we need to take. You know, people, certain, if you have an identity, you might say, "This is a perspective "that you need to have if you have this identity, "otherwise we're not gonna listen to you." That becomes, you can kind of see this on Facebook and in politics all the time, but this becomes very problematic if you're actually trying to move an argument forward. You want the argument to be about ideas, not about who you are, which then has to take a certain point of view, which is why again the Wright brothers thing is so interesting because at the point when it started to be about, "I am right and this is about me," that's when they had to switch, so it forced them to kind of keep their identity out of it. So think about that when you're arguing, keep your identity small. Alongside that, don't let it veer personal. Most common thing that happens in an argument is when the debate gets hot and you're losing, you want to hang onto that win, then you start to make it personal. Just watch CNN and you'll see this all the time. Whenever someone starts losing, I was watching, Anderson Cooper is like my tether to the real world when I'm traveling, any hotel I go to I just watch Anderson Cooper and his perfect hair. So I was watching Anderson Cooper last night and he had some panel and it was about some thing, that it's like Anderson was clearly right about the thing that he was talking about, and the guy, when he was pushing him on these questions, at the point he realized that he was losing, he started saying, "Well, what about this," and like doing a personal attack on someone else, and that derails the argument. The argument's no longer about this idea, it was about tariffs or something and it turned into an argument about, you know, whatever, some politician. So, don't let it veer personal. Rule number five: identify red herrings. Red herrings are kind of those what abouts but that actually have nothing to do, it sounds like it's connected, and this is something that you see all the time in arguments, someone will latch onto a key word from the last thing they said and they will use that keyword in their response, but it's actually about something else. So you see this all the time in politics and on television as well, they'll say, you know, "Isn't it outrageous that so-and-so did this," and they'll say, "Well, what's outrageous is this," and whatever this is is not what we were talking about. So, identify red herrings. As someone who's trying to argue well, being able to point these out and bring them back is often hard because people will get mad and make it personal, but if you can identify when you do this, if you say, "Well, you know what's outrageous is this tea is cold "and Joe should have known better," then when you realize that you've done that, then you should wind back and say, "You know what actually, that was a red herring. "Let's get back to the idea." Extremely hard. This is why I mean I recommend, like going through these rules of arguing more than once. Even for me, I have to remind myself when I'm going in for a debate or an argument with people to identify these. Turns out there's a whole list of logical fallacies that are pretty fun to go through. We won't go through all of them, but looking up logical fallacies on the internet is a nice way to kill a couple of hours and to realize that you're right about everything. But, learning to identify the kinds of things that actually don't push an argument forward, so false analogies or hasty generalizations, you know, when things that are used often in arguments actually get away from this war of ideas, heuristics and perspectives combining, you know, the circular argument, "This is this way because it is this way," that's sort of the worst one. This is the one that parents use all the time with kids. "Why can't I go play with Mikey?" "Because you can't 'cause I said so." Right, those kinds of things, learning to identify when you're doing that when you're arguing is a great way to argue better. Now, it takes everyone who's having the debate to be willing to do this in order for it to work really well but even if one person is good at this, that's the kind of person that will get invited to the next brainstorm and the next argument. We're gonna talk about brainstorming in a bit. The number one rule, I think, I put it as rule number seven but the caps on the rule is the goal of any argument is to move ideas forward, not to win. You always want to remember that. And this brings me to one of my favorite things that I love talking about. Talked about it in another CreativeLive class I did, how we got hip hop. Now hip hop is my new favorite genre of music. I grew up in Idaho in the desert listening to country music. I moved to New York and I could recite every lyric to the song Chattahoochee, or Fishin' in the Dark, and I did not know who Notorious B.I.G. was, nor why he was so notorious. I had no idea, I was just, whatever hip hop made it to southeast Idaho was like whatever was on the radio in like the Top 40, so. Moved to New York 10 years ago with very little knowledge of hip hop. Started hanging out with people who love hip hop and started learning the story of hip hop, and the story of how we got hip hop I think is the perfect example of what we're talking about of creative collaboration that wasn't just about getting along, but did an enormous amount of innovation. So the brief story of how we got hip hop is in the 1970s, some DJs in the Bronx started throwing this party, or series of parties, which basically was sort of this novel thing. Normally you come to a dance party, there's one DJ, there's music, everyone dances. These guys orchestrated this thing where there would be two DJs, one on one side of the dance hall, one on the other side of the dance hall, and there was a competition to see who could get the party to dance on their side. So every week the DJs would come back with better music and try and drag the party to their side or the other. And this was really fun, everyone loved this party. And they knew that the better that this went, the more people would buy tickets and drinks and all that, and it would be better for all the DJs. So after a while, the DJs started having these hype men who were masters of ceremonies who would basically try and say things to get people to come to their side of the party. They'd, you know, they'd say, "Hey, check out this next song, you're gonna love it," that sort of thing. And after a while they started getting into the fun as well. They would, you know, do these sort of party couplets and you'll forgive me, they would say, ♪ Hey, ho, put your hands in the air, come on ♪ like that kind of thing. And this was all in service of having fun. But if you were the DJ and the MC, you wanted people to come over to your side, that was the game. And after a while, those little party couplets started turning into these sort of lyrical matches, these battles of trying to thwart the other guy. So they would, you know, start doing these sort of rhyming insults of each other, and every week, if you got, if you lost that sort of battle of lyrics, battle of wits, so to speak, or battle of music, you came back prepared with something better. And week after week they did this and they did this to the point that people started bringing tape recorders and actually recording what these MCs were saying on top of this music, because it was new music itself, and it turned into this whole thing that eventually record companies started catching wind of and they were like, "Oh my god, we've gotta "actually put this out as music and sell this. "They're making all this money at these parties." And then that became the birth of hip hop. Other things that happened during these battles is not only did dance battles start happening and innovation in styles of dance kind of erupted out of this, but the DJs actually hacked their equipment. So they would solder on switches so that it would allow them to do different things with the record turntables like turn the sound down slowly while you turn the sound up slowly, that didn't exist on a record player, but a DJ named Grandmaster Flash soldered one onto his and then everyone was like, "I gotta do that too." And when they started having electronic music, they'd crack open their equipment and add more memory, and they basically hacked their equipment so they could make better music so they could make a better party, and that actually changed the computer industry, and the electronics industry, and led to a whole bunch of people making a lot of money, but also a whole bunch of culture erupted from that and I think it's the best example that I can think of in recent history of how creative conflict led to innovation. We wouldn't have gotten hip hop and everything that was inspired from it and all the great music we have now, which hip hop dominates, hip hop and things that have spawned from hip hop, like R&B, dominate popular music now. We wouldn't have got that if it wasn't for these battles. If everyone was just like, "No, no, no, we gotta get along, "we gotta all do the same thing, "like you play your music, you play your music, "no one say anything, that's insulting the other people." And when you hear, I just saw Jay-Z on, doing Letterman's Netflix show. He was talking about these days, and he said, "It's not about winning, it's about elevating the party." He's like, "we all knew when we showed up to those things "they weren't really trying to destroy the other guys, "you're trying to make this party awesome, "and that was the motivation. "you also didn't want to lose, you don't want to look bad," but that was their motivation in those days, and you know, and there was a point, of course we know in the history of hip hop when things did get too far, when it went past that destruction point, and the feuds that people had started getting personal, and people started getting shot. The whole music industry had to kind of take a step back and say, "What are we doing? "We need to make this about the music again." But this idea that creative conflict can elevate the party, and that that's actually superior to sort of creative harmony is really powerful.